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Lecture 19. On Customs and Laws.

Lecture 19.
On Customs and Laws.
Materials for the study of Customs and Laws.
THE consideration of the materials for the study of Natural Religion which may be discovered in language and mythology has occupied us for a long time. It would not have been enough simply to enumerate these materials. It was necessary at the same time to show how they have been obtained and how they could and should be used. The ore in this case is not as it were to be found on the surface but has first to be brought to light and to be sifted and purified before it can be made to serve our own purposes.

It is different with Customs and Laws. Here there can be little doubt as to where the materials can be found or how they should be used. Many of the ancient laws and customs have been collected and have received a place among the Sacred Books. You will find rich materials in the translations of the ‘Sacred Books of the East’ for instance in the Brâhmanas (Nos. XII XXVI) the Grihya-sûtras (Nos. XXIX XXX) the Sacred Laws of the Âryas (Nos. II XIV XXV) for Hinduism; in the Vinaya texts (Nos. XIII XVII XX) for Buddhism; in the Avesta (Nos. IV XXIII XXXI) for Zoroastrianism; and in several of the books of Confucius for China In other countries we must depend either on ancient codes of law or on the descriptions found in the works of travellers explorers and missionaries.

Still it must not be supposed that the study of manners and customs and laws is without its difficulties a mere amusement for casual readers and compilers. It is difficult for travellers to observe and describe customs and laws correctly; it is still more difficult for the student to discover their real origin and their true purport.
Customs based on Religious Ideas.
Even if we confine our study to customs and laws which bear a religious character we shall find it by no means easy to distinguish between those which are based on religious ideas and those which have served as a basis for religious ideas.
The custom of prayer for instance springs no doubt from a religious source and the same may be said of simple libations and offerings to the gods which accompanied such prayers. Nothing is more natural than such a prayer at the rising and the setting of the sun and a midday prayer also would soon find its legitimate place between the two. These three prayers we find in the Old Testament as well as in the Veda and among many of the so-called savage races. But soon these three prayers and any observances connected with them begin to serve another purpose also namely the division of the day and of the labours of the day and this purpose may in time become so prominent in the eyes of the people as to obscure altogether the original meaning of the three daily prayers and libations (Tri-sandhyâ).
We have read a great deal lately about the Vedic prayers being later than the Vedic sacrifices. No doubt an ancient rite may have suggested a corresponding prayer but an ancient prayer may likewise have suggested a corresponding rite. And in the nature of things a mute morning noon and evening rite is hardly conceivable while a spontaneous prayer to the Dawn might surely have been composed without any reference as yet to any definite rite. To suppose as Bergaigne did that the hymns addressed to Agni the Dawn the Asvins and the Sun at the prâtaranu-vâka the âsvina-sâstra and similar collections of Vedic morning prayers were all originally composed for liturgical purposes is like supposing that all the psalms of the Old Testament were meant from the beginning for the morning and evening services of the Temple. Some of them may have been; our final collections of Vedic hymns and Hebrew psalms also may have been the result of a practical want. But why religious poetry alone should never have been spontaneous is difficult to understand and the very character of some of the later psalms and of some of the later Vedic hymns shows that they were fashioned after more ancient originals. That religion has often become the mother of laws and that in ancient times particularly many laws received their sanction from religion is a well-known fact. Themis was represented by Hesiod as the wife of Zeus by Pindar as the πάρϵδρος Διླྀς ξϵνίου. Colotes declared that religion (ἡ πϵρὶ θϵω̑ν δόξα) was the first and most important thing in the constitution of laws1.
In the Old Testament also the Ten Commandments are spoken by God and the first four are of a purely religious character. They do not appeal to any but a divine authority and the punishments threatened for disobedience are likewise believed to come from God.
Customs generating Religious Ideas.
But it has been too often overlooked that in many cases customs at first purely secular and serving a very definite practical purpose have assumed a religious character at a later time and have even given rise to entirely new religious ideas. What is called totemism for instance was at first a purely civil institution. The totem was meant as a sign of recognition and no more. During an early state of society such signs of recognition were absolutely necessary and we find traces of them almost everywhere either in the shape of banners or emblems on shields or peculiar kinds of dress and armour or other symbolic signs. When however a so-called totem chosen by a family or a tribe as a sign of recognition became surrounded as the colours of a regiment are even now by a halo of many recollections what was more natural than that if the totem happened to be an animal that animal should be looked upon as the guardian of a family or tribe nay in time even as its ancestor. If people called themselves Bears and had chosen the bear for their totem or their crest why should they not look upon a bear as their ancestor? And when they had once done so is it so strange that they should have felt a certain reluctance to kill or to eat the bear their ancestor their protector and possibly their god? In this way a useful secular institution might become a religious custom and lead on to religious ideas which could never have sprung up without it.
The same applies to ever so many domestic customs which grew up in connection with marriages births initiation name-giving illness and death and which particularly if their original purpose had been forgotten assumed invariably a sacred character.
The observation of the changes of the moon of the annual return of the sun of the succession of the seasons the months the weeks the days and hours was one of the most fundamental conditions of a civilised life. Many of the mythological and religious ideas of antiquity are closely connected with what we should call the calendar. In ancient and even in modern times many of the greatest holy days and festivals betray a similar origin. But in all such cases we shall find it very difficult to say whether the establishment of the calendar led to mythological and religious ideas or whether mythological and religious ideas proved helpful towards the establishment of a civil calendar. One thing only we must never forget namely that customs and laws however meaningless or even irrational they may appear must all originally have had a meaning and a rational purpose.
In early times usages grew up and were maintained simply because they were thought to be useful to a community whether small or large. What was seen to be more or less useful to all became a usage and the mere fact that it was a usage that it had been repeated again and again and that it had existed for several generations sufficed to give it in time a respected venerable and sacred character. What we call solemn what the Romans called sollennis was originally no more than what takes place every year (from sollus whole and annus year)2. All this is simply human nature.
It was only when with the progress of time some of these usages threatened to become abuses and when single individuals or minorities declined to obey them that the necessity arose for what we call laws decisions carried by majorities or by force and upheld by the threat of punishment to be inflicted by properly constituted authorities. The members of a community are seldom conscious of the object or the utility of their ancient usages while legislation implies a clear conception of the necessity of a law. Hence it is chiefly for customs that a religious approval was afterwards required while the laws as such were sufficiently protected by the sanction of the government and by the infliction of punishment.
Annual Festivals.
Surprise has often been expressed at the prominent place which the sun occupies in many of the religious and sacrificial customs of the world. Why should the sun it has often been asked have been of such consequence to the ancient inhabitants of the earth? People in our time think of the sun far away in the sky only; they forget that as causing the regular succession of the seasons the same sun was of truly vital importance to the early tillers of the soil and that nothing was more natural than that they should have celebrated the yearly return of the sun and the seasons by social gatherings festivals processions thank-offerings and propitiatory sacrifices. To mention only a few of the ancient Vedic sacrifices we find that the Agnihotra was performed twice every day; the Darsapûrnamâsa at every new and full moon; the Kâturmâsya every fourth month at the beginning of spring the rainy season and autumn; the Âgrâyaneshti at harvest-time; the Pasubandha at the beginning of the rains. Such ceremonial acts if repeated year after year at the same seasons would soon prove extremely useful for purely chronometrical purposes also; they would supply the first outlines of a calendar and that calendar might in time assume a purely civil instead of a religious character. But in spite of all that it would be wrong to say that priests devised these annual festivals with the definite purpose of establishing a civil calendar. Here also it is quite true that what is fit or rather what is found to be sensible and rational survives but it does not follow that this fitness was foreseen and that the reasonableness though it was there was always perceived.
Istar and Tammus.
A clear instance of how mere customs or the natural festivities connected with the chief events of the year could lead to the formation of a myth and even of a religious belief is supplied by the well-known story of Istar and Tammuz which spread from Babylon to Egypt Cyprus and Greece and which found its last refuge in the story of Adonis and Aphrodite.
We know that among the Semitic as well as among the Aryan nations the sun was an absorbing object of thought whether in its daily or in its annual character. In Babylon for instance the sun was not only the chief deity but also the favourite subject of that daily gossip which we have learnt to call folk-lore or legend and myth. One of the most widely spread of those legends was the story of the love between the sun and the earth. Under different names that story has been told all over the world. Men could not help telling it as soon as they began to tell anything. So long as their chief interest centred in the annual produce of the soil so long in fact as their very life depended on the happy union of the fertile earth and the warm embraces of the sun their thoughts were solar. One of the inevitable chapters in that solar legend was the tragedy of winter when the happy union between earth and sun seemed dissolved when the sun no longer smiled on the earth but grew weak and old and at last forsook the earth altogether. Then the earth is represented as trying to recover the sun and the warmth and life that flows from it as descending into the dark regions in order to bring him back or to restore him to new life and thus to recover the treasures of which all nature was robbed during the winter. Poetical fancy has clothed that simple theme in ever so many disguises the most ancient of which is perhaps the Babylonian poem which recounts the descent of the goddess Istar into the nether world in search of the healing waters which should restore to life her bridegroom Tammuz. This poem has often been translated and the translations vary considerably. Considering the difficulties of such a translation the uncertainty in the rendering of many passages is perfectly intelligible. I give here some extracts from the last translation which Professor Sayce has published in his Hibbert Lectures (p. 221):
‘1. To the land whence none return the region of (darkness) Istar the daughter of Sin (the moon) (inclined) her ear
Yea Istar herself the daughter of Sin inclined (her) ear
To the house of darkness the seat of the god Irkalla
To the house from whose entrance there is no exit.’
‘12. Istar on arriving at the gate of Hades
To the keeper of the gate addressed the word:
Opener (keeper) of the waters open thy gate!
Open thy gate that I may enter.
If thou openest not the gate that I may enter
I will smite the door the bolt will I shatter
I will smite the threshold and pass through the portals.
I will raise up the dead to devour the living
Above the living the dead shall exceed in number.
The keeper opened his mouth and speaks
He says to the princess Istar:
Stay O Lady thou must not break it down!
Let me go and declare thy name to Nin-ki-gal the queen of Hades.’
The keeper then informs Nin-ki-gal who is also called Allat3 of Istar's arrival and of her wish to obtain the water for her bridegroom. But Allat is angry. She commands Istar to be stripped and to be led before her when she curses her limb by limb. Then however all sorts of misfortunes fell on the whole earth.
‘75. After that the lady Istar into Hades had descended
With the cow the bull would not unite (the ass would not approach the female)
The handmaid (in the street would not approach the freeman)
The freeman ceased (to give his order).’
Then the messenger of the gods informed the Sun-god of all the woe and destruction that had been wrought on earth through Istar's absence and the Sun-god thereon consulted with Sin his father and with Ea the king. And Ea formed a being called Atsu-sa-namir (i.e. his rising is seen) and sent him to Allat to demand the water for Istar and her bridegroom. Allat curses and swears but she is obliged to set Istar free to restore her garments and to give to her the waters of life.
This is a short abstract of a most curious poem so far as it can at present be deciphered4. It represents the annual recovery of the vernal sun which follows after the woe and wailing of the earth or of the whole of nature during winter5.
But we shall see that the full meaning of such a poem can only be restored by a careful study of the customs connected with the death and the revival of Tammuz. Ezekiel (viii. 14) saw in a vision ‘the door of the gate of the Lord's house which was toward the north and behold there sat women weeping for Tammuz.’ This shows that the original character of the sacred ceremonies connected with Tammuz consisted in bewailing his death although naturally these lamentations would be followed by rejoicings on the return of Tammuz.
Now we are told that another purely Semitic name of Tammuz was Adonai lit. my lord and that under that name his worship was carried to the West. ‘It was above all in the Phenician town of Gebal or Byblos that the death of Adonis who is Adonai was commemorated. Here eight miles to the north of Beyrût the ancient military road led from eastern Asia to the shores was the Mediterranean. Hard by was the river of Adonis the Nahr Ibrahim of to-day which rolled through a rocky gorge into the sea. Each year when the rains and melting snows of spring stained its waters with the red marl of the mountains the people of Gebal behold in it the blood of the slaughtered Sun-god. It was then in the month of January or June that the funeral festival of the god was held. It lasted seven days. “Gardens of Adonis” as they were called were planted pots filled with earth and cut herbs which soon withered away in the fierce heat of the summer sun fitting emblems of the god Adonis himself. Meanwhile the streets and gates of the temples were filled with throngs of wailing women. They tore their hair they disfigured the face they cut the breast with sharp knives in token of the agony of their grief. Their cry of lamentation went up to heaven mingled with that of the Galli the priests of Ashtoreth who shared with them their festival of woe over her murdered bridegroom. Adonis the young the beautiful the beloved of Ashtoreth was dead; the bright sun of the springtide like the verdure of nature which he had called into life was slain and withered by the hot blasts of summer.’
I have quoted these statements on the best authority that of my friend Professor Sayce. That Ashtoreth is the same word as Istar with the Semitic feminine suffix can hardly be doubted. That Adonis or Adonai ‘my lord’ is another name for Tammuz is at all events very likely. But what is of the greatest interest is that in Phenicia the annual tragedy of the death of the solar hero is placed not in the winter but in midsummer the time when in that part of the world the fierce summer heat seemed to threaten and actually to destroy the vegetation of the earth (l.c. p. 231). Nor did the lamentations for his death take place in all parts of Syria at the same time. We learn from Ammianus that when Julian arrived at Antioch in the late autumn he found the festival of Adonis being celebrated ‘according to ancient usage’ after the ingathering of the harvest and before the beginning of the new year in Tisri or October; while Macrobius tells us that the Syrian worshippers of Adonis explained the boar's tusk which had slain the god as the cold and darkness of winter his return to the upper world being his ‘victory over the first six zodiacal signs along with the lengthening daylight’ (l.c. p. 231). Climatic influences were sure to tell on these festivals in Syria and Babylonia as elsewhere. In the highlands of Syria the summer was not the dangerous foe it was in Babylonia; it was on the contrary a kindly friend whose heats quickened and fostered the golden rain. Winter therefore and not summer was the enemy who had slain the god.
The celebration of the festival of Adonis at different times of the year therefore so far from being difficult to explain seems rather to confirm the view taken of the original character of Tammuz or Adonis as the solar god in his annual character. His birth his happy youth his death and his resurrection might well represent the different seasons of the year and in each of them the god of the year might either be praised or bewailed according to the view taken of his fate. It becomes perfectly intelligible too why according to some (l.c. p. 329) Adonis shared half the year with the goddess of death and the other half only with the goddess of love while according to others who divided the year into three parts Adonis was condemned to dwell four months in Hades four months he was free to dwell where he might choose and the remaining four were passed in the companionship of Ashtoreth to whom he devoted also his four months of freedom.
Here then we see how a custom though it begins with the simplest events which mark the ordinary course of the year may be modified by local and other influences and how after a time it may produce sacred ceremonies a myth to explain them and in the end a new religious faith.
This becomes particularly clear when we can watch a custom transferred from one country to another and the concomitant myth translated as it were from one language into another.
We are told (p. 229) that after the revolt of Egypt from the Assyrian king and the rise of the 26th Dynasty Egyptian beliefs found their way into Phenicia where the story of Osiris was mixed up with that of Adonis. Osiris too was a Sun-god who had been slain and had risen again from the dead so that the festival of Adonis at Gebal could easily be assimilated to that of Osiris in Egypt. It was owing to this amalgamation that the days of mourning for Adonis were succeeded by days of rejoicing at the revival of Osiris and his counterpart Adonis.
Still more curious is the way in which in Cyprus the legends of Istar and Tammuz or Ashtoreth and Adonis were grafted on the Greek legends of Aphrodite. The idea that the Greeks had no conception and name of the goddess Aphrodite before they were indoctrinated by the Phenicians can hardly be held any longer. What happened in Egypt happened in Greece but while in Egypt the chief points of similarity were seen between Osiris and Adonis in Cyprus and afterwards in Greece it was Ashtoreth the female element of the legend that was attracted by Aphrodite. We shall leave it undecided whether the name of Theias or Thoas the king of Lemnos the husband of Myrina and the father of Adonis is or is not a corruption of Tammuz as Professor Sayce suggests. Adonis is represented in some Greek legends as the son of the Assyrian king Theias and of Myrrha (or Smyrna) also of Kinyras6 the founder of Paphos in Cyprus and of Kenchreis (or Metharme). This shows that the Greeks were never in doubt that Adonis came to them from Assyria and Cyprus and that his festival the ἀϕαι̇ισμός the death as well as the ϵὔρϵσις the finding of Adonis was of Oriental origin. That they substituted Aphrodite for his beloved was as natural to them as that they made him stay four months in Hades with Persephone. But to suppose that the Greek Aphrodite and all the legends told of her owed their origin to the Phenicians or Assyrians or Babylonians or Accadians is flying in the face of all the facts so far as known to us at present and of all analogies.
Zeus Xenion.
Another instance of an Eastern custom modifying the character of an ancient Greek god we have in Zeus Xenios Zeus had originally no connection whatever with the custom of hospitality whether in the sense of protection granted to strangers or of actual hospitality offered to them. That custom was not of Greek origin but came to the Greeks as Professor Ihering7 has shown from the Phenicians. Ideas of humanity such as we find in the Old Testament are foreign to the ancient Aryan nations. A sentiment such as ‘Ye shall have one manner of law as well for the stranger as for one of your own country; for I am the Lord your God8’ would have sounded strange to the poets of the Veda and even to Homer. The one idea among the Âryas as among most ancient people seems to have been that whoever was not a friend whether through relationship or citizenship was an enemy. If he was dangerous he could be killed and there was no law to punish the murderer. In Latin the stranger and the enemy had the same name hostis that is to say they were the same thing in the eyes of the Romans.
It was by the Phenicians the traders of the ancient world that the necessity was felt for the first time of acquiring some kind of protection from strangers with whom they trafficked. Unless that protection was granted they would not establish landing-places and depots for their merchandise. They could neither sell nor buy. But if they suffered the people also suffered who wished to exchange their own produce for the merchandise brought by the Phenicians. Thus some kind of international comity sprang up between the Phenicians and their clients. Professor Ihering has made it very clear that the Phenicians were the inventors of the original passport the tessera hospitalis a token of mutual hospitality which was broken into two parts each party retaining one half in order that if either of them or their descendants should meet they might recognise one another and remember their ancient family obligations9. These tesserae were called in Greek σύμβολα from συμβάλλϵιν used in the sense of throwing the two broken pieces together to see whether they fit10.
When the Greeks had accepted from the Phenicians the principle of international law in its most primitive form they would have found it difficult to invest it with any binding sanction. Some families might bind themselves to protect the free trade of the world but to others to whole communities particularly to the Vikings of old the temptation to plunder the vessels and to kill the merchants must have been great. They therefore had recourse to religion and placed the law of hospitality under the protection of their supreme deity Zeus making him the protector of the stranger and soon also of their guest and calling him Zeus Xenios a name unknown among the other Aryan nations. All this must have taken place before the days of Homer and it is all the more important as showing us at how early a period a custom first established by Phenician merchants was able to modify or at all events to expand the character of the principal deity of the Greeks and give rise in time to the first recognition of the rights of man as such placed under the protection of the highest god.
How customs should be studied.
This is the spirit in which the study of customs and laws can be made subservient to the study of Natural Religion showing how Natural Religion indeed may give rise to certain customs but how in the majority of cases customs come first simply as usages of proved utility and are afterwards invested with a sacred character simply and solely because they have been found useful for many generations. Human nature is so made that what is old is regarded as venerable and after a time as sacred so that even when it has to be changed or abolished it is treated with reverent hands.
Nowhere can we study this growth of custom and its gradual assumption of a sacred character better than in India. In that country custom is everything while the idea of law in our sense of the word hardly exists. To speak for instance of the Laws of Manu is a complete misnomer. Who was Manu and what power had he to give or to enforce laws? The true meaning of the title of that book Mânavadharma-sâstra is ‘the teaching of what is considered right among the Mânavas’ these Mânavas not being meant originally for men in general bur for a Brahmanic family known by the name of Mânava and claiming Manu among their ancestors. It cannot be called a code of laws in our sense of the word because laws in order to be laws in order to be laws must have the sanction of some authority able to enforce them. But who is to enforce such laws as we find in Manu or in the Samayâkârika-sûtras that a thief for instance shall go to the king with flying hair carrying a club on his shoulder and tell him his deed. And the king shall give him a blow with that club and if the thief dies his sin is expiated. Or the thief may throw himself into the fire or he may kill himself by diminishing daily his portion of food11. Codes of law can only belong to a political community such as Athens or Sparta or Rome or the Roman Empire. We might have in India codes of law for the kingdoms of the Kurus and the Pândus of Asoka or Kandragupta but not for Mânavas taken in the sense of mankind in general.
Fortunately we are now able to go behind these so-called Law-books of Manu Yâgñavalkya and others which formerly were supposed to be of extraordinary antiquity but which are now known to be mere metrical rifacimenti of older prose books which we still possess under the name of Sûtras12.
There is nothing like these Sûtras in any other literature so far as I know. They still belong to the Vedic age though not to the Veda properly so called13 and are collections not of laws but of ancient customs. They are divided into three classes (1) the Samayâkârika-sûtras (2) the Grihya-sûtras (3) the Srauta-sûtras.
The first class contains a description of the Âkâras i.e. the conduct usages and customs sanctioned by samaya i.e. agreement. Most of these which are also called Dharma-sûtras are embodied in the later metrical codes.
The second class describes the smaller domestic usages and ceremonies to be observed at the various periods in a man's life at his death. These two are marriage daily sacrifices and death. These two are mostly incorporated in the so-called Law-books.
The third class describes the great sacrifices which are based on Sruti or revelation. The same sacrifices had been fully but less systematically and clearly described in the Brâhmanas. Though there is a natural element in great sacrifices also it is greatly overlaid by priestly inventions.
Thus while in other countries our excellent folk-lorists have to collect with great trouble what is left of usages popular amusements customs and superstitions in India all this has been done for us and has been done not once but in a number of Brahmanic families. No doubt to a Hindu whatever is prescribed in these Sûtras is invested with a sacred character. What is not in India? But that does not prevent us from recognising in most of the customs or âkâras in India simple usages originating because they were natural preserved because they proved useful and at last supported by a divine authority because both their naturalness and their usefulness had been forgotten.

  • 1.

    Plutarch, adv. Coloten, cap. 31.

  • 2.

    ‘Sollenne, quod omnibus annis praestari debet,’ Festus, p. 298; ‘sollennia sacra dicuntur quae certis temporibus annisque fieri solent,’ ibid., p. 344.

  • 3.

    Allat, the feminine of Allah, an idol mentioned in the Qur‘àn; see Sacred Books of the East, vol. vi. p. xii.

  • 4.

    We are told that the myth of Istar and Tammuz was originally Accadian, and that we have here only a later Babylonian or Semitic version of it. However that may be, the general meaning of the myth is clear.

  • 5.

    Professor Tiele also, a most careful interpreter of myths, admits that the legend of Istar's descent into Hades is but a thinly veiled description of the earth-goddess, seeking below for the hidden waters of life, which shall cause the Sun-god and all nature with him to rise again from their sleep of death. (Actes du sixième Congrès international des Orientalistes, ii. 1, pp. 495 seq.; Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, p. 251.)

  • 6.

    Kinyras is derived by Professor Sayce from Gingira, the Accadian equivalent of Istar. Adonis also is called Gingras, Kinyras was formed through a play on the Phenician word Kinnor, the ‘zither.’ His wife's name Kenchreis is likewise traced back by Professor Sayce (p. 264) to Gingiras, meaning goddess, the feminine of dingir, creator

  • 7.

    Die Gastfreundschaft im Alterthum, von Rudolf von Ihering, 1887.

  • 8.

    Leviticus xxiv. 22.

  • 9.

    Poenulus, 1047 seq., ‘Conferre tesseram si vis hospitalem, ecc’ eam attuli.’

  • 10.

    This is Ihering's explanation, based on Plato, Symposion 191, and Schol. in Eurip. Medea, 613. Mommsen differs.

  • 11.

    Âpastamba-sûtras, 7, 9, 25, 4, Bühler, Sacred Books of the East, vol. ii p. 82.

  • 12.

    See Professor Bühler's masterly treatment of this subject in the Preface to his translation of the Laws of Manu, Sacred Books of the East, vol. xxv.

  • 13.

    See Bühler, Sacred Books of the East, vol. ii. p. 120.

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