Religion Myth and Custom.
Difference between Religion and Mythology.
I WAS anxious to explain to you in my last lecture how the same source which supplied the ancient world with religious concepts produced also a number of ideas which cannot claim to be called religious in any sense least of all in that which we ourselves connect with the name of religion.
We saw how in the Veda the concept of Fire had been raised higher and higher till at last it became synonymous with the Supreme Deity of the Vedic poets. But in the amorous vagaries of Agni as related in the later poetry of India or in Greece in the monstrous birth of Hephaestos likewise a representative or as we sometimes say likewise a god of fire in his disgraceful ejection from the sky in his marriage with Aphrodite to say nothing of the painful dénouement of that ill-judged union there is very little of religion very little of ‘the perception of the infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral conduct of man.’
These mythological stories are no doubt chips and splinters from the same block out of which many a divine image has been chiselled by the human mind but their character their origin and purpose are totally different. This distinction however has not only been neglected it seems often to have been wilfully neglected. Whenever it was necessary to criticise any of the non-Christian religions in a hostile spirit these stories the stories of Venus and Vulcan and Mars have constantly been quoted as showing the degraded character of ancient gods and heroes and of pagan religion in general.
This is most unfair. Neither does this mythological detritus not to say rubbish represent the essential elements of the religion of Greeks and Romans nor did the ancients themselves believe that it did. We must remember that the ancient nations had really no word or concept as yet for religion in the comprehensive sense which we attach to it. It would hardly be possible to ask the question in any of the ancient languages or even in classical Greek whether a belief in Hephaestos and Aphrodite constituted an article of religious faith.
It is true that the ancients as we call them rather promiscuously had but one name for their gods whether they meant Jupiter the Deus Optimus Maximus or Jupiter the faithless husband of Juno. But when we speak of the ancients in general we must not forget that we are speaking not only of Homer and Hesiod but likewise of men like Herakleitos Aeschylos and Plato. These ancient thinkers knew as well as we do that nothing unworthy of the gods could ever have been true of them still less of the supreme God; and if they tolerated mythology and legends those who thought at all about these matters looked upon them as belonging to quite a different sphere of human interests.
If we once understand how mythology and legends arose how they represent an inevitable stage in the growth of ancient language and thought we shall understand not only their outward connection with religious ideas but likewise their very essential difference.
Secular Ideas become Religious.
While on the one hand it is perfectly true that the sources of religion and mythology are conterminous nay that certain concepts which in their origin might be called religious wither away into mere mythology and romance we shall see that it likewise happens and by no means unfrequently that ideas at first entirely unconnected with religion are attracted- into the sphere of religion and assume a religious character in the course of time. This is an important subject but beset with many difficulties.
Of course the deification of an animal such as an Egyptian Apis or the apotheosis of a human being such as Romulus or the Emperor Augustus presupposes the previous existence in the human mind of the concept of divinity a concept which as we saw required many generations for its elaboration. Again the attribution of a divine sanction bestowed either on customs or laws presupposes a belief in something superhuman or divine. But after a time all this is forgotten and these later corruptions of religious thought are mixed up with the more primitive elements of religion in a hopeless confusion.
Let us consider to-day a few instances of secular customs being afterwards invested with a religious authority.
Lighting and Keeping of Fire.
When we remember how difficult it must have been in early times to light a fire at a moment's notice and what fearful consequences might follow if a whole community was left during the winter without a fire burning on the hearth we require no far-fetched explanations for a number of time-hallowed customs connected with the lighting and still more with the guarding of the fire. It was not necessary that every tribe which kept a sacred fire should have a belief in fire as a god as was the case with the Vedic poets. Quite apart from any deeper religious convictions mere common sense would have led men in a primitive state of society to value any new discovery for striking fire and to adopt measures for preserving it whether for private or for public use. If the Romans appointed vestal virgins to keep a fire always burning the Damaras1
in Africa did exactly the same.
It is the custom or it was till very lately among German peasants for a man when he married and left his father's house to take a burning piece of wood from the paternal home and to light with it the fire on his own hearth. Exactly the same is told us of many uncivilised races. Among the Damaras for instance when a tribe migrated from one place to another they took some burning logs from the old to the new home.
Nowhere however do we find this custom more fully described than in India. In the Vedic hymns fire is the gri
ha-pati the lord of the house. A house was a fire and ‘so many fires’ are mentioned even now in the census of half-nomadic tribes in Russia nay even in Italy (fuochi
) as meaning ‘so many families or houses’ In ancient India as described to us in the Gri
hya-sûtras the most important act when a man married and founded his own household was the kindling of the fire in his own house with fire brought from the home of his bride or with fire newly rubbed. In the fourth night after the wedding the husband has to establish the fire within his house. He assigns his seat to the south of it to the Brahman places a pot of water to the north cooks a mess of sacrificial food sacrifices the two âg
ya portions and then makes five oblations to Agni Vâyu Sûrya K
andra and Gandharva. Here Agni Fire holds the first place among the domestic gods. After him follow Wind Sun and Moon and lastly the Gandharva whoever he may be2
This domestic fire when once lit remained the friend and protector of the family in every sense of the word and we see the most touching superstitions arising from this in India and in every part of the world. Many years ago in my article on ‘Funeral Ceremonies’ (1855)3
I translated a passage from Âs
hya-sûtras (IV. 1) in which it is said that if a disease befall one who has set up sacred fires he should leave his village (with his fires) and go in an eastern northern or north-eastern direction. And why? Because there is a saying ‘Fires love the village.’ It is understood therefore that the fires longing to return to the village will bless him and make him whole4
. Here we see how a mere proverb ‘The fires love the village’ may lead without any effort to a metamorphosis of the fire into a friend a friend with all the feelings of other friends willing even to render a service and to restore a man to health if thereby they may themselves be enabled to return to their beloved hearth.
Besides the fire in each house the custom of keeping a public fire also is alluded to at an early date.
According to the Dharma-sûtras of Âpastamba II. 10 25 a king has to build a palace a hall and a house of assembly and in every one of them a fire is to be kept a kind of ignis foci publici sempiternus and daily oblations to be offered in it just the same as in every private house.
There are many sayings among civilised and uncivilised nations implying a respect for fire and a recognition of its value for domestic purposes. The Ojibways5
for instance have a saying that one ought not to take liberties with fire but we are never told that the Ojibways worshipped the fire as a god.
There is a very wide-spread feeling against spitting or throwing anything unclean into the fire or into the water. We saw it mentioned by Herodotus and by Manu. It is a godless thing they say in Bohemia to spit into the fire. The Mongolians as Schmidt tells us consider it sinful to extinguish fire by water to spit into the fire or to defile it in any other way6
Such rules though evidently intended at first for a very definite and practical object were soon invested with a kind of sacred authority. If the Bohemian says it is a godless thing to spit into the fire he soon adds a reason: Because it is God's fire. This is of course a very modern idea; it may be called a Christian idea based on a belief that all good and perfect gifts come from God—but it is nevertheless a very natural after-thought.
Religious Sanction for Customs.
What therefore we must try to find out in all these observances is whether at first there was not an intelligible object in them whether they did not serve some useful purpose and whether the religious sanction did not come much later in the day. When there once existed a belief in divine beings any custom or law and particularly those which it was difficult to enforce by mere human authority were naturally placed by the ancient lawgivers under the protection of the gods. Professor von Ihering one of the highest German authorities on the history of law has traced many of these sacred commandments back to their true origin namely their Zweck their practical object.
It is quite clear for instance that in early times it was necessary to guard the purity of rivers by some kind of religious protection. No sanitary police could have protected them in their long meandering courses. Pausanias (iii. 25 4) tells a story of a spring on the promontory of Tainaron in Laconia (Cape Matapan) which possessed some miraculous qualities but lost them because a woman had dared to wash dirty linen in it.
In a primitive household where the central fire was as it were the property of all a similar restriction against defilement was equally necessary. And when with the change of domestic arrangements the original object of such restrictions ceased to be understood they became what we find them to be in many countries mere unmeaning customs and for that very reason often invested with a sacred authority. When the real purpose (Zweck) was forgotten a new purpose had to be invented.
Baptism by Water and Fire.
For instance people wonder why the inhabitants of Mexico as well as of Peru7
should have been acquainted with baptism by water and fire. Originally however these seem to have been very simple and useful acts of purification which in later time only grew into sacramental acts. The nurse had to bathe the child immediately after birth and to invoke the so-called goddess of water to cleanse the child from everything unclean and to protect it against all evil. That is to say every new-born child had to be washed. Afterwards there followed a more brilliant baptism. Friends and relations were invited to a feast the child was carried about in the house as if to present it to the domestic deities and while the nurse placed it in water she recited the following words: ‘My child the gods the lords of heaven have sent thee into this miserable world; take this water which will give you life.’ Then she sprinkled water on the mouth the head and the chest of the child bathed the whole body rubbed every limb and said: ‘Where art thou ill luck? In which limb dost thou hide? Move away from this child!’ Prayers were then offered to the gods of the water the earth and the sky. The child had to be dressed to be put in a cradle and to be placed under the protection of the god of cradles and the god of sleep. At the same time a name was given to the infant.
All this is full of elements which remind us of similar practices among the Romans the Amphidromias of the Greeks and the name-giving ceremonies described in the Vedic Grihya-sûtras.
Next followed the baptism of fire. This also was originally nothing but an act of purification. Like water fire also was conceived by many nations as purifying. ‘Fire’ as Plutarch says in his Quaestiones Romanae
cap. i. ‘purifies water hallows8
.’ Its very name in Sanskrit pâvaka means purifier. In India we were met by two trains of thought. Either fire was conceived as purifying everything or it was represented as shrinking from contact with all that is impure. In Mexico the former idea prevailed. It had probably been observed that fire consumed deleterious substances and that the fumes of fire served as a preservative against miasma and illness. Hence in the baptism of fire in Mexico the child was carried four times through a fire and was then supposed to have been purified.
Purification by Fire.
Whether there is some truth in this belief in the purifying powers of fire we must leave to medical men to determine. Anyhow it is a belief or a superstition which has lasted for many centuries. When cholera rages in India we still receive our letters well smoked. Menander tells us that Zemarehus the ambassador of Justinian was led by the Turks round a fire so that he might be purified9
. According to Piano Carpini a foreign ambassador was actually led through two fires by the Mongolians. Castrén traces all these customs back to a religious reverence for the fire. It seems however much more plausible that the custom had a purely utilitarian foundation that it was in fact the forerunner of our modern quarantine which many medical authorities now look upon as equally superstitious.
Nor was the purificatory or disinfecting power of fire restricted to human beings. Cattle were often submitted to the same process of lustration. The object was originally purely practical though superstitious ideas began soon to cluster around it.
Lustration of Animals.
The Romans had their annual lustrations. On the twenty-first of April after a sacrifice had been offered hay and straw were piled up in rows and when they had been lighted the flocks were driven through the burning fire. The shepherds often jumped through the flames following their flocks10
This purely disinfecting character is still more clearly visible in the so-called Need-fire of the Teutonic nations.
Joh. Reiskius in a book published in 1696 tells us that whenever pestilence broke out among small or large cattle the peasants determined to have a Not-feuer
. All other fires in the village had then to be put out and by the usual method of rubbing pieces of wood covered with pitch a new fire was lighted. When it had grown large enough horses and cattle were twice or thrice driven through it11
. Afterwards the fire was extinguished but each householder carried home a burning log to light his own fire or dipped it afterwards in the wash-tub and then let it lie in the manger.
This ceremony of the Need-fire might in fact have been witnessed in Scotland as late as the last century12
. A Miss Austin relates that in the year 1767 in the isle of Mull in consequence of a disease among the black cattle the people agreed to perform an incantation though they esteemed it a wicked thing. They carried to the top of Carnmoor a wheel and nine spindles of oak-wood. They extinguished every fire in every house within sight of the hill. The wheel was then turned from east to west over the nine spindles long enough to produce fire by friction. If the fire were not produced by noon the incantation lost its effect. If they failed for several days running they attributed this failure to the obstinacy of one householder who would not let his fires be put out for what he considered so wrong a purpose. However “by bribing his servants they contrived to have them extinguished and on that morning raised the fire. They then sacrificed a heifer cutting in pieces and burning while yet alive the diseased part. They then lighted their own hearths from the pile and ended by feasting on the remains. Words of incantation were repeated by an old man from Morven who came over as master of the ceremonies and who continued speaking all the time the fire was being raised. This man was living a beggar at Bellochrog. Asked to repeat the spell he said the sin of repeating it once had brought him to beggary and that he dared not say those words again. The whole country believed him accursed13
Tinegin in Ireland.
In Ireland also according to Martin14
the same heathenish custom might have been witnessed within the memory of men. The inhabitants made use of a fire called tinegin i.e
. a forced fire or fire of necessity. This word is formed from the Irish teine
fire and eigin
violence. It is either a simple translation of the English need-fire or it expresses the same idea which is conveyed by the Vedic name for fire sahasah
son of strength or effort. This Tinegin was used as an antidote against the plague or murrain in cattle and it was performed thus: ‘All the fires in the parish were extinguished and then eighty-one (9 × 9) married men being thought the necessary number for effecting this design took two great planks of wood and nine of them were employed by turns who by their repeated efforts rubbed one of the planks against the other until the heat thereof produced fire; and from this forced fire each family is supplied with new fire which is no sooner kindled than a pot full of water is quickly set on it and afterwards sprinkled upon the people infected with the plague or upon the cattle that have the murrain. And this they all say they find successful by experience. It was practised on the mainland opposite to the south of Skie within these thirty years.’
Now suppose some Portuguese priests had visited Scotland and Ireland as they visited the West Coast of Africa and had described the religion of the natives from what they saw with their own eyes as they described the fetish worship of the negroes. They might have described them first of all as fire-worshippers; secondly as fetish-worshippers for the fire we are told is a fetish when it is invoked for help; thirdly as performing animal sacrifices for they sacrificed a heifer and feasted on it; fourthly as sorcerers for they repeated unintelligible incantations; and lastly as animists for they believed that there was some kind of spirit in the fire. That these people were Christians and that their religion was something quite different from these popular amusements they could never have guessed. Yet it is on the strength of some stray observations made on the West Coast of Africa that we are asked to believe that the religion of the negroes is pure Fetishism nay that Fetishism was the primitive religion of all mankind.
It might be said that such heathenish customs existed in Scotland and Ireland only and if as careful travellers ought to do our Portuguese missionaries had explored England also they would have found there no traces of fetishism and sorcery. But no in England also they might have witnessed similar heathenish ceremonies for we are told by fair authorities that not long ago two ladies in Northamptonshire saw a fire in the field and a crowd round it. They said ‘What is the matter?’—‘Killing a calf.’ ‘What for?’—‘To stop the murrain.’ The ladies went away as quickly as possible. On speaking to the clergyman he made inquiries. The people did not like to talk of the affair but it appeared that when there is a disease among the cows or the calves are born sickly they sacrifice that is they kill and burn one for good luck.
We have still later testimony of the permanence of similar superstitious customs. They seem to have survived to the present day. At a meeting of the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland held at the Royal Institution Edinburgh and reported in the Scotsman Tuesday March 11 1890 the Rev. Alexander Stewart Nether Lochaber gave an account of some examples which had recently come to his knowledge of the survival of certain superstitions relating to fire in the Highlands of Scotland and in Wigtownshire. The first case happened in March last and was accidentally witnessed by Dr. Stewart's informant. Having gone to a small hamlet in a remote glen to leave a message for the shepherd he was surprised to find there was no one in the houses but seeing a slight smoke in a hollow at some distance he concluded that he would find the women there washing. On reaching the bank above the hollow he was astonished to see five women engaged in the ceremony of passing a sick child through the fire. Two of the women standing opposite each other held a blazing hoop vertically between them and two others standing on either side of the hoop were engaged in passing the child backwards and forwards through the opening of the hoop. The fifth woman who was the mother of the child stood at a little distance earnestly looking on. After the child had been several times passed and repassed through the fiery circle it was returned to its mother and the burning hoop was thrown into a pool of water close by. The child which was about eighteen months old was a weakling and was supposed to have come under the baleful influence of an evil eye. When taken home a bunch of bog-myrtle was suspended over its bed. The somewhat analogous superstition of putting a patient in the centre of a cart-wheel when the red-hot fire was put on it at the door of the smithy was practised in Wigtownshire half a century ago.
Purpose of Customs often Forgotten.
Now I ask is all this to be called religion? If Christians can perform these vagaries why should not the negroes of Africa indulge in superstitious practices without therefore deserving to have their religion represented as nothing but fetish-worship? The negroes of Africa and in fact most uncivilised races are most unwilling to speak about what we mean by religion; they often have not even a name for it. They are proud on the contrary of their popular amusements feastings dances and more or less solemn gatherings and welcome strangers who come to see them. Some of these gatherings may in time haves assumed a religious character. But the wide prevalence of many of the customs which we described such as the ceremonial observed in the lighting and keeping of the fire the purification of children and the lustration of cattle shows that in many of them there was originally a definite and practical object. Sometimes we can still discover it but in other cases the real object has completely disappeared. We cannot tell for instance why when the new fire was lighted it should have been thought necessary to extinguish the fires in every house. Yet we find exactly the same custom which we met with in Germany in the island of Lemnos also the very island on which Hephaestos was believed to have been precipitated by Zeus. Here all fires had to be extinguished during nine days till a ship arrived from Delos bringing the new sacred fire from the hearth of Apollo. This fire was afterwards distributed among all the families and a new life was supposed to begin15
When after the battle of Plataeae the Greeks sent to Delphi to ask what sacrifices they ought to offer they were told by the Pythian god to erect an altar to Zeus Eleutherios but not to sacrifice till all the fires in the country had been extinguished because they had been contaminated by the barbarians and till new fire had been fetched from the common hearth at Delphi16
During the Middle Ages a similar custom prevailed in Germany. At Marburg and in Lower Saxony the fire was lighted once every year by rubbing two pieces of wood. This was the new fire which was to take the place of the old fires. These were supposed to have been contaminated by contact with impurities during the year17
Nor is it necessary that there should always have been a very deep motive for these customs. We can hardly imagine for instance a very stringent reason why the guardianship of the public fire should have been committed to Vestal virgins. It was so not only in Rome. In Ireland also the fire of Saint Brigida at Kildar was not allowed to be approached by men. The Damaras an African tribe entrusted their fire as we saw to young maidens. In Mexico in Peru in Yucatan the sacred fire was likewise guarded by a company of virgins18
. All we can say in this and similar cases is that in a primitive state of society the watching over the fire on the hearth would naturally fall to the unmarried daughters of a family who stayed at home while other duties called their brothers into the field. The mere continuation of such an arrangement would in time impart to it something of a time-honoured and venerable character and the less the original purpose of such ancient customs was understood the more likely it was that a kind of religious sanction should be claimed for them.
Essential Difference between Religion Mythology and Ceremonial.
What I am anxious to place in the clearest light is that a great deal of what we class as religious whether among ancient or modern peoples had really in the beginning very little or nothing to do with what we ourselves mean by religion. Mythology affects ancient religion—in one sense it may be said to affect all religion. But mythology by itself is never religion as little as rust is iron. Ceremonial again affects religion; it may be that in the world we live in ceremonial has become inseparable from religion. But ceremonial by itself is never religion as little as shade is light.
I wanted to show you how out of the same materials both religious and non-religious concepts may be formed. It was for that purpose that I chose Fire and tried to exhibit its threefold development either as truly theogonic or as mythological or as ceremonial and sacrificial.
Theogonic Development of Agni.
In India we are able to prove by documentary evidence that the concept of Fire embodying the concepts of warmth light and life was raised gradually to that of a divine and supreme being the maker and ruler of the world. And if in the Veda we have the facts of that development clearly before us it seems to me that we have a right to say that in other religions also where Fire occupies the same supreme position it may have passed through the same stages through which Agni passed in the Veda.
Mythological Development of Agni.
By the side of this theogonic process however we can likewise watch in the Veda the beginning at least of a mythological development which becomes wider and richer in the epic and paurânic literature of India. This side is most prominent in Greece and Rome where the legends told of Hephaestos retain but few grains of Agni as the creator and ruler of the world.
Ceremonial Development of Agni.
Lastly the ceremonial development of Fire is exhibited to us in what has sometimes been called fire-worship but is in most cases merely a recognition of the usefulness of fire for domestic sacrificial and even medicinal purposes.
Definition of Religion Re-examined.
These three sides though they have much in common should nevertheless be kept carefully distinct in the study of religion. I know it may be said in fact it has been said that the definition of religion which I laid down in my former course of lectures is too narrow and too arbitrary. In one sense every definition may be said to be arbitrary for it is meant to fix the limits which the definer according to his own arbitrium wishes to assign to a certain concept or name. Both in including and excluding the definer may differ from other definers and those who differ from him will naturally call his definition arbitrary and either too narrow or too wide.
I thought it right for instance to modify my first definition of religion as ‘the perception of the Infinite’ by restricting that perception to such manifestations as are able to influence the moral conduct of man. My first definition was not wrong but it was too wide. It cannot be denied that in the beginning the perception of the Infinite had often very little to do with moral ideas and I am quite aware that many religions enjoin even what is either not moral at all or even immoral. But if there are perceptions of the Infinite unconnected as yet with moral ideas we have no right to call them religious till they assume a moral character that is till they begin to react on our moral nature. They may be called philosophical metaphysical even mathematical but they form no part of what we call religion. The objection that some religions actually sanction what is immoral is purely forensic.
If some religions sanction what is immoral or what seems to us immoral this would only serve to prove all the more strongly the influence of religion on the moral conduct of man. We are told19
for instance that ‘the pre-historic Hebrews killed their first-born in sacrifice to their god. Abraham came very near doing the same thing. Jephtha killed his daughter and David killed the murderers of the son of Saul and kept them hanging in the air all summer long to remind his God that Ishbosheth was avenged. If you catch a Yezidee in the act of stealing he will tell you that theft is a part of his religion. If you catch a Thug in the act of assassination he will tell you that murder is to him a religious rite. If you reprove the Todas of the Nilgheris Hills for living in polyandry they will tell you that this is the very ground-work of their religion. If you reprove the Mormons for living in polygamy they will remind you that this is the Biblical chart of their faith.’
Now suppose that all this were true would it not prove the very opposite of what it is meant to prove? If religion can induce human beings to commit acts which they themselves or which we at least consider doubtful or objectionable or altogether criminal surely it shows that religion even in this extreme case exercises an influence on the moral character of man such as probably nothing else could exercise.
From the moment therefore that the perception of something supernatural begins to exercise an influence on the moral actions of man be it for good or for evil from that moment I maintain and from that moment only have we a right to call it religious.
We must be careful to keep within the limits of a definition which we have once accepted. The definition which I gave of religion that it consists in a perception of the Infinite under such manifestations as are able to influence the moral conduct of man is not too narrow. It is wide enough at all events to tax the powers of any single student of the history of religion.
The Meaning of the Infinite.
When I said that religion is the perception of the Infinite I took great pains to explain that this perception is to be taken as the true source of religion as that without which religion would be impossible or at least inconceivable. But as little as the source is the whole river is the source of religion the full stream of religion. When Locke said Nihil est in intellectu quod non ante fuerit in sensu he did not mean that sensus was the whole of intellectus. He only meant that nothing could be in the intellect that had not come from sensuous perception. I meant the same when I said Nihil est in fide quod non ante fuerit in sensu. I meant that nothing could be in our faith or in our religion that had not come from the perception of the infinite but I did not mean that this perception of the infinite was the whole of religion. As our sensuous percepts grow into concepts and into all that belongs to conceptual thought our perceptions of the infinite also are the living germs only which produce in time that marvellous harvest which we call the religions of the world. And if I limited the area of these perceptions of the infinite to that narrower field which is distinguished by its moral colouring that field is still of an enormous extent and will require better and stronger labourers to reap than it has hitherto found.
As to the name which I chose for what forms the real object of all religious perceptions namely the Infinite I know quite well that it may be criticised. But has any one been able to suggest a better name? I wanted a name as wide as possible. I might have chosen Unknowable as equally wide. But to speak of a perception of the unknowable seemed to me a contradiction in terms. To know has many meanings and in one of its meanings we may say no doubt that the Infinite is the Unknowable. We cannot know the Infinite as we know the Finite but we can know it in the only way in which we can expect to know it namely behind the Finite. In perceiving anything limited we also perceive what limits it but to call this Unlimited or Infinite the Unknowable is to do violence to the verb to know.
I am quite aware that what other philosophers have called the Absolute was probably meant by them for what I call the Infinite. I likewise admit that what theologians mean by the Divine is in reality the same. Even the Transcendent might have answered the same purpose. But all those terms had a history. The Absolute reminds us of Hegelian ideas the Divine is seldom free from a certain mythological colouring and the Transcendent has its own peculiar meaning in the school of Kant. Infinite therefore seemed less objectionable than any of those terms and submitted more readily to a new definition. It had likewise the advantage of having the term finite for its opposite. If some critics have proclaimed their inability to perceive any difference between infinite and indefinite I can quite sympathise with them for I see none whatever. The only distinction which usage would seem to sanction is that indefinite is generally applied to knowledge infinite to the object of knowledge. We might then say that our knowledge of the infinite must always be indefinite a proposition to which few critics would demur.
I did not wish however to monopolise the word religion in the sense which I assigned to it in my lectures. I simply wished to delimit the subject of these lectures and to state once for all what segment of human thought would fall within our field of observation. If others define religion in a different sense we shall know what to expect from them. All that I object to is an undefined use of that word. If Cicero20
for instance defines religion in one place as cultus pius deorum
he may be quite right from the Roman or from his own point of view and we should be forewarned as to what to expect from him if he were to lecture on religion. Or if Dr. Robertson Smith in a recent course of excellent lectures on the ancient Semitic religions assures us that with the Semites religion consisted primarily of institutions such as sacrifices ablutions fastings and all the rest and not of what was believed about gods or God we shall know in what sense he uses religion. In modern times also there are many people who hold that religion consists chiefly in ceremonial acts such as going to church kneeling making the sign of the cross and other ritual observances.
But though I quite admit the right of Cicero or anybody else to define religion in his own sense and to treat of religion as mere cult or as mere mythology I hold as strongly as ever that neither cult nor mythology is possible without a previous elaboration of the concepts and names of the gods. Cult is one of the many manifestations of religion but by no means the only one nor a necessary one. The same applies to myths and legends. They are the parasites not the marrow of religion. Besides there are myths and legends altogether unconnected with religion and there are solemn acts which have nothing to do with the gods. We saw how some ceremonies and myths connected with Agni Fire were religious in their origin and ceased to be so while others purely secular in their origin assumed in time a religious character. It is often difficult to draw a sharp line between what is no longer and what is not yet religious but our definition of religion will generally help us in trying to discover whether there are any elements in a ceremonial act or in a mythological tradition which draw their origin however distantly from an original perception of the Infinite and influence directly or indirectly the moral conduct of man.
The Religious Element.
Let me give you in conclusion one more illustration of the difficulties we have to contend with in trying to determine whether certain acts and certain sayings may be called religious or not.
We are told by an excellent Arabic scholar Baron von Kremer a member of the Imperial Academy at Vienna that at Vienna which is as advanced and refined a capital as any in Europe you may still see people when walking in the streets picking up any bits of bread lying on the pavement and placing them carefully where poor people or at least birds or dogs may get at them.
Is that a religious act? It may be or it may not. It may be a mere inculcation of the old proverb Waste not want not. But as soon as the bread is called the gift of God the reluctance to tread it under foot may become religious.
Manzoni the Arabian traveller21
tells us that the Kabili the agricultural Arab takes the greatest care not to scatter a crumb of bread. When he sees a piece of bread lying in the street he lifts it kisses it thrice praises God and puts it where no one can step on it and where it may he eaten if only by a dog.
Here we see religious elements entering in. Yet though the Kabili shows his reverence for bread though he calls it ‘aish that is life as we call it the staff of life no one would say that bread had become a divine being in Arabia still less as some of our friends would say that it had become a fetish or a totem.
If therefore we find that similar reverence is shown to fire or water we have not therefore to admit at once that they have thereby been raised to the rank of divine beings. If bread was called life so was fire. The founder of a new sect among the Ojibways addressed his disciples in the following words: ‘Henceforth the fire must never go out in thy hut. In summer and winter by day and by night in storm and in calm weather remember that the life in thy body and the fire on thy hearth are the same thing and date from the same time22
Here fire and life are identified but the fire within the body is no more than what we should call the warmth of the body and to say that this warmth is the same as the fire on the hearth implies as yet no kind of divine worship for either the one or the other.
The same respect which is paid to bread is also paid to other kinds of food. Thus Mohammed forbad to use even the stone of a date for killing a louse; and in another place he is reported to have said: ‘Honour the palm for she is your aunt23
In the case of bread therefore and also in the case of corn and dates and other kinds of food we can well understand that they should have been treated with reverence as the gift of Allah or of any other god provided always that an acquaintance with such divine beings existed beforehand.
Without such previous knowledge nothing whether a ceremony or a myth can be called religious. It seems to me therefore that we are perfectly justified in treating that previous knowledge by itself and to reserve to it exclusively the name of religion. There was religion before sacrifice; there was religion before myth. There was neither sacrifice nor myth before religion in the true sense of that word. Nothing is more interesting than to find out how sacrifice and myth sprang from the same field as religion. But they did not spring from that field until it had been touched by those rays of light which transform the finite into the infinite and which called into life the unnumbered seeds that lay hidden in the ground the seeds of tares as well as of wheat both growing together until the harvest.