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III: Fighting

Since under the conditions of the early struggle for existence Man must be either hammer or anvil, acts of violence are inevitable, but their association with religion tempers them with a sense of the sacredness of human life. Within the kin, the original home-circle, murder counts like incest, as an abominable sin, an offence against the blood. In the tribe the law of a life for a life regulates intercourse and eventually makes for a rude kind of justice. Finally, as regards relations with the stranger, war serves as a nation-making force, and, despite ebullitions of the blood-lust, is a school of the preliminary virtues; the fighting temper being a precious asset when diverted by sublimation to higher ends.

Manslaying is a natural and even in some sense necessary function of the social life, of which it is easier to perceive the accursed than the blessed side. Yet, if there is any good in it at all, it is the supreme business of religion to find it out. For it would not befit the emergent and potentially noble soul of Man to acquiesce in a world ruled by brute force. Rather, if he employs the strong arm, it must be to smash such a system to pieces, that he may recompose the remnants according to some fairer and more ideal pattern. Moreover, this matter of one man doing another man to death is essentially something that lies within their power to alter by mutual arrangement. To convert the human enemy into a friend is on the face of it not so stiff a proposition as to turn the wolf into a dog; and nevertheless mankind, while yet savage, proved equal to the latter achievement. At the same time morality is a kind, nay, is the foremost because most authoritative kind, of intelligence; and Man does not start as a highly intelligent being, but has to make himself one. So far as mere instinct would take him, he has to reckon with an internecine tendency which is more or less implanted in all the social animals as a psychological condition of their survival. However cruel the process, then, it is salutary to the natural society that it should purge itself by a competitive elimination of the unfit; and what applies to the particular group must apply no less forcibly to the species, which in the course of ethnic differentiation is bound to throw off types liable by their inferior staying power to hamper the advance of the race in general. In short, at any stage at which we can observe our heredity, we find ourselves endowed with a social body which always employs death as a means of getting rid of its waste products, and sometimes has recourse to sharp and painful removals by way of relieving a system obstructed to the point of disease. The moral question, then, is how far this natural function, this constitutional liability, can be modified by the developed intelligence, so as to minimize the evil in it, while yet preserving what is best at once for each and for all.

Now the stuff out of which religion is made consists of valuations subconsciously passed on the elemental facts of human experience. This racial stock of prejudices it gradually reduces to intelligible order, by giving them expression in such a way that feeling and thought can be brought to bear on them simultaneously, that is to say, in a more or less immediate and intuitional fashion. Thus ritual forms are tone-symbols and ideas in one, and invite heart and head to conspire together to create a vital harmony which shall yield the concrete satisfaction of sweet music married to sound sense. What, then, is the lowest note in the full scale of those inarticulate sounds which make themselves heard in the first whispers of the human conscience? Surely it is the fear of death, just as the love of life is, of all these notes, the highest. Even as reflected in the death of the animal that is good to eat there is discord, as we have already seen, in the feelings of the hunter; so that his triumph leaves him vaguely disturbed, and anxious to make amends. How much more, therefore, is he likely to be moved ambivalently over such a death as might well have been his own, when in a fight to the finish the enemy, and not he, goes under. It might seem, indeed, that so immense a relief would stifle any pang of remorse. Yet, to the credit of the savage, it can be abundantly proved that this is not so. No doubt some might at first sight find it a sufficient explanation that the slayer knows how his deed must make for future trouble, according to the law of blood for blood. But the sentiment was there before any such law could come into existence; nor would it be possible to resent the fate of a friend so deeply, unless there were an underlying sympathy with all such misfortune, having its roots in a horror of death as such. When we go on, as we now must, to consider the part played by social organization in providing suitable moulds, we must not overlook the fundamental predispositions that were thereby shaped into instruments of the moral life.

Taking, then, the average community of savages who, thanks mostly to the custom of exogamy, have reached the tribal stage of society, we can represent its moral relationships by three concentric circles. That which immediately surrounds the centre stands for the consanguine group, or kin, which, whether it counts descent in the mother's or the father's line, restricts this the veritable home-circle to that one side of the family. The intermediate zone contains the rest of the tribe, and marks what is roughly the outer limit of the criss-cross of affinities which exogamy produces. A tribesman as opposed to a kinsman by blood is thus any possible connexion by marriage who does not happen to be a pure stranger. There remains the vast outer circle of those who are neither kith nor kin, neither acquaintances nor birth-mates, but live beyond the bounds of tribal law and religion. Correspondingly, then, there are three degrees of moral responsibility severally involving an intense solidarity, a half-hearted neighbourliness, and an utter aloofness.

Hence there will be as many different ways in which righting and killing may come about, namely, through intestine strife, through feud, or through downright war. These distinctions are by no means arbitrary, since they are based on a real and well-recognized departmentalization of the social life. The stupidest savage is not likely to confuse in his mind the occasions on which he is liable to commit the abominable sin, to become implicated in an affair of honour, and on behalf of home and country to take up arms against foreign devils. There are bound to be marginal cases, of course, as when duty towards the mother's clan begins to include the father and his people as well; or, again, when distant or disaffected members of the tribe rank as hardly better than sworn foes. On the whole, however, there stand out in sharp contrast to each other three spheres of conduct, to which entirely separate commandments apply as follows: to the first, Thou shalt commit no murder; to the second, Thou shalt compound with thy neighbour on the principle that a life for a life is fair give-and-take; and to the third, Thou shalt utterly destroy the destroyer.

Yet, because custom approves this diversity of obligations, it does not follow that, psychologically, a certain incompatibility between their demands on the moral agent should not make itself felt; since human sympathies will never allow social convention to dam them up in watertight compartments. Now religion for all its formalism is in closer touch than law with the heart of Man, and hence with its profound impulse to achieve internal harmony by forcing it as it were upon a universe which, whether because it is responsive or merely plastic, undoubtedly suffers modification accordingly. How, then, is religious ritual going to consecrate, or debrutalize, the natural function of ridding the world of its human pests? Clearly by seizing on any pre-existing respect for the life of one's fellow man where it happens to be strongest, and thereafter doing everything in its power to give effective expression to that universal appeal which is the final test of moral principle.

Curiously enough, however, throughout those later chapters of human history which, even though they include what are called prehistoric times, fall so far short of the complete record, there would seem to have been little need to deepen the sense of the sacredness of human life. The problem has rather been how to widen it. For within the narrow circle of the kin, as it comes within anthropological observation, murder always ranks with incest as black and deadly wickedness. It is not merely a crime, a felonious act of disloyalty to the social group, but pre-eminently is a sin, a corruption of the soul, which contaminates the whole moral atmosphere with its foulness. Thus there can be no disputing that the horror universally excited by it is a nascently religious feeling. Unfortunately for our science, however, this greatest of taboos is presumably also the most ancient, and we can but grope amid shadows for the proofs of its origin. Yet one thing is tolerably certain, namely, that we cannot rid ourselves of the need of further explanation by thrusting the whole responsibility on instinct; for nothing is to be gained historically by fathering either the fall or the rise of Man on that psychological version of the old Adam.

As Freud has rightly urged, the very existence of a taboo argues a constitutional infirmity to be mastered, an inhibition that must be forcibly imposed. If so, then, a taboo bears witness not to nature but to education, though more especially to that early stage of education when habits are formed by subconscious means and with little or no purposive intent on the part of the subject, Thus we are referred back to a time when, humanity attended infant school; and, since Nature herself cannot have been the dame, we are left with Nature's accredited deputy, the mother. If Eve had been up to her duties, the strife between Cain and Abel would have been cut short in the cradle.

Thus even in the aboriginal Australia of to-day where the downtrodden status of woman can hardly correspond to the truly primeval condition—one indication among many others being the fact that matrilocal marriage, in which the wife remains happy and secure among her own people, is almost unknown—we find a truly matriarchal sanction at work as a castigator of youthful morals. Thus among the Dieri the female as well as the male elders of the tribe would lecture the young people on propriety of conduct and on the heinous-ness of incest; and Gason, a trustworthy authority, had himself, according to his explicit statement, often listened to the old women thus instructing the young ones.1 Again, Howitt found among the Kurnai that certain women had great weight and authority in the tribe, and did much to keep alive the stringent marriage rules, thus influencing public opinion very strongly.2 Now it is a curious fact that, so far as modern research can distinguish a stratification in the culture of Australia due to successive waves of immigration, the Dieri and Kurnai, both living in the south of the continent, proclaim themselves alike by their geographical position and by their habits to be among the most primitive of all. Thus it may well be more than an accident that precisely here should be found some approach to that feminine jurisdiction over the primal decencies of the home which is a more or less necessary corollary of the theory of full mother-right as the earliest form of the family.

If, however, there was a time when human society was matricentral, and its chief mystery, because the very secret of its corporate identity, was the mother's blood, it is easy to conceive how her natural function as a peacemaker might be reinforced by a conditional curse issuing from the blood itself, sole fountain-head of vitality alike physical and spiritual. To shed it unlawfully by killing man or violating woman would thus poison the social life at its very source. Such a belief, if acquired at an impressionable age, would be sufficient in itself to invest the law with a validity verging on the absolute. Howitt especially notes how some Australian customs, such as those avoidances which must be mutually observed by near relations, are obeyed quite apart from any dread of physical punishment; though he notes that in an actual case of such an offence being committed—it so happens, by pure accident—the man was compelled to leave the district, his wife returning to her parents. He explains that such laws command universal obedience simply because the native has been told from his earliest childhood that this infraction will be followed by supernatural retribution.3

Here, then, we come upon the traces of an earliest chapter of the history of religion of which the surviving fragments barely suggest the broader outlines of the ritual forms. Thus the ceremonies attending a girl's first puberty, or, again, the subsequent inexplicable arrival of a child, would primarily be the women's affair presided over by the weird sisters of the elder generation. These, again, would start the keening over the dead in those funeral rites which we know to have been practised for at least the last twenty thousand years. But, if it was theirs to call down vengeance on the manslayer from without, how much more would grief and indignation and sheer horror rouse them to frenzy over the corpse of a blood-brother slain by a blood-brother! As for the Murderer, though the logic of a life for a life does not apply to him, he is untouchable, not only in that respect but in every other sense as well, and must go forth branded as a social leper. The law declares that he shall be ‘a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth’; and thereupon truly is his punishment greater than he can bear, since henceforth he is motherless and homeless.

That somehow these fundamental rules of group-behaviour received their consecration, so that the hand lifted in impulsive wrathfulness was held back by an invisible grip of iron strength, is certain; though it remains uncertain how. It may even be that the female, as contrasted with the male, of the species is less of an artist, because more explosive and unrestrained as regards the expression of the emotions. Hence so long as she was the predominating influence, ritual might never have attained to those elaborations constituting the pageantry so characteristic of primitive religion as we have it to-day. It was enough that the voice of her dooming should cry aloud in the outpoured blood. Society had no need to make a dance of it, therefore, because here the feelings refused to be tranquillized and restored to measure—here was monstrous sin from which imagination could snatch no grace, but must recoil in impotent horror.

We turn from the home-circle with its inviolable sanctities to that intermediate circle of intercourse in which contacts with neighbours are agreeable or painful by turns and at haphazard. These half-strangers, who incidentally include one's affinities by marriage, are never quite to be trusted. Being mostly out of sight and touch, they are under permanent suspicion of brewing evil magic, on the principle that the absent are always in the wrong. In fact, the most sinister element in Australian religion—the part that above all may be stigmatized as superstition, because tending to be perverse and pathological—is this deeply rooted conviction that, as every death implies sorcery, so every funeral must be rounded off with a vendetta. We must recognize it, in fact, as originally no more than a quite blind and undirected act of baffled rage, following hard upon the heels of an unmeasured grief. After all, these frantic sheddings of innocent blood occur at much higher levels of culture, as for instance on the death of some mighty African monarch. It is as if the demented mourners thought to discharge their random weapons at death itself, and thereupon some wretched mortal intercepted the blow.

Certain authorities discover the root of the matter in the fear of the ghost; but such an explanation reveals a rather shallow psychology on their part, since they fail to assign any reason for the fact that the ghost requires to be propitiated in this special way. Supernatural beings tend to be perfectly conventional in their moral outlook, unless indeed they happen to have dropped a little behind the times; so that a defunct Australian would expect his fellows to do by him exactly as he, if alive, would have done by any one of them, had the relation been reversed. True, the ritual proceedings at the grave, whereby it is sought to divine the direction from which the insidious attack was made, usually assign to the dead or dying man the part of accuser-in-chief, as if a sort of clairvoyance were the prerogative of a liberated spirit. Nevertheless, all such seeking for a sign is but a crude attempt to rationalize the impulse of men stricken in the dark to relieve their feelings by striking back through the same darkness. Or, again, we hear of a native who had come under the influence of the Whites being torn between a promise made to them to abstain from blood-revenge and dream-hauntings on the part of the ghost which finally compelled him to do his duty by the dead. Here the protesting ghost amounts to little else than an exteriorized conscience, more especially for the savage, who might be said to think in visions, and as a matter of fact draws no sharp line between those that come to him severally by night and by day.

So much, then, from that side of the moral problem which concerns the rights of the friend. Just as he would not himself go down before death without a struggle, so through the sympathy of his kinsmen he continues to challenge the force that would annihilate him, and reaches a happy release for himself in and through their relief at finding a vent, however inappropriate, for their desire to maintain the fight against the common enemy. And now to view the matter from the side involving the rights of the neighbour, on whose unhappy head is thrust a responsibility ultimately belonging to Nature, or Fate, or the Devil, or whatever is the opposite of life and hope and God. Now on the one hand it must be remembered that beyond the radius of the narrow kin-circle a violent end is never far to seek. Even so, in Australia this contingency does not deter adventurous youth from proceeding on the ‘walkabout’, the aboriginal equivalent of the ‘grand tour’. On approaching a strange camp the visitor squats outside until notice is taken of him, and woe to him unless he can explain his totemic status in terms that can be understood by his hosts. Once admitted to communion, however, as when furnished with food or perhaps with a temporary sex-mate, he is safe for the time being. Nevertheless the relation between such a guest and his hosts remains an unstable equilibrium, the ceremonial nature of their intercourse showing that mutual fear and sympathy are at strife and have immobilized each other.

On the other hand, it is worth noticing that in primitive ritual the will tends to count for more than the deed; so that a whole-hearted intention to obtain full satisfaction on behalf of the injured dead may coexist with a performance that makes up by gesture for what it lacks in effectiveness. Thus Spencer and Gillen make it clear that the avengers of blood who, with the help of a medicine-man, lull their victim into a magic sleep, so that his kidney-fat is extracted, without his mind perceiving it, or his body retaining the marks of the operation, have employed purely spiritual weapons in the discharge of their duties;4 though doubtless these invisible darts will strike home, if the news of their murderous exploit reaches the right quarter. We may observe the same tendency to substitute drama for action as a safety-valve for emotion in the regulated combat; or, again, in the so-called expiatory exposure whereby such affairs of honour are so often terminated, at a slight risk of death it may be, yet for the most part with little or no effusion of blood. At this point, however, we pass into the domain of law, and fighting needs to be considered in that special aspect which it acquires when it comes to be used as a means of judging.

Sometimes, however, a regular war-party sallies forth to exact vengeance from some neighbouring group, which, whether belonging technically to the same tribe or not, is at any rate on terms of such intimacy that proceedings resemble a grim kind of process-serving more than a military adventure. Such an expedition makes no secret of its mission. Among the Arunta, for instance, every armed man wears on his head the two flaked sticks called inkulta, which, we are told, are ‘associated with the idea of fighting and, if possible, killing an enemy’.5 When the avengers have fulfilled their purpose, they must break these asunder and fling the bits on the victim's body. Did they, however, decide to pay a friendly call on another group, the first thing they must do would be to hand over the inkulta to the headman of their hosts, who would promptly make a fire and burn them. In any case the latter would have soon become aware of their intentions, For, when they approached, it would have been his duty to send out women to meet them; and, if these peacemakers were sent back whence they came, it must surely portend trouble. Such straightforward dealings are in accordance with that integrity which is always an attribute of justice, even though it still halts at the retributive stage.

Another essential character of justice is its impersonality. It seeks to vindicate a principle, without vindictiveness as towards its violator in his individual capacity, since in other respects he retains his rights as a man. On this very ground modern jurisprudence with its rationalistic outlook finds it hard to defend capital punishment, since to make an end of a citizen physically is no way to treat him as morally an end in himself. Savage sentiment, however, which is content to feel rather than to think the matter out, finds it easier to identify the sinner with his sin; two influences alike conducing to this result. In the first place, the whole transaction is viewed as if it took place on the transcendental rather than on the political plane. It is a question of arraigning, not one who has broken social rules, but one who has sold his soul to the devil; and humanity's best hope is to daunt and neutralize rather than to abolish, whether by killing or otherwise, such ghostly enemies. Indeed, as we have seen, a revenge may be carried out by an act that leaves the victim's body intact. Thus we should greatly err if we were to rate such a ritual execution as a proof of slackness or cowardice on the part of the maintainers of the family honour; who would actually seem to obtain special credit among their fellows for having resorted to so bold an experiment in the occult. They have, in fact, succeeded in hoisting the practiser of the black art with his own petard; though of course such a counter-magic is a kind of exorcism, and belongs morally to religion as an art of defeating the powers of evil by the aid of the powers of good.

In the second place, the responsibility alike of agent and of sufferer in this act of chastisement is collective through and through. It is an affair of kin against kin, group against group. The avenging party goes through preliminary rites intended to make them feel their corporate identity. Thus they shed their own blood on one another's thighs to make themselves feel that loyalty is strength. Again, their joint sense of righteous indignation needs to be inflamed; and so the dead man's brother, who organizes the expedition, rubs the stomach of each in turn with a hair-girdle made from the hair of the corpse. Once more, there is danger ahead, and the individual champion has his anxious moments, as he rather naively confesses in an appeal to the dead kinsmen who share with the living in this duty of maintaining the common cause. Prayer in the form that it takes in advanced religion is hardly known to the Australian native; but when the words ‘My mate, they might kill me’ are spoken over some other dead man's girdle worn for luck it amounts to a petition, however delicately conveyed.6

Turning now to the alleged culpability of the accused, this again is of the collective order. In one of the two cases studied in detail by Spencer and Gillen, a father paid the penalty for his son's supposed fault. In the other case reprisals were of an even more indirect kind. When the visitors had with much ceremony served their summons on the enemy group, there resulted a parley in which it was secretly agreed that the latter should avail themselves of this opportunity of getting rid of certain undesirables among their own number, namely, two persons guilty of incest and a sorcerer whose own imprudent boastings proved him to be such. One of the offenders against marriage law was warned in time by his guilty conscience, and, with his paramour, decamped into the wilderness; but the other two were abandoned to the foe, who duly speared them, throwing their inkulta, the tokens of their deadly mission, upon the slaughtered bodies. Thus when beforehand in the course of their march they made a mound of earth with a stick laid along it called the aworra or emblem, and had kindled a fire at one end of it to draw out the juices from the body and so disable the very koruna or spirit of the offender, they were not directing this rite of annihilation against any given man so much as against a representative of a body of ill-wishers, who in their turn might almost be said to stand for the seamy side of things in general.7 In short, it is ‘woe to the world because of offences’ at least as much as ‘woe to that man by whom the offence cometh’. Thus, whereas the principle of a death for a death would be utterly futile, since nothing multiplied by nothing amounts to nothing still, there is some sense, however paradoxical, in a life for a life, because the victim's part is active and positive in so far as he is, like the martyr, one who testifies to the truth. He also serves who serves as a warning, and much more plainly when he is individually innocent, as even now happens occasionally with those who vindicate the authority of law in their piteously misjudged persons.

No wonder, then, that, in face of this paradoxical necessity of having to maintain a moral principle by suffering for it however unwillingly, savage mankind should show its perplexity by conduct which, while appropriate enough in sentiment, in logic contradicts itself. The avenging party, conscious of a disagreeable duty faithfully accomplished, might well expect to be greeted with grateful acclamation on its return. On the contrary the women, whose weakness does not consist in overdoing logic, greet them with the doleful cry, ‘Why did you kill our friend?’ No doubt it is of the very nature of a mystery to be enigmatic, and ritual does not always say what it means. Any simple-minded ghost having his debt to collect from his slayers might well be deceived by this appearance of concern on the part of a sex ever ready to beguile. It is notorious that the dead man's spirit may follow his slayers home in the guise of a little bird.8 Nay, even now the individual may have to bear the burden of the public liability. Shields are tapped, and, if one of them gives back a hollow sound, the owner is plainly in for trouble. In any case, the whole party must lie low for days, painting themselves black so as to be inconspicuous to a prowling spirit, wearing protective charms, and so on. Nay, so far is it from being a triumphant ending to a dashing adventure, that, until the taboo is lifted, not a word must be said concerning a task that from first to last was sacramental, in that it raised a blind impulse to hit back to the level of a solemn and inspired duty. Savage justice is never retributive in the sense that it returns evil for evil; and we must cultivate enough of the historic sense to realize that what is returned is rather good in the making—good as it has to be made in a world which, as unmade Nature, knows neither good nor evil.

We come, finally, to our third circle, so large as to be almost boundless, where man meets man uncivilly, and with no rights and duties between them except such as depend on their being human beings of one type or another. For the moment we need not consider the upper limit to which humanitarian feeling may be educated, being concerned rather with its lower limit as represented by the natural law formulated by Darwin that the struggle for existence is ever most severe among members of the same species. Hunting the most dangerous of the other animals is but sport as compared with the death struggle between races and peoples, as it has been fought out in those perpetual clashes which have attended and actually conditioned the evolution of mankind. The world as it is now constituted consists of the piratical nations, thickly and firmly established in the world's great areas of intercommunication and characterization, with dwindling folk of no importance scattered about in the odd corners, and lucky to be even there. This distribution has been brought about almost mechanically by a rising tide of population of which each successive wave inexorably mounts and outruns the one before; so that, in the eye of history, all occupation of the earth's surface is temporary and, as the lawyers say, adverse, that is, maintained by force. As surely as there is crowding there will be jostling; nor are those in the best places easily persuaded to make room. Thus war, whether sailing under its true colours, which should be the black flag, or speciously disguised as national expansion, peaceful penetration, or what not, might be classed as one of those natural functions which is at the same time nothing else than a necessary evil.

How, then, is mankind, by the help of religion or otherwise, going to extract moral good out of a bad business? Now hate, whether individual or collective, is a vile thing, but may be wonderfully sustaining to the faculties, inducing a concentration of attention and a sharpening of that unethical instrument, the intellect, that are not readily evoked by nobler causes. Moreover, duly sublimated, it provides a basis for patriotism, however ridiculous it may be that hating one set of men should provide an excuse for loving another; yet, as it is, war has proved the chief nurse of what Bagehot calls the preliminary virtues. Courage, loyalty, and obedience, the threefold outcome of its tutelage, furnish the state with a backbone for which economic interest offers but a feeble substitute. Indeed, what might be called the fighting spirit forms a well-tried and well-established emotional complex which, as William James has argued, is there not so much to be extirpated as to be improved by further spiritualization into something purer and nobler. Thus Christianity, though it would fain shut its ears to the fierce trumpet-blasts of the book of Joshua, still clings to the symbolism of battle. Yet it calls upon the believer to fight, the good fight of a faith in which the stress is transferred from hatred to love; so that evil itself as associated with human nature becomes a subject of pity rather than of wrath. In practice, however, as history shows, the Christian has been apt to fall back into that Old Testament mood which indeed up to the present day would seem to be in complete harmony with the dictates of the Mohammedan conscience. In short, no true account of the development of religion can afford to gloss over the fact that to hew Agag in pieces before the Lord has, in the past, been a ritual proceeding not inconsistent with a moral purpose that has made on the whole for good, or at any rate for survival.

Here, however, we are not called upon to discuss civilization, or that prior condition sometimes called barbarism, which is especially apt to revolt a refined mind, because nations that have become middle-aged and respectable cannot but reflect with mixed feelings on the extravagances of their stormy youth. On the other hand, the savage stands at relatively such a distance in culture from ourselves that it is easy to class him with the ‘blameless Ethiopians’. Thus there have always been those, as there are to-day, who are prepared to credit him with a peaceful disposition, apparently on the score of his inability to deal with his human competitors by methods of mass-destruction. No doubt a Roman sword was an effective instrument of slaughter; though even so in certain conditions it could not cope with the composite bow of the Parthian, the same weapon that later on helped the Turk on his devastating way. The bow, however, goes back in Europe many thousand years, to judge by those Capsian rock-drawings of eastern Spain which display naked athletes spitting their enemies with the aid of long bows admirably suited to the purpose; nor has the artist failed to suggest in the liveliness of their actions the enthusiasm with which they are conducting an operation probably incidental to a migration from North Africa. However bare of population that early world may have been, there were desirable hunting-grounds not so much for the asking as for the taking by the strong hand.

Lacking the bow, the modern Australian might seem, on a superficial comparison, inoffensive; but his spear-thrower—a device, by the way, also known to prehistoric Europe—turns his spear into a really formidable missile, not to speak of his boomerangs and other arms of attack and defence. There has been no opportunity in Australia to observe movements of displacement such as must have occurred before the tribes settled down to their known boundaries; and it may be that mutual reprisals more or less confined to their own loosely aggregated sections have latterly reached a point at which an unconscious balance has been struck between numbers and food-supply. Nevertheless, there have been occasions when, over and above such grounds of quarrel as accusations of magic or of woman-stealing, economic reasons gave rise to warlike expeditions; though, as elsewhere, it was a greed for luxuries rather than sheer want of the necessities of existence that prompted such aggression as an alternative to honest barter.

Thus, according to Howitt,9 the Dieri would every year dispatch two bodies of fighting-men in different directions to rob tribes living two or three hundred miles away of their stock-in-trade, in the one case red ochre, used mostly as a body paint, and in the other a narcotic leaf called pitcheri, greatly esteemed for chewing purposes. Such a party went seventy to eighty strong and well armed; a watch was kept at night; they lived on the country; and when restored to their friends the heroes were full of strange stories of thrilling encounters, and of men with toes at both ends of their feet. Decidedly this is war at the stage when it has not yet parted with its romance; but it is war notwithstanding in its character of ultima ratio ratio—that appeal to the unreason of the natural law which a man takes into his own hands to live or, as often as not, to die by it.

For a type of the savage warrior, however, it will be better to turn to some other region of intenser conflict where every tenure worth contesting goes to the strong, while the weak must either perish or flee the country, since slavery, that convenient back-door of survival, is not yet open to them. North America offers a suitable example; and, though the pressure of the Whites has sometimes been blamed for the bitter fighting of the Red Indian, well aware that he had his back to the wall, yet in earlier times, Toltec, Aztec, and Apache sweeping down in turn from the hungry north might well seem to have modelled their methods on those of their own wolves. Yet on closer view there are mitigating features; unless indeed we shut our eyes to the possibility of any good in the process that has incidentally created a second Europe out of the New World. When a tribe is fighting for its life it seems axiomatic to itself that its cause is just; while to the self-sacrifice of the individual tribesman the text applies that ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.

Moreover, for the simple savage there is no consciousness of any need to justify his attitude by casuistry. He would not have to say to himself ‘My country right or wrong’, where scepticism and cynicism form the two horns of the dilemma offered to the modern patriot; any more than the bishop who was the author of this remark would have felt that ‘my religion right or wrong’ was the last word of his theology. If Nature knows no more than relativity, morality must always recognize an absolute in a man's readiness to die for his faith. Even religion is infected with relativity as history views it, that is to say, in so far as we can speak of religions in the plural; and yet for the moral agent God is God, even when he wears the aspect of a God of battles. Thus any ritual whereby the soldier, whether Indian warrior or Christian knight, consecrates himself to service, converts physical into moral courage by imposing the duty to defend the right and make it prevail. Among masculine capacities here is perhaps the most widely diffused, at any rate among certain ethnic stocks that are always likely to lead the rest; and on this broad basis of a common manliness, whence we derive the very root-idea of Virtue’, can be erected a temple dedicated to the mystery that the good life under natural conditions means likewise duty to the death.

Volumes of detail might be written on the cycle of rites on which the Indian warrior could rely to help him through his sacred task from the word ‘Attention!’ to the word ‘Dismiss’. The triple scheme proposed by Van Gennep in his Rites de Passage will apply well enough, the central incident of the actual campaign being prefaced by a formal separation from ordinary life, and being concluded by a no less formal restoration to it, a sort of ‘churching’ when the taboo is lifted. Thus religion seconding common sense insists on all the severities of a previous training; and we should be wrong if we were to measure the effects of the war-dance in terms of the muscular rather than the mental force thereby imparted to the tiro. It is on a crowd-consciousness needing due stimulation by such external means as can be imitated that the savage chiefly depends for his morale.

So too the strict continence, and up to a point the fasting, might seem designed to secure physical fitness, though it is certain that this is not their primary intention. The Maya war-chief must have remained chaste for three years in advance. The Knisteneaux must fast even before holding a war-council. Religious values cannot be reduced to utilitarian terms; or why must the Apache warrior use a drinking-tube lest water touch his lips, or apply a scratching-stick to his head instead of his hand? Again when a Mandan sacrifices a finger-joint before an expedition, he is not doing it in order to improve his grip.10 His cry, ‘O Wakanda, pity me’, provides a truer index to his prevalent mood, which is one of self-abandon tinned with the self-pity not unnatural in one who may presently have to die. Doubtless, too, he subconsciously feels that he is striking a sort of bargain with the powers that dispense death by accepting his meed of suffering beforehand in a spirit of ennobling resignation. Meanwhile, other rites minister directly to his fierceness. He paints himself red, the colour of blood. He batters down a row of sticks set up to represent the foe. Altogether, when the time comes for the great venture, he is spiritually prepared. Throughout its course he remains in a state of sacredness as marked by his paint, his amulets, his fortified weapons, his invocatory battle-cries; while he knows that those left at home, with more time to give to the niceties of ceremonial conduct, are dancing to impart vigour to their absent champions, or are otherwise ‘doing their bit’.

In America as compared with Australia the closing act of the drama of war strikes an ambiguous note, since, although the penitential side is well marked, the Redskin ferocity once aroused was not easily quelled without ebullitions of the blood-lust; such as led to the torture of prisoners at the stake, or to those more grisly holocausts of prisoners that were offered to the Mexican war-god. One is reminded of our own ancestors on whom ‘Bersark's gang’ would sometimes fall, so that they became as it were insane, slaying friend or foe alike, and even attacking trees in their blind fury. It is to be noted how, as Frazer has shown in Psyche's Task, it is a fairly common belief in the savage world that a manslayer is likely to go mad unless duly purged of his blood-guiltiness.11 Indeed, on the return of the expedition the whole community is apt to be seized with frenzy, and may vent their passion on each other, unless in cannibal fashion they deflect it to the mangled corpses of the enemy. For just as it is the ghosts of these men of wrath, cut off in their prime and all the more potent on that account, who send the madness on those that have cut them down, so these can appease them, or at any rate neutralize their power with or without their good will, by tasting their blood, and thus bringing about what is literally, if hardly morally, an atonement.

Yet even in this horrid proceeding ritual has enshrined in the covenant of blood that elemental notion of kinship as a love incompatible with strife which advanced religion, regardless of Nature's law of eliminative competition, would extend so as to protect the unfittest members of the human family. The heart proclaims the sacredness of life against the head, so far as the latter cannot conceive a social hygiene apart from a drastic system of depurgatory blood-letting. Science is, however, bound to acknowledge the accidentality and consequent wastefulness of natural process; and it can perhaps be proved, on behalf of ethical process, that war throws too much good blood away with the bad to serve as the required purge. Indeed, the dysgenic effects of modern war are so obvious that expediency joins with sentiment in demanding a more economic way of preventing our race from becoming self-poisoned. Finally, as for that most precious of human assets, the fighting temper, its quality need not suffer though its aim be diverted. Just as the savage has learnt to be valiant by taming the wild beast in himself rather than by letting it run wild, so the moral code of the future must seek, not to break, but rather to break in, that spirit of essential manhood which confronts life's battle under a vow of fearless service. Thus not in word only but in deed may the sacraments of religion acknowledge their prototype in the military oath.

  • 1.

    A. W. Howitt, Native Tribes of S.-E. Australia, 300.

  • 2.

    Ibid. 316.

  • 3.

    Ibid. 296.

  • 4.

    Spencer and Gillen, op. cit. ii. 457.

  • 5.

    Ibid. 506

  • 6.

    Spencer and Gillen, op. cit. ii. 447–8.

  • 7.

    Spencer and Gillen, op. cit. ii. 447–53.

  • 8.

    Ibid. 451–2.

  • 9.

    Howitt, op. cit. 711.

  • 10.

    See Landa, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, 173; Dunn, Oregon Territory, 94; Corbucier in American Antiquarian, 1886, 279, and Bourke, Medicine-men of the Apache, 490; Dorsey, Study of Siouan Cults, 437.

  • 11.

    Sir J. G. Frazer, Psyche's Task,2 117.