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VIII: Covenanting

The organization of the ownership of material wealth on an equitable basis of give and. take has been largely affected by an early view of property that interpreted its value in non-economic and spiritual terms. Primitive religion has helped to establish the sanctity of covenant or contract in two ways. Faithlessness is threatened with a conditional curse. On the other hand, an exchange of gifts or services is valued, quite apart from considerations of profit, as a communion on a par with the blood covenant. By such a giving of oneself to another in all goodwill a sort of enlargement of the personality is brought about and it is characteristic of early barter that it is a secondary development of meetings primarily intended to foster mutual friendship by the giving and receiving of luck-bringing objects.

Sir Alfred Lyall in his Asiatic Studies has declared roundly that ‘do ut des is the foundation of natural religion’.1 Now I am going to argue that this is altogether too sweeping a statement, and one that unduly discredits the dispositions that lie at the roots of human nature. It is true that the context of the observation is supplied by India, where, at a certain level of society, which is however neither the highest nor the lowest, the spirit of the keen trader prevails, just as it does with us; so that the corresponding phase of religion, no doubt, reflects this tendency to regard a good bargain as the summit of earthly, and even heavenly, ambition. From this fact, however, supposing it to be ever so true, it by no means follows that, racially speaking, every one of us must confess that he was born a shopkeeper, and hence, in the course of nature at least, has no chance of rising superior to the satisfactions attendant on the various tricks of the trade. Let my protest, then, take the form of denying that there can be any room found at all for the sacramental idea within the wide ambit of primitive religion—which surely can be treated as likewise ‘natural’ for the purposes of this discussion—unless either do ut des be held inadequate to express it, or a new meaning be put on these words, which no longer identifies the object of giving with what can thereby be got in return, but on the contrary consecrates the act by somehow associating therewith the principle that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

I am not going to contend that the savage has all the makings of an angel in him—a full-fledged one at any rate; for, like the rest of us, he has much to learn in the way of moral education. But that he has many of the instincts of a gentleman is almost universally the opinion of those civilized persons of good intelligence—and manners—who have come to know him intimately. After all, etymologically speaking, generosity and good breeding stand for much the same thing; and, unless the parent stock had been sound from the first, it is not easy to imagine how either of these virtues could have evolved by any possible process of selective improvement. No family was ever reared on a strict policy of give-and-take; nor will such an analysis serve in the last resort for any full account of the genesis of the primitive community.

It is rather what Graham Wallas has termed ‘the great society’ that has come to be merely an economic aggregate—a sort of immense market where human bodies and even souls are on sale. In such a world certain priceless values, that may be summed up in the word love, are in danger of being disregarded as of no material importance. Even religion cannot always avoid taking its colour from so soulless an environment; but such protective mimicry is a sign that the organism cannot any longer rely on its innate powers of self-assertion. In short, religion will be found to be worldly in proportion as it is weak; so that the ‘canny’ note, so far from being fundamentally natural to it, is rather the proof of a degradation from type. For its supreme function is to affirm the real wealth of man to consist in a state of mind at peace with itself; from which it follows that external conditions, apart from intercourse with other minds, cannot unduly affect the heart which is strong and hopeful. Let us see, then, if it be not always true that in normal human society the exchange of services is but incidental to the exchange of goodwill.

A start may be made by distinguishing covenant from contract; though the two words are often used to express much the same thing. Covenant, however, as originally meaning a coming together, has or ought to have a suggestion of voluntariness; which is absent from contract or compact, where the root-idea is that of drawing or fastening together by the application of some external force. Again, the associations of ‘covenant’ are Biblical, and if only for that reason are mostly religious; whereas contract comes straight from Roman law. Thus there would be good historical justification for assigning to covenant the sense of an agreement resting on a moral obligation; whereas contract can be made to stand for a bargain enforceable by law, that is, under a purely penal sanction. Of course in either case a breach of faith is restrained by a fear of consequences; but, morally, there is all the difference between the fear of dishonour and the fear of imprisonment or fine. No doubt the law finds a powerful ally in religion, when the latter reinforces its machinery of terror with the ritual of the conditional curse; and, were primitive religion all fear, as some think, moral considerations might seem superfluous as a makeweight over and above so daunting a twofold threat. Early jurisprudence, however, takes its cursing too seriously to employ it as part of its everyday procedure—let us say, for settling a dispute over a bride-price, or for putting a witness through the mill. Indeed, one might almost maintain that in the unsophisticated type of society the use of the ordeal, or of the oath, is reserved for moral issues—matters touching the spiritual purity and safety of the community; and, further, that questions of property scarcely come under this head at all.

Thus it might be argued with much plausibility that it is morality, rather than law, that primarily appeals to the sanctities, in order to make its injunctions binding. It is sheer community feeling, as it were, that falls back on excommunication as a last means of self-preservation; and, when this veritable judgement of God descends on the sinner, no court is for the most part needed to pronounce and execute the sentence, since to be proscribed is in itself to taste all the bitterness of death. Now Hobbes in his purely legalistic, and hence individualistic, version of the social contract demonstrates, with complete conclusiveness from his own point of view, that the outlaw, on being rejected by his fellows, resumes ipso facto his natural rights as a human wolf; and is therefore perfectly entitled under the law of Nature to render them evil for evil, if he can.2 Such, however, is far from being the real response of the natural man—if the savage is to be taken as his representative—to the dread verdict that declares him by reason of his sin to have become a social leper. Never does he dream of questioning the necessity of a moral situation such as demands of him that he serve as the victim of a purificatory rite. Thus he is far from being the Hobbesian wolf-man, who, when the pack turns on him, dies biting to the last. On the contrary, he is more like Socrates in his prison, acknowledging that, whether it make him or break him, the law is the law, impersonal, inviolable, sacred.

Proceeding, then, to look for moral covenant rather than legal contract as the clue to that co-operative spirit on which every form of joint enterprise, whether social or simply economic, must ultimately depend, we shall find ourselves hampered by the very size of the subject, unless we are content to deal quite summarily with various aspects of it that can be reserved for fuller treatment on their own account. For contract or, better, covenant is as the old writers tried to make out, the basic principle of society as such; so that all the limitless vistas of sociology open out before us, unless we confine our attention to a few typical facts. As it is, we cannot escape from a brief inquiry into the first beginnings of the social organism impossible as it may be to reconstruct them in more than vague outline.

For, in a sense, all human covenanting in its infinite variety is but the outcome and expansion of a primal covenant, whereby some little group of scarcely human folk, moved by some purblind sense or sentiment of association, exchanged unspoken vows to stand or fall together. We may call it unconscious covenant, if we will, to indicate that it is in the main a limitative notion, a mere terminus a quo for the history of society and of morals. Anthropologists usually refer to it as the stage of the horde, being careful to add that such a stage has long been over and done with. For the rest, they find it hard to agree among themselves concerning the hypothetical constitution of this minimal type of early human group-life. Some, for instance, would exalt the authority of a Cyclopean sire, citing none too well authenticated parallels from the social habits of gorillas, with whom they are not likely to have been in personal contact. Others, with whom I would myself rather side, would allow to the united mothers, who would presumably be the more sedentary members of the primitive home, a certain moral control over their offspring, that might go a long way towards preventing domestic anarchy; more especially if the mere male was inclined to be cowed by a sex at once so mysterious and so vocal.

Yet, whatever was the precise way of it, some sort of law and order held them together, and, as the Greek has it, they escaped their own notice being under a covenant. Let it not, however, be hastily concluded that such an original covenant must have amounted to a pure communism. A very thorough-going collectivism, indeed, it may well have been; but that is quite another thing. We may guess that food on the whole was shared, and that wives on the whole were not. As for individualism, it can never have been absent altogether, because the self-assertive instincts are always there, as a racial asset quite as important in its way for purposes of survival as are the instincts making for gregariousness. Indeed, the very need for a covenant arises in a conflict between associative and dissociative tendencies, such as calls for unusual intelligence and will to effect the necessary compromise. In short, even the horde had a government and a moral law, though it may scarcely have been aware of them. Enough for them to know, or rather feel, that no one of them could afford to go back on their custom; for on its maintenance depended all the warmth and intimacy of life, such as life was for those distant forerunners of ours.

On the other hand, conscious covenant can be said to begin with exogamy and the dual organization. With these we enter the historic period and find ourselves face to face with typical savagery, as it can be observed to-day. Now, it is hardly necessary to repeat here the gist of all that was said when these matters were discussed in connexion with the subject of mating. Suffice it to say that some form of intermarriage is the bond and treaty of alliance which creates that composite type of society known as the tribe. It can indeed be shown that from the sexual act itself the ruder peoples derive a symbolism, thereby they can express the idea of a union for better or worse. Through their male and female representatives, as it were, two groups—otherwise inclined to be unfriendly, and to harbour, or at any rate to be suspected of harbouring, designs to blast one another with spells of longer range than their spears—are involved in relations of amity.

Such relations, then, will at least involve a temporary armistice, and in the long run are bound to lead to intercourse and combined action; the results of which, being at once pleasant and profitable, cannot fail to approve themselves as preferable to those of a perpetual dog-fight. It would take too long to inquire how two hordes, possibly strangers to each other, or, no less possibly, portions of an overgrown horde that have drifted apart, but in either case equally convinced that it is indecent to marry in, should come to depend on each other for the satisfaction of their amorous propensities; at that stage probably not very definitely associated with child-bearing. But the theory that the initiation ceremony has evolved out of a hymeneal festival may be accepted, for what it is worth, as a quite reasonable explanation of the fact that the budding bachelors of each moiety are duly coached, examined, and awarded a pass in matrimony, by the elder brothers of those girls of the other moiety whose favours the candidates are looking forward to court.

It needs but to be added that the rite in question, affording as it does a grand excuse for a general meeting, which is apt to be protracted as long as the stock of food lasts, gradually assumes all the characters of a mystery. Nay, a special god may preside over it, who in his tribal capacity rises superior to any clan-totems. Thus as it were from on high he ratifies a pact which transcends once for all the type of covenant founded on mere horde-feeling. For the human society could hardly be conscious of itself, until the taboo on the blood of the mothers necessitated alien mates, bringing ampler relationships in their train.

So much, then, for the matrimonial covenant, as it might almost be called, which, resting literally on the physical tie between the sexes, gradually draws the groups that have this need of one another into ever closer co-operation. Cross-exogamy has a long and troublous history to face before vendetta, another legacy of the horde-condition, is finally dropped as a contradiction in terms to the amenities that go with wife-exchange. As for the consanguine group, though it now ceases to function as an independent organization, it gains in self-consciousness through its very contact with outsiders; being led thereby the more to appreciate the blood-tie in its mystic, as apart from its social, bearing. In thus developing a self-identity through contrast with some other group of the same pattern, it is henceforth bound to take unto itself a name or badge; such as can stand for nothing so much as for the common blood, which is the most obvious source, and hence the most natural symbol, of its common being.

Not to branch off at this point to consider the connexion between totemism and the sentiment of ancestry, let us rather inquire how far the horde, or, as it may be termed when it has come to form part of a larger society, the matrilineal clan, can be made wholly, or chiefly, responsible for that world-wide custom known as the covenant of blood. Now the researches of Trumbull3 and others on this important topic have drawn their illustrative material largely, though not by any means exclusively, from the practices of relatively advanced peoples, Semites, Teutons, Chinese, and so forth, with whom the blood covenant tends to have assumed the character of an inter-individual tie. Correspondingly, a clear formulation is found at this stage of culture to have been given to the principle that the blood is the life; so that it might well seem that the idea of two lives made into one was appreciated for its own sake in thought, before ever it was translated into symbolic action. It may, however, be almost accounted a universal principle of social anthropology that individual are derived from collective modes of traditional behaviour. One might suspect, then, if only on general grounds, that in the background of the inter-individual ceremony lurks some half-forgotten intention to make each party to the covenant an adopted member of the other's clan.

A highly significant fact pointing in this direction is that sometimes the gossips are held by their act to have come under one another's incest-rules. Thus we hear from Tahiti, or again from Brazil, that each man's sisters or daughters are henceforth forbidden to the other's. Or, once more, among the Bedouin, by a taboo that may well date from their pre-Mohammedan days, if a man and a woman are joined by the blood-tie, as occasionally happens, they can never marry.4 On the other hand, it is quite compatible with the logic of the incest-group that members of the same fraternity should engage in mutual wife-lending; so much so indeed that in certain cases—the most notorious being perhaps that of the Dieri and Urabunna of Australia—the practice has developed into a recognized and reputable profession of friendship.5 Similarly, then, from far more civilized quarters such as Madagascar or Timor, it is reported that blood-brothers carry their symbolized unity to the point of treating their wives, and even their children, as common possessions.6 It looks, then, as if we had here an application of some more specific principle than that the blood is the life—an abstraction more likely to have been excogitated after various rituals involving the use of blood had coalesced into some sort of system.

For the doctrine that the blood of the mothers is the life of the clan can claim a certain self-evidence in and for itself Brotherhood by courtesy, after all, must conform to the primal pattern of brotherhood by cohabitation; and the symbiotic group—call it horde, or clan, or family, or food-group, or what you will—plainly affords the prototype of what, with its matri-central origin in view, we may perhaps call bosom-friendship. In the maternal bosom, even in days when the common fire, that subsidiary magnet and symbol of association, had not yet been invented, was found a warmth and security which, insensibly permeating the affections as a whole, enabled a certain warm-heartedness to abet consciousness of kind in establishing the rudiments of a true community. Indeed, the bosom itself suggests the symbolism of milk brotherhood, which no doubt is more immediately reminiscent of fosterage. Greater mystery, however, shrouded the womb. Hence the association of blood with birth, and with its otherwise inscrutable origin, could not but provide the group with its chief emblem, declaring them to be a brotherhood, with a motherhood for its essence.

Let us next notice a development of the sacrament of blood whereby communion and covenant are effected with the dead. As death rites are to form the subject of a later lecture, it will be enough to point out here how the desire to keep in touch with departed relatives is a natural projection and prolongation of clan-loyalty, and thus has the sacredness of the mother's blood for its alternative motive. More directly, however, it would seem to be the outcome of the habit of cutting for the dead. This custom can be simply explained as a paroxysm of self-abandon, such as with the excitable savage is apt to occur, not only under the stress of unmeasured sorrow, but during transports of the tender passion; so that we hear from Polynesia, for instance, of lovers who gash themselves, or one another, by way of outlet for the turbulence of their feelings. Account must also be taken of the well-meaning usage of dosing a sick man, from the freshly opened vein of some strong and healthy kinsman, with blood that is either drunk, or transfused, or simply rubbed on—alternatives which show that physiological considerations enter but vaguely into the matter. By a contamination, then, of these two distinct practices it might come to appear that the self-lacerations by the grave-side could somehow serve to restore the dead to some sort of life, if not exactly to this.

As for an interpretation in terms of communion or covenant, it should be observed in the first place that savages given to cutting for the dead, such as the Australians, are familiar with the notion of the blood-covenant as applying to the living; so that, for example, before an avenging party starts on its grim errand, the clansmen smear their thighs with each other's blood, to signify that they take up their duty as one man.7 In the next place, whereas the mourners freely spend their blood on a dead body, which has no means of returning the compliment in kind, they proceed to anoint themselves, in ways that need not be specified, with emanations redolent of mortality such as all too sufficiently represent the other party to the transaction. Communion, then, is certainly symbolized, and in all probability covenant as well, if only by way of securing that the ghost shall deal gently with those who have done their best by him. Yet, proleptically at all events, this is ancestor-worship in the making. For a covenant has been made between the moieties of one communion, which is however no longer wholly of this earth, but brings the human and the trans-human planes into a mystic relation, symbolized by that common blood which in its turn stands for the undying life of the kin.8

Yet another type of the blood-rite having a certain affinity with covenant may also be noticed quite briefly, since it has already been examined in connexion with the subject of food. When the totemite solemnly slays and eats his totem, he is almost certainly trying to make fiends with it, or at any rate to avert its wrath as an unwilling contributor to the tribal food-supply. Here, then, we have another attempt to establish satisfactory relations between Man and a transhuman power. The means employed are certainly symbolic, and may be characterized as sacramental, or merely as diplomatic, according as we do or do not appreciate the sincerity of the savage in wanting at one and the same time to honour and to eat those who are of his own kin, at least in name. For in this case it is not Man who sheds his own blood, as in the rite which binds him to the dead. The incidental costs of the contract fall entirely on the totem. For the principle of vicarious suffering cannot but be involved, so long as both parties do not exchange blood for blood, human-fashion; and this indeed is out of the question in negotiating either with the ghost-world, or with a given species of animals or plants. In the latter case, then, Man assigns himself the easier part.

This is at any rate true of Man so far as he is represented by the tribe, as contrasted with the particular group that acts as go-between when this or that totem is approached. As a body, the human society unblushingly preys on its associates in the shape of the local fauna and flora; who, barring the snakes, have small chance of getting back their own. In Australia, at all events, there is no collective gesture of good feeling comparable with that of the Ainu, who, although no totemists, admit the baby bear to milk-brotherhood, by causing it to be suckled by the women, before it is ceremonially slain in order that it may inform the bears in general that the Ainu are all for tender relations on both sides.9 Thus they at least give something in return, in the form of this milk-tribute levied on the tribal mothers; whereas, among the Arunta, pains of martyrdom on the human side fall wholly on the ambassador, who must normally abstain, if a Kangaroo, from indulging in that delicacy. So too it is more especially the representative on the animal side, namely, the particular animal that is ritually slain and eaten, which is victimized at the apparent expense of his kind; since on the face of it they are being simply invited to prosper and multiply, no inauspicious reference being made to whatever butcher's work may lie in the offing. Thus to some extent the vicarious principle is applied impartially to both parties; being indeed one that lies at the very foundation of primitive group-life, so that in any dealings between separate kins the law of collective responsibility is observed in all its rigour. Hence, according to the ethics of savagery, the cost of coming to terms is fairly met as between the human and non-human societies concerned, if their agents severally provide the personal securities which the covenant demands by way of earnest and handsel.

To make the point clearer, let us turn to a transaction of quite another order. Though it has an economic purpose, and takes place between two sets of human beings, it nevertheless affords an instructive parallel, as showing what disabilities are involved in the mutual sacrosanctity of envoys. Taplin in his account of the Narrinyeri of South Australia—a people, I may add, of whom I have myself had a glimpse in the flesh—describes a curious custom known as ngia ngiampe, which crucially illustrates the genesis of the commercial traveller.10 This form of covenant turns on the exchange of identities symbolized by birth-tokens—‘twins’ as they would be called in Uganda—in the shape of navel strings that have been preserved so as to fulfil the function of what is generally known as an ‘external soul’. Their significant connexion with the mother should be noticed as an indication of the ultimate meaning of the tie which binds the owners to their group. Nevertheless it is actually the father—no doubt because he has better opportunities of coming into contact with strangers—who manages to swap the birth-token of one of his sons with some alien father similarly provided. Thereupon, two groups whose desires for barter have hitherto been curtailed by the exigencies of the ‘silent trade’, as it is termed—that is to say, have been forced by mutual suspicion to dump their spare products alternately in some neutral spot, without any power of arranging a tariff equitable to both parties—have found accredited agents. Henceforth the two youths can act as carriers and middlemen for their respective societies, for the good reason that a man is perfectly safe in communing with his alter ego.

But mark the inexorable strictness of savage logic. So completely taboo have they now become to one another that they cannot interchange a word; though no doubt they have their full share of the primitive faculty of making the most of dumb show. In short, the silent trade has but entered on a new phase of itself, though with far better prospects of coming to an understanding. Meanwhile, we have here a fresh and independent example of a vicarious sacrifice of personal comfort, entailed by serving in the public interest as a medium for symbolizing the unselfishness of a proffered friendship. ‘I put my very life in your hands to use as you will’ is the implicit meaning of the gesture with the birth-token. True, no god definable as such is there to bear witness to the act of self-surrender. Yet the mystery of it is duly felt; and its mana, or grace, first envelops the actual participants in an atmosphere of inhibiting and chastening awe, and then spreads to their principals, the two congruent sections of humanity. Thus, all in their several ways are aware of their contract as a veritable covenant; since it signifies that it is in accordance with brotherly love to entertain strangers, and that such love ‘worketh no ill’.

Passing on to review other facts which we should be liable to class off-hand as of the economic order, because, unlike blood, of which the strictly commercial value is slight, other media of symbolic exchange are employed, such as have an obvious material value in their own right, let us first consider the gift of food; because its suitability to express the offer of a disinterested friendship can hardly be challenged, even by the doughtiest champion of do ut des as a principle of enlightened selfishness. A great deal has been written about commensality as an outstanding emblem of communion, and correspondingly of covenant; and the agape, or love-feast, has a long history. We have only to think of some primeval fire-circle licking its chops over some heaven-sent supper to find the prototype of that collective satisfaction. It is possible, however, that too little attention has been paid to the dynamic of the process, of which the communal meal symbolizes the consummation. The ambivalence of the sacred would seem always to demand a prior humiliation as the price of release. It is, so to speak, the very strain of the hunting that conditions the final joy of being filled. So, too, in the typical sacrifice the emotional pendulum swings from the tragedy of the victim's death to the blessing thereby attained, even though by vicarious purchase. Thus, as we have just seen, a ban of silence is typical of the taboo condition, which in the first instance exercises a paralysing effect on the faculties. The shock of breaking with the past is at first chiefly felt as a passive resistance to it; until fuller habituation to the inward control brings with it a sense of self-mastery, and so a heightened zest for fresh activity.

Thus in Australia the gift of food is a regular sign of a ceremony completed, a spiritual promotion won. For instance, when the earlier stage of his initiation reaches its climax among the Arunta, the novice makes a formal offering of food to those elder men who have superintended his induction, in order to lift the ban of silence that has hitherto lain between them;11 and exactly the same thing happens after the Engwura ceremony, which later on in his life confirms him in his full degree of Doctor of Divinity.12 Or, again, the widow, who during the season of mourning is more or less forbidden the use of her tongue—though, fortunately for her repressions, she can indulge in gesture-language—removes the ban by making a gift of food to her deceased husband's tribal brothers, as well as to his sons, since they too are of the other phratry.13

Conversely, the initiative in neutralizing the taboo may be taken by the other party, who nevertheless employs the same ritual means of restoring ordinary relations. Thus when a tooth is knocked out it is the operator, not his youthful victim, who must give the food14—a curious reversal of the normal procedure. But enough has perhaps been said to show how among very simple folk, who almost certainly could not explain the meaning of their crude symbolism in so many words, the food-rite has its piacular as well as its communial side. It is at once retrospectively remedial and prospectively invigorating, since it develops out of a tension, which is thereafter mitigated into an ease enjoyable for its own sake.

Let us, then, always bear in mind this dual aspect of the food-rite, or indeed of covenant in any of its symbolic forms. The weight of the responsibility involved must be suggested side by side with, and in a sense before, the emergent sense of power can be welcomed; since the human soul must fear a little before it can hope much. Thus whatever kind of faith-token be used, it is on the one hand instinct with a conditional curse, and on the other hand charged with a beneficent energy, a positive effluence of divinity. The sacred meat or drink will choke the sinner, as assuredly as it will sustain the man whose heart is pure of offence. Nay, the close analogy between the blood-covenant and the food-covenant is better appreciated, if we remember that a ritual of tasting can apply equally to both. To pledge oneself by drinking blood is exactly on a par with eating sacred meat or bread, inasmuch as in either case one's vow becomes part of one's very substance. Hence it is bound to agree, or to disagree, with the vital economy according as one's purpose is true or false. Thus to drink the covenant together gives each a purchase on the other's very heart and soul; seeing that the blood, or the wine that later on becomes a substitute for it—the two being sometimes intermixed, as by our Teutonic forefathers—will of itself avenge a breach of faith.15 Even when the custom has degenerated into a mere drinking of healths, there lingers a feeling that a truce to all knavery is the surest way of promoting a mutual, or rather a common, good luck.

By an almost insensible transition, we are led on from the gift of food or drink to consider how far the exchange of other material possessions may stand for a commerce of immortal souls, merely disguised as perishable goods. Now it is obvious that many objects can more or less appropriately signify a plighted troth, as in the folk-stories in which the jewel given in love loses its lustre, or the flower fades, or the ring rusts or breaks, when one or the other partner has proved unfaithful in absence. Indeed, a whole monograph might be devoted to the symbolism of the ring, with its suggestion of an endless and indivisible fastening. Here, however, it will be more to the point to note how a transference of personality is naturally betokened by gifts of a certain type. An example is the lock of hair which, together with certain immaterial, yet none the less shareable, belongings, such as the image or the name, has the power of evoking a vision of its owner; whence, by the way, its appeal to those who practise evil magic, or the gentler, if even so somewhat shady, art of manufacturing love spells. Meanwhile, anything that has been in close association with the body or, as we say, the ‘person’, will do well enough to represent its proprietor; so that, for instance, a pin thrown into the wishing-well, or a rag hung up on a bush by its side, will serve to effect contact with the spiritual influence resident therein.

By parity of reasoning, therefore, all effects that can, by the widest sweep of the primitive imagination, be brought under the head of personalty, which after all is but personality reduced to legal language, may stand for the man himself. So faithfully indeed does the savage interpret this principle that, to his own economic disadvantage, he refuses to profit by a dead man's goods, and would rather abandon them. This he does partly, it may be, in order that they may provide the ghost with the makings of a comfortable existence in the hereafter; but partly too, and perhaps primarily, because, as the Australian puts it, the ‘smell’ of their late possessor is bound to cling to them for good and all.16 Not to enlarge further on so well-worn a topic, my property as my extended self cannot be handed over to another man without something of myself accompanying the conveyance. It follows that, if he is an enemy, I can haunt him and generally badger him out of his life; unless indeed he can turn the tables on me by the relative superiority of his counter-magic. But it follows no less that, if he is a friend, I become his spiritual ally. Like the Melanesian who tipped his arrow with the bones for which a departed brother had no longer any use, he must henceforth say ‘I and my brother’, and not simple ‘I’, when taking credit for some deed of valour.17 My personality, my goodwill, my luck, my blessings—for the romance of friendship recks little of such fine-drawn distinctions—goes with the bearer of my free offering; not because of its intrinsic worth, since any oddment will do as a keepsake, but because, like the gift of blood, it too comes from my heart.

Thus the love-token and the faith-token have one and the same psychological origin; both alike being incompatible with a purely one-sided relation, and only acquiring their full significance when there is complete reciprocity of fellow-feeling. Each is essentially the gesture of a well-wisher, and there is only this difference between them that, in the case of the faith-token, there is a more explicit feeling between the parties that something evil will happen, if the spirit of the transaction be not respected on both sides. This comes out very clearly in that mutual lending of churinga—the distinction between loan and gift being irrelevant as regards the religious and moral significance of the act—which takes place between different local groups in Central Australia, when one or the other is ‘down on its luck’ and needs to borrow a little inspiration from its more fortunate neighbours.18 These bull-roarers of wood and stone which are associated with the ancestral spirits are the most precious of luck-bringers, though primarily for the several totemites concerned, who alone understand the secret of their peculiar markings, and hence of their connexion with particular ancestors and their doings. Hence they are either laid by safely in a carefully hidden store-house near the usual camping-ground of the group that owns them; or, if they happen to pay a visit in a more or less representative body to another group, they are apt to carry some of their churinga along with them, so that spiritual help may be always at hand. In the latter case the visitors stack the sacred objects somewhere well under cover in the alien camp; and it is worth noticing that none of those bickerings which so frequently arise when two groups intermingle are allowed to occur in the vicinity of the chosen spot, because the churinga are all for peace and friendship and would incontinently blast offenders against the decencies.19

How much, then, must it mean both to givers and receivers, when a group consents to part temporarily with its veritable Lares and Penates, in order that they may abide with the stranger, and impart to him their peculiar favours. No wonder that both the lending and the returning are celebrated with the utmost formality; those who have benefited acknowledging their debt in the words: ‘We return your great churinga which have made us glad.’20 This example has all the more value as a primitive commentary on the text, ‘Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother’, because it relates to a collective manifestation of good feeling in a state of society in which charity not only begins at home, but tends to go no farther. To make strangers free of your own intimate sanctities is an effort of missionary enterprise that does credit to the savage mind; which, however dimly, perceives that abroad no less than at home they can convey a blessing, while correspondingly placing a ban on all strife. Two societies thus participating in a common luck, or grace, have virtually entered into a covenant, of which the purpose and outcome can be calculated in terms of purely spiritual profit.

The most striking illustration, however, of a treaty of friendship, sealed by mutual gifts of a mystic and noncommercial order, is afforded by the kula custom of the Trobrianders, and other inhabitants of a large circle of islands to the east of New Guinea. In his Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Dr. Malinowski a while ago fascinated the anthropological world with his sympathetic analysis of their strange doings; and Dr. Fortune's more recent observations, conducted from another point of vantage, confirm the original interpretation in all essentials.21 The cream of the discovery was that, although the ceaseless round of calls in which these hardy navigators indulge superficially resembles a series of trading voyages, in reality, as Dr. Malinowski puts it, the Economic Man is not to be found in Melanesia. The prime object of the institution turns out to be the perpetual renewal of a covenant in the full sacramental sense of the word. Somewhat as in the case of the churinga that are lent for a time in order to communicate a grace, so two sets of ceremonial objects—red-shell necklaces that move clock-wise, and white-shell armlets that move in the opposite direction—are passed on by canoe-post from island to island; so that at any given point of the circuit the two types meet, and can be exchanged. The giving and taking between the temporary beneficiaries involve a certain interval of time, during which as it were a state of tension—a business man would call it credit—exists between the parties, until it is pleasantly resolved by return of the favour.

Even so no appearance of haggling must lend a false colour to this period of spiritual suspense. ‘He conducts his kula as if it were barter’ is the worst reproach under which a gentleman of those parts could labour. At most, he may venture on a little irony, in order to stir up his friend to an honourable rivalry. ‘Here is some food left over’, he says, making over some priceless luck-bringer of a necklace, and adds, ‘You perhaps have no arm-shells’—a disparaging suggestion which is best parried by repaying the compliment with all due dispatch. Sometimes, too, more than one friend may covet a particular amulet, and this gives rise to an honourable rivalry between the pair, which takes the form of solicitory gifts; such professions of regard being, however, suitably recompensed. Or, again, it is permissible to use private spells of one's own to render another ‘soft’, that is, of a giving disposition. Naturally, the best people take a prominent part in such proceedings; and it is perhaps chiefly the captain's part to carry on his kula while the crew do some quiet trade on their own sordid account. Apart from an inter-insular exchange of courtesies, however, which no doubt provides the grander and more spectacular occasion, persons of quality within the same island pass on the luck to one another. Indeed, we hear of more than a hundred and fifty shell-ornaments changing hands at one and the same time; while at such a moment the wives must be busy in making presents to one another too.

Thus on all sides there is a certain festal excitement and desire to make every one happy. How, then, are we to class the kula objects? ‘They make our minds good’, is all the light that the natives can throw on the matter. ‘Fetishes’ will certainly not do; ‘amulets’ may just do; ‘valuables’ would miss the real point of their preciousness; ‘money’ or ‘currency’ is just a vulgar error, to which only those are liable who neglect the imponderables—the sanctities and the sacraments—which form the realities that hold the primitive society together. Indeed, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that gold, that natural symbol of everlastingness, started its career as an imponderable, ere ever it descended to the level of a medium of commercial exchange; and there may be those who think it high time that it should revert to its original status.

One more instance must suffice of the gift-covenant as still pertaining on the whole to sacrament, though already well on its way towards consensual contract as it bears on economics. Much has been written about the potlatch of the North-west Coast of America, and some accounts lay all the stress on the extravagant lengths to which such a competitive display of wealth, disguised as generosity, may be carried. Certain it is that each lavish distribution of presents places on the various recipients the onus of making larger return-gifts, unless they would be severally shamed; so that, on the assumption that sheer rivalry between clans and their chiefs is at the bottom of the business, it begins to look very like a game of beggar-or-outshine-my-neighbour. Indeed, it must be admitted that, when it comes to destroying property, as a challenge to the other party to show an even loftier contempt for stinginess, the pursuit of honour has taken a wrong turn; and it is no sufficient excuse that, in order to afford such grand doings, all concerned may have to work much harder than they would otherwise have thought of doing.

Even so we must try to do full justice to the primitive belief lurking at the back of this custom. It is one that will also account for all that pomp and profusion which in the middle religions attend some great king's offering to his gods. Holiness and wealth are held to go together, there being no little confusion as to which is cause and which consequence. Thus, in effect, a potlatch claims that the giver has grace and to spare; and that, on the part of the supernatural powers with which, he is in touch, he defies the world to produce their superiors. It is, in fact, something like that pitting of mana against mana which we get in the Eskimo singing-combat so called, in which withering imprecations are exchanged. Or, again, it is like the gambling game in which the savage stakes his all on his private interest with the spirits. But these practices border on evil magic, since the primary intention is to damage. In the potlatch, on the other hand, there is at least a hint of the higher principle that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and that Heaven is with those who act in this spirit, whether they initiate the giving, or are provoked by a noble emulation to give more in return. Hence we need not decry an ideal which finds its appropriate symbol in the gesture of benevolence, even if human weakness makes it an occasion of boasting, and calls upon the very gods to bear witness to its boast; for to be righteous without self-righteousness is perhaps the hardest and last lesson to be learnt by those who struggle up the long hill of moral endeavour.

In this sketch of the early history of covenant many points of interest had perforce to be passed by—for instance, the significance of circumcision as a form of the blood-covenant—an interpretation that might account for its occurrence in the Australian initiation, as providing at once a symbol of marriage and a tie between the intermarrying phratries; or, again, the function of covenant in peace-making ceremonies, carrying out its fundamental idea that all peace is ultimately a peace of God, who is therefore bound to punish those who profane and defile it. But enough has perhaps been said to show that, despite so-called ‘magical’ accompaniments, which amount to no more than a material symbolism misread, the covenant of blood or of gift is all along, in its underlying motive, a covenant of grace. As for contract, perhaps it has been found necessary for the sake of clearness to over-stress the distinction between the religious and the legal attitudes; since it must not be forgotten that, for primitive law at least, contract rests on oath, and, when such oaths are broken, men die of very fear. The real contrast, then, is with the legal contract as it merely subserves the purposes of the market. For covenant stands for the fact that ‘the gift of God cannot be purchased with money’. Those who engage in it thereby engage also to ‘follow after charity and desire spiritual gifts’. I have tried, then, to show that primitive humanity has at least some glimpse of this aspect of the sacramental principle.

  • 1.

    Sir A. Lyall, Asiatic Studies, ii. 172.

  • 2.

    T. Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II, ch. 20.

  • 3.

    H. C. Trumbull, The Blood Covenant; cf. E. S. Hartland, The Legend of Perseus, vol. ii.

  • 4.

    See Trumbull, op. cit. 55–6.

  • 5.

    See Howitt, op. cit. 179 (Dieri); Spencer and Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, 62 (Urabunna).

  • 6.

    See Trumbull, op. cit. 44–8, 54.

  • 7.

    Spencer and Gillen, The Arunta, ii. 448.

  • 8.

    Howitt, op. cit. 459, 468, 471.

  • 9.

    See Sir J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough3, viii. 180 f.

  • 10.

    G. Taplin in J. D. Wood's The Native Tribes of S. Australia, 32 f.

  • 11.

    Spencer and Gillen; The Arunta, i. 211, 214.

  • 12.

    Ibid. 302.

  • 13.

    Ibid. ii. 434.

  • 14.

    Ibid. 478.

  • 15.

    Hartland, op. cit. ii. 253 n.

  • 16.

    Cf. Howitt, op. cit. 361.

  • 17.

    Codrington, op. cit. 309 n.

  • 18.

    See Spencer and Gillen, op. cit. i. 135 f.

  • 19.

    Spencer and Gillen, Across Australia, ii. 262.

  • 20.

    Spencer and Gillen, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, 165.

  • 21.

    See R. F. Fortune, Sorcerers of Dobu.