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Sacraments of Simple Folk

1930 to 1932
University of St. Andrews

In Sacraments of Simple Folk, Marett explores sacraments anthropologically and defines them ‘as any rite which by way of sanction or positive blessing invests a natural function with a supernatural authority of its own’. He further says that by ‘ritual’, an anthropologist understands an organized technique, approved by the society concerned, for dealing with the incalculable element in any critical situation of human life. Of all ritual forms, though, the sacrament is the most dynamic, coming to the aid of a given activity, at the point of which it finds itself baffled by nature in the shape of the contradictions of the sense world.

Having situated his text within an anthropological framework, in the remainder of his work Marett examines particular natural rituals: eating, fighting, mating, educating, ruling, judging, covenanting, healing and dying. In regards to eating, Marett observes that amid the uncertainties of the food quest, the savage has recourse to sacramental rites that symbolize her desire to be at one with the powers to which she looks for her ‘daily bread’. Typical are those rites of multiplication involving a solemn eating of the totem. This is doubtless to be interpreted as an act of communion, or rather atonement, since the point of so scrupulous an eating would seem to be to express an apology for a none-too-scrupulous killing.

As for fighting, Marett posits that 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 life for a life regulates intercourse and eventually makes for a rude kind of justice.

Finally, regarding relations with the stranger, war serves as a nation-making force, and despite ebullitions of bloodlust, is a school of the preliminary virtues.

In mating, the author finds that the history of marriage is largely bound up with taboos that keep apart those too near in blood to unite. Sexual love, which at first the savage fails to connect with childbearing, is tolerated primarily as a means of inter-clan alliance. This fact may account for the expiatory aspect so strongly marked in primitive rites of marriage, as if its prime object were to avert ill will between the parties concerned rather than to promote a common blessing.

Next, in chapter 5, Marett addresses education and posits that even before the physiology of paternity is understood, the savage fully realizes the importance of maintaining the strength of the home group. More specifically, the early care of the young belongs largely to the mother, though in the couvades the father has to bear his share of the resulting taboos. As for the adolescent, he has to face an initiation which is tribal, not a domestic affair, and is initiated into mysteries which proclaim the sacredness of the moral code henceforth incumbent on him.

From education, the author states that social cohesion must always depend on the effective exercise of authority, which in the rudimentary state is essentially theocratic. If centralization of a community proceeds, the priest-king comes into being, whose sacerdotal functions reinforce his secular activities in all sorts of ways. As representing the luck of the community, however, the ruler tends to be hampered by the endless taboos to which he is subject, while he may have to die prematurely so as to transmit his sacredness unimpaired.

Marett finds that the slow and difficult establishment of the judicial method of settling disputes has been greatly furthered by the belief that behind the decisions of the human tribunal lies ‘a judgment of God’. Certain offences have always counted as sins rather than mere crimes against the community, e.g., incest, the shedding of kinly blood and witchcraft, and have been treated as pollutions bringing a curse on all unless the sinner is removed by excommunication or death. Other wrongs such as homicide, theft and adultery at first are righted in rather haphazard fashion under a system of so-called private justice.

Next, the author argues that primitive religion has helped to establish the sanctity of covenant or contract in two ways. First, faithlessness is threatened with a conditional curse. Second, an exchange of gifts or services is valued, quite apart from considerations of profit, as a communion on par with the blood of the covenant. By such a giving of oneself to another in all goodwill, a sort of enlargement of the personality is brought about. From covenanting, Marett turns to healing and suggests that the health of body and of mind are so related that, although the so-called medicine-man may be deficient in physical science, his function as a soul-doctor has to be treated as on the whole salutary, given the psychological condition of his patients. Accidentally, then, many methods of expelling evil, including blood-letting, purging, trephining and so on have a physical no less than a moral effect.

Finally, the author discusses death. He argues that in face of the supreme mystery of death, primitive religion, from prehistoric times onwards, has by means of funeral rites given various expressions to a steadfast faith in the reality of a future life. A certain conflict is to be noted between a fear of the contagion of death as represented by corpse or ghost and an affectionate desire to further the welfare of the departed in whatever abode he is supposed to dwell. On the whole, however, love prevails, and it is characteristic of the primitive community that it believes itself to be in friendly touch with ancestral spirits whose semi-divine powers are always at the disposal of the tribe if proper respect is paid to their wishes. Thus, religion converts death itself into a source of hope and comfort.

Contributor(s)
  • Kelly Van Andel, University of Glasgow