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The Worship of Nature

1923 to 1925
University of Edinburgh

For James George Frazer modern science is just another religion, nothing other than a manifestation of that universal desire to explain natural phenomena via story and myth. Both science and religion engage in ‘a gradual process of simplification and unification’, he says. They both seek a harmony and unity of all forces. Just as polytheism in many parts of the world has been reduced to monotheism over the years—where all of the ‘forces’ that were previously divided up among many gods were ultimately united in one all-powerful God—so too has contemporary science constantly attempted to reduce the multiforces it is studying into one singular ‘force’. For example, chemists in the early twentieth century argued over whether all of the elements of the periodic table were ultimately reducible to hydrogen. For Frazer, this is proof that scientific and religious minds are identical.

However, as controversial a claim as that might have been for the anthropologist to open with in his 1923 lecture series, Frazer does not elaborate upon it any further. Instead, his Gifford Lectures are spent looking at that ‘universal desire’ for ‘simplification and unification’ as it manifests itself within historical and contemporary religious practices.

Frazer’s Gifford Lectures, entitled ‘Worship of Nature’, delve into a 5,000-year history of Sky-, Earth- and Sun-worship. The lectures include a massive compendium of facts—a catalogue of religious practices, rituals and beliefs compiled from a mixture of classical texts, ancient memoirs and missionary notes. Throughout, Frazer argues that the vast majority of religious people, regardless of whether they were born millennia ago or in the present century, worship similar gods because they perceive similar natural phenomena.

Frazer sets up his lectures by distinguishing between two types of worship that he believes are ubiquitous: the worship of nature and the worship of the dead (namely, ‘ancestor’-worship). His lectures focus on the former. Nature-worship is largely based on the ‘personification of nature’ in which ‘whether animate, or inanimate, natural phenomena are analogous to man in their nature, though often far superior to him in power’. Frazer’s overriding thesis is that throughout history humans have been prone to anthropomorphize the natural world. We assume that because we are as we are, natural forces in the world can only be explicable as the products of ‘forces’ or ‘gods’ that have personality traits similar to our own. In particular, Frazer’s lectures deal with three forms of anthropomorphized nature-worship: Sky-worship, Earth-worship, and Sun-worship.

According to Frazer, analysing the mythology of the Vedic gods is most useful in understanding contemporary religious worship because it is the ‘germ’ of much contemporary Indian Hinduism, which lays claim to being one of the last world religions still engaged in pantheism. Among Vedic Indians, two sky gods—Dyaus and Varuna—figure prominently in the pantheon. In many ways they are analogous to the Greek gods Zeus and Jupiter, who figure prominently in the Greek pantheon, because both Vedic and Greek cultures were apt to personify their gods by giving them human-like characteristics. Dyaus is described as ‘beneficent, wise’ and a promoter of righteousness, while Varuna is called the ‘Encompasser’—the all-knowing, omniscient being. Zeus, too, was considered to be all-knowing and, at times, beneficent and wise. Both cultures also endowed their Sky-gods with killer-qualities, a fact most vividly seen in the stories of Zeus murdering his father and eating his child in order to secure his throne forever. These murderous tendencies, common to Sky-gods in Vedic, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese and other cultures show that humans tend to give their gods ‘anthropomorphic’ qualities, Frazer argues, because it is an easy means of explaining physical phenomena in terms of personality traits. For example, catastrophic lightning was associated with an angry Zeus.

Frazer also observes important forms of Sun-worship in Africa to further prove the personification thesis. Various African groups associate the Sun with omniscience and supreme power, just as did their ‘civilised’ neighbours in the ancient past. For example, for Ila-speaking people in northern Rhodesia (today Zambia) the Sky-god Leza was considered ‘not a simple personification of natural forces, but a moral being, a personal god’. Yet, ‘this does not always mean “goodness”’, Frazer notes. ‘Leza’s power also includes the power to cause death or condemn’. This observation leads Frazer to argue ‘the analogy between this African Sky-god and the great Aryan Sky-god, of whom Zeus is the most familiar type, appears to be complete’.

In drawing his comparisons between past and present religious worship, Frazer controversially distinguishes between African (and Dravidian) practices, which he calls ‘savage’, and the ‘civilised’ practices of the classical Aryan world and its progeny. Although Frazer’s work does argue that the two groups—‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’—are much more similar to one another than is often assumed in the early twentieth century, he fails to clarify what he actually means by ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilised’. In large part, Frazer simply seems to have thought that all Africans and some rural Indian groups are ‘savages’ by nature—a reflection, perhaps, of the anthropologist’s upbringing and schooling in colonial Britain. This harsh vernacular may also be the result of Frazer relying so heavily upon notes and details taken from British Christian missionaries who were engaged in evangelising and proselytising while recording the ‘savage’ practices they reported to him.

That said, Frazer does spend a great deal of time elaborating upon African rituals, and notes that Africa contains some of the oldest religious traditions in the world. Indeed, he argues that many Hebrew and Christian myths are possibly of African origin. In particular, he focuses on the story of Creation, or Genesis, to prove his point. The stereotypical view among missionaries at the time would have been that any similarity between Genesis-like stories told in African communities and ones told in Christian communities in Europe would have necessarily been the result of Africans diluting and modifying missionary stories they had heard somewhere. Frazer rejects this view. He argues the stories of the ‘origin of man’ and the ‘origin of death’ are so widespread and so deeply rooted among differing ‘tribes’ in the British colonies that they could not possibly be the product of European myths recently modified. The story of Genesis that Frazer reports as being prevalent in the British colonies almost always includes a serpent that represents ‘immortality’ and a forbidden fruit (or some other forbidden object) that represents ‘mortality’. In the Hebrew version, the fruit maintains its symbolism but the serpent loses its attachment to ‘immortality’. That suggests to Frazer that Hebrews modified what was originally an African myth rather than the other way around. ‘It is conceivable that the Hebrews learned the story from negroes with whom they may have conversed during their long sojourn in Egypt. Certainly negroes appear to have been settled in Egypt as early as the time of the 12th Dynasty (about 2200 to 2000 B.C.), long before the traditional servitude of the Israelites in that country. The faces of the Egyptians on monuments of the Middle Kingdom are thought to exhibit approximations to the negro type, pointing to a mixture of the two races; nay it is even surmised that negro blood may have flowed in the veins of the royal family, which was of southern extraction. There is therefore no inherent extravagance in the supposition that the Hebrews may have borrowed the barbarous myth of the Fall of Man from the barbarous negroes, with whom they may have toiled side by side in the burning sun under the lash of Egyptian taskmasters. In favour of an African origin of the myth it may be observed that the explanation of the supposed immortality of serpents, which probably formed the kernel of the story in its original form, has been preserved in several African versions, while it has been wholly lost in the Hebrew version; from which it is natural to infer that the African versions are older and nearer to the original than the corresponding, but incomplete, narrative in Genesis’.

In his lectures Frazer includes detailed accounts of Earth- and Sun-worship in both ancient and contemporary cultures. Whereas the Sky was often deified as an omniscient male, Earth was often deified as a life-giving woman. Frazer highlights how Terra Mater, or ‘Mother Earth’, was presented with sacrifices during various agricultural seasons in numerous religious societies. For example, in contemporary Hinduism the Dharti Mata (Mother Earth) is worshipped at the commencement of the sowing season and at marriages and childbirth—a sign of her role in promoting fertility. Meanwhile, in an ‘uncivilized’ Dravidian practice in central India, the ‘Khonds of Orissa’ apparently used human sacrifices to the Earth-goddess to ensure the fertility of their fields. Frazer notes that the rite is now performed with ‘animals rather than humans’.

In general, Earth-goddesses are also represented as guardians against any form of ‘violence’ or bloodshed. When murder, killings or bloody injuries take place, sacrifices are presented to the goddess in order to appease her and to prevent her from expressing her anger by spoiling the growing season or the crops. Similarly, in a Chinese tradition, the Earth-god (here a male) was the personified version of the yin—the dark force who, when angered, was responsible for eclipses, inundations and unseasonable weather. Appropriately, he was invoked also at deaths and executions.

The lecture concludes with an account of Sun-worship across the globe, which is apparently nowhere near ‘as diffuse as we commonly believe’. It is here that Frazer makes yet another controversial claim regarding ‘savage Africans’, noting that while Sun-worship is weak almost everywhere, it is particularly absent in Africa, assuming, of course, as Frazer did, that we exclude from ‘Africa’ any consideration of ancient Egypt’s special sun-religion invoked by Amenophis the Fourth, who reigned 1380 to 1362 B.C. with his wife, Nefrotete; the pair instituted an unprecedented, and now famous, Sun-religion during the 18th Dynasty, although Nefrotete abolished it following her husband’s death. In speculating upon why a lack of Sun-worship exists in ‘black’ Africa, however, Frazer writes: ‘Perhaps the regular and peaceful movement of the sun in the heavens, by lacking the element of the sudden, the terrible, and the unforeseen, disqualifies it for being an object of interest to the simple savage, whose attention is excited and whose emotions are stirred rather by those events which occur at irregular intervals, which threaten his existence, and which by no means at his disposal enable him to predict’.

Frazer then describes how the various nations he regards as so clearly ‘civilised’ also lack Sun-worship in their respective rituals. Indeed, ‘the Greeks personified and worshipped the Sun under his proper name Helios, but in general they paid little attention to him’, while ‘the traces of a native worship of the Sun are even fewer and fainter among the ancient Romans than among the ancient Greeks’. When it comes to the ancient Semites, whom Frazer deemed among the most ‘civilized’ of societies, ‘there is nothing to suggest that in their nomadic life, the Israelites were worshippers of the Sun; and even after they had settled in Palestine positive evidence of such a worship is lacking before the times of the kings’. This section ends with a description of the medieval ‘Christian fathers’ who fought to stamp out whatever Sun-worship remained in the Roman kingdom by replacing 25 December—traditionally a day set aside for a Sun-worship festival in the city—with the commemoration of the birth of Christ, or ‘Christmas’ (which had originally been held 6 January). Oddly, Frazer does not seem to reflect upon the fact that, by his own account, Christians in Europe—a group he categorizes as the ‘most civilized’ of societies—only succeeded in becoming ‘civilised’ by stamping out Sun-worship, rather than by revelling in it, as he supposes ‘simple’ Africans should do in order to become more ‘civilised’.

  • Josipa Petrunic, University of Edinburgh