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Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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real connection." And he instances the case of the in-
habitants of the City of Ephesus, who laid down a rope,
seven furlongs in length, from the City to the temple of
Artemis, in order to place the former under the protection
of the latter! We should lay down a telephone wire, and
consider that we established a much more efficient con-
nection; but in the beginning, and quite naturally, men,
like children, rely on surface associations. Among the
Dyaks of Borneo,' when the men are away fighting,

1 For an excellent account of the relation of Magic to Religion see
W. McDougall, Social Psychology (1908), pp. 317-320.

2 Primitive Culture, vol. i, p. 106.

3 See The Golden Bough, i, 127.



the women must use a sort of telepathic magic in order to
safeguard them — that is, they must themselves rise early
and keep awake all day (lest darkness and sleep should
give advantage to the enemy); they must not oil their
hair (lest their husbands should make any slips) ; they must
eat sparingly and put aside rice at every meal (so that
the men may not want for food). And so on. Similar
superstitions are common. But they gradually lead to
a little thought, and then to a little more, and so to
the discovery of actual and provable influences. Perhaps
one day the cord connecting the temple with Ephesus
was drawn tight and it was found that messages could
be, by tapping, transmitted along it. That way lay the
discovery of a fact. In an age which worshiped fer-
tility, whether in mankind or animals. Twins were ever
counted especially blest, and were credited with a magic
power. (The Constellation of the Twins was thought
peculiarly lucky.) Perhaps after a time it was discovered
that twins sometimes run in families, and in such cases really
do bring fertility with them. In cattle it is known nowa-
days that there are more twins of the female sex than of the
male sex.^

Observations of this kind were naturally made by the
ablest members of the tribe — who were in all probability
the medicine-men and wizards — and brought in consequence
power into their hands. The road to power in fact — and
especially was this the case in societies which had not
yet developed wealth and property — lay through Magic.
As far as magic represented early superstition and re-
ligion it laid hold of the hearts of men — their hopes and
fears; as far as it represented science and the begin-
nings of actual knowledge, it inspired their minds with a
sense of power, and gave form to their lives and cus-
toms. We have no reason to suppose that the early magicians

1 See Evolution of Sex, by Geddes and Thomson (1901), p. 41,


and medicine-men were peculiarly wicked or bent on mere
self-aggrandizement — any more than we have to think
the same of the average country vicar or country doctor of
to-day. They were merely men a trifle wiser or more
instructed than their flocks. But though probably in most
cases their original intentions were decent enough, they
were not proof against the temptations which the pos-
session of power always brings, and as time went on they
became liable to trade more and more upon this power
for their own advancement. In the matter of Religion
the history of the Christian priesthood through the cen-
turies shows sufficiently to what misuse such power can
be put; and in the matter of Science it is a warning
to us of the dangers attending the formation of a scientific
priesthood, such as we see growing up around us to-day.
In both cases — whether Science or Religion — vanity, per-
sonal ambition, lust of domination and a hundred other
vices, unless corrected by a real devotion to the public good,
may easily bring as many evils in their train as those they
profess to cure.

The Medicine-man, or Wizard, or Magician, or Priest, slowly
but necessarily gathered power into his hands, and there
is nwich evidence to show that in the case of many tribes
at any rate, it was he who became ultimate chief and
leader and laid the foundations of Kingship. The Basileus
was always a sacred personality, and often united in him-
self as head of the clan the offices of chief in warfare
and leader in priestly rites — like Agamemnon in Homer,
or Saul or David in the Bible. As a magician he had
influence over the fertility of the earth and, like the
blameless king in the Odyssey, under his sway

"the dark earth beareth in season
Barley and wheat, and the trees are laden with fruitage, and

Yean unfailing the flocks, and the sea gives fish in abun-
dance." '
^ Odyssey xix, 109 sq. Translation by H. B. Cotterill.


As a magician too he was trusted for success in warfare;
and Schoolcraft, in a passage quoted by Andrew Lang/ says
of the Dacotah Indians "the war-chief who leads the party
to war is always one of these medicine-men." This connec-
tion, however, by which the magician is transformed into the
king has been abundantly studied, and need not be further
dwelt upon here.

And what of the transformation of the king into a god —
or of the Magician or Priest directly into the same?
Perhaps in order to appreciate this, one must make a
further digression.

For the early peoples there were, as it would appear, two
main objects in life: (i) to promote fertility in cattle
and crops, for food; and (2) to placate or ward off Death;
and it seemed very obvious — even before any distinct
figures of gods, or any idea of prayer, had arisen — to
attain these objects by magic ritual. The rites of Baptism,
of Initiation (or Confirmation) and the many ceremonies of
a Second Birth, which we associate with fully-formed re-
ligions, did belong also to the age of Magic; and they all
implied a belief in some kind of re-incarnation — in a
life going forward continually and being renewed in birth
again and again. It is curious that we find such a belief
among the lowest savages even to-day. Dr. Frazer, speak-
ing of the Central Australian tribes, says the belief is firmly
rooted among them "that the human soul undergoes an
endless series of re-incarnations — the living men and
women of one generation being nothing but the spirits of their
ancestors come to life again, and destined themselves to
be reborn in the persons of their descendants. During
the interval between two re-incarnations the souls live
in their itanja spots, or local totem-centres, which are
always natural objects such as trees or rocks. Each totem-
clan has a number of such totem-centres scattered over
the country. There the souls of the dead men and

1 Myth, Ritual and Religion, vol. i, p. 113.


women of the totem, but no others, congregate, and are born
again in human form when a favorable opportunity presents

And what the early people believed of the human spirit,
they believed of the corn-spirits and the tree and vegetation
spirits also. At the great Spring-ritual among the primitive
Greeks "the tribe and the growing earth were renovated
together: the earth arises afresh from her dead seeds,
the tribe from its dead ancestors." And the whole
process projects itself in the idea of a spirit of the year, who
"in the first stage is living, then dies with each year, and
thirdly rises again from the dead, raising the whole dead
world with him. The Greeks called him in this stage 'The
Third One' [Tritos Soter] or 'the Saviour'; and the reno-
vation ceremonies were accompanied by a casting-off of the
old year, the old garments, and everything that is pol-
luted by the infection of death."^ Thus the multiplica-
tion of the crops and the renovation of the tribe, and
at the same time the evasion and placation of death,
were all assured by similar rites and befitting ceremonial

In all these cases, and many others that I have not men-
tioned — of the magical worship of Bulls and Bears and
Rams and Cats and Emus and Kangaroos, of Trees and
Snakes, of Sun and Moon and Stars, and the spirit of
the Corn in its yearly and miraculous resurrection out of
the ground — there is still the same idea or moving inspira-
tion, the sense mentioned in the foregoing chapter, the
feeling (hardly yet conscious of its own meaning) of

1 The Golden Bough, vol. i, p. 96.

2 Gilbert Murray, Four Stages, p. 46.

3 It is interesting to find, with regard to the renovation of the
tribe, that among the Central Australians the foreskins or male mem-
bers of those who died were deposited in the above-mentioned nanja
spots — the idea evidently being that like the seeds of the corn the
seeds of the human crop must be carefully and ceremonially preserved
for their re-incarnation.


intimate relationship and unity with all this outer world,
the instinctive conviction that the world can be swayed
by the spirit of Man, if the man can only find the right ritual,
the right word, the right spell, wherewith to move it. An
aura of emotion surrounded everything — of terror, of tabu,
of fascination, of desire. The world, to these people,
was transparent with presences related to themselves;
and though hunger and sex may have been the dominant
and overwhelmingly practical needs of their life, yet their
outlook on the world was essentially poetic and imagi-

Moreover it will be seen that in this age of magic and
the belief in spirits, though there was an intense sense of
every thing being alive, the gods, in the more modern
sense of the world, hardly existed^ — that is, there was no
very clear vision, to these people, ©f supra-mundane be-
ings, sitting apart and ordaining the affairs of earth, as
it were from a distance. Doubtless this conception was
slowly evolving, but it was only incipient. For the time
being — though there might be orders and degrees of spirits
(and of gods) — every such being was only conceived of,
and could only be conveived of, as actually a part of
Nature, dwelling in and interlaced with some phenomenon
of Earth and Sky, and having no separate ex-

How was it then, it will be asked, that the belief in sepa-
rate and separable gods and goddesses — each with his
or her well-marked outline and character and function, like
the divinities of Greece, or of India, or of the Egyptian
or Christian religions, ultimately arose? To this question
Jane Harrison (in her Themis and other books) gives an
ingenious answer, which as it chimes in with my own specu-
lations (in the Art of Creation and elsewhere) I am in-
clined to adopt. It is that the figures of the supra-

1 For a discussion of the evolution of religion out of magic, see
Westermarck's Origin of Moral Ideas, ch. 47.


natural gods arose from a process in the human mind simi-
lar to that which the photographer adopts when by
photographing a number of faces on the same plate, and
so superposing their images on one another, he produces a
so-called "composite" photograph or image. Thus, in the
photographic sphere, the portraits of a lot of members of
the same family superposed upon one another may pro-
duce a composite image or ideal of that family type,
or the portraits of a number of Aztecs or of a number of
Apache Indians the ideals respectively of the Aztec or of
the Apache types. And so in the mental sphere of each
member of a tribe the many images of the well-known War-
riors or Priests or wise and gracious Women of that
tribe did inevitably combine at last to composite figures
of gods and goddesses — on whom the enthusiasm and
adoration of the tribe was concentrated.^ Miss Harrison
has ingeniously suggested how the leading figures in the magic
rituals of the past — being the figures on which all eyes
would be concentrated; and whose importance would be
imprinted on every mind — lent themselves to this process.
The suffering Victim, bound and scourged and crucified, re-
curring year after year as the centre-figure of a thou-
sand ritual processions, would at last be dramatized and
idealized in the great race-consciousness into the form
of a Suffering God — a Jesus Christ or a Dionysus or
Osiris — dismembered or crucified for the salvation of
mankind. The Priest or Medicine-Man — or rather the
succession of Priests or Medicine-Men — whose figures
would recur again and again as leaders and ordainers of the
ceremonies, would be glorified at last into the composite-
image of a God in whom were concentrated all magic
powers. "Recent researches," says Gilbert Murray, "have
shown us in abundance the early Greek medicine-chiefs mak-
ing thunder and lightning and rain." Here is the

^ See The Art of Creation, ch. viii, "The Gods as Apparitions of
the Race-Life."


germ of a Zeus or a Jupiter. The particular medicine-man
may fail; that does not so much matter; he is only the in-
dividual representative of the glorified and composite being
who exists in the mind of the tribe (just as a present-day
King may be unworthy, but is surrounded all the same by
the agelong glamour of Royalty). "The real Geos.
tremendous, infallible, is somewhere far away, hidden in
clouds perhaps, on the summit of some inaccessible moun-
tain. If the mountain is once climbed the god will
move to the upper sky. The medicine-chief meanwhile
stays on earth, still influential. He has some connection
with the great god more intimate than that of other
men ... he knows the rules for approaching him and making
prayers to him."^ Thus did the Medicine-man, or Priest,
or Magician (for these are but three names for
one figure) represent one step in tlie evolution of the

And farther back still in the evolutionary process we may
trace (as in chapter iv above) the divinization or deifi-
cation of four-footed animals and birds and snakes and
trees and the like, from the personification of the col-
lective emotion of the tribe towards these creatures. For
people whose chief food was bear-meat, for instance, whose
totem was a bear, and who believed themselves descended
from an ursine ancestor, there would grow up in the
tribal mind an image surrounded by a halo of emo-
tions — emotions of hungry desire, of reverence, fear, grati-
tude and so forth — an image of a divine Bear in whom
they lived and moved and had their being. For another
tribe or group in whose yearly ritual a Bull or a Lamb
or a Kangaroo played a leading part there would in the same
way spring up the image of a holy bull, a divine lamb, or
a sacred kangaroo. Another group again might come to
worship a Serpent as its presiding genius, or a particular
kind of Tree, simply because these objects were and had

1 The Four Stages, p. 140.


been for centuries prominent factors in its yearly and seasonal
Magic. As Reinach and others suggest, it was the Taboo
(bred by Fear) which by first forbidding contact with the
totem-animal or priest or magician-chief gradually invested
him with Awe and Divinity.

According to this theory the god — the full-grown god in
human shape, dwelling apart and beyond the earth — did
not come first, but was a late and more finished product
of evolution. He grew up by degrees and out of the pre-
ceding animal-worships and totem-systems. And this
theory is much supported and corroborated by the fact that
in a vast number of early cults the gods are represented by
human figures with animal heads. The Egyptian re-
ligion was full of such divinities — the jackal-headed Anu-
bis, the ram-headed Ammon, the bull-fronted Osiris, or
Muth, queen of darkness, clad in a vulture's skin; Minos
and the Minotaur in Crete; in Greece, Athena with an owl's
head, or Herakles masked in the hide and jaws of
a monstrous lion. What could be more obvious than that,
following on the tribal worship of any totem-animal, the priest
or medicine-man or actual king in leading the magic
ritual should don the skin and head of that animal, and
wear the same as a kind of mask — this partly in order to
appear to the people as the true representative of the totem,
and partly also in order to obtain from the skin the
magic virtues and mana of the beast, which he could
then duly impart to the crowd? Zeus, it must be re-
membered, wears the cegis, or goat-skin — said to be the hide
of the goat Amaltheia who suckled him in his infancy; there
are a number of legends which connected the Arcadian
Artemis with the worship of the bear, Apollo with the wolf,
and so forth. And, most curious as showing similarity
of rites between the Old and New Worlds, there are
found plenty of examples of the wearing of beast-masks in
religious processions among the native tribes of both
North and South America. In the Atlas of Spix and


Martins (who travelled together in the Amazonian forests
about 1820) there is an understanding and characteristic
picture of the men (and some women) of the tribe of the
Tecunas moving in procession through the woods mostly
naked, except for wearing animal heads and masks —
the masks representing Cranes of various kinds, Ducks, the
Opossum, the Jaguar, the Parrot, etc., probably symbolic of
their respective clans.

By some such process as this, it may fairly be supposed,
the forms of the Gods were slowly exhaled from the actual
figures of men and women, of youths and girls, who year
after year took part in the ancient rituals. Just as the Queen
of the May or Father Christmas with us are idealized forms
derived from the many happy maidens or white-bearded
old men who took leading parts in the May or Decem-
ber mummings and thus gained their apotheosis in our
literature and tradition — so doubtless Zeus with his thunder-
bolts and arrows of lightning is the idealization into Heaven
of the Priestly rain-maker and storm-controller; Ares
the god of War, the similar idealization of the leading warrior
in the ritual war-dance preceding an attack on a neigh-
boring tribe; and Mercury of the foot-running Messenger
whose swiftness in those days (devoid of steam or electricity)
was so precious a tribal possession.

And here it must be remembered that this explanation of
the genesis of the gods only applies to the shapes and figures
of the various deities. It does not apply to the gene-
sis of the widespread belief in spirits or a Great Spirit
generally; that, as I think will become clear, has quite an-
other source. Some people have jeered at the 'animistic' or
'anthropomorphic' tendency of primitive man in his
contemplation of the forces of Nature or his imaginations
of religion and the gods. With a kind of superior pity they
speak of "the poor Indian whose untutored mind sees
God in clouds and hears him in the wind." But I must con-
fess that to me the "poor Indian" seems on the whole


to show more good sense than his critics, and to have aimed
his rude arrows at the philosophic mark more success-
fully than a vast number of his learned and scientific
successors. A consideration of what we have said above
would show that early people felt their unity with Na-
ture so deeply and intimately that — like the animals them-
selves — they did not think consciously or theorize about it.
It was just their life to be — like the beasts of
the field and the trees of the forest — a part of the whole
flux of things, non-differentiated so to speak. What more
natural or indeed more logically correct than for them to
assume (when they first began to think or differentiate them-
selves) that these other creatures, these birds, beasts
and plants, and even the sun and moon, were of the same
blood as themselves, their first cousins, so to speak, and hav-
ing the same interior nature? What more reasonable
(if indeed they credited themselves with having some kind
of soul or spirit) than to credit these other creatures with
a similar soul or spirit? Im Thurn, speaking of the Guiana
Indians, says that for them "the whole world swarms with
beings." Surely this could not be taken to indicate an un-
tutored mind — unless indeed a mind untutored in the non-
sense of the Schools — but rather a very directly perceptive
mind. And again what more reasonable (seeing that these
people themselves were in the animal stage of evolution)
than that they should pay great reverence to some ideal
animal — first cousin or ancestor — who played an im-
portant part in their tribal existence, and make of this
animal a totem emblem and a symbol of their com-
mon life?

And, further still, what more natural than that when the
tribe passed to some degree beyond the animal stage and
began to realize a life more intelligent and emotional — more
specially human in fact — than that of the beasts of
the field, that it should then in its rituals and ceremonies
throw off the beast-mask and pay reverence to the interior


and more human spirit. Rising to a more enlightened con-
sciousness of its own intimate quahty, and still deeply
penetrated with the sense of its kinship to external na-
ture, it would inevitably and perfectly logically credit the
latter with an inner life and intelligence, more distinctly
human than before. Its religion in fact would become more
'anthropomorphic' instead of less so; and one sees that this
is a process that is inevitable; and inevitable notwith-
standing a certain parenthesis in the process, due to ob-
vious elements in our 'Civilization' and to the temporary
and fallacious domination of a leaden-eyed so-called 'Sci-
ence.' According to this view the true evolution of
Religion and IMan's outlook on the world has proceeded
not by the denial by man of his unity with the world,
but by his seeing and understanding that unity more deeply.
And the more deeply he understands himself the more cer-
tainly he will recognize in the external world a Being or
beings resembling himself.

W. H. Hudson — whose mind is certainly not of a quality
to be jeered at — speaks of Animism as "the projection
of ourselves into nature: the sense and apprehension of an
intelligence like our own, but more powerful, in all vis-
ible things"; and continues, "old as I am this same primitive
faculty which manifested itself in my early boyhood,
still persists, and in those early years was so powerful
that I am almost afraid to say how deeply I was moved
by it."^ Nor will it be quite /orgotten that Shelley
once said: —

The moveless pillar of a mountain's weight
Is active living spirit. Every grain
Is sentient both in unity and part,
And the minutest atom comprehends
A world of loves and hatreds.

The tendency to animism and later to anthropomorphism

1 Far Away and Long Ago, ch. xiii, p. 225.


is I say inevitable, and perfectly logical. But the great
value of the work done by some of those investigators whom
I have quoted has been to show that among quite prim-
itive people (whose interior life and 'soul-sense' was only
very feeble) their projections of intelligence into Nature
were correspondingly feeble. The reflections of themselves
projected into the world beyond could not reach the stature of
eternal 'gods,' but were rather of the quality of ephemeral
phantoms and ghosts; and the ceremonials and creeds
of that period are consequently more properly de-
scribed as Magic than as Religion. There have indeed
been great controversies as to whether there has or has
not been, in the course of religious evolution, a /re-
animistic stage. Probably of course human evolution in
this matter must have been perfectly continuous from
stages presenting the very feeblest or an absolutely de-
ficient animistic sense to the very highest manifestations
of anthropomorphism; but as there is a good deal of
evidence to show that animals (notably dogs and horses)
see ghosts, the inquiry ought certainly to be enlarged so
far as to include the pre-human species. Anyhow it must
be remembered that the question is one of consciousness —
that is, of how far and to what degree consciousness of self
has been developed in the animal or the primitive man
or the civilized man, and therefore how far and to what
degree the animal or human creature has credited the out-
side world with a similar consciousness. It is not a question
of whether there is an inner life and jw^-consciousness com-
mon to all these creatures of the earth and sky, because
that, I take it, is a fact beyond question; they all emerge
or have emerged from the same matrix, and are rooted in
identity; but it is a question of how far they are aware of

Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 7 of 25)