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The facts deserving of special notice here are the
sacrifice, the fighting of the bulls, and the honour
done to the reproductive powers of nature. These,
and the abdication of the chief, would lead to the
inference that the festival is a true survival of what,
in earlier times and under a ruder system, existed
when a temporary king was appointed and killed as
a sacrifice, the incarnate god himself being slain that
nature might revive in spring. Whether from such
facts men came at last to infer a resurrection of
the body, it is impossible to determine. The Pondos
are not singular in their observance of harvest
customs. The Hos of North-east India have a

notion that at this period men and women are
so overcharged with vicious propensities that it is
absolutely necessary to let off steam b}^ allowing

* J. Sutton, MS. notes.


for a time full vent to their passions.* For the time
they give themselves up to feasting, drinking, and
debauchery. The men lose all respect for the women
and for themselves, and the women all notions of
modesty. Usually the Hos are a quiet, reserved,
and well-behaved moral people, but at the harvest
festival all this is reversed, and their nature seems to
undergo a complete change. The curious thing is,
that when all is over they settle down into their old
steady, sober habits as if nothing had happened.

But what is most peculiar about harvest festivals
and feasts of first-fruits is, their close resemblance to
one another among all peoples the world over, and
how near those of civilised man are to the savage ;
differing not in kind, but only in the manner of con-
ducting them ; thus showing to us, that they are
among the most ancient and primitive of man's ritual
and customs. For example. The Peruvians believe
that all useful plants are animated by a divine
being, that is spirit, who causes their growth. t
These divine beings are named after the particular
plant, as the Maize mother, the Rice mother, or the
Potato mother. Figures of these mothers made from
the stalks of the respective plants, and dressed in
women's clothes, are worshipped. As the mother,
these figures had power of giving birth to or pro-
ducing much rice, maize, or potatoes, as the case
might he,\ and in this acted according as they were
treated. The Peruvian mother of the Maize was
kept a whole year, and burned at the time of harvest :

* Talton, " Ethnology of Bengal," quoted by J. G. Frazer.
t J. G. Frazer. t Mannhardt.


when a fresh one took her place. During the
festival, eating drinking and general rejoicing goes
on. In Ashantee all laws are abrogated for one
day at the Yam festival, and for the time every man
does whatever he pleases. One custom observed is
to bring out, to be placed before the fetish house,
the skulls of noted enemies killed in war, and it is
said the skull of an English baronet did duty for
manv years — in fact, was still in existence, kept in a
brass basin, when the late king's power was over-
thrown by the English. The people during the day
of liberty give themselves up to dancing and revelry.
Executioners caper about, ornamented with necklets
made from the jaws of victims they slew as offer-
ings or king's " messengers " to the nether world,
and with o-irdles of skulls. Before eating the new


yams the king bathes in fetish water as a ceremonial
act ; when all is over he resumes his authority as
we saw done by the chief of Pondoland.

These customs, of which examples might be
multiplied from every region of Africa and the
heathen world generally, differ in no essential
feature, and are singularly like the survivals we have
in Europe. In Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the last
sheaf cut, or " maiden," is carried home in merry pro-
cession by the harvesters. It is then presented to
the mistress of the house, who dresses it up to be
preserved till the first mare foals. The maiden is
then taken down and presented to the mare as its
first food.* The neglect of this would have untoward
effects ujjon the foal, and disastrous consequences

■■■ Miss J. Ligertwood, MS. notes.


upon farm operations generally for the season. In
Caithness the person who cuts the last sheaf is
called " winter," and so remains till next harvest.
The sheaf itself is carefully preserved till it is dis-
placed by another the following year. The Celts of
the west country attached great importance to
cutting the last sheaf All the harvesters stood
round in a circle while the youngest girl among the
reapers cut a few straws left standing at the corner
of the field for that purpose. This sheaf was
ultimately used, as I have been assured by old
people, for making Brlid's bed, which was as fol-
lows : — On Candlemas day the mistress and servants
of each family take a sheaf of oats, and dress it
up in women's apparel. They put it in a large
basket, and beside it a club of wood. They then
cry three times in chorus, " Briid is come, Brlid is
welcome." This is done just before they retire to
rest, and in the morning they examine the ashes ;
expecting to find among them the mark of Brild's
club. If they do, it is an indication of a prosperous
year and good crops ; if not, the opposite."^

In the district of Lochaber, where dancing and
merry-making on the last night of harvest used to be
universal, and is still generally observed, the cere-
monies without the " maiden " would be like a
wedding: without the bride. The maiden is carried
home with tumultuous rejoicing, and after being
suitably decorated is hung up in the barn, where
the dancing usually takes place. After supper,
which is served in the barn ball-room, and before

* Martin.


dancing begins, one of the company, generall}^ the
oldest man present, fills himself a glass of whisky,
which he drinks, after he has turned his face to the
suspended sheaf and said : " Here's to the maiden."
The company follow his example, each in turn drink-
ing" to the " maiden." This I have seen done more
than once. Shall I add that I have myself done it ?
Very similar to this is the custom observed in
the neighbourhood of Dantiz, as recorded by Frazer,
who follows Mannhardt. He says : " When the
winter corn is cut and mostly bound up in sheaves,
the portion which still remains to be bound is divided
amongst the women binders, each of whom receives
a swath of equal length to bind. A crowd of
reapers, children, and idlers gathers round to witness
the contest, and at the word ' Seize the old man,'
the women fall to work, all binding their allotted
swaths as hard as they can. The spectators watch
them narrowly, and the woman who cannot keep
pace with the rest, and consequently binds the last
sheaf, has to carry the ' old man ' (the last sheaf)
to the farm-house and deliver it to the farmer with
the words : ' Here I bring you the old man.' At
the supper which folio vvs the 'old man' is placed
at the table and receives an abundant portion of
food, which, as he cannot eat it, falls to the share of
the woman who carried him. Afterwards the ' old
man ' is placed in the yard, and all the people dance
round him. Further, the woman who bound the
last sheaf goes herself by the name of the ' old man '
till the next harvest ; and is often mocked with the
crv, ' Here comes the old man.'"


In Bavaria each reajDer, as they are about to finish,
has a patch to cut. They reap as fast as they can,
and he who has to cut the last few handfuls " drives
out the old man." Near Stettin the woman who
binds the last sheaf has " the old man," and bears
the nickname for a year. Formerly she was herself
dressed up in pease-straw and carried home, when
the harvesters danced with her till the straw fell

These examples illustrate the contests in reaping
and binding, as well as the subsequent treatment of
the sheaf and the person cutting it ; and when it is
remembered that the person who is last at reaping
represents the corn spirit, the idea is fully expressed
bv dressing- him in corn straw. That it is the corn
spirit that is represented is clearly seen from the
customs of parts of Germany, where a man and
woman, called the "oats' wife" and the "oats'
man " dance at the harvest festival, after which the
corn stalks are plucked from their bodies till not a
particle is left. In these cases the idea is that the
corn spirit — the " old man " — the woman, or maiden,
is the last sheaf, and that the spirit lives in the
barn during the winter. At sowing time it goes out
to the fields again to resume its functions And, as
we saw, in the giving of the maiden to the first mare
that foals, in Aberdeenshire, and as is done in parts
of the West Highlands, where it is distributed
amonof the cows at Christmas, these functions
include reproduction among cattle as well as growth
of corn.

This points to our harvest customs as being a


survival from primitive times, and that in one form
or another they have passed down from generation
to generation, adapting themselves to all conditions
of life and of faith. They carry us back to the wild
revelry that surrounded the man-o-od when he o^ave
his people the gifts of harvest. They still have an
echo — faint it may be but real — of the days when the
chief abdicated for a time that he and his people
might do homage to the corn spirit, and to other
darker rites when a victim was slain as the personi-
fication of that spirit, to ensure a resurrection in
spring. Even in Christian times, and before ovu'
forefathers had freed themselves from the ling-erino-
customs of paganism, they preserved the maiden as
an act of faith and religious duty. What is now
a pleasant ending to the labours of the season was
formerly a serious fact, a rite wliich, if omitted,
might entail the entire subversion of the order of
nature for the season. Formerly the o-od was
present among men, and could give or withhold
blessings, and on that account his rites could not be
neglected with impunity. Man has travelled far in
his conceptions of divinity since then, but the facts
of the present connect the life and knowledge of
modern times with a long- forgotten past, which carries
us back to the youth of the world, when man first
began to make his way, by slow and painful steps,
to an understanding of the fticts of the universe
around him, and the supernatural which he felt must
exist somewhere. The significance of his acts has
changed, and the ideas which are associated with
them have no resemblance to what an earlier people


conceived, but the acts remain. They are the same
substantially the world over. It is impossible they
could have been so universally borrowed, and the
only conclusion is, that they existed from earliest



The office of magician is to jDi'imitive man what that
of prophet is to a more advanced people. He is the
teacher of the ignorant ; he dehvers to men the
oracles of the gods ; he foretells events, and explains
what is mysterious. The term magician, as that is
ordinarily understood, does not cover the idea savage
man has regarding his religious teachers. His con-
ception is that of one possessed of supernatural know-
ledge, wisdom, and power ; power which he has in
virtue of his office, and which he can exercise in the
discharge of it. He is in reality what the prophets
of Israel were to the Jews ; so I adopt the terms pro-
phet and prophecy rather than magician and magic.
Under witchcraft frequent reference was made to
magicians and recognised diviners. These magicians,
or prophets as we shall call them, are among primitive
men a distinct class, who, dating their origin from
the very beginnings of society, developed into guilds
or colleges with the growth of thought and early
human institutions. As man's conceptions of deity
and the physical facts around him expanded, the
necessity of special insight into the spiritual sphere
was felt. The king was no longer the only god ; he
had ceased to be god at all ; his father, and the


fathers of countless thousands, passed in long array
before the worshipper's imagination as objects of
worship ; true divinities, whom he was bound to
honour and obey on pain of dire physical calamity.
But while under the necessity of doing homage to
departed ancestors, he knew nothing of their condi-
tion, could hold no converse with them, nor ascertain
their wants and wishes. The more he longed for a
glimpse beyond the portals of this mortal life, the
denser the darkness closed around him. The king,
content with temporal power and a more secure
tenure of office than in former days, left such matters
to those who might find it more easy to quit the
upper air, should the gods call. In any case, it
was more convenient for him that they should enter
the home of the gods, than that he himself should
be compelled to change substantial and tangible
honours, even if necessarily temporary, for those
shadowy if permanent glories of which he knew
little and understood less.

The circumstances demanded men of boldness of
conception and clearness of vision. The necessities
of the case were urgent, and could not be met by
half measures or halting compromises. Men must
know something of the unseen, and if their just
aspirations were to be met, a new departure was the
only alternative to the collapse of all institutions and
the overthrow of the physical universe. This being
the condition of society in those far-away times of
transition, there is no doubt but the earlier prophets
were simply men who could see farther than
their fellows, and who, piecing together the meagre


philosophies of the past, boldly struck out a new
system, and appealed to men as the interpreters of
all that was essential and permanent in the past.
The temporary and passing they abolished, as they
understood it, while they retained what was truth
and permanent. At first their efforts would be
wholly devoted to giving an explanation of the facts
of life and natural phenomena as these from time to
time presented themselves. An attempt would be
made to reconcile man's original conception of deity
and providence with the changed conditions and
more advanced thought. For a time this would be
sufficient, and the religious teachers would flatter
themselves, as has so often been done in the history
of the church, that they had arrived at a complete
and final solution of all questions regarding both
gods and men. But this could not be. Fresh compli-
cations would arise, and each, as it pressed on men's
minds, necessitated fresh explanations. The succes-
sive oracles needed to be consistent with fact and with
one another, which, as they accumulated, they were
not. The prophets themselves needed to be inter-
preted as well as the facts they sought to explain.

Besides, new claimants would arise, outbidding the
old for popular favour and official recognition. The
office, at first hereditary, or at least confined to a
close guild or college, would become vulgarised as
dishonest or ignorant men found their way into
office. Apart from this, daring and speculative
spirits among the community would not be per-
manently silenced. Sooner or later their conclusions
would reach the multitude, and the new thoughts,


sti'uggling for recognition, would compel the pro-
phets to adjust their system to that which men had
discovered independently of their order. Should
the oracles delivered by two persons claiming the
prophetic gift differ, the bolder or less scrupulous of
the two would naturally assert that he had held
communication with the gods, and that his oracle
must be accepted as final. But this would establish
a dangerous precedent, and the next time a difficulty
arose his rival would be prepared with a revelation
at the initial stage. Here we have two elements
which would of necessity lead to a vast extension of
the order in point of numbers, and a great widening
of the scope of prophecy itself, tending to convert
what began as a philosophy into an occult art.
This in process of time would lead to a subdivision
of function ; one would become the prophet or doctor
of war ; another of rain ; a third of witchcraft ; a
fourth of lightning. The multiplication of offices
and prophets to fill them would be regulated hj
man's necessities on the one hand, and his ability to
support such an army of ghostly councillors on the
other; these being periodically thinned out, when,
as in the case of the King of Babylon's vision, it was
made abundantly plain that the whole college was a
huge imposition and fraud.

If this is a correct or even probable explanation of
the origin and development of the office, it would be
natural to infer a steady and sustained deterioration
or deofradation of the order both in character and
influence. And this is what we do find. For while
amono- those tribes farthest removed from civilisation


the prophet is sacred, and his every word received
as the oracle of heaven, amonof those who have
advanced in tlieir philosophy a chief has been known
to sacrifice his whole colleof© in one holocaust. The
King of Moreo, referred to in an earlier chapter, is a
case in point. Nebuchadnezzar would have been
another but for the timely intervention of Daniel ;
while we have recent examples in Zululand and in
the country of Moselekatse of the same thing.

Nor is the explanation offered inconsistent with
the history of the Jewish prophetic order as given in
the sacred books of the Hebrews themselves. The
older prophets are giants, men both before and above
their time, and who left the impress of their own
character on the life and institutions of their country.
The later prophets, like the later judges, mark a fatal
deterioration. Whole schools of them fell from their
own standard of office, and sought to bear the name of
prophet when everything but the name had perished.
Those the sacred writers describe uniformly as " false
prophets." They were men who sought office not be-
cause they had a message for men, but because they
could calculate on the ignorance and credulity of the
people for gain. To such prophets it is said : " Will
ye pollute Me among My people for handfuls of barley
and pieces of bread ? " * Not content with such
imposition as false prophecy, as understood in their
own day, they fell back on older superstitions, and
appealed to lingering beliefs which had long jjassed
away. They revived the primitive doctrines regard-
ing human souls and the power of divine or sacred

* Ezek. xiii. 19.


persons over these ; for it is made clear that, like
their ancestors in the primeval jungle, they professed
to catch and retain souls. " Woe to the women that
sew pillows to all armholes, and make kerchiefs upon
the head of every stature to hunt souls. Will ye hunt
the souls of My people, and will ye save the souls alive
that come unto you ? " * Compare this with the
following account of a common custom in the South
Seas ; " Two young wizards were passing a house
where a chief lay very sick ; they saw a company
of gods from the mountains sitting in the doorway.
They were handing from one to another the soul of
the dying chief. It was wrapped in a leaf, and had
been passed from the gods inside the house to those
at the doorway. One of the gods handed the soul
to one of the wizards, taking him for a god in the
dark, for it was night. Then all the gods rose up
and went away ; but the wizard kept the chiefs
soul. In the morning some women went with a
present of very line mats to fetch a famous phy-
sician. The wizards were sitting on the shore as
the women passed, and they said to the women ;
' Give us the mats, and we will heal him.' So they
went to the chief's house. He was very ill; his jaw
hung down and his end seemed very near. But the
wizards undid the leaf, and let the soul into him
again, and forthwith he brightened up again and
lived." t

The false Hebrew prophets thus carry us back to
a practice which existed in early days— for wizards
could steal as well as restore — when souls were

■■ Ezek. xiii. t J. G. Frazer, quoting G. Turner : Samoa.


hunted and caught ; a clear proof that the office had
fallen so low that its original conception was lost or
forgotten. Of this we shall see farther illustration
when considering the duties of prophets among
primitive men, and how these were performed
at various stages of culture during the world's

Every prophet claims to hold converse with the
world of spirits, ;uid to act in discharge of his sacred
functions only in obedience to the will of the gods.
Does he carry the soul of a sick person back to
the invalid's bedside ? * It is because the gods
reveal to him that the sick is to recover. Does
he offer sacrifice for rain ? He does it to appease
the wrath of the oifended ancestors, or because
they are hungry and are crying out for food.t
When he, by his arts, secures places and persons
against the thunderbolt, after being struck by
lightning, he assuages the anger of the gods, who
have visited their children with affliction because of
some neglect of filial duty. Should the prophet be
called upon to discover a witch or wizard, he "smells
them out " ; but it is the gods who reveal to him who
they are, a knowledge which they deny to all others.

The subject of prophecy and magic is too wide for
full discussion in a single chapter, and can be best
illustrated by selecting one or two particulars, as the
treatment of the sick and the methods adopted to
detect crime. We have already seen the methods
by which wizards are detected when considering
the subject of witchcraft. Other criminals are

* Gill: JL/tJis and Songs of the Sovth Pacific.
t Hon. C. Brownlee, MS. Notes.


discovered by means of a magic horn.^' This may be
the horn of a domestic sheep or that of an antelope,
and the prophet, by looking into it and examining
its contents, can discover a thief or murderer. By
the same means he is supposed to know the where-
abouts of the stolen property, if not removed beyond
the tribal boundaries — a necessary qualification in
this branch of the profession. Readers of Highland
traditions will recognise in this the well-known
" second sight " of Celtic legend. Those possessing
this gift could foretell events, especially deaths and
calamity, and in doing so used the shoulder-blade of a
sheep, through which the}^ looked, and saw the future
in panorama before them. I once met, at Paible,
North Uist, a man who was said to " see things."
The old man, who derived his living, partly at
least, from propitiatory gifts, had quite a reputation
for prophecy, and if he suggested to any one by a
dark hint that he had seen a shroud, that family
was plunged into grief, knowing that he referred to
one of their number, though no name was mentioned.^
The prophet, among savage men, explains the
cause of drought and floods, and must devise a
remedy for these visitations. Among the Zulu
tribes, if the spring rains are late, a black ox is sent
to the doctor, who being warned of the approaching
visit, sits in his hut covered with a thick layer of
mud. If there are no indications of rain, he may
direct them to come after the lapse of a few days ;
but if things are propitious, he at once orders a
muster of the tribe. There is much feasting and
dancing, mystic ceremonies are performed, sacrifices

* Speke.


are offered, and then the prophet announces that
before a g-iven day rain will fall. Should the predic-
tion prove correct, well ; if not, the prophet must
account for his failure. This he does by charging
some one high in authority, as the chief's principal
wife, with working against him, and raising a dry
wind which drives the clouds away. This she does
by exposing her posterior to the skies.

In time of war the prophet has to perform rites to
ensure victory. Among the Waganda, when the
case is urgent, a child is flayed and placed on the
path, and the warriors made to step over it,* or a
child and a fowl are placed on a grating over a pot
with water in it. Another pot, inverted, is used as
a cover, and a fire kindled to heat the water. After
a given time the contents are examined, and if found
dead the war must be delayed as the omen is against
the expedition. t

But the prophet's services are not confined to the
living; they extend to the dead. In Akra when

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 10 of 18)