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still curious survivals among us. And of these, one
of the most remarkable is the suspicion with which
religious teachers are regarded in popular ima-


There is a deeply rooted prejudice against religious
teachers among the peasantry of Europe, and not
unfrequently those who are most devout in the dis-
charge of their own religious duties, have the most
pronounced superstitions regarding clergymen.
Fishermen will not go to sea with a minister on board,
as in that case no success would attend their labours ;
they will not even have one enter their boats, if
possible, as that is apt to take the boat's luck away.
Skippers fear to have them as passengers, and
voyagers expect contrary winds if a priest should
happen to be among their fellow voyagers. I
remember one, Rob MacLauchlin, the owner of a
smack that plied between Oban and Morven, having
on one occasion a very boisterous passage, to the
intense alarm of his passengers. On his arrival one
of the villagers remarked on the state of the weather
and how suddenly the storm had sprung up. Kob,
who had had a sail carried away and was in no good
humour, replied, garnishing his sentences with exple-
tives which I shall omit, *' How could we escape
wind with three ministers on board." These worthies
were on their way to a local meeting of Presbytery.
One of them, ignorant of seamen and their ways,
offered a remonstrance, and tried to enlighten the
skipper, but had to beat a hasty retreat. Hob knew
all about it by long experience, and all his prede-
cessors, from the days of Jonah at least, had been
conversant of the fact. That was final and admitted
of no appeal, and the villagers to a man sympathised
with the ski})per who was compelled to carry such


Nor is this fear confined to traditions of
the sea. The minister is feared because he can
bless or ban, and village children regard him
as a being to be avoided when that is possible.
When at play, if he happens to pass, there is
a hurried and fearful whisper of " There's the
minister," and play ceases till he is well out of
reach. If they must present themselves before this
august presence, they cease to be children as by
instinct, and a word or movement becoming the age
of five or six meets with the awful maternal reproof,
" Do ye no ken that's the minister ? " Clergymen
themselves are, perhaps, largely to blame. The
Church has played so many parts on the stage of
European politics and social life that much of the
present suspicion may be owing to her arrogance and
avarice. But this is not all. Like our harvest customs,
this superstitious reverence and fear, is doubtless a
survival from primitive times, when the magician
was a being- to be at once feared and honoured. The
primitive man who offended one of those power-
ful beings who directed all his life's actions, might
expect to be the next victim when a case of witch-
craft had to be disposed of, or, if no case cropped up
the gods might require his presence among them,
and so demand him as a sacrifice. And so it is that
in spite of respectability, unblemished reputation,
great services to mankind, honour, place and influence,
religious teachers have never been able to free them-
selves from the suspicion and fear with wdiich their
humble ancestors, the priests of the jungle, were
regarded in popular imagination.


This is perhaps an extreme instance of the persis-
tency of early beHefs, but it goes to show how slowly
the human mind parts with ideas once universal,
and the vast intervals that must elapse before a
complete revolution in thought is possible under the
most favourable circumstances. There could be no
condition more likely to obliterate the past than
that created by Christianity, and yet these customs,
myths, and superstitious fears have lived through
millenniums of literature and careful oral teachino-.
The process has been slow, and is not yet completed.
And what has taken Europe from the dawn of
history to accomplish, with the aid of literature,
philosophy and Christianity, could not be done
by the African groping his way through oral
tradition and universal usage through many
thousands of years. The customs which we study
to-day, and which at first sight appear to be local
or tribal, carry us back in their original form to a
period long anterior to the first dawn of traditional
history in the East. They bring us into contact
with the condition of the world before the families
of men began to scatter themselves hither and
thither over the face of the earth. They are our
only record of the condition of the world when it
was young, and of man in his first struggles with
the problems with wliich he found himself sur-
rounded as he began to look out upon the works of
nature as these could be seen in his immediate



It may at fii-st appear as If there were no connec-
tion between the rehgion of primitive peoples and
their social usages. The latter, according to Euro-
pean ideas, have so little of the nature of religious
rites that they are seldom associated with piety and
devotion to the gods. Some men spend their lives
among savages and never look below the surface,
nor do they suspect that those whom they daily
meet have any forms of religious observance. I was
once told by a missionary of twenty years' standing
in Africa that certain ceremonial acts performed by
natives had no religious significance. In fact, he
went so far as to say, " These people have no reli-
gion ; they live a purely animal existence ; whatever
they do is just custom." How the worthy man, for
he was a truly pious soul, could ever get into sym-
pathy with them, or make any impression u23on their
minds, I have often wondered. I have long ceased
to wonder how a man of such unblemished life and
absolute devotion to duty, but so totally blind to
the facts of savage life, should have to Confess with
a sigh and the shadow of a life's sorrow, that " the
people about here are very hardened ; few of them
have come under the ijifluence of the Gospel. It is


very sad, and I at times doubt if I should be here,
but I try to labour on in faith." Being at the time a
novice in Africa, I accepted both statements without
question. Since then I have learned a good deal, and
amono- other things, that my aged friend's faith must
have often been sorely tried as he endeavoured to
do his duty in a sphere that never could have been
congenial, but having made the mistake of becoming
a missionary, he heroically stuck to the guns he had
not learned the art of using. To gain any influence
over savages one must first of all master their
system of thought, and learn how to connect the
most trivial acts with their philosophy, and such
conceptions as they have of the supernatural. It
is impossible to know what an act of devotion is
till one has learned something of social usage and
myth. To illustrate.

When a Dongolowa belle is to be married the
eligible young men assemble, each armed with a
kurbach or slave-whip. The elders of the tribe and
a number of women gather as spectators and judges
of the contest that is to follow. The young men,
stripped stark naked, begin a mutual process of
floefg-inof, and he who stands this ordeal best is the
successful wooer.* No other consideration or feeling
is allowed to interfere with custom, as that would
be displeasing to the gods. Should a woman marry
without such a contest, her prospects would be poor
indeed, having despised an ordinance of heaven.
At times there is a tie between two young men in
the flogging match, and in that case the girl has to

* Felkin.


decide the matter between them. This she does,
not by choosing one, for that would be to despise
another equally worthy suitor whose hide in the
end might prove the toughest. The matter must be
decided in a more excellent way. It is done thus : —
The coy maiden straps a knife to each of her arms,
the blades projecting an inch or two below her
elbows. She then sits down on a log-, a suitor on
either side sittino- close beside her. At a oiven
signal she raises her arms from the elbows, and lean-
ing slowly forward rests her weight upon the young-
men's thighs, into which she steadily presses the
knife blades. He who does not wince, or winces
least under the ordeal, wins the bride and carries
her off triumphant.

In Unyoro, the relatives of the late king fight for
the throne. Here, too, it is a case of the toughest
skin, but it is no vulgar contest, but a sacred function
conformable to the will of the gods who delio-ht in
manly vigour. A Mitto chief warns those entering
his country of war being made upon them, should
they persist, by displaying on a tree near the jDath,
an ear of corn, a feather and an arrow.* He who
touches corn, or cock will receive an arrow. In that
country, too, a man wishing to marry applies to his
chief for a wife. If thought worthy one is bestowed
upon him, as all persons and property within the
territory belong to the king. Both Mitto and Niam-
Niam bury their dead, with strict regard to the
points of the compass ; men being buried with the
face towards the east ; women looking to the west.t

* Schweinfurth. t Ihid.


This is conformable to the rule that women must eat
alone, and not come near men at meals, unless it be
to attend upon them. When a Waneka arrives at
the age of puberty, he is smeared with white clay
and decorated, after which he betakes himself to the
woods, either alone or in company with others of his
own age. There they must remain till they meet
and kill a man, after which they wash off their clay
and return home to be feasted and honoured.^' They
are now men, not boys. A Waneka prophetess
begins operations at midnight by frantic screams.
When all are astir she declares, "E,oma, i.e., S2:>irit
or the god, is here, and demands the sacrifice of a
black ox." This is at once provided, and men heave
a sigh of relief to find it is not a more costly victim.
The men of Jagga spit on a departing guest as
an act of courtesy, and to l3id him God speed. By
so doing, they bestow on him their highest mark
of honour, for it is a religious act. A Wakamba
must carry away his bride by strategy, and for this
purpose may have to lie in wait for months. Before
he begins his vigil he pays the parents the dower.
Hottentots preserve a certain membrane at birth, a
bit of which is worn through life. Its loss would
entail evil here and hereafter, t Common people in
Dahomey may not grow grain except for domestic
purposes, as all property belongs to the king. So,
too, the persons of his subjects. At certain annual
festivals he holds a sale of marriageable young
women, j Court favourites receive wives free, but all
others pay. Unlawful wounding is an injury done

* Krapf. i Moody. J Eowley.


to the king's person in that of his subject. All things
merge in him as the head of the State and the ol^ject
of reverence. To his people he is divine.

The house of the Bodio or high priest of the
Kroomen is a sanctuary to which criminals may flee
for refuge. From it they cannot be removed except
by his orders, and, as he gives no reason for his
decision, he shelters a large number of ruffians, who,
inore secure under his protection than ever Jew was
in a city of refuge, live and enjoy themselves, doing
all the dirty work and throat-cutting for the Bodio
in their nightly prowlings. A Manganga magician,
or even wizard, can soar aloft on the wings of the
wind like a Highland beldam on her broomstick.
The prophet among the same people can discover a
criminal in the following manner. He calls a muster
of the tribe, and then taking a bundle of reeds in
his hand rushes round the circle of the assembled
tribesmen. If the criminal is among them, one of
the reeds flies out of his hand as he approaches him.
This reed he picks up, as the magic reed, and lays
the bundle aside. He then presses it against the
man indicated, when, if he is guilty, the rod revolves
in his hand.* When an earthquake occurred at
Accra, the king issued a proclamation that his father's
spirit was giving the earth a shake, because the
children were not obeying the customs, and giving-
due reverence to the reigning monarch. After this,
he called for three of his principal chiefs, gave each
a drink of rum, delivered to them a message for his
father to the eftect that his wishes would be attended

* Elms]i3. Krapf. Perry.


to, and then had them beheaded. Thirty-four others
were enclosed in jar-hke baskets, their heads joro-
jecting from the neck. These were brought in one
by one and promptly beheaded, to go as an escort
with the chiefs who carried the king's dutiful
message. He then retired to his gardens, satisfied
he had done an act of most reverent devotion. His
conduct will not seem so strange and horrible as
at first sight appears, when it is borne in mind that
as late as 1230 human sacrifices were offered in
Prussia in honour of the goddess of corn and fruits. ^^
When old King Chop of Calabar drank, a chief
held his great toe. The chief of Old Town kept
his soul in a sacred grove near a spring of water.
Some Europeans, in frolic or ignorance, cut down part
of the grove, to the intense indignation of the spirit,
who, according to the king, would visit them with
all manner of evil.t A successor is not chosen till
the king is buried and all the ceremonies completed.
These are elaborate and protracted. What becomes
of the soul in the grove I do not know ; probably it
enters the new king, who in turn deposits it in the
wood for safe keeping. For, after all, this is the great
object of savage man in guarding divinity, and if a
perfectly safe place could be found for the purpose of
depositing the soul there, he would be supremely
happy. But as love laughs at locksmiths, so do
wizards at man's arts in concealing the whereabouts
of souls. To enter the council of government among
the Waneka, the candidate is placed in an enclosure
where he lies down as if stone dead. His head is

* Dr. Maclear. t New.


then covered with a thick layer of mud. A mixture
of clay and hair is spread over his face. Horns are
mounted over his eyes, and his body decked with
feathers. He is then led to the edge of the forest,
where he wanders till he has killed a man, after which
he returns and has a ring of rhinoceros hide placed
upon his arm as a badge of office and to indicate
that he is now a sacred person,* Some tribes regard
twins as the greatest good luck, others as monsters to
be killed — the harbingers of calamity. Most, if not
all Africans have some sacred animal which they do
not kill, and with which their lives are in some way
bound up. This is in reality fetish, totem or clan
badcre, accordingf to the stag-e of civilization at
which a peojole has arrived. Among the Majame
strangers are received in the following manner : — A
goat is brought forward by the tribal priest, which
the chief takes by the horns and spits on its fore-
head, saying, " As this stranger has come into our
land, and says he is our friend ; if he lies may he
perish, he and all his caravan." The stranger then
takes the goat, and doing as the chief has done, says,
" If I practise any evil against Maganine, him or his
people, his cattle or his lands, may I utterly perish,
and this caravan." + The ofoat's head is then cut off
" that blood and saliva may mingle." The skin of
its forehead is divided into two parts and one given
to each of the parties to the contract. A small slit
is made in this and worn as a ring on the middle
finger in token of brotherhood. Tlie Wagorengo
of the same region practise blood brotherhood to

* New. t Myer.


cement friendship/'-' The peoi)le of Kiwendo never
sacrifice a goat, but at their great rehgious meetings
thev turn one adrift to wander where it will. The
animal has a collar of cowries tied round its neck, by
which it is distinguished from a strayed animal. "''
This is the only approach to the idea of a scapegoat,
as understood bv the Jews, I know of in Africa.
The goat is devoted to Lubare. Of old, when a
Scottish king gave an unjust judgment his neck
took a twist, and so remained till justice was done.
African chiefs have boils/|; in such a case as this.

These customs 1 have set down at random, select-
ing them from the observances of peoples wideh"
apart. My object is not to trace the development
of any idea, but to show that all these are in the
savao-e mind associated with relioion and the
worship of the gods. This will be better understood
if we now consider acts of devotion, and tlie object
aimed at l)v the performance of these acts.

* Ashe. t Ihid. Z- Grant Stewart.



To the savage who is constantly surrounded with
spiritual beings, and whose life is dependent on secur-
ing their continued favoui-, no actions can be per-
formed without a relio-ious siy'nificance. He has not
arrived at the idea of natural law apart from agents
which regulate phenomena. To these agents he owes
allegiance, because of the benefits he receives at
their hands, and according to his conceptions of
their wants and wishes, their tastes and fancies, will
his life and actions be ordered. At first sio-fit it
would appear as if the whole business of religion
were left to its avowed professors, for these are in
evidence in connection with everv event which
happens. But there could be no greater error than
to conclude that the magician's vocation represents
the domestic religious life of the people. We may
take it as a general rule that the magician's services
are required only in connection with what is unusual
in village life, as births, marriages, deaths, accidents,
evil omens or any circumstance the meaning of
which may be doubtful. The religion of ordinary
life, of eating and drinking, sleeping and walking,
w^orking and talking is conducted by each individual
according to the approved method of the tribe. In


the details of this reho-ion he has been instructed
from childhood. His intellectual faculties lie dor-
mant, but the ritual of life has been burned into his
very soul and become part of his being. An
African is no more likely to forget the minutest
detail of private devotion than a European is to
foro-et to undress when he retires to rest. The
chief, as in the case of the Barotsi, may be a demi-
god,* and his people flock to his village for protection
during a thunderstorm, but it would be an error to
suppose the Barotsi devoid of a religion and ritual,
because of this simple childish trust in the divinity of
the chief They have a peculiar method of present-
ing their offerings. A sacred horn is stuck into the
ground, and when they sacrifice they pour the blood
of the victim over the horn. It is also customary
to tie pieces of cloth devoted to the gods round it.
The horn is generally placed in a sacred grove, and
is really an altar to which the worshipper repairs to
do his private devotions. +

There seems but little religion in a number of
love-sick swains batterino- one another with slave
whijDS, nor in a maiden running knife-blades into
their thighs, but in a land where the Indl is the
emblem of universal life the gods rejoice to see a
display of vigour and virile power. That and heroic
endurance are the cardinal virtues. A free fight
with bare sabres for a crown is not consistent with
our ideas of succession, and the suggestion of
weapons of war banishes all thoughts of devotion
from our minds. But he who is to sit ujjon the

* Arnot, Garanyanze. t Ibid.


throne favoured by the gods must, as an act he
owes to them, win his position by giving evidence
of the physique as well as mental vigour necessary
for upholding the dignity of the tribe. A chief
hanging on to the toe of old King Chop as he
regaled himself with trade rum is not suggestive of
altars and incense, but then King Chop himself was
divine and represented the god-life to his people.
To hold his toe was a sacred office, an act of dutiful
obedience to the gods. Who could tell but, as he
poured the " devil water " down his throat, the god
spirit might escape by his toes if these were not
held by a sacred person '{ The Waneka who
wandered in woods with murderous intent during
his novitiate believed himself to be doing a religious
duty of the most sacred nature, and that without
this preliminary the gods would never give him
wisdom in council nor strategy in war. By
obedience he was qualifying himself to advise
reo-ardino- the affairs of orods and men, so diiferent
are savage man's conceptions of qualification for
office from ours.

The King of Dahomey while doing homage to
the gods would to us appear to be engaged in a pro-
fitable commercial transaction, and but for his being
himself divine there would be a strong suspicion
that considerations of profit influenced him. All
the women of the country are his by divine right.
It is an act of divine favour to bestow a wife on a
subject, and when he does bestow one he expects
handsome black mail. It is he who gives to men
all they possess. They must toil for the corn which


the king- gives through regulatmg the course of
nature, and if they must pay by toil for the lower
gifts, it would be impiety not to labour also for the
higher — that is, for their wives. The king has
given his subjects fecundity ; the}- in return must
reward him for the blessing-, else the voun^-er o-enera-
tion of women will be barren.

Thus we see that many acts, which according to
Western ideas are far removed from the region of
devotion and worship, are in reality parts of a life
every act, word, and movement of which has a signi-
ficance in a religious sense. I have seen natives of
Africa perform acts of devotion before the eyes of
men who declared that they had no idea of worship
nor of gods. When a native glances at the sun or
moon, he prays ; when he drops a small particle of
food on the ground before he begins to eat, he offers
an oblation ; if he throws a tuft of grass, a bit of
stick, or a stone, out of his hut door in the morning
before he emerges himself, he has said matins.
Nor does he neglect to sing vespers when he turns
his face to the bright constellations overhead be-
foi'e rolling himself up in his skin blanket for the
night. These are all acts of devotion, and represent
forms of worship common among a large proportion
of primitive men. They are performed by each
individual on his own account, apart from the more
formal religious rites which are the proper functions
of the magician. And this is consistent with what
we know of the growth of religious ritual among
those nations where the evolution of relio-ion can be
best studied. The earliest forms of devotion of


which we have an account among the Jews were
very simple and acts of sacrifice were exceptional
and rare. With the development of the religions
life of the people different orders sprung up, and
these confined themselves to particular functions.
But thou oh M^e know but little of domestic and
individual religion among the mass of the people,
such indications as we have go to show that each
man did perform acts of devotion however simjjle
these mio'ht be.

We have seen that the king of Old Town kept his
soul in a sacred grove, and that this was an act of
devotion. It, however, gives the clue to a class of
myths which are common from the Ganges to the
Atlantic, and that is the soul dwelling apart from
the body. It is difticult to classify the legends and
folkdore tales in which these myths are met with.
They partake of magic certainly ; but are more of
the nature of devotion, and the caring for the soul's
welfare by placing it in such safe keeping as to defy
the enemies of mankind to obtain access to it.

In a former chapter reference was made to the
soul's absence during sleep or fainting. Some of the
dangers of soul-snatching by ghosts, wizards, and
evil spirits have also been noticed. The dangers of
the soul during its temporary absence were consider-
able. While resident in a man's body it was com-
paratively safe ; but even then there w^ere dangers,
and dangers of such nature as to be difiicult to
fuard against. While a man remained in sound
vigorous health his soul was safe, but should he be
taken ill his soul was then in danger, for it could

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 12 of 18)