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regular saturnalia held in the vicinity a few days
before. As he proceeded to denounce their customs
and their doings, I noticed a curious restlessness
among them. The climax was reached when he com-
pared their behaviour, in search of drink and other
enjoyments, to that of strange dogs arriving at a
village, and sniffing about the places frequented by
local curs. To the natives this was not preaching ;
it was moral turpitude, and their feelings were tersely


expressed by an old chief, who, when outside, uttered
the single word " filth," and walked away. The
reason of this was plain. If there is one thing
beyond all others against which the soul of an
African rebels, it is to be compared to a dog, or to
have it suggested that there can be anything in
common between himself and his dog. A thief, it is
true, is a wolf, but then thieves like wolves are made
to be destroyed. So far is the aversion carried that
there is a distinct " dog language," and the words
composing it are never applied to men, except in
defiance, or as the language of insult. To bid a man
begone by the use of the word one applies to a dog,
would be equivalent to throwing a glass of wine in
a gentleman's eyes in the days when Irish steeple-
chasing was in its glory. In a land where cowdung
and urine are necessary requisites of the toilet, bury-
ing a dog would prevent the growth of the season's
crops.* It is by a knowledge of such customs and
prejudices we can reach the minds of such peoples,
and come to have an understanding of their domestic
life. By beginning with what they can understand,
we can gradually advance leading them to higher
conceptions both of man and of God.

But while it is imjDossible to discuss the details of
their moral code, there are broad outlines common to
all primitive peoples which help us to an understand-
ing of the progress of thought among them. The
harem and zenana we may regard as a compara-
tively late development ; the product of an advancing
civilisation, and the growth of exclusive political

* Scillocks and Dinka.


power in the hands of the chief. The exclusiveness
and sanctity of the harem could only be the product
of settled government, permanent residence, and
suitable buildings. Among a nation of hunters,
wandering from place to place, a zenana would be an
impossibility. Seclusion of any considerable number
of persons would entail settled residence. At the
same time, we find among primitive races that
infidelity on the part of any of the king's wives is a
capital offence, even if the custom is all but universal
among the lower orders. To them a lapse on the
part of a member of the royal household is a serious
crime, while their opinion regarding other orders is
faithfully expressed in the reply of the Kaffir to whom
his missionary said, " I know many of you spend
your nights roaming about afler other men's wives."
"No, master," he answered, "we do not do that, we
have our own wives at night ; it is during the day our
people go to see other women they love."* Another
Scotch parson was asked, " How many wives have
you," and on his replying that he had none, his
interrogator asked sympathetically, " Was that
because you could not get the cattle ? "

* Rev. J, Lundie. MS. notes.



A MORE savoury subject than public morality is
courtesy, which in Africa is all that could be desired
Hospitality hardly knows any bounds, and the chief
who receives a stranger as his guest treats him with
courtesy and kindness. Many chiefs, on the great
caravan routes, are now demoralised quite, and
demand blackmail as one enters their territory, a
demand sure to be repeated as he leaves. Man in
the early days of the world regarded his neighbour as
having a claim upon him, and in the age of hunting,
food, while it lasted, w^as practically common
property. To this day in times of great scarcity
food is hardly ever stored up by families for their
own use ; they share it with their more needy neigh-
bours. They reason in this way : — The gods are
good to men. They give them their food. They
watch over the actions of their children, and as the
fathers, who are now above, were good and kind to
the stranger and the poor, it is their will that their
children should obey custom. The whole of the
past is wrapped in a halo of glory which myth
weaves round it, and each man feels that he falls
short of the ideal life if the stranger leaves his house
hungry or empty-handed. When the native bards


sing- the praises of the mighty dead, their deeds of
valour occupy a secondary place, as if that were
the necessary accompaniment of hospitality and the
courtesies of life to the hungry wayfarer.

The king, as the father of his people, is responsible
for village hospitality, and by a kind of fiscal ar-
rangement he levies a tax for this purpose on those
of his people best able to bear a burden. His acts
of kindness to strangers are representative acts, and
any failure on his part is a disgrace to the tribe.* I
remember once visiting a man of some local standing.
He sent me a fowl for my supper, and the councillor
who brought it seemed to be ashamed of his com-
mission. Little was said, but I felt the reception I
met with did not promise success to my mission. I
was mistaken. After the clatter of tongues by the
camp fire ceased and all was still, the door of the hut
I occupied was cautiously opened, and the councillor
who had brought the fowl entered. In a low whisper
he said, " Here is meat," at the same time taking a
whole sheep's carcase from a young man who accom-
panied him. I asked what it meant ; and the old
man's reply I shall never forget, " It is," he said
" nothing. You have bought it. Brandy has killed
my chief." Here was loyalty ; loyalty to a chief whose
whole soul was in strong drink, to the neglect of all
the functions of royalty. He, as a councillor, could
not offer to do what his chief neglected, but his sense
of honour, and particularly the honour of his chief
and tribe, prompted him to do by stealth what he
felt was necessary to uphold ancient tradition, though

* J. Sutton, M.S. notes.


by doing it he put his neck in some dang-er. Very
pathetic too were his words, " Brandy has killed my
chief." The chief had not chano-ed ; had not neg -
lected the stranger ; did not forget the honour of
his tribe. No. He was dead, that was all, and for
his dead chief this loyal man did the courtesies of

Philosophers and traditional theologians never
weary of discussing the savage's moral sense and his
innate ideas of right and wrong. They iind it diffi-
cult to agree as to whether conscience is an inherent
faculty, uniform in its manifestations among all
classes and conditions of men, or an education of the
moral sense which is capable of development accord-
ing to man's stage of progress. I am not a
philosopher nor a professed theologian. I am simply
an observer of facts as these are met with every day
in Savagedom. But as an observer I have often
puzzled over the philosopher's right and wrong, and
the ideas attached to these terms ; over his uniform
manifestations, and the theologian's sweeping
generalisations regarding all classes and conditions
of men. I have wondered whether the philosopher's
ideas of right and wrong are based on our Western
conceptions — saturated as we have been by centuries
of Christian ethics — of a well-ordered state and social
system, or whether he would admit the Mosaic code
as a correct expression of the innate ideas of right
and wrong among the Jews at that time. And if
so, whether conscience as such, apart from education,
can have anything to say to such questions as
arise about a plurality of wives, for example ? I


have asked in vain if the traditional theologian
would admit within the sphere of men acting
according to their conscience, those who give their
property, their subjects, and even their children to
propitiate gods which to us are purely imaginary ?
Or whether we must regard them as wilfully violating
the most sacred instincts of human nature in
obedience to requirements which their sense of
right and wrong calls vanity ? Here again one asks,
and asks in vain. No light is offered, or it is deeper
than the mirk.

The one thino- of which I am certain is this : —


That these African races, whose religion we have
been studying, not only profess their faith in its
doctrines but really regulate their conduct by them,
and that down to the minutest details of life. Their
philosophy may be crude, but it is a philosophy.
Nor is it altogether a false philosophy. It is the
premises that are wrong, not the conclusion. It is
their want of knowledge, not their lack of moral
purpose. Their religion may be worse than none,
but it is the form of it and the channels in which it
runs which vitiate it, for the sincerity of the wor-
shippers is infinitely more real than that of men who
meet in Christian temples or worship God by proxy.
The code of ethics practised by primitive man may
shock our sensibilities, but he has reached it slowly,
painfully, and prayerfully notwithstanding. To him
religion is no pastime with which to amuse himself,
but a matter of the most terrible reality ; a matter
on which depends his present fortune and his future
place among the ancestors. Does he bring his women


to market ? He knows no better way, and must
observe the prescribed rule for his own protection
and theirs. Is his slain enemy's heart found in his
broth pot { This is not necessarily for love of human
flesh, but to give him qualities which will ensure his
own and his tribe's safety in war. Cannibalism I
regard as a late development relatively ; a taste
acquired in times of famine when men died like
sheep and were devoured by their famished com-
panions. This oi3inion I base on the partial distri-
bution of the practice and its entire absence among
most of the older races with which we have, in
recent times, been brought into contact. For
example : —

The Monbutto have no domestic animals, except
dogs, and they are among the most pronounced
cannibals in Africa. Such a people would suffer
terribly if the crops failed even for a single season,
and a succession of bad harvests would reduce them
to actual starvation. What more natural than that
this practice should have originated during a period
of dire distress and want, and so became a national
habit almost unconsciously. Stanley's forest canni-
bals seem, so far as we know, to depend entirely on
vegetable substances for food. To them a few sea-
sons of drought might mean extermination if they
did not resort to human carrion. Abnormal develop-
ments do not belong to the ordinary progTess of
thought as I have attempted to trace it ; and the
acts to which necessity has driven civilised men
should warn us against hasty conclusions. Especialh^
should it warn us against assuming that cannibalism


was derived from any system of philosophy rather
than from necessity and dire distress.

When primitive men walk abroad in nature's robes,
and women adorn themselves with a tail of ofrass
behind their backs as their sole o-arment after the
manner of the Baris,"* we are shocked at their im-
modesty, and cry out that they must be devoid of
all sense of morality. This is exactly what a Mon-
butto mother would say to her daughter, if she
appeared arrayed in the ample loin cloth worn by
lier brother rather than in her own bit of leaf
attached lightly to her girdle. These are nature's
own children doing nature's own bidding. They are
advancing by steps so slow as to be imperceptible,
by the same road by which our ancestors travelled
thousands of years ago. They are at a stage of
development now corresponding to that of the
remote ancestors of the Ancient Greeks. To the
primitive European, as to the primitive African, a
simple code of morals was not only sufficient, it was
complete, wise, and good ; the will of the gods. Only
as he advanced did his moral perceptions grow, and
so too will the primitive African's ; only let not the
European expect too much, or look for permanent
good on a large scale from a precocious and abnormal
development of an individual here and there. Such
individuals may do something within the sphere of
their personal influence to raise their fellow country-
men. But only when new conceptions come to
permeate the mass of the people, and the new philo-
sophy commends itself as true for all classes, can

* Felkin.


there be a general upward movement. Such move-
ments, when permanent, are by way of evolution
rather than revolution.

We are far from exhausting the religious aspect
of custom and myth when we have disposed of
public morals and the relation of the sexes. Religion
enters into the prosecution of the industrial arts and
even the amusements of life. The hunter has his
religious rites which he performs before he enters
the forest, and after he kills the first animal of the
chase. His return from a successful expedition must
be signalised by performing ceremonial acts. Even
the manner of carrying home the game is prescribed
by ritual.

When iron ore is dug and smelted, the smith
must observe certain rules and conform to the
necessary religious observances."^ His forge must
be placed at a distance from the village dwellings,
and no one dare approach at the critical moment
when the molten metal begins to flow, except those
versed in the mysteries of the art. t The fire
used to cook first-fruits must not be kindled by a
vulofar brand snatched from the domestic hearth,
but must be sacred fire made by the magician in the
time-honoured way.;}: While the crops are growing
and before the feast of first-fruits is held, no forest
tree may be cut, as that would be to wound the
spirit of vegetation, which, to primitive man, would
be equivalent to wounding the god.

The sanctity of fire I have touched upon only
incidentally, but in connection with it there is an

* Mj-er, Killlmanjaro. + G. M. Tlieal. t J. Sutton, MS. notes.


elaborate ritual and endless restrictions. Fire as such
is venerated. To kindle fire in an enemy's country
during war is to invite sunshine and prosperity on
one's foes. The sun is reo^arded as the father of fire.
The moon too has her votaries and the devil dances
of the Damaras are usually observed when the moon
is full. So too the moon dances of West Africa,
where their devil-houses are roofed with human
skulls.* Dances before engaging in war are held
durino- moonlio-ht, and must not be neo'lected on
pain of defeat and dire calamity. These and a
thousand other minute observances enter into the
daily religious life of the African, as they do into
that of all primitive peoples. And the curious thing
is, not that they resemble customs once common
among civilised men, for the human mind in its
search for knowledge works by the same methods
in all lands, but that so much of what is ancient,
dating back far beyond historic time, should survive
among the nations of Europe.

A number of the observances referred to have
been illustrated by survivals in civilised countries.
These could be multiplied almost indefinitely.
Even the Pondomise law forbidding the cutting of
green wood while the crops are growing, has, or had
recently, its corresponding custom in the remote
Hitrhlands of Scotland. I recollect hearincr a Gaelic
rhyme which enumerated the trees which might not
be cut after " the opening of the leaf" The moun-
tain ash, if to be used as a talisman, must be cut
"while the leaf is in the bud." The willow must

* Waddell.


not be touclied " after April diiy." I have no
means of recovering the rhyme, but the woman who
used to repeat it declared that in her young-er days
its directions were always observed bv " wise
people," but were now neglected l3y " a generation
whose end was near." The worth v matron had the
reputation of "knowing more than others."

Another custom which survived in Scotland till
within the last seventy years, and which was doubt-
less a survival from very early times, was the
Tein egin or forced fire. This was kindled on May-
day, and each villager, all domestic fires having
been extinguished the previous evening, received a
brand from the sacred j^ile with which to kindle
their domestic hearths. Men who had failed to pay
their debts, or had been guilty of notorious acts of
meanness were refused the sacred fire, and this was
equivalent to expulsion from one's club. It was for
the time social ostracism. Nor were our Hip'hlanders
ignorant of trial by ordeal. They tied their witches
hand and foot, after which thev tossed them into a
pond. If they floated they were taken out as the
oracle proclaimed their innocence, Ixit those of them
who sank were allowed to drown. No farther trial
was needed, for the ordeal never lied. So, too, the
Felata of West Africa ascertains if the king-'s death
was caused by his own wives by giving each member
of the harem a dose of poison. These same Felata
women, should they see the Juju or great fetish,
Avhen carried in procession, had such accidents
as occasionally happen to pregnant mothers, and
became sterile from that time. A similar fate


happened to Highland women who saw the fairy
bull. Blood brotherhood, which is so common in
Africa, bears a close resemblance to foster brotlier-
hood as between the heir to the chieftainship and
the clansman with whom he was reared. But to
enumerate more of such minor customs would be
tedious. Their general tendency is all in one direc-
tion, and goes to show how slow is the process of
evolution through which religious thought must
pass before it reaches the higher conception of one
supreme God, and the substitution of a single Incar-
nation, revealing the wdll of God to man, for the
multitude of prophets who claim to hold converse
with the unseen. From the ranks of these prophets,
as the order recedes from its original ideal and
purpose, men arise who strike into new paths and
lead their fellows into the light of a higher concep-
tion of human life and the destiny that awaits



The foregoing pages are but the barest outline of* a
subject of absorbing interest, not only to the eth-
nologist, but to all who wish to have an acquaintance
with early processes of human thought. The facts
are culled from the literature of Africa with occa-
sional reference to the customs of other countries.
These are few in number, and detached from their
local setting, but they go to show that most of the
customs that have survived must at one time have
been common to the human family. From the
days of the great dispersion, man has wandered
hither and thither over the face of the earth, but
he has never relaxed his hold of the few facts with
which he started. To his little stock-in-trade of
ideas he has clung with a tenacity only equalled by
that with which he clung to life. He has added to
his knowledge, adapted his ideas to new circum-
stances, discovered new facts and taken possession
of them, but parted with nothing. This of itself
shows how equally balanced his knowledge and his
necessities must have been in the early days. He
could part with nothing, and continue to exist till
he had replaced it by something higher and better.
The inventive faculty with which he was endowed


enabled him to widen his knowledge, and call to his
aid factors and forces which has made a o-ulf between
savage men and civilised which is almost, if not
altogether, absolute and impassable.

But is the gulf unfathomable, or even as deep as
it appears to many earnest students to be ? Is
there not much common to both which seems to
bind them, over a long-forgotten past, into one
whole ? May not the present gulf be bridged, and,
if bridged, how ? By what means can civilised man
most easily and speedily bring within reach of his
savage brother's understanding those facts which
constitute the difference between them ? How is pri-
mitive man to be persuaded that those forces which
civilised man calls to his aid are natural forces, con-
trolled by industrious application of what is ready
to any man's hand, rather than a more powerful
species of magic ? Is it possible to convince an
African railway stoker that he is not generating
magic as he shovels coals into the fire-box ? And,
if possible, how is it to be done ?

" Supply him with blankets and flannel shirts,"
says one. In other words, extend European com-
merce to the remotest forest hut in Africa, and the
farthest headland of the northern seas, so that by a
mutual exchange of the African's ivory and gums,
and the Lapp's oil and tallow, for our manufactures,
they may, wearing our garments, be endowed with
our spirit. " Send him Bibles," says a second, and
make known to him the revealed Will of God.
You only demoralise him by your trade ; he
ceases to be nature's nobleman, and he does not


become a creature of civilisation. Your trade and
dress do not suit his condition ; his only hope is in
being supplied with mental food and that food Divine
truth." " Leave him to himself," says a third ; " he
o-ot on verv well before the Bristol merchant found
him out and plantations yearned for his presence
among the sugar-canes. Besides, he made good pro-
gress in the interval until the Manchester spinner
re-discovered liim, and the Hamburg rum merchant
began to pity his thirst." It is the old story of
too many physicians. Like the Sick Man on the
Bosphorus, every nation in Europe has a remedy,
but the patient is seldom consulted, if at all.

The last class of physicians may be summarily
dismissed. No man, if he be not a dreamer of inj-
possible dreams, imagines it possible for one moment
for civilised man to leave savage man alone. The
inexorable evolution of events has brought them
together after thousands of years of separation and
wandering. Brothers still, re-united by a common
destiny, they stand face to face, and on the races
who know^ most, who can command agents to do
their will, and who can calculate the probable cur-
rents of the future, will depend the fate of those
wdio are still in the throes of the early struggles of
the human mind. The cry out to leave savage man
alone is but the language of ignorance or unchris-
tian sloth. Tlie apathy it implies is foreign to the
healthy pulse of public opinion, and it may be left
to the oblivion it deserves.

Of those who advocate commerce and industry
apart from mental and moral training, or moral


and religious instruction divorced from industry and
commerce, each is earnest in the advocacy of the
methods which appear to promise success, and be-
Heves that in the adoption of its theories a panacea
would be found for all the ills that afflict savagedom.
Make him work, says the latest gospel, and then he
will come to feel his need of European commodities
and luxuries. This will extend our commerce and
benefit the savage, for then our business men and
great capitalists will have an interest in him. These
are not the exact words of introduction used by
men preaching this gospel, but they express its
purpose and meaning much more clearly than the
approved definitions. T should be sorry if anything
I may say should be construed against commercial
enterprise and the introduction of a knowledge of
the industrial arts into savage lands. On the con-
trary, I believe in both as powerful factors in the
elevation of the human race, and that the spirit of
persevering industry and trade, when it lays hold of
a people, spurs them on towards both material and
mental development. But it is well to look at the
conditions fairly, and estimate things at their true
value. The savage is nature's own child. He may
have the cunning of the fox and the keenness of the
lynx's eye when in his native forest, but bring him
to a factory, and the glitter of a handful of glass
beads fills his imagination with dreams of wealth.
It may be that, being given to pombe, he asks for a
stimulant. The princi2)al articles of barter being-
trade rum and Holland square-face, he is treated to
a drink of one of these, and tastes the fiery flavour.


He feels their prompt action, and from that day he
is a doomed man. He has not the moral resolution

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Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 14 of 18)