Copyright
James MacDonald.

Religion and myth online

. (page 4 of 18)
Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 4 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


cocoa-nut tree men. Does an infant destroy its
mother '( Should a man kill the spirit of the tree
that is the bread of the people ? " Other Waganga
and Waneka religious observances will fall to be
considered under oaths and ordeals.

These illustrations of the religious beliefs of East
and Central Africa are sufficient for our present
purpose, but before passing to the discussion of the

* Krapf.



44 RELIGION AND MYTH

divinities of the West Coast we may glance at one
phase of a class of social customs extending- from
the Cape of Good Hope to the banks of the Nile,
and Avhicli are substantially the same among all
peoples over that vast area, though with infinite
variety of detail in the manner of their perform-
ance. I refer to the ceremonies and usages con-
nected with the initiation of young people into
manhood and womanhood at the age of puberty.
In South Africa circumcision and intonjane are
universal. The details of these ceremonies vary,
but the object is the same in all. The usual ritual
connected with circumcision is as follows : At the
season of the year when crops are beginning to
ripen, all the young men of a locality are circum-
cised by the village doctor, and are then insolated in
huts, previously prepared, at some distance from
the ordinary dwellings, generally near the edge of a
clump of trees. Men are appointed to watch over
the neophytes, and to prevent their having inter-
course of any kind whatsoever with women. They
daul) the young men all over with a pure white
clay, which for the period of probation is their dis-
tinguishing badge. During their novitiate they are
subjected to considerable privations. What butcher's
meat they receive they must steal, and as every
one is on the alert when "white boys " are about,
stealing is by no means a simple art, nor is failure
in the attempt the end of the afiair. For failure
they are unmercifully beaten by their tutors, while
a successful foray is worthy of all praise. Tliey are
compelled to do violent bodily exercise in dancing



EVOLUTION OF DEITY 45

and running, and are often kept awake for several
consecutive nights. They are beaten with sapUngs
and deprived of food, all of which is meant to render
them hardy and indifferent to pain, and also as a
privation before they receive that full license which
is an essential portion of their initiation. At the
close of these preliminary ceremonies the white clay
is washed off their bodies ; they receive new gar-
ments, and then repair to the residence of the chief,
Avhere the elders of the tribe and a great concourse
of men and women have already assembled. Their
bodies are now anointed with oil. Harangues hj the
minister of war, magician, and bards follow as to
their duties to their chief in peace and war. Arms
are put into their hands, and they thereby receive
the privilege of manhood. A great festival follows,
continued for several days and nights. The customs
sanctioned by law and usage at these festivals are
generally described as obscene. They are certainly
such as to lead to the inference that the whole
ceremony of initiation is based on the principle of
doing homage to the powers of nature.

In the lake region of Central Africa, and espe-
cially among the Wayao, the "mysteries" are per-
formed at a corresponding period of life, and there,
even more than in the South, it is evident the
object is to honour the budding powers of nature
as a divinity. The corresponding ceremonies
through which young women pass do not admit of
description in a popular work ; the object is clearly
the same.

When we ask a native to explain the purpose of



46 RELIGION AND MYTH

these ceremonial usages, he replies that without
them the young folk would always remain children,
and never could become men and women in the
proper sense. There seems to be no distinct phi-
losophy to explain the custom ; "it was always so,
and if our people neglected it we would die ; " which
means, gradually decay and disappear as a people.
Only when the details are carefully studied — the
ill-usage and privation of the preliminary stage,
the unchecked license of the festival, and manhood
not being attained without both — and compared
with other customs common everywhere, do we
come to understand that the object is to do homage
to nature ; that the beatings and fastings may even
be symbolical of putting the person, or at least the
spirit of creative and reproductive energy, to death,
to be revived, honoured, almost worshipped, during
the festival which closes the ceremonies.

These ceremonies are performed while the crojjs
are still green but approaching maturity, by sacred
persons whose office is religious. Among some
tribes, as the Hottentots, circumcision must not l)e
performed with a knife, but with a sharp bit of
quartz. Blood must be encouraged to flow to a
certain extent. The festival marking the close of
the ceremonies must be held before harvest opera-
tions are officially commenced, and on the part of
the performers there must be a display of the
utmost vital energy in dancing, wrestling, and
other exercises. The homage due to the goddess
presiding over, or residing in, such powers is the
true significance of the customs and ritual belonging



EVOLUTION OF DEITY 47

to the period when youth emerges into manhood
and womanhood. Nor does this view lack confirm-
ation from the usages of other countries and times.
Harvest festivals are, and have been, akin to the
worship of Bacchus, with the rites of Venus added.
Men and women who are modest, well-behaved, and
in all respects reputable members of society, abandon
themselves at the season of first-fruits to the gods
and goddesses of nature till satiety and disgust
recall them to their senses again. Such revels are
not the exclusive privilege of savages, for the con-
duct of the Israelites regarding the Midianites
whom they conquered is a case in point. So, too,
under other and far difPerent conditions, the wor-
ship of the Corinthian Venus and the practice
common in Indian temples show the same honours
and homage, even worship given to the powers of
nature. And this is nothing else than the worship
of the spirit of creative or reproductive energy in
the animal world, as we have already seen in
connection with the growth of trees, corn, and
vegetation generally. The deity is Mother Earth ;
the worship, to ensure her good offices in continuing
her bounteous office of reproduction.

The West Coast of Africa is the land of fetish.
How this system originated it is impossible to deter-
mine, but there are indications which seem to point
back to its beginnings as a separate religious system.
Among many African tribes it is common to pre-
serve bones, and especially skulls, of ancestors as
relics of the dead.* These were supposed to be the

* Rowley, Africa Unreiled.



48 RELIGION AND MYTH

abode, temporary or permanent, of the departed soul,
and were tended and guarded Avith all the reverence
due to an ancestral spirit itself. From reverence
and filial piety the transition to worship would be
natural and easy. The soul dwelling in the skull
was able to give or withhold certain blessings, and
when treated with the respect due to it, could be of
great service to the devout descendants who kept
and tended it. In this Avay may have originated at
once the worshijj of fetish, and the well-known
African habit of giving the aged a help to leave the
world, on the assumption that their bones and dis-
embodied spirits would be of greater service to the
living than their bodily presence, when age and in-
firmity had rendered them helpless. The attention
bestowed on an invisible spirit residing in a well-
cleaned skull, would not be more troublesome than
that required by an aged grandfather, while the
former in activity and power to benefit his descend-
ants was vastly superior. At first each family
would preserve and tend its own relics, but with the
lapse of time their care would devolve on the
priests, and with the accumulation of bones suitable
receptacles would be provided, developing gradually
into special houses or temples consecrated for this
purpose, and sacred. From such relic-reverence and
worship to fetish would be such an easy transition
that no revolution in religious thought would be
needed to accomplish it, and once the departed
spirit could take uj) its abode in another object
than a bone of its original owner, the growth of
fetish objects would proceed apace. The magician,



EVOLUTION OF DEITY 49

by the exercise of his own supernatural power, could
impart to any object a sacred character and make it
the home of the soul. For a similar reason he
could impart to objects, as necklets, virtues for the
protection of the wearer, this object being but a
lower form of fetish through which the supernatural
influence for protection came to be imparted to the pos-
sessor ; only, in this case its virtues were restricted
to the person on whom the magician bestowed
it. Where relic- worship became common the ob-
ject charmed by the magician would naturally be
supposed to be the home of a guardian spirit, and if
rudely carved into the image of a man the connec-
tion between it and a departed ancestor needed no
demonstration. Once this principle became estab-
lished there would be no limit to the multiplication
of fetishes. And so it is that any object in nature
may be the abode of spirits. An islet in a lake, a
sharp pinnacle of rock, a stone above water in a
river, a human bone, a carved image, a ram's horn,
or even a man's weapons, may be fetish and have
spirits dwelling in them. Fetish brings victory in
war, success in fishing, hunting, or trading. It
cures all ailments from insanity to sterility."^ It
preserves life or destroys it, according to the inten-
tion of the votary and the nature of the offering, t
Its uses are as wide as are the necessities of man,
and it can be adapted to every circumstance of
life.

But this is not much worse than certain cus-
toms still lingering in obscure corners of England.

* Eowley. t Winterbotham.



50 RELICIION AND MYTH

One of these, known as ''Toad-day," seems to
carry us back to the days of the Druids, or even an
earHer and pre- Aryan period. On Toad-day people
resort to a " wise man," or in other words a wizard,
to purchase a charm or fetish which is to protect
them and theirs from injury for a year. This charm
consists of a leg torn from a living toad, wliich the
purchaser devoutly wears about his person.* In
Scotland " wise women " cure rheumatism by giving
the patient a potato which he must carry in his
trousers pocket. While it is in his possession, and
carried according to prescription, he is exempt from
attack. I once heard a shrewd, long-headed farmer
say : " I ha'e haen a twinge o' rheumatics. I had a
tatie I got frae a wife, but I slipped it oot o' my
pouch amang a wheen twine." The potato being
lost or mislaid, his old enemy had returned.

We have seen how religion, when the king ceases
to be worshipped as a man-god, tends to pass over
to a deification of the powers of nature, associating
with these the reproductive energy of departed
priests or ancestors. These, or their spirit, may be
present in any object, or they may only occupy the
j)Osition of an influence, as w^hen an African says
when he escapes from danger, " The soul of my father
saved me." This tends to become pantheism — a dei-
fication of all nature. Such is the root idea of
Mluniru of the Zulus : the father of the race of men
among the Sillocks on the Nile ;t Loma of the Bongo ;|
heaven fire or lightning of the Mitto,§ and the Lubare
of the Lake region. || This is a comparatively late

* Rowley. t Schweinfurth. % Ibid. § Ibid. \\ Mackay.



EVOLUTION OF DEITY 5j

development, and can only be elaborated after religion
has passed through many phases, and man comes to
regard the supernatural as distinct from and inde-
pendent of his own will. The older forms may and
do persist after philosophy has arrived at the pan-
theistic idea, but they are on the wane, and preparing
to follow the systems which preceded into the land
of forgetfulness. Before considering the doctrines of
substitution, sacrifice and sacrificial worship, we may
examine traces of nature-worship under the form of
the creative or reproductive spirit, as that has sur-
vived in civilised lands in popular superstition, cere-
monial acts, and national festivals.

One of the most familiar of festivals is the village
May-pole, an undoubted survival from veiy ancient
times. We may the better understand its signifi-
cance if we compare the yearly merry-making on
the village green with the Galla festival of Woda,
or, better still, with the annual saciifices to Tari b}^
the Khonds of India. Our knowledo-e of this latter
festival is full and accurate. Major MacPherson,
who suppressed the custom now over forty years
ago, wrote an account of it in all its details, of
which what follows is a brief summary : — The
sacrifices were intended to ensure good crops and
avert accidents of all kinds in connection with the
fertility of the soil and yield of crops, as well as
fecundity and productiveness among the people.
The victim, or Meriah, was acceptable to the
goddess only in the event of being purchased or
being born of a victim purchased at a previous time.
To avoid accidents or difficulty in procuring a suit-



52 RELIGION AND MYTH

able Meriah at the time of the festival, a number
were always kept on hand to be ready in case of
emergency. Of these, many were women, and, as
the victims could not be sacrificed if pregnant, many
of them managed to escape their fate for years.
Their children were, however, doomed as victims
from infancy, as were also children of a free woman
by a male Meriah. Even free people, Khonds them-
selves, at times sold their children as victims. To
sell a son or daughter was the highest virtue, as
"the child died that all the world might live."*
These ghastly sacrifices were offered by tribes and
sub-tribes, and were so arranged that each house-
holder got a shred of flesh to sow in his fields about
the time when the crop was laid down, or as the
corn already in the earth began to sprout.

The sacrifices were performed in the following-
manner : — Ten days before the festival the victim's
hair was cut off. Thereafter came davs of feastino-
dancing, and devilry. On the day preceding the
sacrifice the victim was dressed in new and verv
fine garments, and then led from the village in
grand procession, with every possible circumstance of
display and honour. With music, dancing, ex-
uberant merriment, and homage done to the victim,
the procession wended its w^ay to the sacred grove,
at a distance from any dwellings, none of the
trees of which might be felled or touched with an
axe. Arri^•ed at the grove, the victim was tied to a
post, anointed with a mixture of oil and turmeric,
and richly adorned with cut flowers. During the

* MacPherson



EVOLUTION OF DEITY 53

whole of that da}' a species of reverence equivalent
to adoration was paid to the Meriah. There was a
constant struggle to obtain a flower, a particle of
the turmeric, even a spittle from the victim's person,
and these were rei>"arded as soverei^'n and absolute
in all cases to secure the end sought by the wor-
shipper. On the day of sacrifice the dance was
continued till noon, when it ceased, and the assem-
l:)led crowd — for young and old were present — pro-
ceeded to the final act. The victim was again
anointed as before, and at times carried in triumphal
procession from house to house. At this stage the
Meriah might not be bound nor make any sign of
resistance. It was indeed essential that there should
be a voluntary surrender and sacrifice. To ensure
success and perfect obedience with apparent willing-
ness, the priests might, and often did, break the
bones of both arms and legs, or, when this was not
done, they gave a dose of some narcotic, as opium.

The method of putting the victim to death was
strangulation, and that was performed in the fol-
lowinof manner : — A o-reen branch from a tree was
cleft for a leno'th of a few feet, and the victim's
neck inserted into the fork thus formed, after which
the officiating priest closed and secured the free
ends. He then wounded the Meriah slightly with
his axe, when the crowd rushed forward with knives
and bill-hooks to tear the flesh from the bones in
shreds and flbres, leaving the head, thorax, and
abdomen intact. An alternative method was to
fasten the victim to the trunk of a wooden elephant
which revolved on a pivot. As it whirled round



54 RELIGION AND MYTH

and round the crowd cut strips of flesh from the
livinii' Merlah. In each case the flesh was treated
in the manner we shall presently see. In one dis-
trict the method of death was slow roasting before
a large fire. In this case a low stage was formed
and on it the victim was placed. Fires were lighted
and burning brands applied to make the sacrifice
roll and wriggle as long as possible. The more the
victim rolled, and the more tears and cries, the more
plentiful w^ould be the crop.

All this looks like a sacrifice to the ofoddess Tari,
but when the treatment of the victim while held
captive, and the homage paid before being put to
death, too^ether with the use made of the shreds of
flesh is considered, it is highly probable that the
intention was the sacrifice of the goddess herself;
the decaying powers of nature put to death in
order that the spirit of these powers might re-enter
the earth as a creative and reproductive power, in
the same manner as the spirit of the slain king-
entered his successor and dwelt there. Confirma-
tion of this view is derived from the manner in
which the flesh was disposed of, which was as })ecu-
liar as it is suggestive.

The strips and shreds of flesh cut from the
Meriah were instantly carried away by ap})ointed
persons to the several villages represented at tlie
festival and sacrifice. To secure prompt arrival,
relays of runners Avere posted at short intervals
along the roads. Arrived at the village, the runner
deposited the flesh in the place of ])ublic assembly,
and there the priest divided it into two portions.



EVOLUTION OF DEITY 55,

One portion he buried in a hole in the ground, to
which, while he performed the operation, he kept
his back carefully turned. Then each villager, all
having rigidly fasted till now, added a little earth
till the hole was filled up. The other portion of
flesh the priest divided among heads of families,
who wrapped up each his share in green leaves and
proceeded at once to bury it in their corn-fields.
" For three days no house was swept, and silence
was generally observed.""^ In three days corn
sown sprouts; so, too, by inference, the spirit of corn
represented by the Meriah. The head and entrails
of the victim, which, as we have seen, had been left
intact, were watched by the priests for a night, and
next day burned with a whole sheep, and the ashea
scattered over the fields.

These observances clearly show that power was
ascribed to the victim other than is associated with
sacrifice to secure the favour of deity. But it may
he objected that there is no connection between such
bloody rites as those represented by Khond sacri-
fices and the merry-making on fine summer morn-
ings, as ruddy youths and fair maidens dance around
the village May-pole. To trace that connection we
must go back to a time when May- day festivities
meant, not the exuberant energy and frolic of
vouth, but the stern realities of a religion observed
by men in terrible earnest, and accompanied by the
sacrifice of quivering human beings to secure life and
favour from the gods. In order to understand this
we must trace briefly the history of another form

* Campbell.



56 RELIGION AND MYTH

of sacrifice and development of divinity common
among the Celtic tribes of Europe.

The story of the death of Balder, the good
and beautiful god, is familiar to all readers of Pro-
fessor Rhys' Celtic Heathenism. The goddess Frigg
obtained an oath from fire, water, metals, trees,
beasts of all kinds, birds, and creej^ing things, that
they would not touch or injure Balder. When this
was done the trod was reo-arded as invulnerable and
immortal. Loke, the evil- worker, was displeased
at what Frigg had done, and sought to discover if
anything had been omitted from the oath by which
he could injure or kill the god. He discovered that
the mistletoe had not been included, as beino- too
young to swear. So Loke went and pulled the
mistletoe, which he brought to the assembly of the
gods. A twig of it was given to Hodur, who made it
into an arrow, which he shot at Balder. It pierced
him through the heart and he fell down dead. The
assembled gods stood speechless for a great space,
and then lifted up their voices and wept, for the
best and bravest had fallen. Then Balder's ship
was launched bv a giantess who came ridino- on a
wolf, and his body placed on board on a funeral pile.
When his wife Nanna saw what was done her heart
burst for sorrow and she died. Her body was laid
beside her husband, and so too were his horse and
trappings. The ship having been fired, was sent to
sea witli its sad freight, and so ended the life of
Balder. This is briefly the story which in the
original Edda is told with great amplification of



EVOLUTION OF DEITY 57

circumstance. Its very minuteness suggests that it
belonofs to that class of myths which are invented to
explain ritual ; for a myth is never so graphic as
when it is a transcript of what the narrator has
seen.* The main incidents are : first, the pulling of
the mistletoe ; and secondly, the death and burning of
the god. Both these incidents appear to have formed
an essential part of Celtic ol)servances, as cut flowers
and the death of the Meriah did of the ritual of the
Khonds. We may now turn to May-day customs.
In all parts of Europe the peasantry, from time
immemorial, have been in the habit of kindling fires
and performing ceremonial acts on certain days of
the year. It is a universal custom to dance round
Midsummer fires, leap over them, and treat them as
in a manner sacred. These customs can be traced
back to the time of the Druids. They, in various
forms, survived all and every change, and still per-
sist, though thousands of years have elapsed since
the reasons which gave them birth have passed
away from the public mind. In Caithness, withni
the last seventy years, each family in the neighbour-
hood of Watten carried bread and cheese, before
sunrise on May morning, to the top of a hill called
Heathercow, and left it there. + After sunrise the
cowherds might take away the spoil for their own
use. No one could explain the origin of the prac-
tice ; it was unlucky to neglect it, that was all.
Here we have a survival of an offering to the earth
o-oddess, which in Druidical times was accompanied

* J. G. Frazer. t Rev. A. Gunn, MS. Notes.



58 EELIGION AND MYTH

with bloody rites and sacrifices, in which the sacred
mistletoe played an important part. It seems to
carry us back to the days of Balder, when men killed
the spirit of vegetation and creative energy in the
person of their god, that it might re-enter the growing
corn and make the earth fruitful once more. In
the Western Isles the people on a given day poured
out libations to the sea-god Shony, and then held
a festival with curious rites, which w^ere observed
not more than two centuries ago. There is an
account of the practice, written about 1690, as per-
formed at that date, and with w^hich the writer
seems to have been familiar : — " The inhabitants of
this island (Lewis) had an ancient custom to sacri-
fice to the sea-god called Shony at Hallowtide, in
the manner following. The inhabitants round the
island came to the Church of St. Malvay, having
each man his provision along with him ; every
family furnished a peck of malt, and this was
brewed into ale. One of their number was picked
out to wade into the sea up to the middle, and,
standing still in that posture, cried out with a loud
voice : ' Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping
that you'll be so kind as to send us plenty of sea-
ware for enriching our land for the ensuing year ;'
and so threw the cu]3 into the sea. At his return to
the land, they all went into the church, where there
was a candle burning upon the altar ; and then,
standing silent for a time, one of them gave a signal
at which the candle was put out, and immediatelv
all of them went to the fields, where they fell


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryJames MacDonaldReligion and myth → online text (page 4 of 18)