Lewis Richard Farnell.

The evolution of religion: an anthropological study online

. (page 1 of 11)
Online LibraryLewis Richard FarnellThe evolution of religion: an anthropological study → online text (page 1 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

1 "5-




" 5













U4 f 7 %




A SMALL book on a great and difficult subject
must explain and apologise for itself, especially
if it cannot claim a raison d'etre as a hand-
book for beginners. Having accepted the
stimulating invitation to give in the spring of
this year a short series of lectures for the
Hibbert Trust on some subject belonging to
the department of comparative religion, I felt
that it was desirable to avoid those topics that
had been appropriated by former lecturers ; and
also that the Trustees, as well as the audience,
deserved that what the lecturer put forth
should embody the results of some personal
and original study. I finally selected for
special discussion the ritual of purification, and



vi Preface

the influence of the ideas associated with it
upon law, morality, and religion ; and secondly,
the development of prayer from lower to
higher forms. These subjects do not appear
to have been as yet exhaustively treated by
modern anthropology or scientific and com-
parative theology, and I had already worked
upon them to some extent as " parerga " of the
treatise that I am completing for the Clarendon
Press on the history of Greek cults. I am
aware that these special questions would well
repay longer and more minute research, and
could each furnish material for a large volume.
But having been advised to publish the lectures
more or less as they were delivered, I put
them forth as tentative and incomplete work.
I specially regret to have been unable to have
gone further at present into the Egyptian
evidence, with the kindly proffered assistance
of Mr Griffiths, the Reader in Egyptology at

The first two lectures, dealing with the
methods and the value of the study of com-



parative religion and its relations to anthro-
pology, are of a more general character. If
they seem to occupy somewhat too large a
part of a work of this small compass, the
urgency of the questions they^raise may serve
as an apology. It was suggested to me that
some such pronouncement might be timely at
the point we have reached. For the subject
is winning greater consideration, and even
receiving endowment, in the organisation of
the newer Universities. From the scientific
point of view it is one of the most fascinating
of studies ; and its practical importance for
our colonial administrators and our missionaries
is obvious to those who reflect. It is also a
legitimate hope that its wider and more intel-
ligent recognition in England may tend to
cool and temper the heated atmosphere of
dogmatic controversy, by presenting religious
facts in their true proportion and proper

I must take this opportunity of expressing
my gratitude to many friends for valuable



assistance, and especially to my friend and
colleague, Mr R. Marett, to whose compre-
hensive knowledge of the religious thought
and ritual of savage races I owe many im-
portant clues.


August, 1905.









FORMS ........ 163


The Evolution of Religion



THE reasonable and sympathetic study of the
various religions of mankind, which are per-
haps the clearest mirror we possess of human
feeling, aspiration, and thought in its highest
and lowest forms, is only possible for the
individual or for the age that feels no con-
straining call to suppress and obliterate all
save one cherished creed. Such study began,
as we should expect, in the earlier Hellenic
period, the Hellenic religion throwing few
or no obstacles in the way of undogmatic
investigation; and the first anthropologist of
religion is Herodotus. Then among Hellen-

2 The Evolution of Religion

istic scholars and those of pre-Christian Rome
there were some who devoted themselves to
the collection and exposition of the religious
institutions of foreign races. But save a few
short treatises, such as Plutarch's De Iside et
Osiride, Sallustius' De Diis et Mundo, Lucian's
De Dea Syria, nothing has survived beyond the
titles and the fragments of their works ; and
by an irony of fortune we owe much of our
knowledge of Hellenic and other religions of
the Mediterranean area to the Christian con-
troversialists, who reveal many of the essential
features of the various pagan creeds in order
to expose them to obloquy : they could
not anticipate that we should gather as the
fruit of their labours a better appreciation
than we could otherwise have gained of the
religions which they strove to destroy, and
possibly of Christianity itself. If I were
attempting, as I do not propose to attempt,
to give a complete survey of the growth
and development of the study which we are
considering, I should probably be able to cull

Comparative Study of Religions 3

but little material for the narrative from
Byzantine and mediaeval sources. We may
note that the spirit of these ages was, on the
whole, alien to our present interest ; and that
it is not till after the Renaissance and the
discovery of America that systematic work in
this field begins again. To two Spaniards of
Peruvian and Mexican descent, 1 we owe our
knowledge of the religions of the Incas and
the Aztecs, that of the latter at least being of
prime importance for the student of the higher
religions of mankind. A Polish nobleman of
the 16th century has left us a fairly detailed
account of the religious practices and beliefs
of the then semi-pagan Lithuania. 2 But it
may be regarded as one of the greatest achieve-
ments of the latter part of the 19th century
to have raised the comparative study of re-
ligion to a high position in the whole domain
of inductive speculation and inquiry. And

1 Garcilasso de la Vega, Royal Commentary of the Incas
(Hakluyt Society) : Sahagun transl. Jourdanet et Simeon.

2 Jacob Laskowski, vide Usener, Gottemamen, p. 82, etc.

4 The Evolution of Religion

its development has been mainly due to two
independent lines of investigation. The first
stimulus came with the discovery and the
interpretation of the sacred books of the
East, a momentous epoch in the history of
European thought, and certain important
theories concerning religious origins were put
forth by Vedic scholars, and based on the
evidence of Vedic literature : at the same
time the decipherment of the Assyrian- Baby-
lonian and Egyptian texts has contributed a
wealth of new material, and has started new
problems of religious inquiry, which specially
concern the students of Hellenic as well
as those of Semitic antiquity. But an
equally or, as some may think, more power-
ful factor in the recent advance towards
the organised knowledge of religions has
been the growth, in the last half-century,
of the study that has appropriated the name
of anthropology, which is generally under-
stood to mean the study of primitive or
savage man, both in the past and the present,

Comparative Study of Religions 5

in respect of his physical and mental condi-
tions. It is quite unnecessary for me to dilate
on the high and manifold utility, both practical
and speculative, of this new branch of human
inquiry; the theme has become almost a
popular commonplace in the leading journal-
ism of the day. And anthropology, defined
as above, has a definite value and object apart
from its contributions to our knowledge of
the religions of the world. It is nevertheless
true that the religious interest in England is
so strong and penetrating, that many of our
leading anthropologists, in their investigations
of savage society, have directed their attention
mainly to religious or quasi-religious pheno-
mena. Even if their labours were confined
to the discovery and the exposition of savage
ritual and belief, we should still be greatly
indebted to them ; for to many of us at least
the savage man is interesting in his own right,
whether it is true or not that the study of his
mental phenomena helps to explain the mental
phenomena of our higher selves or of the

6 The Evolution of Religion

higher races in the past. But these writers
claim, and I think with right, to have done
more than this, and by comparison, induction,
and hypothesis to have thrown some light on
the evolution of religion from lower to higher
forms, and therefore to have laid the founda-
tion for the science with which we are con-
cerned. Also attempts have been recently
made by an accomplished scholar of the new
doctrine, Dr Frazer, to trace what may be
called the anthropological genesis of the
central idea of Christianity itself. 1 It is not
then surprising that in England at least such
claims and such ambitions should excite mis-
trust, even hostility, and the prestige of
anthropology may have also suffered at times
from the indiscretion of its friends. Still, its
work is of wide vogue, its energy exuberant,
and its influence in the future assured. In
considering, therefore, the aims and methods
of the comparative science of religion, it has
appeared to me that its relations to anthro-

1 Golden Bough, 2nd ed., vol. iii. p. 186.

Comparative Study of Religions 7

pology are now one of the main points in the
inquiry. And we may seem to have reached
a stage where it is desirable to test our posi-
tion, to take stock as it were, to examine our
methods, and to consider whether they are
capable of improvement. The task is difficult,
and in facing it one must face the imputation
of presumption, especially as in a short course
of lectures one must be brief, and may there-
fore appear over-dogmatic.

If the comparative study of religion is to
examine, as on the ground of its title it must,
the various recorded or discoverable religions
of every branch of the human family, then a
part of anthropology, limited, as it has usually
chosen to limit itself, to the study of the savage
races, is obviously a sub-department of the
whole. And its work, conducted often under
great difficulties, has been solid, well-organised,
and of high importance. Even those who
deny its claim to be called a science, whatever
that word may mean, must admit that it is
at least an indispensable branch of historic

8 The Evolution of Religion

inquiry, and that it has deepened the self-
knowledge of mankind.

Some of its pioneers may have been over-
eager in their theorising, premature in their
attempts to reveal the origin of all religion in
some savage ritual or in the background of
savage thought, for instance in ancestor- worship
or totemism. Such rash generalisations are
inevitable in the opening periods of a new
study, and may be discredited or abandoned
without discrediting the investigations that
gave rise to them. We may have come to
be aware of the excesses of the students of
totemism : we may have come to the convic-
tion that neither theirs nor any other special
and single hypothesis has as yet supplied us
with the master-clue by which we can pene-
trate to the aboriginal source of human
religion : we may have found scientific reasons
for rejecting the belief that all gods arose as
ghosts of departed ancestors. But if we dis-
card such theories of origin, we owe this
negative result to the maturer study of anthro-

Comparative Study of Religions 9

pology itself; and we may owe to it the
positive induction that the religious product
at the different stages and in the different
branches of mankind was a complex growth
from many different germs.

It has taught us also much more than this.
It has shown us that all through the present
societies of savage men there prevails an ex-
traordinary uniformity, in spite of much local
variation, in ritual and mythology, a uniformity
so striking as to suggest belief in an ultimately
identical tradition, or, perhaps more reason-
ably, the psychologic theory that the human
brain-cell in different races at the same stage
of development responds with the same
religious speech or the same religious act to
the same stimuli supplied by its environment.

We have learnt to discover a certain savage
style, as we may call it, in myth and ritual ; and
anthropology has performed a twofold work
of comparison ; for it has not only compared
the various savage races of mankind, but it
has compared the results of this colligation

io The Evolution of Religion

with the religious phenomena of the higher
races, and has revealed the savage style in
much of their mythology and ritual. It was
first discovered by the earlier investigators of
the antiquity of Northern Europe, such as the
brothers Grimm and Mannhardt, that under-
lying the religion of Christendom lay a stratum
of peasant-ritual and belief, not yet extinct
nor likely soon to be, that reveals the
same mental condition in early Europe that
exists among our savage contemporaries in
various parts of the world. Then the sacred
edifice of Hellenism was attacked ; and the
complacency of Hellenic scholars was some-
times disturbed by the revelation, through a
strict comparative method, of the same savage
style in much of Hellenic ritual and Hellenic
myth. Thus for the first time we came to
understand the true significance of many of
the crude and repulsive facts in Hellenic
religion the human sacrifices, the reverence
paid to animals, stones, and trees, the demon-
ology and magic rites. Many of these practices

Comparative Study of Religions 1 1

had lost their meaning for the more advanced
generations, who nevertheless retained them
under the strong constraint of religious con-
servatism ; but if we find the same practices
among existing races who perform them with
a living and plenary faith as part of a quasi-
logical structure of belief, we can place them
back into their proper setting when we dis-
cover them still surviving in the higher and
alien society. Greek religion especially, having
never violently broken with its own past, is
a bed of rich deposit still inviting exploration.
And now Hellenic scholars are ransacking
the same treasure for further anthropological
material ; while Assyriologists and Egypto-
logists are treating a part of the phenomena
of their special departments in the same spirit.
We realise the gain of this : we are slowly
and surely arriving at inductive conclusions
concerning the similarity of development
through which the higher and lower races
have passed and are passing ; the solidarity of
the human family appears stronger than we

12 The Evolution of Religion

might have supposed. At the same time we
have now to be on our guard against certain
common anthropological fallacies. Some of
these are less inevitable than others : for
instance, that which we may call the fallacy
of simple enumeration. On the ground of
the general inductive belief that the higher
races have at one time passed through a
savage phase, it is often too rashly assumed
that each and all of them must at one time
have possessed a particular institution, such
as totemism or ancestor- worship, which, as a
matter of fact, is found among the majority of
the savage races of to-day. This is to ex-
aggerate the principle of solidarity, to ignore
the fact of the great diversity actually observ-
able among existing primitive societies, and
the possibility that it was just by avoiding
some particular detrimental institution that
some of the higher peoples were able to pro-
ceed on their path of progress. Again, the
anthropological explanation is often obliged
to be hypothetical, for the evidence presented

Comparative Study of Religions 13

is often very fragmentary : by means of a
reasonable and expert imagination, an attempt
is made to reconstruct a whole fabric out of
a few fragments. A single bone may enable
the expert biologist to reshape unerringly the
once living animal ; but in anthropology the
fragment in question may have descended
from either one of two differing organisms or
organic institutions that may have left very
much the same imprint upon mythology and
religion. For instance, a full-fledged totemistic
system, having fallen into decay, might leave
its trace in certain stories about animals or
in occasional reverence paid to a particular
animal : but direct animal- worship, a religious
view that may be quite independent of totem-
ism, or certain forms of ancestor- worship may
equally well have deposited the same fossil-
thought or fossil-rite. 1 And we know how
recklessly the theory of the ubiquitous practice

1 For instance, an ancestor may for certain reasons be
worshipped in the form of a snake, and yet this need not
imply a snake-tribe or any tribal worship of snakes in

14 The Evolution of Religion

of human sacrifice has been used to explain
certain peculiar phenomena in later ritual, such
as the scourging of the Spartan boys, for

But a stricter anthropology can correct the
over-narrow hypotheses of its immaturity, and
can render masterly aid to the evolutionary
study of the higher religions ; for each of
these, in spite of revelation or transforming
enthusiasm that would obliterate the past,
contains a mass of mysterious dead matter ;
and it is for the anthropologist to show the
prior functional organic significance of this.
But if, in obedience to the currently accepted
limitation of his subject, he confines himself
mainly to the study of savage life and to the
dead matter of the higher religions, and yet is
tempted to deal with the more vital and
essential elements in these, he will be liable to
the special bias of his own study. We may
note such bias in recent attempts to ex-
plain the essential features of the Eleusinian
Mysteries in the light of merely savage anthro-

Comparative Study of Religions 15

pology. And of course we are all apt to lose
the sense of proportion and to exaggerate the
importance of the special phenomena to which
we confine our regard. The folk-lorist will be
liable to over-emphasise the part played by
mythology in religion, and may ignore the
higher importance of prayer and ritual ; for
the most conscientious cobbler is never really
able to stick to his last. In fact, though the
whole exposition of the higher religions is
impossible without anthropology, there is some
danger at present lest the part be at times
mistaken for the whole. For instance, we
may feel with some uneasiness that recent
expositions of Hellenic religion tend, uninten-
tionally no doubt, to distort the view of the
reader and to produce a false impression by
exaggerating the savage and primitive facts,
missing the true perspective and misjudging
the whole. Our appreciation of Greek myth-
ology may suffer in the same way, unless we
can keep the keen edge of our appreciative
faculty : the Greek myth has often its striking

1 6 The Evolution of Religion

affinities with the Arunta or the Pawnee, and
it is necessary for comparative folk-lore and
anthropology to point this out, and often to
insist on the beauty of the legend and the
dignity of the religious thought among savages :
but it is unfortunate if these studies should
result in our loss of the perception that Greek
mythology, after all, is the most beautiful of
any of which we have record.

The fallacy which I have so far tried to
indicate arises from the temper of mind that a
special study is liable to engender. On the
other hand, there is a particular fallacy of
method to which the modern study of anthro-
pology, as it has chosen to limit itself, specially
exposes us. It is liable to withdraw us from
the immediate entourage of a particular fact
a particular legend or a religious service to
the distant circumference. It was inevitable
for the earliest pioneers of the study to travel
far, for the circumference was unexplored, and
there were facts lying at the distant points
that concerned us. But, after all, our first

Comparative Study of Religions 17

object of study should be the more immediate
environment of the thing which we wish to
understand. The student of Hellenic religion
and myth may have ultimately to roam, in a
literary sense, into Central Australia and the
byways of America ; but he ought first to
explore the Mediterranean regions and the
lands of anterior Asia. It is interesting, and
may be necessary, to know " the Pawnee ver-
sion of the Eleusinia " ; but, for the true
understanding of the great Greek mystery,
certain elements in the Egyptian religion, in
Mithraism, and in Christianity itself will prob-
ably afford a more illuminative comparison.
The mind of our student is sometimes tempted,
in fact, to travel too easily and too cheaply to
the other side of the globe, and to leave un-
done work that should first have been done
nearer home.

^To reduce these ideas to something like a
working formula of method, may we say
that the anthropology which the comparative
study of any one of the more complex and

1 8 The Evolution of Religion

advanced religions immediately demands is
" an adjacent anthropology " ? For religious
ideas, legends, and ritual are most contagious,
and tend to propagate themselves over large
contiguous areas : for, to reverse a stereotyped
question, " what is less its own than a people's
gods?" We greatly desiderate an anthro-
pology of the Mediterranean basin, including
anterior Asia ; for there are strong reasons for
the belief that from very early times the fre-
quent intercourse of the leading peoples in this
region endowed them with a common stock of
religious ideas, ritual, and legend which have
probably left their impress on the higher
religions of the world. It is these that speci-
ally interest most of us, and we feel we cannot
solve their problems by means of savage
anthropology alone. Why, after all, should the
latter term be restricted, as it usually is, to the
study of savage life? Doubtless we cannot
so extend the use of the word as to cover its
full etymological signification : else it would
come to include the whole of human history

Comparative Study of Religions 19

from the beginning down to the present, and
would lose its value as a mark of any special
science. But we might somewhat enlarge its
present connotation with advantage to the
comparative method, and without a too wide
departure from current usage. We might
define the anthropological study of any one of
the higher religions as an evolutionary study
of its embryology : the evolutionary law might
appear in the first instance as a proximate
law of growth. For probably every one of the
world-creeds has inherited, apart from its own
achievement, a double tradition, a tradition
from the more remote and one from the more
immediate past. The first may descend from
immemorial antiquity, and from really primi-
tive or savage mental and social life ; and it
has been the task of primitive anthropology
to expound and explain the facts that this
tradition has deposited. But many if not
most of these facts may be regarded as func-
tionally dead matter surviving in the more
advanced system of belief, and as not belong-

2O The Evolution of Religion

ing to its essential life. On the other hand,
from the immediate tradition much will be
found to have been taken over by an inevitable
law of assimilation, certain potent ideas which,
though transformed, will enter into the very
life-blood of the new creed. And these are to
be discovered and analysed by what I have
ventured to call an " adjacent " anthropology,
which will include a comprehensive study of
the literature and monuments belonging to
the more proximate past of the race which
develops the new faith as well as of the races
that are its nearer neighbours.

Such a method, though not hitherto styled
anthropological, has already been applied by
various scholars in the different parts of
our field ; the exposition of the Babylonian

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryLewis Richard FarnellThe evolution of religion: an anthropological study → online text (page 1 of 11)