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of Cambridge, who died there at an early age in 1884,
has shown that sacrifice by communion was older and
more primitive than the sacrifice by gift ; that it was, in
fact, the oldest form of sacrifice ; that traces of it are
found among the Greeks and Romans as well as among the
Hebrews ; and, lastly, that the communion in Christian
churches is only an evolution of this primitive sacrificial
rite. The communion did not originate with Christianity.
On the contrary, it was a time-honoured and widely
prevalent institution, especially among the half-civilised
communities of Asia, where it had a great vogue with
the lower classes, as the more enlightened section of
the population had been won over to the simpler idea
of the gift-sacrifice. To-day, then, we may call it a
survival — a survival from the very childhood of the
world. And here we have a perfectly satisfactory
solution to two problems : firstly, why this extraordinary
form of sacrifice should have taken so firm a hold on the
better half of mankind ; and, secondly, why its primary
significance should have been so obscured both in the


Middle Ages and in our own generation. In the first
case, it gained ready and rapid acceptance because man
was predisposed in its favour by his own religious
past ; and in the second, its import has been easily
obliterated because it corresponds to an idea as far
removed from modern modes of thought as a primitive
chip flint from a Lebel gun.

Even yet we meet with the notion that when two men
take food together a kind of moral and physical bond is
established between them. Originally this idea was still
stronger ; but only sacred food could knit the sacred tie.
Nothing but the flesh of the holy animal would serve,
and the solemn mystery of its death was justified in the
sight of the faithful by their conviction that so and not
otherwise must the mystic bond between the believer
and his god be created and confirmed. Thus all there
was of a higher life in the primitive community was
bought by the death and periodic sacrifice of a god.

And now let us try to outline the evolutionary process
which fused this primitive type of sacrifice with that of
sacrifice by gift. When once agriculture and the domes-
tication of animals had dispelled the mystery surrounding
the different forms of plant and animal life, familiarity
began to breed contempt. Little by little the idea of a
divinity hedging certain species of animals faded away,
and man began to create the godhead in his own likeness.
Yet there remained a tradition of animals sacrificed and
eaten by the community. Therefore both sacrifice and
banquet were retained, in the belief that the god-
anthropomorphic now — smelt the blood and inhaled the
smoke of the burnt-offering. To provide him with a
representative, a priest assisted at the ceremony, until in
the end he and his ritual completely dwarfed the part


played by the body of the faithful, and, while the sacrifice
and banquet still survived, their significance was wholly

Gentlemen, I stop here. The question is difficult
enough without my proceeding to pile problem upon
problem. The point which I wished to bring out is this :
that in primitive sacrifice the idea of communion — how-
ever modem it may appear at the first glance — is a factor
of prime importance. The English scholar, who first
discerned this truth, literally revolutionised the study of
religion. He built, so to speak, a solid bridge between
our own day and those dim ages when man bowed down
and adored the beast. And this he accomplished by
throwing into its proper perspective the primitive and
strangely persistent conception of the god-animal, fated
to be slain and eaten by its worshippers. I venture to
think the discovery involves so much and has found
so little recognition that you will pardon me for having
made it the subject of these remarks.



Theoretically man's activity has but one limit — that of
his physical powers : he can eat what he pleases, kill as he
lists, provided always that he is the stronger. Driven
by his needs and his passions, he stops only before a
power superior to his own, and nothing but outside force
can restrain or repress his energy.

But this state of absolute independence is purely
theoretical. In practice — look as far back as we will into
the past — man submits to an inner or subjective restraint
as well as to an outer or objective one. Not only does he
experience obstacles, he creates them for himself, in the
shape of fears and scruples. In the course of time these
fears and scruples have taken to themselves names —
moral law, religious law, political law. And precisely
as these three laws exist to-day and still exercise their
restraining influence on human activity, so they existed
— confused and undivided as yet — among the earliest of
savage communities. Morality, religion, and politics,
as we conceive them, had not so much as dawned on
the primitive mind, but man submitted to and accepted
a multitude of restraints, which, taken as a whole,

1 Lesson given in 1900 at the licole dn Louvre.


constituted what is called the system of taboos. The
general formula of the taboo is : 'Do not do this, do not
touch that.' It is the English dont, as applied to children.
The taboo, whatever form it may take, has always the one
characteristic, that it sets a bound to human activity.
This path is taboo, do not walk there. This fruit is
taboo, do not eat it. This field is taboo on such a day,
do not work there. Thus, unlike civil, religious, or moral
law, the law of taboo never implies action, but always
abstention : it is a curb, not a whip.

I have said this curb was forged of fears and scruples :
and, in fact, if we set aside brute force opposed to force,
it is difficult to see what could restrain the energy of man
except fear, which is the sentiment that engenders
scruple. Now, the savage not only fears the lion's
tooth and the serpent's fang ; he dreads above everything
illness and death, punishments inflicted by the angry
spirits with which his imagination peoples the world.
Man is pre-eminently a social animal ; at every stage of
civilisation he pictures the external world as an integral
part of the same community as himself, and by a natural
generalisation concludes that the spiritual principle, which
he feels to be working within him, must be working also
in the infinite phenomena without him. Before he rises
to a definite and consistent idea of godhead, he feels
himself surrounded by gods, fears them, and strives to
live at peace with them.

The general cause of taboos, then, is the fear of danger.
If man — civilised now, and with science perpetually at
hand to steel him against the nightmares of childhood —
still falls a constant prey to groundless terrors, what must
have been his thraldom, when, science yet unborn, every
act, no matter how innocent, was liable to be taken as


the direct cause of the next chance mishap which befell
him ? Are we not to this day everlastingly tempted to
confuse temporal sequence with causal connection ?
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc — B follows A, therefore A
is the cause of B — the fallacy is daily committed by
education and illiteracy alike.

The savage, lacking the notion of cause and effect
but endowed with a memory, was certain to assign a
given misadventure to some immediately preceding event,
though nine times out of ten the two would be uncon-
nected. Thus, in primitive communities, there grew up
a vast oral tradition of leading cases : such or such an act
has such or such a fatal consequence — on such or such a
day I fell and hurt myself, because, when I went out in the
morning, I saw a snake. If all these hasty generalisations
had taken root in any one community, fear would have
suspended all action, and the community would have
perished. But here, as in all things, selection played a
part. The fears experienced by the tribal magnates —
old men, chiefs, and priests — were shared by the rank
and file, and gave rise to various scruples all more or less
widely diffused : the rest were forgotten.

Thus the taboos came into being. They cannot be
said to be the result of experience : the everyday lessons
of experience — as, that fire burns and water drowns — have
no need to be confirmed by any prohibition or interdict
of a religious character. Nor yet are they due to scientific
experiment, to repeatedly verified observations of cause
and effect. The taboos correspond to fears, and the
fears, in their turn, to rash generalisations from isolated

We have all the more reason for this view of the case,
when we consider the similarly vicious process of thought


in modem superstition. Every railway company knows
that there are fewer travellers on the thirteenth of the
month ; every hostess, that it is fatal to have thirteen
at table. Now this prejudice is based on a generalisation
from a single instance — the Last Supper where Jesus sat
down with the twelve Apostles. Two of the thirteen
died before the year was out, and this one accident has
been enough to create a taboo, the effects of which will
doubtless be felt for long to come.

Even when he gives his imagination free play,
primitive man loves a realistic explanation. To the
savage a dangerous object is essentially an object
dangerous to touch, whence the widespread idea that the
principal cause of danger is contact. Things taboo and
persons taboo, are not to be touched, and are therefore
sacred — intangible in the strict sense of the word. But
why should contact be dangerous ? Here the naive
physical science of the savage comes into play. A
dangerous contact is one by which something dangerous
passes from an alien body into ours : the sting of an insect
or a snake, for example. Hence the conception of objects
taboo or tabooed as so many reservoirs of dangerous
forces, contact with which may produce electrical and
devastating results. This idea suffices to explain not only
the greater part of the taboos, but also the ceremonial
employed in Polynesia, and elsewhere, to annul their
effects. Thus, a man who touches the accursed thing
— a tabooed object — absorbs by his act a dangerous
element, capable of injuring both him and all whom
he may touch in his turn. To rid himself of this poison
in the system, he has recourse to widely different means,
reducible, however, to two great classes. Sometimes he
puts himself in contact with a person charged with a


more powerful taboo, and thus passes on the danger
without prejudice to its recipient ; sometimes, by
bathing, he transmits the taboo to the water, which can
absorb it with impunity. In the island of Tonga a
tabooed person touches the foot-sole of a superior chief,
by pressing it against his stomach. Now, this guileless
method of curing a malady by contact with some great one
of the earth has been held efficacious almost to our own
day. Only by the light of the taboo can we penetrate
the inner sense of the ceremony by which the kings of
France — though neither magicians nor priests — healed
the species of scrofula known as the King's Evil. From
the twelfth century onwards the French kings were
supposed to have the power of curing this infirmity by
simply touching the sufferer. The proof that we have
here a pagan custom of great antiquity lies in the fact
that St. Louis — most pious of sovereigns — thought it his
duty to christianise the rite, just as crucifixes have been
planted on certain menhirs in order to modify the heathen
cult associated with the old stones. Guillaume de Nangis
tells us that, while his predecessors merely touched the
patients, St. Louis supplemented the treatment with
the sign of the Cross, in the hope, adds the chronicler,
that they would ascribe the cure to the virtue of the
Cross and not to the dignity of the king. Louis XIV, at
the time of his coronation, and James II of England,
during his exile at St. -Germain, were still asked to touch
for the Evil — the sick men, victims of a taboo, discharged
it on a person whom the taboo could not attack. What
Louis XIV would have said, had it been pointed out that
he was forming himself on the model of a Polynesian
chief, is another question.

The desire to remove taboos, and so to restore the


liberty of men and things, was the corner-stone of a
special science, which in Greece and Rome was called the
science of lustration and purification. Like the taboos
themselves, this science has been of incalculable service
to humanity. If the taboo had never been, the savage,
deaf to reason and regardless of the morrow, would have
turned the earth into a wilderness. The taboo taught
him restraint and moderation. But had there been no
corrective to the taboo, the savage, equally deaf to
criticism and enamoured of the marvellous, would have
so enchained his life through the fear of losing it, that
civilisation would have been forever impossible. The
priestly purification gave him back a measure of freedom,
judiciously restricted by the dread of contracting new
taboos which might require a complicated and painful
lustration. Now, as far back as we can go, the duty of
priests was to purify. To the priesthood, then, man owes
his partial liberation from the terrors which paralysed
him. The conclusion is worthy of notice ; for it shows
once more the falsity of the pet theory of the eighteenth
century, according to which the priesthood was governed
by the purely selfish motive of deceiving men and con-
fiscating their liberties in its own behoof.

If the taboo served a useful end, it was because the
very thought of its violation inspired profound horror.
In the beginning there was no question of a social sanction,
no thought of punishing the sinner : the crime itself begot
the penalty. To violate a taboo, unintentionally though
it were, was to expose oneself to death. In the
civilisations which are known to us from eye-witnesses,
like that of Polynesia at the opening of the nineteenth
century, the severity of the penalties has already been
relaxed, and society — as represented by the chiefs — has


taken upon itself to make hard the way of transgressors.
And indeed, if the violation of a taboo exposes the whole
tribe to a dangerous contagion, and may also provoke
the anger of spirits, drastic measures are necessary, both
by way of example, and to appease the irate powers.
But clearly punishment by the community is not primi-
tive ; it begins in the period when respect for the taboo
is on the wane, and the need arises for a penal code to
reinforce the chastisement which it was once believed
would follow inevitably from the offence itself.



' Why,' asks Plutarch in the thirty-seventh chapter of his
' Roman Questions,' 'should custom have ordained that,
out of all the offerings we make to heaven, only the spoils
of war should be left to the mercies of moth and rust,
untended and unrepaired ? ' " Plutarch's questions are
invariably of great interest, for the simple reason that
they hinge upon customs to which his age had lost the
clue. Plutarch's answers, however, are usually absurd,
for the equally simple reason that he brings to the inter-
pretation of prehistoric religious usage the intellectual
stock-in-trade of a philosophic amateur in the first century
after Christ. In the present instance, he hazards two
solutions of the problem. Either the disappearance of
the spoils would dim the splendour of the exploits com-
memorated, and spur another generation to fresh feats
of arms ; or, on the other hand, there might be some-
thing odious in the notion of perpetuating the memory

• Revue avcheologique, 1908, i. pp. 42-74.

- Pint. Quaest. Rom. c. 37, p. 2376. The text is uncertain on one
point {irpoaKvvi'iv in the sense of ' taking care ') ; but the general sense
is not in doubt.



of spilt blood and stricken fields — precisely as Greek
opinion deplored the audacity which first reared trophies
in stone or bronze. ^ . . . These specimens of exegesis
speak for themselves : comment would be out of place.
To-day the question raised by Plutarch is one of a
class which the science of comparative religion and
custom is able to answer off-hand : if the Romans did
not repair their trophies, it was because those trophies
were invested with a sanctity of their own which
rendered all contact perilous. The Hebrew Ark of the
Covenant, to go no further, is a case in point, though
with this difference : the sanctity of the Ark was inherent
in its origin, while the sanctity of spoils wrested from
the enemy was an adventitious result of the circum-
stances which caused them to change hands after the


Among the early Romans, who erected no trophies
on the field of battle, ^ we find the spoils hung in temples
and public buildings, in private houses and on trees —
particularly oaks. This last mode of exposure, to which
both Virgil and Statins allude, ^ is obviously the first
in point of time. Nor had its memor}^ passed away in the
first century of the Empire ; witness the famous passage ^
where Lucan compares Pompey to an old and leafless
oak, long dead, which, standing in the midst of a fruitful
field and charged with ancient spoils, still remains an

' Cf. Cic. De Invent, ii. 23, 69 ; Diod. Sic. xiii. 24 ; Plut. Alcib. 29.
The use of metal trophies was general later on in Greece ; but the
Macedonians never raised trophies of any sort (Pans. ix. 40, 9).

- Florus, iii. 2.

•' Virg. A en. xi. 5 sqq. ; Stat. Theb. ii. 707 sqq.

^ Lucan, Phcii's. i. 136 sqq.


object of adoration. Now, if a tree like this — whose
age was to be counted by centuries — could stand in the
very heart of the countryside, braving the casual cupidity
of every passer-by, and yet retain its burden inviolate,
there is only one conclusion to be drawn : the spoils were
protected from all contact by the sanctity attached to
them. Conversely, if these were left to hang on the
withered boughs of a tottering oak, and not a man dreamt
of transferring them to a sounder stem, it can only have
been because the support of the spoils was as sacred as
the spoils themselves. Only the natural chances of time
and tide could reduce them to dust : the hand of man
must on no account interfere in the process.

Equally intangible, in the strict sense of the word,
were the private trophies in the home of a successful
commander. Generation after generation they hung
secure from injury — -patents of nobility to the house,
and sources of prestige to its owner. ^ So, after the dis-
aster at Cannae, when Fabius wished to fill up the gaps
hewn in the senatorial ranks, he chose a certain number
of burgesses whose family residences were ornamented
with spoil stripped from the enemy.- Pompey's house — •
rostrata dormis — was still gay with the prows of Cilician
ships when it passed to Mark Antony, and later, by
inheritance, to a forbear of the emperor Gordian.'^ In
the great fire under Nero, Suetonius tells us, the mansions
of old-world generals perished ' still ornamented with

' ' They arrange their trophies,' says Polybius (vi. 39), ' in the
most conspicuous positions available, as they consider them palpable
evidence of their own prowess.' Similarly, TibuUus (i. i, 54) admits
it may well become Messala to war by sea and land, ' that his house
may flaunt it in hostile spoils.' Compare also Li v. x. 7 ; Cic. Phil. ii.
28 ; Sil. It. Pun. vi. 436, &c.

" Liv. xxiii. 23 : ' qiai spolia ex hoste fixa domi haberent.'

^ Capitolinus, Gordian, 3 ; cf. Cic. Phil. ii. 28, 68.


the enemies' spoils.' ^ Even when a house passed by
sale to another family, the new owner might not touch
the spolia, still less remove them.- There is a shade of
guilelessness in the notion that this prohibition of touch-
ing, tending or repairing the spolia was dictated by
fear lest the unscrupulous should display apocryphal
spoil in their houses — much as old armour or family
portraits are bought at a price to-day.-^ The scruple,
proof of which we have already adduced, was purely
religious, and the Romans continued to act in conformity
with it long after they had lost all real comprehension
of its character.

In the temples — the habitation of the gods — the
trophies were nailed on the walls and could never be
removed. Only in circumstances of the utmost gravity,
when the salvation of the state hung by a thread, was
it permissible to equip recruits with the arms of a van-
quished enemy. After Cannae, at a moment when Rome
appeared defenceless, the consuls, according to Livy,
had weapons made in hot haste, and ' the spoils of ancient
foemen were torn down from temple and portico.' ^ A
little later the dictator M. Junius Pera was authorised by
special edict to mount on horseback, — this was contrary
to religious law, — and proceeded to accoutre six thousand
men in the Gaulish arms which had decked the triumph
of Flaminius.'^ Livy well knew that such a measure was
every whit as exceptional as the other which was passed
at the same time and opened the ranks of the Roman
army to slaves. They were, he says, ' the last resources

' Suet. Nero, 38 : ' hostilil^us adhuc spoliis ornatae.'
- Pliny, XXXV. 7.

^ ' The object being doubtless to guard against the frauds of false
pretenders.' Smith, Diet, of Ant., s.v. ' Spolia,' p. 691.
■* Liv. xxii. 57. " Ibid, xxiii. 14.


of an almost desperate state, driven to make convention
give way to necessity.' ^ The use of arms taken in war
was so abnormal a course that it was only adopted with
hesitancy, even if the spoils were not the fruits of victory,
but a gift. During the revolt of Syracuse, Livy relates,
* the armed citizens mustered in the public squares,
while the unarmed flocked to the shrine of Olympian
Jove in search of the Gallic and lUyrian spoils which Rome
had bequeathed to Hiero. Let Heaven be gracious, they
prayed, and lend them these sacred arms ; every blow
they struck should be for fatherland, for freedom, and
for the temples of their gods.' ~ The arms were indeed
sacred, but not more so than those in the porticoes and
private houses of Rome. The point was, not that they
belonged to a temple, but that they were arms taken in
war — exuviae. By the very fact of their capture they
were withdrawn from use, and became — theoretically,
at least — untouchable ; just as we have seen to be the case
when they simply hung on tree-branches or house-walls.
The religious character of the temples where they were
lodged added nothing to the sanctity inherent in them ;
the most it could do was to guarantee that sanctity by
rendering it apparent to all eyes.


This example, after so many others, shows the
perversity of certain historians, still inspired by the
prejudices of the eighteenth century, who seek in pubhc
utility — or what we are now pleased to consider such —

1 'Honesta utilibus cedunt ' (Liv. xxiii. 14, 3). Cf. the speech of
Fabius in the Punka of Silius, x. 598 517^.
^ Livy, xxxiv. 21.


the origin of primeval law and custom. Two poverty-
stricken tribes go to war ; an engagement is fought, and
the victors collect the arms and clothing of the vanquished.
Common sense, a bad guide for once, would say they were
making hay while the sun shone, in order to follow up an
initial success with fresh resources. Unfortunately, the
winning tribe does nothing of the sort, unless driven
by an absolute necessity which silences the scruples of
religion. The spoils are sacred, and must be called in
from circulation because they have become dangerous to
touch. Sometimes, as we have seen, they may be hung
out of reach in a building : sometimes, and this earlier — -
for man makes war long before temples, porticoes, and
houses — they may be thrown into water, or destroyed by
fire. Finally, if the tribe is sedentary, they may be
piled upon a consecrated part of its territory, with the
prohibition attached that none shall lay a hand on them.
In short, the rites prescribed for the treatment of spoils
correspond to the various funerary rites — suspension in
mid-air until the slow process of natural decay is com-

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