CHAPTER IV. EARLY DEVELOPMENTS—BELIEF
Worship, Religion, Gods, Nature, Worshipped, World
We have seen from what materials early man made his gods. As the gods differed in their origin, they differed also from the very first in the mode of their development. The great nature-gods gave rise to one kind of religion, and the minor nature-gods to another, the thought of the departed members of the household to a third. But these various religions could not develop side by side without influencing each other. These different worships began in the very earliest times to get mixed up together; there is none of the great religions which we do not find to be a combination of them. It will be well to consider them in the first place separately.
1. Growth of the Great Gods.—Taking them in the order we have already followed, we come first to the great nature-worship, of which heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars, dawn and sunset, and then the phenomena of the weather, rain, storm, and thunder and lightning, are the objects. It cannot be too clearly borne in mind that what was worshipped was originally the natural object itself, regarded, after the earliest habit of thought, as living. To heaven itself, to the sun as he rose or set, to the storm itself, men addressed prayers and made offerings; and in many quarters, both among savages and in the great religions, the same thing occurs to this day.
But it was impossible for man to stop here, his imagination would not allow him to do so. In some races, imagination was more active than in others, but nowhere was it quite inoperative; and so it happened that man was led, here to a greater there to a less extent, beyond the direct and simple adoration of the powers of nature. When he began to give them names, a first and a great step was taken in advance of the original simplicity. A name is a power; if it is anything more than a mere title or label, and all primitive names are more than this, it brings with it associations of its own, and thus men are led to ascribe to the object indicated by the name, a new character and new powers. They proceed to argue about the name and draw conclusions from it as to the nature of the being they worship, and so come to think of their deity in quite a different manner. Even to classify objects together and give them a common title, "the bright ones," or "the living ones," as the early Aryans did, gives them an independent position of their own, and tempts the imagination to go further in describing them. Striving to find names for those beings he worships and thinks about so much, early man gives them the names of living creatures with whom he is familiar, and in this way he brings them much nearer to himself, and at the same time appears to himself to know a great deal more about them. The moon, for example, has horns, the moon is a cow. Heaven is over all, heaven is a father. And as he knows all about a cow, and all about a father, he at once has these deities made much more real to him, they have an independent existence to him. But, on the other hand, he has got something more in his deity than there is in the natural object. It is no longer the mere naked heaven or the mere moon he worships; but these beings with additions made to them by his own imagination.
As time goes on the additions grow more and more. Having got living persons for his deities, early man readily goes on to weave their histories and their relations. If the moon is a cow, the sun is a bull chasing her round the sky. This is an instance of a principle which obtains in many at least of the early religions and which it is important to remember, viz. that the powers of nature were first identified with animals. The zoomorphic stage of the nature-gods comes before the anthropomorphic (cf. the signs of the zodiac), and in many savage tribes it still survives.
But it is when the gods begin to be thought of after the likeness of human beings that the decisive step is made in their development. If heaven is a father, it is easy to go on from that. Earth will be the corresponding mother (an idea found all over the world); and all men will be their children. If the sun is invested with a name of masculine gender (but the sun is frequently feminine), he must do feats becoming such a character. If the storm is a male god, he will be a warrior or a huntsman. Thus the god acquires a personal character and an independent movement; what is told about him has reference, of course, to the natural object he sprang from, or the season with which he is connected; but the deity is becoming more and more separate from the natural object, and acquiring a character and history of his own. The stories connected with the god vary according to the habits and the imaginations of different peoples; in some cases the gods remain pure and exalted beings, in others savage and indecent myths are accumulated around them, and these primitive myths adhere to their persons long after they themselves have felt an upward tendency and acquired a civilised character with the moral elevation of their peoples. We shall see in many instances how the nature-gods were personified, made into beasts, made into men, and surrounded with myths and legends. That is the natural history of the nature-gods; the process through which they must pass if they grow at all.
Polytheism.—Another general feature of the worship of the great natural objects has to be mentioned. Each god has a history of his own; he has grown up separately as men concentrated their attention upon him. But as one god grows up after another, or as the gods who grow up in two countries are afterwards brought together, it comes to pass that there are many of them, and none of them is necessarily supreme. What is the worshipper to do? The least reflection will convince us that in any act of worship man fixes his attention on one object only. That belongs to the very nature of religion; as a child could not treat several men at once as its father, nor a servant be equally faithful to several masters, so man naturally tends to have one god. He turns to the highest he knows, who is most likely to be able to help him, and there cannot be two highests, but only one. But man's position in the early world does not allow him to be true to this religious instinct. As he sees one aspect of the world to-day, and another to-morrow, he cannot, when his god is a power of nature, always see the same god before him. But can he not worship another god when the first one is out of sight and out of mind? Though he worshipped heaven yesterday, can he not worship the sun to-day, or the storm, or the great sea? And though the former generation worshipped one of these beings in the foremost place, may not the existing generation devote itself principally to another? That power does not cease to be a deity which is not immediately before his mind. It is still a deity, and in a while he will turn to it again, and make it first. Thus it comes about by inevitable logic that when man gets his gods from nature, he has a number of them. When he gets a new god he does not deny the god he had before; he is not yet in a position to conclude that there can only be one god. When he is worshipping he feels as if there were only one; but this feeling applies at different times to a number of different beings, and from such inconsistency he lacks the power to free himself. The other is a god too; all the gods he has ever worshipped he may on occasion worship again. Nor can he refuse to recognise the gods of others; to them no doubt they are gods, if not to him; they are beings of the same class with his god. And thus early man is a polytheist. Polytheism is a complex product; it is the addition to each other of a number of cults which have grown up separately.
In Polytheism, however, very different religious positions are possible. Men may feel that the whole set of the gods in whose existence they believe have claims on them, and may regard themselves as worshippers of them all, resorting, as feeling and old association moves them, now to one and now to another, or defining the places or occasions at which each of them is to be sought, or in some other way adjusting their various claims; or, on the other hand, while believing in the existence of many gods, they may confine their worship to one. A man knows that there are many gods, but says that he has only to do with one of them. This is a religious position very frequently met with in antiquity. A circle of gods is believed in, but one of them comes into prominence at a time and is worshipped as supreme. This is called Kathenotheism: the worship of one god at a time. The title was invented by Mr. Max Müller, who also gives the title of Henotheism to that position in which many gods are believed in as existing, but worship is given to only one. The following are examples of the various positions:—
The Jews at the time of Josiah were accomplished polytheists, as we may see from the catalogue of the worships suppressed at Jerusalem by that monarch, 2 Kings xxiii. The gods of each of the surrounding tribes appear to have been worshipped there, and the old gods of the separate tribes and families of Israel appear to have been kept up.
Kathenotheism.—The Vedic poets, as we shall see, speak of the god they are immediately addressing as supreme, and heap upon him all the highest attributes, while not thinking of denying the divinity of other gods.
A further religious position to be noticed here is that of Dualism. Not all dualism comes from nature-worship, but in a land where a beneficent and a harmful natural force are in striking antagonism to each other, this may take place. Man, when he interprets the kindly influences of nature as the blessings of the good god, naturally interprets the agencies which blight or ruin as being also the manifestation of a living power, but of an evil one. Thanks to the good god alternate, in this case, with efforts to counteract or to appease the bad one; if the two appear to be nearly balanced, then neither is supreme, and both overawe the mind and receive worship. But in general we may remark that the greater nature-worship is of an elevating tendency. It brings man into relations with powers which are truly great, and places him even physically in the position of looking up, not down. Where the nature-power is a harsh one, a scorching sun, a tempestuous sea, the self-command and self-sacrifice called out by the worship of them may be, if not carried to extremes, a bracing discipline; but with some exceptions the nature-gods are good, and have to do with light and with kindness.
2. The Minor Nature-worship.—The worship of the great powers of nature has a universal character; it can be carried on anywhere; wandering tribes carry it with them; heaven and the sun and the winds can be addressed in every land. The minor nature-worship differs from it in this respect: an animal is only worshipped in the country where it occurs, and the worship of the tree, the well, the stone, is altogether local. With this local nature-worship the world was, in early times, thickly overspread; and manifold survivals of it are still to be found even in lands where the primitive religion has been longest superseded. This is the religion of local observance and local legend, which clings to the face of a country in spite of public changes of creed, and, when the old religion has departed, is found to have secured a shelter for itself in the new one.
In this minor nature-worship which spreads its network over all the early world, the character of primitive society is clearly represented; the small communities have their small local worships—each clan, almost each kraal, has its shrine, its god, and limits itself to its own sacred things. Religion is a bond connecting together the members of small groups of men, but separating them from the members of other groups. The following are some of the more important developments of this.
(a) The Worship of Animals.—Primitive man had to hold his own against the animals by force of strength and cunning; and he was well acquainted with them. He respected them for the qualities in which they excelled him, the hare for his swiftness, the beaver for his skill, the fox for his craftiness. What he worshipped, however, was not the individuals of a species, but the species as a whole, typified perhaps in a great hare or a great fox, the mythical first parent of the species, and possessing its qualities in a supreme degree. It happened apparently over the whole world, with the exception of most branches of the Aryan family, that men at a very early stage regarded themselves as related by the tie of descent, some to one species of animals or of plants and some to another. From this belief tribes took their names, each member tattooing the figure of his animal ancestor on his person. The Bechuanas, for example, are divided into crocodile-men, fish-, ape-, buffalo-, elephant-, and lion-men, and so on. The hairy or scaly ancestor is the "totem" of the tribe, and they consider that animal sacred, and will not eat the flesh of it. All who bear the same totem regard each other as of kindred blood, as descended from the same ancestor. The totem may also be a vegetable, in which case no member of the stock will gather or eat it.
Totemism is to be seen in operation at the present day in various parts of the world. North America is, perhaps, its classic land in modern times. It is, however, a stage of society through which all races have at one time or another passed. According to the latest investigations totemism is not to be regarded as itself a religion; the totem being regarded not as a superior but as an equal. Its influence on the early growth of religion, however, was great, and widely ramified.1 From this two important consequences follow which will meet us again and again in our study of the great religions. The first is animal-worship, a phenomenon of frequent occurrence and of perplexing import. Mr. McLennan has shown that much at least of the widespread worship of animals is to be traced to an early totem-stage of society,2 when animals were held sacred as the ancestors of men. In the second place, totemism explains the view taken in the early world of the nature of religious fellowship. In modern times people regard each other as brothers in religion when they believe the same doctrines. It is belief, an intellectual or spiritual agreement, that binds them together. The ancient religious union was of a quite different nature. People then regarded each other as brothers because they were of the same blood, descended from the same ancestor. In the Bible the Hebrews are all descended from Abraham, the Edomites from Esau, etc. That is the necessary condition of brotherhood in early times; only those could join in a religious rite who were of the same blood. For men of another blood there was another worship, another god. It is an earlier stage of this view, when men are of the same worship because they are descended from the same animal, and when they worship that animal.
(b) Trees, Wells, Stones.—The worship of each of these three is in itself a great subject, and we can do no more than mention the leading views which appear to have entered into them. Mannhardt in his Feld- und Waldkulte and Frazer in The Golden Bough have studied the survivals of tree-worship in the local customs of the peasantry of Europe. Early man appears to have worshipped trees as wonderful living beings; but his thought soon advanced to the conception of a tree-spirit, of which the tree itself was either the body or the dwelling, and which possessed various powers, such as that of commanding rain, or that of causing fertility in plants or in animals. From the tree-spirit, again, the tree-god was further formed, a being who was able to quit the sacred tree or who presided over many trees. Of these beliefs the fast-decaying usages of the Maypole and the Harvest May still remind us.
The well, in a similar manner, may first have been worshipped in and for itself, and then a nymph may have been added to it. The worship of wells consisted in throwing precious articles into them, or hanging such offerings on the surrounding trees, and asking some boon from the deity.3 Rivers and lakes were also held sacred. The worship of stones, that is of stones not treated by art, but regarded as sacred in the form in which they were found, was widely diffused among early races; but this is a subject on which light is still called for. The Caaba of Mecca and the stone of the temple of Diana at Ephesus are famous isolated instances of it; but it has been suggested that the standing stones or menhirs which are found in every part of Europe, and in the south and west of Asia, were objects of this worship. In Palestine these stones are not found, though they occur in the neighbouring lands; and this is attributed by Major Conder4 to the zeal of the orthodox kings, who, we know from the Bible, destroyed all the monuments of idolatry in their territory.
What is common to these cults, and cannot be disregarded, is their local nature. This gives its colour to all the religion of early man. The god of the sacred tree cannot be worshipped anywhere else than where the tree stands, and he who would have his wishes granted by the well must come to it. The deity of this kind of religion has his abode at a certain spot, and he is a fixed, not a movable deity. There is a story, or a set of stories, connected with his shrine, and there are observances of one kind or another to be done there; and this goes on from age to age. Now a deity who is fixed to one spot will be worshipped by the people who dwell around that spot. The god will have his own people and dwell among them, and they alone will be his worshippers. And thus the surface of the earth comes to be parcelled out among a number of deities, each seated, like a little prince, at his own court among his own people. In passing from his own home to a distant spot, a man will leave the territory of his own god and enter on that of another, and as the god can only be worshipped at his own shrine, the man will leave his religion when he leaves his home, and either be compelled to serve the gods of strangers, or to perform no religious duties at all.5 Thus the ideas connected with totemism meet and harmonise in many old countries with those connected with local shrines.6 Those dwelling around the shrine form a kindred of one blood, of which the local god is both the progenitor and the living head. Religion is thus both strictly tribal and strictly local. It is for his brethren of the tribe, for those in whose veins the blood of the same divine ancestor runs, that a man's enthusiasm is kindled in acts of worship; it is his duty to his clan that he then realises, the prosperity of his clan that he desires. To those of other stems no religious bond unites him, they are men of another blood, of another worship. His religious duty is to love his neighbour, or fellow-tribesman, to hate his enemy, the man of another tribe. And on the other hand, as religion consists in approaches to a particular spot and the performance of certain rites, it is left behind when these rites are accomplished, and the man is away from his god. The sanctuary is regarded with extreme veneration, often with shrinking and terror, but distance makes a change, the religion alters with travel, and is left behind. This religion was on the whole a more exciting and intense thing than that of the great nature powers; and was far more interwoven with social life; but it also presented the greatest obstacles to progress, limiting men's affections to their own kin and their own land, and confining them in an inveterate conservatism.
3. The State after Death.—The belief that the human spirit was not extinguished at the death of the body, but entered on an existence without the body somewhere else, opened the door to a wide range of speculation; and the ideas arrived at by early man as to the place of spirits and the life beyond, are a principal part of that antique religion of which the great systems are the heirs. The funeral practices of prehistoric times, when various articles were placed in the tomb along with the body of the departed hero or father, and various sacrifices made to him at his burial or cremation and at anniversary festivals afterwards, show that the spirits of the dead were conceived as carrying on the same kind of existence as they had led here, though an existence unsubstantial and of little power; "strengthless heads" Homer calls them. Food and drink were of use to them; for the finer part of it was supposed to reach them. The taste of blood revived them; and various pleasures were possible to them.7 This belief, it will be seen, differs from all the modern doctrines of a continued existence. It is not the resurrection of the body that the savage believes in. He knows well enough that the body does not rise; but he also knows that the spirit can exist and move and do a number of things that were done in life, without the body. Nor can he be said to believe in the immortality of the soul. That term describes a free and unfettered existence after death, but to the savage the spirit after death has but a troubled and frail existence; it is tethered to certain spots on the earth, known to it formerly; it cannot do much, it lives under many limitations and constraints. Nor, again, can it be said that retribution after death is a true designation of the early belief. That may be found here and there in early times, but generally the other life is less under a divine government than this one; death takes a man away from his god as well as from his family, and the dead are left to themselves.
While, however, this is the general background of primitive belief about the other life, imagination is at work on the subject very early, and various features of that life are touched with more vivid colours, here in one way and there in another. The place where the departed stay, their occupations, their delights, are variously described; the land where they dwell is modelled on a land that is known, with the addition of ideal features; they do very much what they did on earth, hunt or feast, make music or carry on discussions. In some cases there is a judgment-seat before which the soul appears for its trial, and here of course the spirit-world must be divided into two parts or more, for the reception of those who are approved and of those who are condemned. The detailed description of the abodes of the blest and of the damned, by no means peculiar to Christianity, are later developments in the early world. Hell, Mr. Tylor says, is unknown to savage thought. The doctrine of transmigration, however, whether into plants or into lower animals, is of early growth.
Growth of the Great Religions out of these Beliefs.—These various developments of thought about the gods did, as a matter of fact, take place in primitive times, and that is almost all that can be said. In the religion of savages the various elements we have so briefly indicated cross and recross each other, in endless combinations; none of them is to be found entirely by itself. There is no fetish worship which is not accompanied by traces of an early belief in great gods; there is no belief in great gods which is not accompanied by a belief in lower spirits. With regard to every savage religion the student has to ask what the constituent elements of it are, in what way the various beliefs of the early world, beliefs arising from such different sources, meet in it and combine with one another.
In each of the higher religions, too, the same questions have to be asked. The beliefs which we have sketched are the materials out of which they also arose. They did not originate the belief in high gods with power over nature, nor the belief in the lesser spirits which busy themselves with man's affairs. They did not originate the belief in a life after death, nor was it left to them to appoint sacred seasons in the year, or to consecrate the spots to which worship has always clung. All these beliefs are prehistoric, and what remained for the great religions was not to bring them forward for the first time, but to surround them with a new kind of authority, and to establish as a matter of positive ordinance or revelation what had formerly grown up without any ordinance by the unconscious work of custom. It was not left for any of the great founders to plant religion in the world as a new thing, but only to add to the old religion new forms and new sanctions.
It may be said that if these are the elements of which religion as a whole is made, then religion arose at first out of illusions. That is no doubt true, in a sense. It was an illusion on the part of early man to suppose that the powers of heaven were animated beings who could be his allies and answer his appeals; it was an illusion to think that the tree or the stone contained a spirit, and an illusion to think that men's spirits can go and wander about the earth by themselves, leaving their bodies untenanted. But these illusions were after all only the outward and inadequate expression in which the spirit of religion then clothed itself. Religion must always express itself in terms of the knowledge which exists in the world at a particular time; and if the knowledge is defective to which the world has attained, religious beliefs must share in its defects. But, on the other hand, religion is something more than knowledge; it is also faith and communion, and these can be deep and true, even when the knowledge which provides their forms of expression is greatly mistaken. And when the forms of knowledge in which religion has clothed itself are found to be mistaken, religion has power to leave them behind and to adopt other forms, as the tree is clothed with fresh leaves in place of those which are withered.
Yet it would be wrong to admit that even in its character as knowledge early religion was illusion and no more. The poetic faculty, the faculty which prompts us to find outside us what we feel to be within us and to assert its reality, led man right and not wrong. What he worshipped was not the bare object which met the eye and ear, but the thing as he conceived it. He conceived that there was without him that of which his inner consciousness bore witness, an ideal, a being not grasped by the senses, which could help him, with which he could hold intercourse, which had the power he himself had not. This, not the faulty outward expressions in which the sentiment clothed itself, was the living and growing element of his religion.
|Written By Allan Menzies|
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