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Concepts Of Divine Personages - Part 2

( Originally Published 1910 )

The main problem that confronts us is that of discovering why the `concepts' of value, to which we have referred above, should ever have tended to find expression in terms of superior personalities.

It will be convenient to open the question by an examination of the difference that is sometimes drawn between religion and magic, namely, that they differ in the main on the question of deities. Magic, it is said, stands for a mechanical conception of the universe, and, when it postulates spirit agencies it regards them as objects for manipulation and coercion rather than as superior beings to be worshipped. Religion, on the other hand, is usually said to be distinguished by its view of the world as governed by personal forces, which are often capricious, and whose favor is to be won by some sort of bargaining, flattery, adulation, or worship. That there is an important point involved in the above distinction is not to be denied, but it demands close examination, for, stated in this broad way, the fundamental difference upon which it is based is not clearly apparent.

While deities are usually associated with religion, they are only one of the means through which the religious consciousness may find expression, and it is to that attitude itself one must turn if one is to gain a really adequate notion of the difference between the two. This religious attitude is, as we have pointed out, one in which appreciative and valuational elements predominate, particularly such as are deter-mined by social intercourse and by a social atmosphere generally. If religion is the distinctive product of such conditions, it is not strange that the conceptions of worth, the valuational attitudes thus socially determined, should be associated in some way with persons. In other words, social values could scarcely be perpetuated except in some sort of social terms. This is a general statement of the ground upon which we shall try to account for the appearance and the development of relatively idealized personages in many religions.

The theory of Frazer' that gods were invented or resorted to when magical expedients were found, in the course of the ages, to be futile, is to be criticised on the ground that the gods do not represent expedients, alternate with magic, for dealing with the universe. The gods were hardly resorted to because magic had failed, for in the minds of the natural peoples of today magic is as much of a success as it ever was. The gods are rather representative of the fact that certain values tend to be conceived in social terms, and man's reactions toward the universe tend, in part at least, to be extensions of the reactions developed through social intercourse. The worship of the gods has, then, nothing to do with the supposed failure or success of magical practices as such, but is altogether a consequence of the fact that religious values are primarily social in origin and in development. The position we have here taken differs to some extent from that ordinarily accepted. Many writers have shown how magical practices and theories underlie most religions and are interwoven with many of the most highly developed types. To some extent the whole matter depends upon what one chooses to call magic and religion, but it is also true that one's definitions in any field may clarify or obscure important phases of the subject-matter under consideration. It seems to the present writer that the great difficulty with the prevalent point of view is that it separates so radically two related phases of primitive thought and practice. On the one side is the savage's general mechanical conception of the world, and on the other is his idea of it as pervaded by spirits or a spirit which is to be worshipped in some way or other. In actual life we find these `concepts' interacting in most unexpected ways. That there is an important and genuine relationship present may, we believe, be demonstrated, and it will, therefore, add clarity to the exposition to reserve the term ` magic' for a particular type of attitude toward the world, rather than to apply it indiscriminately to all practices in which the world is conceived as pervaded by forces which may in various ways yield to manipulation.

Proceeding with our inquiry, then, we shall try at the outset to take a somewhat plastic point of view, seeking simply to note the probable method by which the valuational attitudes of a group have often come to be associated with persons, and, further, the way in which the interests and activities of such a group determine not only the fundamental nature of these superior persons but determine as well the various attributes with which they become endowed. At one end of the process of development we find definite gods; at the other, various socialized conceptions that appear to have furnished the matrix from which the gods have evolved. Just when a real deity may be said to emerge from this matrix may not always be easy to determine, nor will it be of great consequence to be able to answer such a question definitely, for that would necessitate the setting up of more or less arbitrary standards. The process of the socialization of values is really the fundamental problem, and when that is solved, it will clear up many questions which may be raised regarding the deities themselves.

It is important to bear in mind that the values with which we are concerned may arise out of any situation which engages the attention of the social group. Many theories regarding primitive deities are inadequate because they overemphasize some one interest, and thereby do not give sufficient credit to the rôle of the whole social body in the development of such ideas. Such theories give an adequate account neither of the interest upon which everything is based, nor of the diversity of characteristics which the concept of a deity inevitably acquires. Thus, some well-known writers have held that the worship of the gods has all been developed from the primitive man's respect and fear of the dead, especially of his ancestors. Others have maintained that man has a `general tendency' to conceive all the forces of nature in terms of spiritual agencies, and that these spirits are in greater or less degree his deities, or, at least, that his deities are direct developments of his animism. Others have held there is some sort of an original instinct to revere things in general, and that this instinct has, in various ways, become particularized so that, beginning with a general or vague worship of all inanimate objects, it has progressed through certain fairly definite types of particularization, e.g. worship of stones, snakes, trees, the generative principle, great natural forces, up to the ethical conceptions of highly developed religions.

These theories explain little that is important, and the classifications offered are usually based upon altogether superficial characteristics such at least as leave out of account the meaning or attitude expressed, and certainly give no place for the social factor, whether it be in the origin of the god or in the development of his attributes. There is no question, of course, but that such objects as those mentioned above have served in many religions as deities or as the symbols of deities, but none of those who find religion beginning in the worship of these things seem to have thought of showing why man should have been concerned in the first place to worship something.

To deal with this problem from the psychological point of view requires that we explain, in the first place, why certain objects, phenomena, or supposed spirits have attracted and held the attention of men. The answer, of course, is that they have been, primarily, such things as have engaged his activities in the elementary food, protective, and reproductive processes ; for example, fruitful plants and trees, wild animals, storms, rivers, mountains, and so forth, especially such objects as have concerned men in groups. Reference has already been made to the large extent to which animals have excited primitive man's attention. The erratic behavior of the hawk, rushing down from the sky, screaming and circling about and before their boats, causes some of the tribes of Borneo to regard it with respect and to consult it for omens.' The same authors tell us that one native thinks a certain python has helped him, so that neither he nor his children kill that animal. Another family is protected by the porcupine because one ran out of a hole when their house was building, and some one dreamed of the incident that night. None of the family have died in the seven years since, nor have they killed any porcupines, except upon one occasion when one was sacrificed and prayed to. Another household was protected by a gibbon, which was therefore never killed by this family.

The Borneans also recognize other omen birds, which are often birds with strange or peculiar cries, such as the woodpecker and hornbill. The dog is never killed, neither will they kill and eat deer or wild cattle. The cries of deer are to them warnings of danger. A sort of tiger occurring in Borneo is also greatly respected, and no ordinary man dares touch the skin of one. These same people do not kill lizards nor snakes, and are afraid of a long-nosed variety of monkey, being unwilling to look one of them in the face or to laugh at him. This regard for animals, of course, has various connections with their other beliefs. Similar illustrations could be given from practically all primitive peoples. As we do not care here to go beyond the fact that various animals may easily and in quite explainable ways arouse a sort of spontaneous attention in people, these cases may suffice. As with animals, so with inanimate objects and various forms of vegetation. We offer a few illustrations, simply. Thus, the date palm was an object of great interest to some of the primitive Semitic peoples,' and among the tribes of the Niger delta there is much respect for certain trees and shrubs, some of which are worshipped. In one section a creeper "which grows in the bush and is considered by the natives to bear a striking resemblance to the python, the living emblem of their national god, is worshipped by the natives, and a severe punishment is inflicted on any one who cuts it down and burns it. So, too, the African oak is considered sacred, and as such is used for building purposes only." The blood-plum, a common tree, is believed to have certain peculiar powers and is generally worshipped. The Yoruba believe that a slender, prickly plant, which grows in the bush, escapes being burnt in forest fires because of its indwelling spirit. A large tree, called the `Father of trees,' is regarded with much reverence, attention being attracted to it especially because "it never grows in a grove, but always in a position that commands a stream." From the hard wood of another tree called ayan, the club of the god of thunder is made. "They have a proverb to the effect that `Ayan resists an axe."

Just as the Niger native reveres certain plants, so he also holds in great reverence reptiles, particularly crocodiles, iguanas, and, among the coast tribes, the shark. The animals which are thus respected are the ones which are the most in evidence, and which impress him with their strength, craft, or subtlety.' Here, again, Leonard thinks the veneration is due to the fact that they are the emblems of more or less powerful ancestral spirits. Though this be now the case, we can scarcely doubt that the animal itself was, to start with, quite able to attract the attention and arouse the fear of the native.

Stones in the alluvial deposit of the Niger delta are quite rare. In one place, an egg-shaped slab of granite is the only stone known to the natives, and they highly revere it. "How it, the only stone in the vicinity, got there, or where it came from, is a blank and a mystery which renders it all the more sacred."

The interest of the primitive man in natural objects, plants, and animals is universal, and it is scarcely necessary to multiply illustrations' We wish, by these which we have given and which are, by the way, quite typical, to show in what natural ways various things may become objects of general interest and represent actual or symbolic values to the mind of the savage. In some of the instances mentioned there is no suggestion of a deity; in others the interest seems to pass easily into respect or fear, while in still others the object is believed to be the abode of a spirit which not only commands respect, but also is approached with definite ceremonials of worship. We can scarcely doubt that it is possible to trace a natural transition from simple objects of attention to objects of real religious adoration.

The point thus far is that the objects with which spirits and ancestors are almost universally associated are in many cases originally interesting, and furnish the first foci for those valuational attitudes such as later found expression in terms of some person or spirit. It is quite possible that, as the notion of spirit agencies developed, the value of these material objects or animals would be explained as due to an indwelling spirit or ancestor, as seems to be the case of the Niger tribes, or to the peculiar way in which the object was in touch with or was the vehicle of `the mysterious potency,' as among various of the North American Indians.

In the same way in which certain things become objects of fear or regard, persons would attract attention and be feared or even revered, and this regard would be carried over to their ghosts as soon as the notion of a detachable spirit part was developed, and finally, as Leonard says, just as the savage trusts some men and fears others, so he trusts and fears spirits.

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