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Concepts Of Divine Personages Part 3

( Originally Published 1910 )

As we have seen, these first objects of interest, whether inanimate things, plants, animals, or persons, are in most cases such as lie very close at hand, arouse man's curiosity, and frequently have to do with his welfare in intimate ways. It should be noted also that these centres of interest depend quite definitely upon the activities and economic concerns of social groups rather than upon the whim of the individual. It is this which gives the interest intensity and stability. These facts furnish a useful background from which to examine a certain phase of the conception of deities, which may profitably be disposed of as the next step in our inquiry; namely, the belief, present among almost all ethnic peoples, in far-off and quite unreal divinities, along with others which seem quite near at hand, concrete, vital, and closely related to present activities and interests. These far-off gods are often so lacking in qualities of any sort that investigators have held that they are really remnants of higher conceptions of the divine, contrasting strangely with the sordid objects of faith prevailing in the present. Thus Nassau reports that the negroes of the West Coast have the idea of an all-father, a sort of culture-hero who is so remote that he takes no interest in their present doings and is consequently given no worship. The Kafirs are said to have a hazy belief in a far-off god, Umulunkulu, a creator, but the concept is not sharply distinguished from that of great-great-grandfather. Their religious devotions are much more readily excited by their immediate ancestors and by the snakes which creep about their graves. Their Amatongo are the spirits of their immediate ancestors, and these they praise and attempt to please by killing oxen for them.' Among the Yoruba people and others adjoining them there are also beliefs in distant gods, as of the sky, who are seldom worshipped, while local deities, natural objects, or phenomena which excite fear or attention, are highly respected. The Niger tribes manifest a reverence for the phenomena of nature, regarding, however, the most distant ones, as the sky, sun, moon, and stars, with the least interest. Illustrations of this sort might be multiplied indefinitely, even in some of the higher religions. Thus it is said that the Hindu's belief in Brahma as creator is analogous to his belief in the existence of America?

The significant point in all these cases is that the remote deity stands in no definite relation to current interests. Instead, however, of regarding it as a remnant of a higher belief, we should hold rather that it is a stranded deity, the remnant of a time when the interests of the group were other than at present. The remoteness and lack of definite qualities is not to be taken as proving the superior character of these gods. It is easy for one who looks for remnants of a higher belief to lead his informants to make statements which he can interpret as he chooses. The negro, knowing of nothing in particular to say about the superseded gods, by his very lack of definiteness or by the general statements into which he is led, when pressed to say something, can easily be taken to have in these vague ideas the vestiges of a belief in a supreme being.

What seems to be an excellent illustration of the position here taken is furnished by the Todas. These peoples have a fairly extensive pantheon, but its members are not at present objects of worship in any important degree. The Todas give attention to them only in so far as they are able to connect them with their most important and economic and social interest, their buffaloes. All the myths about their gods are otherwise hazy, and their names persist in a meaningless way in the Todas' prayers. As we have stated already, all the keen religious interests of these people are absorbed in the various ceremonies of the dairy. It is certainly significant that these deities are today remembered chiefly for what they are sup-posed once to have done in connection with the dairies, although there are fragments extant of an unmistakably different belief, which doubtless points to a time when the interests and activities were other than they are to-day. Some of their gods are possibly heroes, men who, formerly, actually took part in the economic activities of the tribe, while others clearly belong to a different era, and their legends "are gradually becoming vaguer in the progress toward complete obliviscence." We find among these people "a stage of religious belief in which the gods, once believed to be real, living among men and intervening in their affairs, have become shadowy beings, apparently less real, and intervening in the affairs of men in a mysterious manner and chiefly in the case of infraction of laws which they are still believed to have given." 8

Some of these apparently colorless and far-off gods may, to be sure, be due in part to the play of fancy, which might easily construct purely play-deities upon the analogy of the more immediately interesting ones. While this may in some measure explain certain cases, we feel sure that the general hypothesis offered above accounts for by far the most of them.

Wherever deities of much definiteness and color are found, they are always associated with various acute and quite persistent interests of their adherents. The negroes of the Gold and the Slave coasts have beliefs in varying degrees in indwelling spirits. These, as we have seen, are connected with such definite concerns as tall trees, rivers, lakes, portions of the sea where lives are known to have been lost, disease, and particularly small-pox. Among agricultural peoples we find deifications of fertility, such as Ishtar and Adonis, among Semitic peoples, and Osiris, in the case of the Egyptians. Of the same ilk are the numerous deifications of the sun. The deity of the primitive Semites was a mother goddess associated with the date palm. On the other hand, warlike races have gods of war. The Head-hunters of Sarawak not only have such a deity, but hold in veneration the captured heads, regarding them as receptacles of power and good fortune. But here, again, there is no need to multiply examples. We wish simply to illustrate the point that gods which hold a prominent place in the minds of a people are always related to some aspect of their social interests and that, when these interests change, if the gods are too fixed to change also, they readily become remote, shadowy, and unreal, and are known only by name rather than through a ritual of any kind.

New interests furnish the basis for new deities. If the old gods are retained, it is almost always through their becoming associated in some way with the new concerns of life. This fact is illustrated in a curiously complicated way, as we have seen, by the Todas. With them, new deities are just in the process of appearing. Milk is for them an intrinsically sacred fluid, and the bells have become objects of sacrifice, apparently through association with the milk. The dairy utensils and the dairy itself are all, likewise, sacred objects.

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