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Concepts Of Divine Personages Part 5

( Originally Published 1910 )

We are now ready to take up the question of how the element of personality is added to the conceptions thus far discussed, forming the next, and possibly the most important step, in the development of the real deity. Many intermediate stages may be noted between the merely impersonal conception and that of the full-fledged deity. In general, the most important of them all is that in which the `power' is associated with living beings. It would be natural to suppose that as soon as man conceived of an active force present in his world he would tend to associate persons and animals with it in an especial manner. Many of the monsters of Eskimo mythology seem to have been founded upon the experiences of those people with unfamiliar persons, either Indians or men of their own who have been lost, banished, or run away from the tribe. These, since they are seldom seen, and since they act strangely when seen, gradually acquire all sorts of mysterious and dreadful powers.' As has already been pointed out, primitive peoples attribute feats of all sorts, whether in men or animals, to the help of this `power. Animals which are swift or cunning or which escape their enemies in some other striking way, as in the case of the tortoise, would at once be said to possess it. These beliefs are common enough to-day, as we have seen. We have shown how the Melanesians associate their notion of this intangible force with persons who have given evidence of extraordinary ability in some direction or other. These people are particularly interesting because they represent such an elementary phase of the matter here considered. They do not go so far as to identify the person with the force, or to make it the expression of his personality. Thus, although certain persons have particular control over it, they are not regarded as deities. So also, when they are dead, their spirits are revered because of their fortuitous control of this mana, or `power,' and various ceremonies are performed at their graves, not as forms of worship, but to induce them to continue to use their power favorably. Those spirits which seem disinclined to respond are promptly discarded and soon forgotten. The attention of the Melanesians is clearly occupied with the ` power' idea, but with it all they have come to have a definite regard for some persons, and have developed ceremonials which are suggestive of those of the true religious type, i.e. of those directed to personal deities.

A most interesting illustration of how a person may come to be conceived as the possessor of a potency of some sort, and hence become an object of regard, is that of a Norwegian king, Halfdan the Black.' In his lifetime he had been most prosperous, i.e. blessed with abundance. On his death he was brought to a certain spot in his realm for burial, but "so greatly did men value him that when the news came that he was dead," chief men came from different parts of his kingdom, "and all requested that they might take his body with them and bury it in their various provinces; they thought that it would bring abundance to those who obtained it. Eventually it was settled that the body was distributed in four places." Frazer points out that this king belonged to a family which traced its descent from Frey, the Scandinavian god of fertility. The fundamentally significant fact is, however, that being a man distinguished by a prosperous life, he must, therefore, possess some peculiar potency which might supposedly be secured permanently for that section of the country in which his body was buried. The valuation set upon this king was clearly due to the extraordinary qualities which he acquired, partly at least, by contiguous association with the years of his prosperous reign.

The above illustrations are of considerable importance in that they show how easily a primitive race may come to regard persons as especially endowed with a mystic potence. The basis of the connection in the last case is quite mechanical, but it is a step toward a genuine reverence for a person as over against mere circumspection or fear in the presence of an un-defined, impersonal power.

The same tendency to fear or respect the person as the embodiment of a mysterious force may be induced in other ways. The sorcerer and miracle-monger, Frazer regards as the chrysalis out which of the gods developed. "`The real gods of Tana may be said to be the disease-makers. It is surprising how these men are dreaded, and how firm the belief that they have in their hands the power of life and death.' The means employed by these sorcerers to effect their fell purpose is sympathetic magic; they pick up the refuse of a man's food or other rubbish belonging to him, and burn it with certain formalities; and so the man falls ill and sends a present, an embryo sacrifice, to the sorcerer or embryo god, paying him to stop burning the rubbish, for he believes that when it is quite burnt he must surely die. Here we have all the elements of a religion a god, a worshipper, prayer, and sacrifice in process of evolution. The same supernatural powers which tend to elevate a magician in-to a god tend also to raise him to the rank of a chief or a king."

It is further possible that actual persons may become associated with abundant crops, giving rise to the idea of a mystic connection between the two. This is clearly illustrated in the legend related by Frazer of the above-mentioned Scandinavian god Frey. He was the god of fertility, but was reputed to have been originally a king of Sweden at Upsala. "The years of his reign were plenteous, and the people laid the plenty to his account. So when he died they would not burn him, as it had been customary to do with the dead before his time ; but they resolved to preserve his body, believing that, so long as it remained in Sweden, the land would have abundance and peace." Whether this legend has any basis in fact or not, it clearly illustrates a very natural method by which the dead may come to be revered, and, through the conception of a potency or mystic `power,' be associated with some particular and prominent interest in the life of a people. Frazer cites a number of other legends of kings dismembered and buried in different places for the sake of disseminating their ` power.'

The large place held by gods of fertility among the primitive Mediterranean peoples is well known. It seems not unreasonable to suppose that these may owe their origin in part to the association of peculiar powers with actual persons. Frazer points out that large statues of the gods of fertility were often placed in picturesque localities, suggestive of the manifestation of the `power' of vegetation. Two cases are mentioned where a "noble river issues abruptly from the rock to spread fertility through the rich vale below. Nowhere could man more appropriately revere those great powers of nature to whose favor he ascribes the fruitfulness of the earth, and through it the life of animate creation. With its cool and bracing air, its mass of verdure, its magnificent stream of pure ice-cold water so grateful in the burning heat of summer --and its wide stretch of fertile land, the valley may well have been the residence of an ancient prince or high-priest... . The place is a paradise of birds. Yet a little way off, beyond the beneficent influence of the springs and streams, all is desolation, in summer an arid waste broken by great marshes and wide patches of salt, in winter a broad sheet of stagnate water, which, as it dries up with the growing heat of the sun, exhales a poisonous malaria. No wonder the smiling luxuriance of the one landscape, sharply contrasting with the bleak sterility of the other, should have rendered it in the eyes of primitive man a veritable Garden of God." As the author quoted suggests, we have here a typical natural situation in which primitive man would imagine a ` power' to be present. In different ways he might come to believe that this `power' was the expression of a personal agent. Either an actual person might be the focus of attention, or, on the analogy of another situation in which a person actually seemed to display remarkable power, he would come to the conclusion that the `power' manifested before him was to be accounted for in a similar manner. We know that the Semitic peoples worshipped many of their kings when they were alive, e.g. at Babylon, in Moab, and in Edom. Their names indicate that they were conceived as related to the real deities of the people. It is not, therefore, impossible, that in these cases we have actual reminiscences of times when men were supposed to have superior `power' through association with some aspect of the bounty of nature.

It is possible that the `rain-maker, a familiar person among many primitive peoples, is an embryonic god of fertility. It is easy to see how the man who is supposed to be able to make rain would be revered in a peculiar way. Among the Niger tribes some of the kings are regarded as endowed with this power.

Various animals may come to be regarded as deities in the same way as persons, for the animal, to the natural man, is really a person, often powerful and mysterious. Embryonic forms of worship may be noted in those cases where an animal is honored and complimented and sometimes even wept over before it is killed. The purpose of such performances is doubtless to forestall any attempt on the part of the animal to use its much-dreaded `power' against its captor. Such acts are not worship, but they are typical of the kind of acts out of which worship grows. Reclus relates that certain of the Eskimo, before setting upon a stranded whale, receive it with divine honors, speeches, and compliments.' The Lillooet Indians act in a similar way when they are about to kill a bear.' The hunting of various animals among the Malays is preceded by all sorts of apologies and explanations to the victims.

We thus see how the respect for animals, persons, and spirits is based upon the supposition that they are possessed of extraordinary powers. Frazer, in his various writings, has collected many illustrations of the so-called `man-gods.' The whole series of curious beliefs and practices connected with these personages is of course the outcome of the idea that they have a `power' of some sort which is sometimes so independent of their personal life that it may be best utilized by the destruction of that personal life itself. The ceremonies of killing the person in order to render his `power' more generally avail-able should not be classed as magical, but rather as quite of a kind with many of those associated with full-fledged deities.' The deity is not of necessity a being whose `power' is a part of himself, the natural emanation of his personality, as is thought to be the case among those of more advanced religious development; at least a measure of the regard in which he is held may be the outcome of the belief that there resides in him a purely impersonal contagion. Much of the primitive Israelitish worship of Yahweh illustrates this.' No one who ex-amines the accounts of primitive deities can avoid feeling that in one way or another the hypothesis of this magic and impersonal potence enters largely into all beliefs and practices connected with them. We have tried to point out how naturally this potence is associated with persons and animals, and have maintained that this association is one of the first steps in the evolution of a purely personal deity. There are, however, other important forces to be taken into account, and to these we now must turn.

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