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Concepts Of Divine Personages Part 6

( Originally Published 1910 )

As we have seen, the primitive man easily tends to interpret his feelings of value in terms of a mysterious, vaguely conceived `force '; but the values themselves are largely of social origin, and the social factor is continuously present, enhancing them and rendering them stable and permanent. Indeed it is largely through the presence of a social body of some sort that the individual acquires prominence of any kind, especially the reputation of being endowed with `power' or wisdom.

It would, of course, be strange if a primitive social group did not think of all that affected it in some sort of social terminology. Its customs, its arts, all the aspects of its culture, would almost inevitably be associated with the initiative, skill, or cunning, of some person or animal. To be convinced that this is the case, we need only note the large number of culture-hero legends in primitive mythology. The play of fancy would have much to do with extending and giving content to these concepts, and in proportion as these constructions of fancy were interwoven with the people's conception of its life and destiny would they acquire a religious value.

The ` All-father ' of the southeast Australians illustrates quite clearly the way in which a social group may build up such a concept, or perhaps we should say, shows how the tribe, with its fundamental economic and social interests, is the soil out of which the notion of a culture-hero grows. In the case of this `All-father,' each trait and characteristic can be clearly traced back to the structure and interests of the social body which believes in him. He is, according to Howitt, an old black-fellow to whom the natives, under different names, at-tribute the origin of everything. The whole content of their notion is clearly an extension through fancy of the esteem in which the actual old men of the different groups are held. They are regarded with the greatest respect, and upon them rests the determination of all questions of tribal polity and of ceremonial activity. This `old man' is represented as formerly dwelling upon earth, but afterward ascending to the sky-land, where he still observes mankind, going and doing what he pleases. Even his attribute of immortality is quite easily explainable, for in this particular he merely realizes the natural state of mankind, for all would live forever if not prematurely killed by evil magic.'

This culture-hero of the southeast Australians "is the embodiment," says Howitt, "of the idea of a venerable, kindly head-man of a tribe, full of knowledge and tribal wisdom, and all-powerful in magic, of which he is the source, with virtues, feelings, passions, such as the aborigines regard them." He is imagined simply as the idealization of those qualities which they conceive as worthy of imitation. "Such would be a man who is skilful in the use of weapons of offence and defence, all-powerful in magic, but generous and liberal to his people, who does no injury or violence to any one, yet treats with severity any breaches of custom and morality." He has no divine significance, however, in their eyes, and is seldom mentioned.' The term `father,' applied to him, is in common use with reference to all the elder men of the groups, and hence has significance, not as indicating their possession of the Christian notion of a divine father, but as indicating possible conditions from which more advanced notions may have sprung.

This `All-father' of the Australians is of especial interest because the social origin of all his attributes is so clearly in evidence, attributes which are, as far as they themselves are concerned, sufficient for quite a definite deity, but which in this case do not apply to one who receives any worship or who is connected in any way with their ceremonial activities. We have in him, as it were, a one-sided development, a character which has acquired the attributes of a deity in a social group which does not seem to feel the need of a deity, possibly be-cause of the peculiar way in which its attention is absorbed by the initiation ceremonies and other rites. At any rate, it is evident that the attributes of a divine personage are so definitely of social origin that they may appear without the clear development of the deistic consciousness itself.

Among the Central Australians with a less advanced social organization there are many stories of creators or transformers. These beings are conceived as related to the rites and customs of the groups, and are interesting, not as deities, but as illustrations of how social bodies readily associate the existing status of things with the exercise of a peculiar prowess of personal beings. As we have said, this is a real step in the natural history of the deistic conceptions of religion.

Other significant illustrations are furnished by the Todas. The exact nature of their notions of deities is obscure because of the probable change which has taken place in their economic interests. They really have a pantheon of gods, and what we wish here to call attention to is that these well-developed gods have, many of them, the earmarks of culture-heroes. Thus, there is an added presumption that the culture-hero may, under appropriate social conditions, become a god.

Of especial interest is the myth regarding one of their more important gods, Meilitars. He is said to have been a Toda youth of great cunning. The gods said of him, "We cannot kill him; he has some power; let us try his power." (Italics ours.) Various natural features of their country they explain as the outcome of these tests. The gods could not outwit him, and so finally admitted that he, also, was a god. He is closely associated with two clans and with the dairy ritual of one in particular, and the stories told of him show quite clearly that he is a deity developed from an ordinary culture-hero and trickster.' We should not fail to note that the sign which first betrayed his unusual character was his possession of some sort of power. Here, then, we have a god who is ideally a member of a social group, and he might well have been at one time a real man distinguished by his cunning and the reputation of his having unusual powers.

The culture-heroes of the North American Indians, whether they be men or animals, are all thought to have been in peculiar contact with the mysterious potency, wakonda, manitou, etc., as it is variously called. In many, if not in all, cases they are, in part, low tricksters. In this phase they certainly do not rise to the dignity of deities, but are rather the idealization of what is striven after by the tribe in its various sports. But in many cases the approach to a deity is made in the association of these beings with the objects of social interest in the tribe and with its origin, history, and ceremonials.'

More extended illustration of the culture-hero conception is scarcely necessary here. What we are desirous of emphasizing is that in it and related concepts there is excellent illustration of the tendency of social groups to think of what concerns them in personal terms. The culture-hero is not of necessity a divinity, but rather a man, much like ordinary men, or even an animal, who by luck or cunning has done things which continue for all time, sometimes to the advantage, sometimes to the disadvantage, of mankind. Sometimes he is a mere trickster, sometimes a really great figure in the mythical history of the tribe. He is generally thought of as possessing peculiar powers or unusual control over the `power.

There is an interesting similarity between the myth of the Norwegian king, discussed above, and the stories of the culture-heroes. In both cases a person is regarded as having had great influence over the welfare of his tribe through his superior ability. As has been suggested, in proportion as this person is conceived as playing a part in the present active life of the group, does his rôle as deity really appear. The beginnings of this may be seen among the Melanesians, where certain spirits and ghosts are supposed to be able to exert their mana for or against living men, and, in consequence, rites have developed suggestive of religious ceremonies, for the purpose of inducing in the spirit a proper attitude toward living men. It is instructive to think of ancestor-worship in this connection. The culture-hero and the ancestor are, of course, not convertible terms, but the same psychical attitude is present in some measure in the regard accorded to each. In addition to other elements undoubtedly entering into the worship of ancestors, the idea is doubtless quite often present that they have control over the `power' in a marked degree, so that they are reverenced and dreaded as a matter of course. This belief in the unusual powers of the dead is very evident in the ancestor-worship described by Leonard as existing among the Niger tribes.

These conceptions, whether of ancestors or culture-heroes, are all social products, the outcome of definite types of social ideals and social organization. Just why they are not always divinities depends upon various intricate social conditions, which we shall not always be able to specify. Our interest here is in the fact that the idea of worthfulness, and especially of worth as dependent upon a mystic potence, does in reality become associated with persons and sometimes with their ghosts and with mythical beings of various kinds.

The above considerations lend weight to our hypothesis that deities are constructions within particular social matrices, and acquire their definiteness and individuality, as far as they have any at all, in the atmosphere of social intercourse. They are not formed merely upon the analogy of social life and its ideals, they are rather quite explainable extensions, or developments, of that life with reference to certain acute interests. The deity is not the product of some supposed faculty of personification, but is possibly an actual person to start with, who is regarded as closely and actively related to some acute interest. The worship is not based upon the analogy of social activity; it is a portion of this activity extended to include within its scope the supposedly superior person. So, also, the characteristics of the deity are not merely reflections of the ideals of the social group, they are extensions of concepts in daily use in ordinary social intercourse. The whole set of value-attitudes clustering about the deity have thus acquired their specific form and permanence. Their association with a deity is not, however, an afterthought, for the deity is the concrete and communicable form in which they often first come to consciousness.

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