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Concepts Of Divine Personages Part 7

( Originally Published 1910 )

We have seen above how varied are the ways in which the primitive world of values may acquire personal associations, and how, when these are once established, the ground is laid for the general development of deistic ` concepts." This further development is conditioned almost entirely by the play of social processes and modes of thought.

The first and most obvious of these social influences is that which was discussed at length in the preceding section, namely, that which appears in the tendency to associate vital interests with the activity of some person or animal. The social body, as has also been shown, adds further determination to ` concepts' of deities by the methods of intercourse and activity prevailing within it. It is only when this process of socialization begins that the deity acquires much definite character and becomes the embodiment of the higher valuations of the group. Another phase of the social reaction upon embryonic deities is the tendency, mentioned above, to consider them members of the group formed by the worshippers themselves. This belief may find various expressions, but usually the god is regarded as the parent or creator of the tribe or clan.' Such a belief may be developed in part through a reverence for actual ancestors, but it is also partly due to the fact that the primitive man can clearly envisage as friendly only those things or persons which he can make a part of his group.'

But the lines of social determination are intricate, and extend even farther than indicated above. The methods by which a group deals with its deities are important factors in the development of their characters. Even if a primitive race started out with the vague notion of forces, impersonal and quasi-mechanical, it could scarcely avoid falling into social methods of dealing with them, and these methods would be a constant stimulus to the group to conceive of them as personal or as under the control of personal beings. At any rate, if we take those peoples which do have fairly definite personal concepts of superior powers, we find the methods of approaching them are clearly extensions of the ordinary methods of social intercourse. They are evidently carried directly over from the methods of seeking the help or favor of fellowmen. Granted that the idea of a superior personality once appears in the religious consciousness, it is easy to see that the problem of worship itself, and of different types of worship, is quite a simple one. It seems almost self-evident that the deity will be approached and treated precisely along the lines of intercourse within the group of worshippers. He will be bargained with, or treated with respect, because he is recognized as having the advantage in power. He will be flattered, offered gifts, feasted, and entreated precisely as would occur in a human society if any member were felt to surpass the rest in some important type of excellence. In general, the modes of worship will be, first of all, repetitions of the acts called forth by the object or situation which has aroused the interest. In what better way could keepers of flocks conceive of honoring their god and keeping him interested in men than by the ordinary communal feast, of recognized importance in maintaining proper social relations on the human side? The peoples with whom witch-craft is of dominating importance will necessarily treat their deities after the manner of treating the human sorcerer. Likewise, phallic rites grow out of one form of social inter-course, and a deity of fertility would naturally be worshipped through sexual excesses.

Thus, what may be called the framework of the deity is dependent upon the objects of social interest and the methods of social activity. There is still, however, a body, or filling in, to account for, and this is in large measure due to the play of fancy as stimulated by human associations. It is easy to see how this factor is operative, and that it would be along lines in which the people's ideas are already running. The oldest myths of Isis represent her "as an independent deity dwelling in the midst of the ponds without husband or lover, who gave birth spontaneously to a son whom she suckled among the reeds." The primary concept here is apparently that of a goddess of fertility, the personal statement of the feeling that in damp, watery places there is a `power' which is the cause of vegetable growth. But a polyandrous and exogamous social group could not, in its play of fancy about such a person, think of her as being different from themselves, and consequently the picture of her as isolated and without husband or lover would be drawn. When, at a later period, she is represented as married to Osiris, the newer social order has clearly modified the play of fancy. We may certainly regard idle fancy and story-telling, as these inevitably appear in social groups, as of the greatest importance in the develop-ment of the content and coloring of all possible deistic concepts. In this fancy we do not have a radically new factor, but simply a continuation, in a particular channel, of the general social process, which may manifest itself in the most varied ways.

The importance of the social group in the determination of its deities is well illustrated by a large mass of material already discussed in other connections. The material to which we refer is that which brings to light the relation between definiteness of religious consciousness and the degree of social organization? If we grant the validity of the position before taken upon this point, we may see in the case of deities merely special instances of the kind already referred to. In a general way it seems to be true that primitive and loosely organized groups have scattering and ill-organized ideas of deities, whereas, in better-developed groups, the gods are more definitely conceived and have more clearly defined powers.' Many illustrations which seem apposite might be given, and yet none are entirely satisfactory, because it is not possible, with entire assurance, to grade different peoples according to their degree of social development,' and we are, furthermore, far from sure, in most cases, that we have an adequate notion of the actual deistic concepts themselves, which we thus propose to call higher or lower. We can say, in general, that peoples subjected to highly centralized and absolute forms of government usually have equally centralized and absolute systems of deities, while peoples having little or no tribal organization have vaguely conceived and even transient deities. But there are so many factors to be taken into account in all such cases that we cannot make dogmatic assertions about any of them. Both extremes we may find among various African tribes, and it is certainly significant that the Melanesians,' with almost no organized political life and uncertain chieftainship, if they have deities at all, have only embryonic ones.

Among the ancient Teutons the gods clearly symbolized the values inherent in the political organization. Saussaye says : " . . . the moral functions of the gods are identical with their position as guardians and defenders of thing and host. In so far as we are actually acquainted with the part they play in Teutonic law and in the cult, we find the gods punishing those who transgress against them, or who violate the sacred peace, i.e. the regular order of legal procedure or of the military camp. . . . They have in no sense become the embodiment of certain moral qualities or ideals." 1 According to the same writer, ideas of gods seem to have had little place in the thought of the free, wandering Vikings. That many of them were godless means simply that their reliance upon their own strength, in their wandering life of danger, was not favorable to the development of deities.

We are concerned in this chapter only with the deities of relatively primitive religions. The natural history of higher conceptions will be taken up in the following chapter. Inasmuch as a further examination of the social determination of deities would bring us into these higher phases of the subject, we may properly reserve other aspects for the next section.

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