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Custom and Myth

Page: 75

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The conclusion, then, to be drawn from an examination of Hottentot mythology is merely this, that the ideas of a people will be reflected in their myths. A people which worships the dead, believes in sorcerers and in prophets, and in metamorphosis, will have for its god (if he can be called a god) a being who is looked on as a dead prophet and sorcerer. He will be worshipped with such rites as dead men receive; he will be mixed up in such battles as living men wage, and will be credited with the skill which living sorcerers claim. All these things meet in the legend of Tsui Goab, the so-called ‘supreme being’ of the Hottentots. His connection with the dawn is not supported by convincing argument or evidence. The relation of the dawn to the Infinite again rests on nothing but a theory of Mr. Max Müller’s. {209} His adversary, though recognised as the night, is elsewhere admitted to have been, originally, a common vampire. Finally, the Hottentots, a people not much removed from savagery, have a mythology full of savage and even disgusting elements. And this is just what we expect from Hottentots. The puzzle is when we find myths as low as the story of the incest of Heitsi Eibib among the Greeks. The reason for this coincidence is that, in Dr. Hahn’s words, ‘the same objects and the same phenomena in nature will give rise to the same ideas, whether social or mythical, among different races of mankind,’ especially when these races are in the same well-defined state of savage fancy and savage credulity.

Dr. Hahn’s book has been regarded as a kind of triumph over inquirers who believe that ancestor-worship enters into myth, and that the purer element in myth is the later. But where is the triumph? Even on Dr. Hahn’s own showing, ancestor-worship among the Hottentots has swamped the adoration of the Infinite. It may be said that Dr. Hahn has at least proved the adoration of the Infinite to be earlier than ancestor-worship. But it has been shown that his attempt to establish a middle stage, to demonstrate that the worshipped ancestor was really the Red Dawn, is not logical nor convincing. Even if that middle stage were established, it is a far cry from the worship of Dawn (supposed by the Australians to be a woman of bad character in a cloak of red’ possum-skin) to the adoration of the Infinite. Our own argument has been successful if we have shown that there are not only two possible schools of mythological interpretation—the Euhemeristic, led by Mr. Spencer, and the Philological, led by Mr. Max Müller. We have seen that it is possible to explain the legend of Tsui Goab without either believing him to have been a real historical person (as Mr. Spencer may perhaps believe), or his myth to have been the result of a ‘disease of language’ as Mr. Müller supposes. We have explained the legend and worship of a supposed dead conjurer as natural to a race which believes in conjurers and worships dead men. Whether he was merely an ideal ancestor and warrior, or whether an actual man has been invested with what divine qualities Tsui Goab enjoys, it is impossible to say; but, if he ever lived, he has long been adorned with ideal qualities and virtues which he never possessed. The conception of the powerful ancestral ghost has been heightened and adorned with some novel attributes of power: the conception of the Infinite has not been degraded, by forgetfulness of language, to the estate of an ancestral ghost with a game leg.

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If this view be correct, myth is the result of thought, far more than of a disease of language. The comparative importance of language and thought was settled long ago, in our sense, by no less a person than Pragapati, the Sanskrit Master of Life.

‘Now a dispute once took place between Mind and Speech, as to which was the better of the two. Both Mind and Speech said, “I am excellent!” Mind said, “Surely I am better than thou, for thou dost not speak anything that is not understood by me; and since thou art only an imitator of what is done by me and a follower in my wake, I am surely better than thou!” Speech said, “Surely I am better than thou, for what thou knowest I make known, I communicate.” They went to appeal to Pragapati for his decision. He (Pragapati) decided in favour of Mind, saying (to Speech), “Mind is indeed better than thou, for thou art an imitator of its deeds, and a follower in its wake; and inferior, surely, is he who imitates his better’s deeds, and follows in his wake.”’

So saith the ‘Satapatha Brahmana.’ {211}

FETICHISM AND THE INFINITE.

What is the true place of Fetichism, to use a common but unscientific term, in the history of religious evolution? Some theorists have made fetichism, that is to say, the adoration of odds and ends (with which they have confused the worship of animals, of mountains, and even of the earth), the first moment in the development of worship. Others, again, think that fetichism is ‘a corruption of religion, in Africa, as elsewhere.’ The latter is the opinion of Mr Max Müller, who has stated it in his ‘Hibbert Lectures,’ on ‘The Origin and Growth of Religion, especially as illustrated by the Religions of India.’ It seems probable that there is a middle position between these two extremes. Students may hold that we hardly know enough to justify us in talking about the origin of religion, while at the same time they may believe that Fetichism is one of the earliest traceable steps by which men climbed to higher conceptions of the supernatural. Meanwhile Mr. Max Müller supports his own theory, that fetichism is a ‘parasitical growth,’ a ‘corruption’ of religion, by arguments mainly drawn from historical study of savage creeds, and from the ancient religious documents of India.

These documents are to English investigators ignorant of Sanskrit ‘a book sealed with seven seals.’ The Vedas are interpreted in very different ways by different Oriental scholars. It does not yet appear to be known whether a certain word in the Vedic funeral service means ‘goat’ or ‘soul’! Mr. Max Müller’s rendering is certain to have the first claim on English readers, and therefore it is desirable to investigate the conclusions which he draws from his Vedic studies. The ordinary anthropologist must first, however, lodge a protest against the tendency to look for primitive matter in the Vedas. They are the elaborate hymns of a specially trained set of poets and philosophers, living in an age almost of civilisation. They can therefore contain little testimony as to what man, while still ‘primitive,’ thought about God, the world, and the soul. One might as well look for the first germs of religion, for primitive religion strictly so called, in ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ as in the Vedas. It is chiefly, however, by way of deductions from the Vedas, that Mr. Max Müller arrives at ideas which may be briefly and broadly stated thus: he inclines to derive religion from man’s sense of the Infinite, as awakened by natural objects calculated to stir that sense. Our position is, on the other hand, that the germs of the religious sense in early man are developed, not so much by the vision of the Infinite, as by the idea of Power. Early religions, in short, are selfish, not disinterested. The worshipper is not contemplative, so much as eager to gain something to his advantage. In fetiches, he ignorantly recognises something that possesses power of an abnormal sort, and the train of ideas which leads him to believe in and to treasure fetiches is one among the earliest springs of religious belief.

Mr. Müller’s opinion is the very reverse: he believes that a contemplative and disinterested emotion in the presence of the Infinite, or of anything that suggests infinitude or is mistaken for the Infinite, begets human religion, while of this religion fetichism is a later corruption.

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