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Custom and Myth

Page: 77

However, Mr. Max Müller himself held ‘for a long time’ what he calls ‘De Brosses’s theory of fetichism.’ What made him throw the theory overboard? It was ‘the fact that, while in the earliest accessible documents of religious thought we look in vain for any very clear traces of fetichism, they become more and more frequent everywhere in the later stages of religious development, and are certainly more visible in the later corruptions of the Indian religion, beginning with the Âtharvana, than in the earliest hymns of the Rig Veda.’ Now, by the earliest accessible documents of religious thought, Professor Max Müller means the hymns of the Rig Veda. These hymns are composed in the most elaborate metre, by sages of old repute, who, I presume, occupied a position not unlike that of the singers and seers of Israel. They lived in an age of tolerably advanced cultivation. They had wide geographical knowledge. They had settled government. They dwelt in States. They had wealth of gold, of grain, and of domesticated animals. Among the metals, they were acquainted with that which, in most countries, has been the latest worked—they used iron poles in their chariots. How then can the hymns of the most enlightened singers of a race thus far developed be called ‘the earliest religious documents’? Oldest they may be, the oldest that are accessible, but that is a very different thing. How can we possibly argue that what is absent in these hymns, is absent because it had not yet come into existence? Is it not the very office of pii vates et Phœbo digna locuti to purify religion, to cover up decently its rude shapes, as the unhewn stone was concealed in the fane of Apollo of Delos? If the race whose noblest and oldest extant hymns were pure, exhibits traces of fetichism in its later documents, may not that as easily result from a recrudescence as from a corruption? Professor Max Müller has still, moreover, to explain how the process of corruption which introduced the same fetichistic practices among Samoyeds, Brazilians, Kaffirs, and the people of the Âtharvana Veda came to be everywhere identical in its results.

Here an argument often urged against the anthropological method may be shortly disposed of. ‘You examine savages,’ people say, ‘but how do you know that these savages were not once much more cultivated; that their whole mode of life, religion and all, is not debased and decadent from an earlier standard?’ Mr. Müller glances at this argument, which, however, cannot serve his purpose. Mr. Müller has recognised that savage, or ‘nomadic,’ languages represent a much earlier state of language than anything that we find, for example, in the oldest Hebrew or Sanskrit texts. ‘For this reason,’ he says, {218} ‘the study of what I call nomad languages, as distinguished from State languages, becomes so instructive. We see in them what we can no longer expect to see even in the most ancient Sanskrit or Hebrew. We watch the childhood of language with all its childish freaks.’ Yes, adds the anthropologist, and for this reason the study of savage religions, as distinguished from State religions, becomes so instructive. We see in them what we can no longer expect to see even in the most ancient Sanskrit or Hebrew faiths. We watch the childhood of religion with all its childish freaks. If this reasoning be sound when the Kaffir tongue is contrasted with ancient Sanskrit, it should be sound when the Kaffir faith is compared with the Vedic faith. By parity of reasoning, the religious beliefs of peoples as much less advanced than the Kaffirs as the Kaffirs are less advanced than the Vedic peoples, should be still nearer the infancy of faith, still ‘nearer the beginning.’

We have been occupied, perhaps, too long with De Brosses and our apology for De Brosses. Let us now examine, as shortly as possible, Mr. Max Müller’s reasons for denying that fetichism is ‘a primitive form of religion.’ The negative side of his argument being thus disposed of, it will then be our business to consider (1) his psychological theory of the subjective element in religion, and (2) his account of the growth of Indian religion. The conclusion of the essay will be concerned with demonstrating that Mr. Max Müller’s system assigns little or no place to the superstitious beliefs without which, in other countries than India, society could not have come into organised existence.

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In his polemic against Fetichism, it is not always very easy to see against whom Mr. Müller is contending. It is one thing to say that fetichism is a ‘primitive form of religion,’ and quite another to say that it is ‘the very beginning of all religion.’ Occasionally he attacks the ‘Comtian theory,’ which, I think, is not now held by many people who study the history of man, and which I am not concerned to defend. He says that the Portuguese navigators who discovered among the negroes ‘no other trace of any religious worship’ except what they called the worship of feitiços, concluded that this was the whole of the religion of the negroes (p. 61). Mr. Müller then goes on to prove that ‘no religion consists of fetichism only,’ choosing his examples of higher elements in negro religion from the collections of Waitz. It is difficult to see what bearing this has on his argument. De Brosses (p. 20) shows that he, at least, was well aware that many negro tribes have higher conceptions of the Deity than any which are implied in fetich-worship. Even if no tribe in the world is exclusively devoted to fetiches, the argument makes no progress. Perhaps no extant tribe is in the way of using unpolished stone weapons and no others, but it does not follow that unpolished stone weapons are not primitive. It is just as easy to maintain that the purer ideas have, by this time, been reached by aid of the stepping-stones of the grosser, as that the grosser are the corruption of the purer. Mr. Max Müller constantly asserts that the ‘human mind advanced by small and timid steps from what is intelligible, to what is at first sight almost beyond comprehension’ (p. 126). Among the objects which aided man to take these small and timid steps, he reckons rivers and trees, which excited, he says, religious awe. What he will not suppose is that the earliest small and timid steps were not unaided by such objects as the fetichist treasures—stones, shells, and so forth, which suggest no idea of infinity. Stocks he will admit, but not, if he can help it, stones, of the sort that negroes and Kanekas and other tribes use as fetiches. His reason is, that he does not see how the scraps of the fetichist can appeal to the feeling of the Infinite, which feeling is, in his theory, the basis of religion.

After maintaining (what is readily granted) that negroes have a religion composed of many elements, Mr. Müller tries to discredit the evidence about the creeds of savages, and discourses on the many minute shades of progress which exist among tribes too often lumped together as if they were all in the same condition. Here he will have all scientific students of savage life on his side. It remains true, however, that certain elements of savage practice, fetichism being one of them, are practically ubiquitous. Thus, when Mr. Müller speaks of ‘the influence of public opinion’ in biassing the narrative of travellers, we must not forget that the strongest evidence about savage practice is derived from the ‘undesigned coincidence’ of the testimonies of all sorts of men, in all ages, and all conditions of public opinion. ‘Illiterate men, ignorant of the writings of each other, bring the same reports from various quarters of the globe,’ wrote Millar of Glasgow. When sailors, merchants, missionaries, describe, as matters unprecedented and unheard of, such institutions as polyandry, totemism, and so forth, the evidence is so strong, because the witnesses are so astonished. They do not know that anyone but themselves has ever noticed the curious facts before their eyes. And when Mr. Müller tries to make the testimony about savage faith still more untrustworthy, by talking of the ‘absence of recognised authority among savages,’ do not let us forget that custom (νομος) is a recognised authority, and that the punishment of death is inflicted for transgression of certain rules. These rules, generally speaking, are of a religious nature, and the religion to which they testify is of the sort known (too vaguely) as ‘fetichistic.’ Let us keep steadily before our minds, when people talk of lack of evidence, that we have two of the strongest sorts of evidence in the world for the kind of religion which least suits Mr. Müller’s argument—(1) the undesigned coincidences of testimony, (2) the irrefutable witness and sanction of elementary criminal law. Mr. Müller’s own evidence is that much-disputed work, where ‘all men see what they want to see, as in the clouds,’ and where many see systematised fetichism—the Veda. {222}


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