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Custom and Myth

Page: 79

oldest. Religion, possessing an old fetich did not run the risk of breaking the run of luck by discarding it, but wisely retained and renamed it. Mr. Max Müller says that the unhewn lump may indicate a higher power of abstraction than the worship paid to the work of Phidias; but in that case all the savage adorers of rough stones may be in a stage of more abstract thought than these contemporaries of Phidias who had such very hard work to make Greek thought abstract.

Mr Müller founds a very curious argument on what he calls ‘the ubiquity of fetichism.’ Like De Brosses, he compiles (from Pausanias) a list of the rude stones worshipped by the early Greeks. He mentions various examples of fetichistic superstitions in Rome. He detects the fetichism of popular Catholicism, and of Russian orthodoxy among the peasants. Here, he cries, in religions the history of which is known to us, fetichism is secondary, ‘and why should fetiches in Africa, where we do not know the earlier development of religion, be considered as primary?’ What a singular argument! According to Pausanias, this fetichism (if fetichism it is) was primary, in Greece. The oldest temples, in their holiest place, held the oldest fetich. In Rome, it is at least probable that fetichism, as in Greece, was partly a survival, partly a new growth from the primal root of human superstitions. As to Catholicism, the records of Councils, the invectives of the Church, show us that, from the beginning, the secondary religion in point of time, the religion of the Church, laboured vainly to suppress, and had in part to tolerate, the primary religion of childish superstitions. The documents are before the world. As to the Russians, the history of their conversion is pretty well known. Jaroslaf, or Vladimir, or some other evangelist, had whole villages baptized in groups, and the pagan peasants naturally kept up their primary semi-savage ways of thought and worship, under the secondary varnish of orthodoxy. In all Mr. Max Müller’s examples, then, fetichism turns out to be primary in point of time; secondary only, as subordinate to some later development of faith, or to some lately superimposed religion. Accepting his statement that fetichism is ubiquitous, we have the most powerful a priori argument that fetichism is primitive. As religions become developed they are differentiated; it only fetichism that you find the same everywhere. Thus the bow and arrow have a wide range of distribution: the musket, one not so wide; the Martini-Henry rifle, a still narrower range: it is the primitive stone weapons that are ubiquitous, that are found in the soil of England, Egypt, America, France, Greece, as in the hands of Dieyries and Admiralty Islanders. And just as rough stone knives are earlier than iron ones (though the same race often uses both), so fetichism is more primitive than higher and purer faiths, though the same race often combines fetichism and theism. No one will doubt the truth of this where weapons are concerned; but Mr. Max Müller will not look at religion in this way.

Mr. Max Müller’s remarks on ‘Zoolatry,’ as De Brosses calls it, or animal-worship, require only the briefest comment. De Brosses, very unluckily, confused zoolatry with other superstitions under the head of Fetichism. This was unscientific; but is it scientific of Mr. Max Müller to discuss animal-worship without any reference to totemism? The worship of sacred animals is found, in every part of the globe, to be part of the sanction of the most stringent and important of all laws, the laws of marriage. It is an historical truth that the society of Ashantees, Choctaws, Australians, is actually constructed by the operation of laws which are under the sanction of various sacred plants and animals. {226} There is scarcely a race so barbarous that these laws are not traceable at work in its society, nor a people (especially an ancient people) so cultivated that its laws and religion are not full of strange facts most easily explained as relics of totemism. Now note that actual living totemism is always combined with the rudest ideas of marriage, with almost repulsive ideas about the family. Presumably, this rudeness is earlier than culture, and therefore this form of animal-worship is one of the earliest religions that we know. The almost limitless distribution of the phenomena, their regular development, their gradual disappearance, all point to the fact that they are all very early and everywhere produced by similar causes.

Of all these facts, Mr. Max Müller only mentions one—that many races have called themselves Snakes, and he thinks they might naturally adopt the snake for ancestor, and finally for god. He quotes the remark of Diodorus that ‘the snake may either have been made a god because he was figured on the banners, or may have been figured on the banners because he was a god’; to which De Brosses, with his usual sense, rejoins—‘we represent saints on our banners because we revere them; we do not revere them because we represent them on our banners.’

In a discussion about origins, and about the corruption of religion, it would have been well to account for institutions and beliefs almost universally distributed. We know, what De Brosses did not, that zoolatry is inextricably blent with laws and customs which surely must be early, if not primitive, because they make the working faith of societies in which male descent and the modern family are not yet established. Anyone who wishes to show that this sort of society is a late corruption, not an early stage in evolution towards better things, has a difficult task before him, which, however, he must undertake, before he can prove zoolatry to be a corruption of religion.

As to the worship of ancestral and embodied human spirits, which (it has been so plausibly argued) is the first moment in religion, Mr. Max Müller dismisses it, here, in eleven lines and a half. An isolated but important allusion at the close of his lectures will be noticed in its place.


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