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Custom and Myth

Page: 82

tapued an inch thick, and perfectly unapproachable.’ Magical power abides in and emanates from him. By this superstition, an aristocracy is formed, and property (the property, at least, of the aristocracy) is secured. Among the Red Indians, as Schoolcraft says, ‘priests and jugglers are the persons that make war and have a voice in the sale of the land.’ Mr. E. W. Robertson says much the same thing about early Scotland. If Odin was not a god with the gifts of a medicine-man, and did not owe his chiefship to his talent for dealing with magic, he is greatly maligned. The Irish Brehons also sanctioned legal decisions by magical devices, afterwards condemned by the Church. Among the Zulus, ‘the Itongo (spirit) dwells with the great man; he who dreams is the chief of the village.’ The chief alone can ‘read in the vessel of divination.’ The Kaneka chiefs are medicine-men.

Here then, in widely distant regions, in early European, American, Melanesian, African societies, we find those factors in religion which the primitive Aryans are said to have dispensed with, helping to construct society, rank, property. Is it necessary to add that the ancestral spirits still ‘rule the present from the past,’ and demand sacrifice, and speak to ‘him who dreams,’ who, therefore, is a strong force in society, if not a chief? Mr. Herbert Spencer, Mr. Tylor, M. Fustel de Coulanges, a dozen others, have made all this matter of common notoriety. As Hearne the traveller says about the Copper River Indians, ‘it is almost necessary that they who rule them should profess something a little supernatural to enable them to deal with the people.’ The few examples we have given show how widely, and among what untutored races, the need is felt. The rudimentary government of early peoples requires, and, by aid of dreams, necromancy, ‘medicine’ (i.e. fetiches), tapu, and so forth, obtains, a supernatural sanction.

Where is the supernatural sanction that consecrated the chiefs of a race which woke to the sense of the existence of infinite beings, in face of trees, rivers, the dawn, the sun, and had none of the so-called late and corrupt fetichism that does such useful social work?

To the student of other early societies, Mr. Müller’s theory of the growth of Aryan religion seems to leave society without cement, and without the most necessary sanctions. One man is as good as another, before a tree, a river, a hill. The savage organisers of other societies found out fetiches and ghosts that were ‘respecters of persons.’ Zoolatry is intertwisted with the earliest and most widespread law of prohibited degrees. How did the Hindoos dispense with the aid of these superstitions? Well, they did not quite dispense with them. Mr. Max Müller remarks, almost on his last page (376), that ‘in India also . . . the thoughts and feelings about those whom death had separated from us for a time, supplied some of the earliest and most important elements of religion.’ If this was the case, surely the presence of those elements and their influence should have been indicated along with the remarks about the awfulness of trees and the suggestiveness of rivers. Is nothing said about the spirits of the dead and their cult in the Vedas? Much is said, of course. But, were it otherwise, then other elements of savage religion may also have been neglected there, and it will be impossible to argue that fetichism did not exist because it is not mentioned. It will also be impossible to admit that the ‘Hibbert Lectures’ give more than a one-sided account of the Origin of Indian Religion.

The perusal of Mr. Max Müller’s book deeply impresses one with the necessity of studying early religions and early societies simultaneously. If it be true that early Indian religion lacked precisely those superstitions, so childish, so grotesque, and yet so useful, which we find at work in contemporary tribes, and which we read of in history, the discovery is even more remarkable and important than the author of the ‘Hibbert Lectures’ seems to suppose. It is scarcely necessary to repeat that the negative evidence of the Vedas, the religious utterances of sages, made in a time of what we might call ‘heroic culture,’ can never disprove the existence of superstitions which, if current in the former experience of the race, the hymnists, as Barth observes, would intentionally ignore. Our object has been to defend the ‘primitiveness of fetichism.’ By this we do not mean to express any opinion as to whether fetichism (in the strictest sense of the word) was or was not earlier than totemism, than the worship of the dead, or than the involuntary sense of awe and terror with which certain vast phenomena may have affected the earliest men. We only claim for the powerful and ubiquitous practices of fetichism a place among the early elements of religion, and insist that what is so universal has not yet been shown to be ‘a corruption’ of something older and purer.


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