Custom and Myth

Page: 83

One remark of Mr. Max Müller’s fortifies these opinions. If fetichism be indeed one of the earliest factors of faith in the supernatural; if it be, in its rudest forms, most powerful in proportion to other elements of faith among the least cultivated races (and that Mr. Müller will probably allow)—among what class of cultivated peoples will it longest hold its ground? Clearly, among the least cultivated, among the fishermen, the shepherds of lonely districts, the peasants of outlying lands—in short, among the people. Neglected by sacred poets in the culminating period of purity in religion, it will linger among the superstitions of the rustics. There is no real break in the continuity of peasant life; the modern folklore is (in many points) the savage ritual. Now Mr. Müller, when he was minimising the existence of fetichism in the Rig Veda (the oldest collection of hymns), admitted its existence in the Âtharvana (p. 60). {241} On p. 151, we read ‘the Atharva-veda-Sanhita is a later collection, containing, besides a large number of Rig Veda verses, some curious relics of popular poetry connected with charms, imprecations, and other superstitious usages.’ The italics are mine, and are meant to emphasise this fact:—When we leave the sages, the Rishis, and look at what is popular, look at what that class believed which of savage practice has everywhere retained so much, we are at once among the charms and the fetiches! This is precisely what one would have expected. If the history of religion and of mythology is to be unravelled, we must examine what the unprogressive classes in Europe have in common with Australians, and Bushmen, and Andaman Islanders. It is the function of the people to retain in folklore these elements of religion, which it is the high duty of the sage and the poet to purify away in the fire of refining thought. It is for this very reason that ritual has (though Mr. Max Müller curiously says that it seems not to possess) an immense scientific interest. Ritual holds on, with the tenacity of superstition, to all that has ever been practised. Yet, when Mr. Müller wants to know about origins, about actual ancient practice, he deliberately turns to that ‘great collection of ancient poetry’ (the Rig Veda) ‘which has no special reference to sacrificial acts,’ not to the Brahmanas which are full of ritual.

To sum up briefly:—(1) Mr. Müller’s arguments against the evidence for, and the primitiveness of, fetichism seem to demonstrate the opposite of that which he intends them to prove. (2) His own evidence for primitive practice is chosen from the documents of a cultivated society. (3) His theory deprives that society of the very influences which have elsewhere helped the Tribe, the Family, Rank, and Priesthoods to grow up, and to form the backbone of social existence.


What are the original forms of the human family? Did man begin by being monogamous or polygamous, but, in either case, the master of his own home and the assured central point of his family relations? Or were the unions of the sexes originally shifting and precarious, so that the wisest child was not expected to know his own father, and family ties were reckoned through the mother alone? Again (setting aside the question of what was ‘primitive’ and ‘original’), did the needs and barbarous habits of early men lead to a scarcity of women, and hence to polyandry (that is, the marriage of one woman to several men), with the consequent uncertainty about male parentage? Once more, admitting that these loose and strange relations of the sexes do prevail, or have prevailed, among savages, is there any reason to suppose that the stronger races, the Aryan and Semitic stocks, ever passed through this stage of savage customs? These are the main questions debated between what we may call the ‘historical’ and the ‘anthropological’ students of ancient customs.

When Sir Henry Maine observed, in 1861, that it was difficult to say what society of men had not been, originally, based on the patriarchal family, he went, of course, outside the domain of history. What occurred in the very origin of human society is a question perhaps quite inscrutable. Certainly, history cannot furnish the answer. Here the anthropologist and physiologist come in with their methods, and even those, we think, can throw but an uncertain light on the very ‘origin’ of institutions, and on strictly primitive man.

For the purposes of this discussion, we shall here re-state the chief points at issue between the adherents of Sir Henry Maine and of Mr. M’Lennan, between historical and anthropological inquirers.

1. Did man originally live in the patriarchal family, or did he live in more or less modified promiscuity, with uncertainty of blood-ties, and especially of male parentage?

2. Did circumstances and customs at some time compel or induce man (whatever his original condition) to resort to practices which made paternity uncertain, and so caused kinship to be reckoned through women?

3. Granting that some races have been thus reduced to matriarchal forms of the family—that is, to forms in which the woman is the permanent recognised centre—is there any reason to suppose that the stronger peoples, like the Aryans and the Semites, ever passed through a stage of culture in which female, not male, kinship was chiefly recognised, probably as a result of polyandry, of many husbands to one wife?

On this third question, it will be necessary to produce much evidence of very different sorts: evidence which, at best, can perhaps only warrant an inference, or presumption, in favour of one or the other opinion. For the moment, the impartial examination of testimony is more important and practicable than the establishment of any theory.