An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 47

Says Salomon Reinach (Cultes, mythes, et religions, p. 7): "The distribution of the clan totems among the tribal and national gods was not the work of a day: it must have been conditioned by a whole mass of circumstances—alliances, wars, local amalgamations—the clue to which is obviously lost forever. One factor of the first importance seems to have been the ritual of sacrifice; which, like all rituals, is eminently conservative. Take the case of a clan owning the bull as its totem, and sacrificing it at intervals. In time the era of personal deities is ushered in; the bull is converted into an attribute of the chief god, and offered up to him in sacrifice: yet there lingers a more or less distinct recollection of the victim's own divinity."

It has been well said that man cannot realize the gods as gods until he becomes aware of his own humanity. Before that they must appear to him as what Marett calls 'powers.' That is where animism with its branches, totemism and fetishism, may be distinguished from the religions of the higher cultus, the polytheisms which possess definite pantheons, and the monotheisms. It is noticeable that in early myth animals[Pg 110] often take the place of gods, a sure sign that the race which regarded the animal as occupying the place of a creator or hero had not yet 'found itself' as human, had not yet realized the enormous nature of the gulf which separates animal and human nature, was yet totally in the dark regarding the great things of which man was capable, his marvellous adaptability and wondrous destiny. When man realizes his superiority, then the totem-gods take on his own image, retaining only the symbols or insignia of the beast, or perhaps part of their ancient animal appearance. Thus the Egyptian sun-goddess, Bast, from being represented in early times as a cat pure and simple, was later figured as a woman having a cat's head. Uitzilopochtli, the Aztec war-god, evolved from humming-bird shape to man-like similitude, retaining, however, the colibri-feather cloak. The Mayan maize-spirit, when he attained god-like proportions, was represented as a young man wearing on his head-dress the graceful waving plumes of the maize-plant. These instances are illustrative of the different manner in which various peoples free their minds of the old beast-god ideas handed down for untold generations. Thus the strongly conservative Egyptians, probably because of fusion with other races, adopt the anthropomorphic form, but still retain the animal appearance in its most significant item—the head; the symbol-loving Aztecs preserve the humming-bird's feathers on their war-god's dress, while the still more anthropomorphic Greeks content themselves with placing the animal image beside the man-like god, instead of in any way amalgamating the two conceptions.


The process of manufacturing a god from a dead man, although at first sight apparently less involved than that of the evolution of a deity through fetishistic or totemic media, is found on close examination to be even more complex. Among many primitive races, and some that are not primitive, it is the bounden duty of the dead man's son to see that his manes, his spirit, wants for nothing. Even as he cherished his son during the first years of the infant's life, so his heir is now bound by[Pg 111] all he holds sacred to cherish his ghost and guard it against hunger, thirst, and cold. Woe betide the unfilial wretch who neglected the tomb of his father! Among the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Chinese such a dereliction of duty was regarded with the utmost abhorrence. Dreadful was the lot of the uncared-for dead. Says the Gilgamesh epic, the greatest literary product of ancient Babylonia:

The man whose spirit has none to care for it—
Thou and I have often seen such an one—
The dregs of the vessel, the leavings of the feast,
And that which is cast out upon the street are his food.

Great care was bestowed by Egyptian sons upon the post-mortem welfare of their parents, and the most solemn duty of a Chinaman is that of tending the spirits of his dead forefathers. This attention in course of time evolves into a very deep reverence, which greatly exalts the dead in the estimation of their descendants. In India and elsewhere critical observers have watched the progress of the evolution into godhead of innumerable dead men. A holy ascetic dies, famous throughout the neighbourhood for his piety and the rigour of his life. Miracles occur at his shrine. His surviving relatives foster the cult of his fame. His human "personality becomes misty, his origin grows mysterious, his career takes a legendary hue, his birth and death were both supernatural; in the next generation the names of the elder gods get introduced into the story, and so the marvellous tradition works itself into a myth, until nothing but a personal incarnation can account for such a series of prodigies. The man was an avatar of Vishnu or Siva; his supreme apotheosis is now complete, and the Brahmins feel warranted in providing for him a niche in the orthodox pantheon."[3]

This, of course, is an instance where the memory of his sanctity helps to turn a man into a god. No such idea enters into the earliest ancestor-worship. Among primitive savages the dead man would be worshipped because of the memory of his personal might when alive, the number of his clansmen and[Pg 112] adherents, and for similar reasons. But 'human' gods, ancestors and others, seldom reach any great altitude of deity.


At a very early epoch in the relations of man with the gods we find him entering into a tacit understanding which develops into a well-recognized pact. Even when the gods are in the fetish state we find the hunter smearing blood upon their mouths and imploring their assistance in return. It is a case, as the old proverb says, of 'Ka me, ka thee.' Man undoubtedly possesses an instinctive belief in the existence of a superior being or beings. He may twist this fundamental belief into any shape he pleases, but basically it remains the same. This belief in gods is not in itself religion. Inalienably possessing the idea of the existence of deity, and shaping it as his intelligence permits, man has yet to make religion, which consists in the worship and cult of supernatural beings, for his comfort, uplifting, assurance, and help. Man says to himself, "If He be with us who shall be against us?" and with the god for him feels secure against every adversary.

The 'comfort' derived from faith, of which all must have greater or less experience, the assurance that man is watched over, guided, and tended by a being to whom he is an object of solicitude, was probably experienced at a much earlier stage of human history than is generally admitted, but the bargain, the compact by which both man and god dwell together to mutual advantage, is obviously antecedent to these feelings, and is dictated by calculation as opposed to pure love. "Feed us, send us plenteous game, O Divine One, and we shall in turn maintain thee with sacrifice." Such is the compact. A similar bargain is made when man quits his hunter's life and begins to live an agricultural existence; nor does the nature of the pabulum offered to the gods differ with the adoption of an agricultural existence. Blood is the food of the gods when man sacrifices to them in his capacity of hunter, and continues to be so when he adopts cereals, although instances do occur of cereal and vegetable sacrifices. Vegetarian gods are few, and the majority of savages favour the cult of Abel, not that of[Pg 113] the brother who angered Yahweh by the agricultural nature of his sacrifices. The most complete instance on record of a compact in which a markedly agricultural community rigidly maintained the blood-sacrifice to the gods is that of ancient Mexico, where thousands of prisoners of war were annually immolated, and where an annual strife between the states of Mexico and Tlaxcala was upheld for the purpose of furnishing the altars of one or other with human victims.