Animism - The Seed of Religion


relation of the living to the spirits of the dead.
The deification of men during their lifetime, of which ancient Greece and Rome furnish examples, does not fall within the present purpose.

The belief in spirits and in their survival after death is shown to have sufficing cause of origin in dreams about them, and to be strengthened by the phenomena of shadows, reflections and echoes, and by sundry kinds of disease, all of
which, like death itself, are attributed to maleficent agents, theories of natural causes being impossible to the savage mind.

"Man after man dies in the same way, but it never occurs to the savage that there is one constant and expicable cause to account for all cases. Instead of this, he regards each successive death as an event wholly by itself, apparently unexpected, and only to be explained by some supernatural agency." 57

One thing is clear, that at death the spirit does not return to the body. What, then, becomes of it? Ask the Archbishop of Canterbury, as our highest representative of the

57 Diecle's Three Years in Savage Africa, p. 512,


orthodox creed, what happens to the soul in the intervening period between death and the resurrection and final judgment?

His answer will probably be as nebulous as that of the natives of Obubura Hill, in Nigeria, concerning whom Mr. Partridge says: " They all believe in a future life of some kind or another—that death is only the passing from one to another sphere of environment
Mors Janua Vitce.

The life and whereabouts of the soul after 'death' depends upon a variety of circumstances which they believe that they can more or less control.
Sometimes the soul or spirit goes up to the sky to live with the Big God, sometimes it passes into the great tree that predominates over their central meeting-place, sometimes it is bom again in the bodies of its own grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, sometimes it goes into a wild beast and gives people a great deal of trouble, or it may wander about in the bush in some mysterious imdefined form, doing nothing in particular except scare those who come across it, and so on.

In short, the negro has no more definite knowledge of what happens to the spirit of man after death than we ourselves have. The science and philosophy of modem Europe have as yet found no


answer to this superlatively interesting question, and the negro of the West African bush cannot enlighten us.

            Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
           Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through.
           Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
           Which to discover we must travel too. 58

But whatever views may prevail, there is
unity of belief that the spirit retains an interest
in the affairs of the living. Hence the maintenance
of more or less permanent relations
between the two ; or, as seems to be often the
case among the lower races, the effort to
avoid relations, since the action of the spirits
is an unknown quantity.

They can help or harm, and the belief in their ability to do either is increased by the mystery which invests them.
Freed from the limitations of the body, they move in a wider sphere, and wield greater power.
The large number of examples collected by Dr. Frazer, in his essay On Certain Burial Customs as Illustrative of the Primitive Theory of the Soul, 59 show that " the attentions bestowed on the dead

58 Cross River Natives.
59 An enlarged reprint from the Journal of the Anthropological
Institute (August, 1885).


sprang not so much from the affections as from the fears of the survivors. For, as every one knows, ghosts of the unburied dead haunt the earth, and make themselves exceedingly disagreeable,
especially to their undutiful relatives."
Hence the various customs to "lay the ghost," the dread of whose return experience shows to be persistent, although history supplies many an example of cultivation of the society of the dead, and of festivals, such as the ParentaHa in old Rome, when the tombs were decked with flowers, and wine, honey and oil offered; festivals surviving in the observances on All Souls' Day in Catholic coimtries.

The spirit would be supposed to haunt the spot whence it departed, but the association of it with the body would be maintained, and hence it would be transferred in thought to the resting-place of the remains.

We do not know what Eolithic or Palseolithic man did with his dead; it is pretty certain that the camivora of those times devoured many corpses, and there are Neohthic relics of funeral feasts which point to cannibalism.

One of the most touching relics of the Neolithic Age is that of the skeleton of a young woman clasping a child, which was found in a round barrow on Dunstable


Downs, the grave being edged with fossil echini or sea-urchins, which the peasants call "fairy loaves."

We have to assume a vast lapse of time before we reach the period when the cult of spirits took definite shape, with accompaniment of offerings, and of deposit of utensils and weapons, for, as the Algonquins told Father Charlevoix,
"since hatchets and kettles have shadows, as well as men and women, it follows that these shadows must pass along with human shadows into the spirit-land; or, as the Fijians say, "if an axe or a chisel is worn out or broken up, away flies its soul for the service of the gods."
Logically, the savage who believes that in the other world

             The hunter still the doer pursues,
             The hunter and the deer a shade,

must put into the hands of the dead man his weapons of the chase. When an jibway chief, after a four days' trance, gave an account of his visit to the spirit world, he told of the hosts whom he had met travelling there laden with pipes and kettles and weapons.

These primitive ideas make clear, once and for all, matters which have too often been explained by fanciful theories,


or cited as evidence of the benighted condition of those places which are painted black on missionary maps.

They explain why things which were used by them in daily life are broken and deposited with the dead; why hecatombs of victims are burned on the funeral pyre, or smothered in the earth with the corpse; why, sometimes, among the ancient Mexicans, a rich man, dying, would have his priest slaughtered, so that he might not be deprived of ghostly counsel in the next world; and why, in pathetic custom, North American Indian mothers drop their milk on the lips of the dead child. In their initial stage all such offerings were made, and all such rites performed, for the supposed needs of the dead. Every one had his manes, which followed him into the next world, and, lacking which, he would be as poor as if in this world he had lacked it.

As man began to pay honour to his dead, whether in burying or burning them, the place where the remains were deposited became the nucleus of worship. The altar has its origin in the gifts laid upon the grave, whereon the sacred
fane is raised. Thus, everywhere, the tomb is the birthplace of the temple, and whenever a Roman Catholic church, no matter how unpre-


tentious, is built, the altar is no altar unless it
enshrines relics of some holy person.

Ancestor-worship, which may be said to be
well-nigh universal, thus maintains intimate relations
between the dead and living ; between
this world and a spirit-world.

It falls into two groups: worship of the departed members of the family, sacrifices to whom become paramount duty, and who rank as friendly household gods, easily placated; and worship of great or holy men, culture heroes, braves, athletes, chiefs and other rulers, who in many cases rank with, and sometimes above, the powerful nature-gods of the earlier animism, with whose attributes they become credited.

Of course, the importance of the dead determines their place, and their prospects of deification. In Shintoism, which affirms the existence of eight million deities recruited from the souls of heroes, rivers, mountains, waterfalls and great trees, the only gods particularly added, apart from the solar deities, are the genii of Pity, of Wealth, and of Medicine. 60

On the other hand, where ordinary folk are concerned, and where the survivors have short

60 So reports Mrs. Bishop : Religious Systems of the World, pp. 98-9.


memories, the worship of the dead is brief, and their deification never.

"Ask the negro," says Paul du Chaillu, " where is the spirit of his greatgrandfather, he says he does not know, it is done.
Ask him about the spirits of his father or brother who died yesterday; then he is full of fear and terror."

Certain natives of Siberia pay honour to the figures of the dead for three years, after which they are buried and heard of no more; but if the deceased is a celebrated shaman, his image becomes the object of permanent worship." 61

The interest of this development of Animism—the manufacture of gods out of men—is deepened by the fact that the process flourishes to the present day. Although the Roman Catholic Church does not apotheosize, its canonization of the dead has its roots in ancestor-worship.

Concerning this it is amusing to note that by a "fluke" Buddha has a place in the Roman Martyrology, while S. Oreste or Oracte is none other than the mountain Soracte, the blunder arising from putting a full stop after the initial letter.

But it is in Asia, and prominently so in India, that the direct deification of humanity is seen in full

61 Quoted from Erman's Siberia in D'Alviella's
Hibbert Lectures, (1891), p. 130.


swing."There" men are incessantly converting other men into gods, or embodiments of gods, or emanations from the Divine Spirit, and out of the deified man is visibly spun the whole myth which envelopes him as a silkworm in its cocoon."
In the chapter on the "Religion of an Indian Province "in Asiatic Studies, Sir Alfred Lyall describes the stages, and the importance of the extract therefrom must be the warrant for its length:

"In India, whatever be the original reason for
venerating a deceased man, his upward course
toward deification is the same.

At first we have the grave of one whose name, birthplace, and parentage are well known in the district; if he died at home, his family often set up a shrine, instal themselves in possession, and realize a handsome income out of the offerings; they became hereditary keepers of the sanctuary, if the shrine prospers and its virtues stand test.
Or if the man wandered abroad, settled near some village or sacred spot, became renowned for his austerity or his afflictions, and there died,

62 The Melanesians make a sharp distinction between spirits that never were men, and ghosts which are disembodied
souls. (Codrington's Melanesians, pp. 120, 150.)


the neighbours think it great luck to have the tomb of a holy man within their borders, and the landholders administer the shrine by manorial right.

In the course of a very few years, as the recollection of the man's personality becomes misty, his origin grows mysterious, his career takes a legendary hue, his birth and death are 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 Brahmans feel warranted in providing for him a niche in the orthodox Pantheon. . . .
Four of the most popular gods in Berar, whose images and temples are famous in the Dekhan, are Kandoba, Vittoba, Beiroba, and Balaji.
These are now grand incarnations of the Supreme Triad; yet by examining the legends of their embodiment and appearance upon earth we obtain fair ground for surmising that all of them must have been notable living men not so
very long ago," 63

The striking instance of the

63 pp. 22, 23.


deification of the brave soldier and administrator, John Nicholson, will probably occur to the reader. Nicholson's worshippers, known as the Nikalsainis, saw in him an incarnation of the Brahmanic godhead, and when their hero was slain in the hour of victory (he died in 1857), they either embraced the faith he resolutely held, or by their own act followed him into the hereafter."

The enormous and essential part played by ancestor-worship in the Far East is matter of common knowledge. Speaking of Japan, the late Lafcadio Heam put the matter truly and tersely when he wrote:

"The dead are rulers rather than the living," and how real are the dwellers in the invisible world to the Japanese is seen in the attitude of the soldiers in the recent war with Russia (1905) towards their fallen comrades, who, in the words of Professor Okakura, "are thought to be leading their ethereal life in the same world in much the same state as that to
which they had been accustomed while on earth."
Translated into Christian sentiment, it finds expression in the verse:—

             One family we dwell in Him,
             One Church above, beneath ;
             Though now divided by the stream,
             The narrow stream of death.


Perhaps the foregoing meagre outline of a large subject, the manifold details of which those who care to pursue it can fill in with the help of the books named at foot, may suggest how the spiritual history of man, as a record of unbroken
continuity and slow development, falls into line with the general doctrine of Evolution, which excludes nothing from its purview and province.

The fundamental identity of the animal and human psychology refutes, once and for aU, the old theories which assume the religious faculty to be a special endowment of man.

We trace its elements in embryo in the lower organisms, and explain why a faculty in which the emotions are dominant has undergone such little essential change that what is called Animism remains the distinctive feature of the highest religions. "Sentiment," says Gustave le Bon, "has never been vanquished in its eternal conflict with reason," and that which appeals to the hopes and passions of mankind secures a hearing denied to that which makes demand on intellectual effort, with the possible result of abandonment of cherished beliefs.

We retain in our bodies vestiges of our descent from lower lifeforms, some of these rudimentary structures


being perilous as well as useless. And we retain in our minds faculties inherited from our animal ancestry, which, unlike the vestiges in our bodies, are not inactive. Mental evolution, broadly speaking, has been lineal, having travelled along
definite tracks of sensory and nervous modification, which we can more easily follow than the diverging lines of bodily evolution.

Animists, in the germ, were our pre-human ancestors; animists, to the core, we remain.
The "feare of things Invisible, "the" seed of Religion," is in the developed flower, which itself reproduces that seed.

"Intellectual disbelief of a superstition is not inconsistent wdth an emotional half-belief of it, which half-belief shall in
moments of great mental perturbation become a positive conviction." 64

The periodical reports of a ghost send crowds to watch for the apparition, as to the reality of which a large percentage
will swear. Brief are the intervals in which the newspapers do not record some story of witches casting spells or the evil eye on cattle, children, and churns. People who would resent being classed as uneducated resort to palmists to tell

** Shakspeare : " Testimonied in his own Bringings forth." By Dr. Henry Maudsley, p. 22.


them their fortunes in the lines of their hands, when they might as well hope to read the future in the creases of their trousers.

Season after season produces a fresh crop of dupes of mediums who pretend to hold communion with departed spirits.

Time has wrought no difference between the Rome of the Caesars and the London of Edward the Seventh in the credulity of the classes and masses; and the first medium of whom we read, Alexander of Abonoteichos, 65 could have given points to Dr. Slade and Douglas Home. Marriages in May were unlucky, indeed forbidden, in old Rome, because at the festival of the Lemuria, held in honour of the dead, the house was cleared of hostile ghosts.

The superstition, under other guises, flourishes amongst us, and "in some parts of Scotland the fourteenth of May was deemed so inauspicious that even the day of the week on which it fell in any year was tabooed by bridal couples for
the remainder of the year." 66

It is the same with luck in numbers. Motorists will not have

65 Lucian of Samosata. Vol. II. " Alexander the Oracle-Monger." Tr. by H. W. and F. G. Fowler (1905).
66  Murray's Life in Scotland a Hundred Years Ago, p. 115 (1905).


"13" on their cars; hotels avoid it on the doors of their bedrooms; and recently the owner of a house in Hornsey petitioned the borough council for permission to alter the number from "13" to "11a." The stalwart opponents of
superstition refused his request.

As already remarked, there are in rituals no inventions, only survivals; and all the material apparatus of the religions of the world has its origin in the lower culture, from bells, whose primitive purpose was to drive away evil spirits, to sacraments, which had their beginnings in sympathetic magic.

The craving after, and dependence upon, symbols, is universal; the lower the intelligence the more does it derive help
from the tangible.

This is not to deny its utility. Human nature being what it is, there is force in the remark that" a good dose of materialism may be necessary for religion that we may not starve the world." 67

67 Professor Butcher's Harvard Lectures, p. 67.
Quoted from article by Dr. Schechter, Jewish Quarterly,

Animism - The Seed of Religion

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