Animism - The Seed of Religion
activity of an arch-fiend and his countless myrmidons, to whose service sorcerers, wizards and witches had bound themselves, bartering their souls as payment for power to work black magic on their fellow-creatures.
So it sufficed that ignorant and frightened victims accused some poor, humpbacked, squinting old woman of casting
on them the evil eye, and damaging their person or property, to secure her trial by torture, and her condemnation to a cruel, unpitied death. Among the delusions which have wrought havoc on mankind, making life one long nightmare, and
adding to mental anguish the infliction of death in horrible form upon a multitude whose vast total can never be known, there is probably none comparable, for its bitter fruits, with this belief in the activity of evil spirits.
Although the "feare of things invisible "has never left the heart of man, there came a time, far back in his history, when the burden was Mother, lightened by the feeling that there were "kind gods who perfect what man vainly tries."Was it then, or when was it, that laughter was born, that "sudden glory," as Hobbes de-
fines it, illumining human life?
For not till trust supplanted terror, and sunshine chased the gloom, can we say with Rabelais, "Le rire c'est le propre de I'homme." But this is only a hint, in passing, for the psychologists. What can be known from ancient cults as to the origin of more cheerful conceptions of spirits supports Professor Robertson Smith's suggestion that "the triumph of the gods over the demons, like the triumph of man over wild beasts, must have been effected very gradually, and may be regarded as finally sealed and secured only in the agricultural stage, when the god of the community became also the supreme lord of the land and the author of all the good things therein," 36
The first attempts to produce food by cultivation of the soil made man keenly observant of all that helped or hindered him. And while he or his women folk (since among barbaric races agriculture is usually left to them) would see in the
sun-spirit and the rain-spirit beneficent aids; the earth, great and kindly, in whose very self the seed was embedded, stood forth above all. With or without the co-operation of the sky or heaven
36 Religion of the Semites, p. 122.
spirit, she was the supplier of man's needs.
Whether as Tonantzi, among the Aztecs; or Mama Cocha, among the Peruvians; or Demeter among the Greeks; or, with other names, Bona Dea among the Romans; or Men's Mother among the Anglo-Saxons; she is, in the language of one and all, the Earth-Mother.
"It could probably be shown that in Western Europe the worship of the Bona Dea generally prepared the way for that of the Virgin: this hardly admits of doubt in such cases as ' La Bonne Dame, 'the celebrated Black Virgin of Le Puy, and Notre Dame la Major of Aries, whose churches have actually replaced temples of the Earth-Mother." 37
And in earth-worship is to be found the explanation of the mass of rites and ceremonies to ensure fertility in crops, and cattle, and in woman herself; rites and ceremonies notably multiplied at seasons of sowing and planting, the several phases of agriculture giving rise to belief in a number of minor deities and spirits to whom were offered sacrifices, often of ghastly nature.
As in Mexico, when a woman, dressed to represent the Earth-
37 Payne, History of the New World called America,
vol. i. p. 464.
goddess, was slain, and her heart offered to the maize-mother; or in Rome, when unborn calves were torn from the womb and burnt, the ashes being scattered over the field to procure the fertility of the corn.
Herein, too, Ues the explanation of the numerous practices which come under the head of "sympathetic magic," or the imitating of a cause to produce a desired effect, as when an " Indian rain-maker mounts to the roof of his hut, and rattling vigorously a dry gourd containing pebbles, to represent the thunder, scatters water through a reed on the ground beneath, as he imagines up above in the clouds do the spirits of the storm." 38
But the subject of Magic will have a volume to itself. Turn where we may for illustration, we find the cult of the earth-spirit synchronous with the agricultural stage of civilization.
"Until philosophers conjectured water to be the oldest among the elements, the earth was imiversally believed to be the most ancient object in nature; the sun, moon, and stars were considered to be comparatively recent.
All living creatures proceed from the earth; all are sustained by the earth; all
38 Brinton's Myths of the New World, p. 17.
are finally reduced to dust, and return to the earth. Her motherhood was in aboriginal America no mere figure of speech, but an article of positive belief." 39
In their geocentric theory the savage and the theologian were on common ground, while the old animistic belief had curious endorsement by the famous astronomer, Kepler, who, three centuries ago, imagined minds in the planets, and suggested that '* the lungs and gills through which the Earth-spirit respired would one day be discovered at the bottom of the sea.
He attributed to the restless activity of this spirit the daily motion of the earth; he considered that it contemplated the heavens, observed the stars, caused the globe to tremble, and to sweat volumes of cold vapour in its terror at the approach of comets."
Kepler would have sympathized with the Hindoo belief that the earth becomes angry at the continual trampling of the oxen and the painful gashings of the ploughshare. The same idea lies at the root of the once widespread, and, in modified or symbolic form, not extinct, custom of burying a victim under the foundation,
39 Payne's History of the New World called America,
vol. i., p. 464.
or inside the wall, of a new building, so that the disturbed Earth-spirit might be appeased, and the permanence of the structure assured.
The passage from belief in the Earth-spirit, as begetter and sustainer of all things, to belief in spirits indwelling in her several products, was easy, and the more so as falling into line with primitive ideas. For thus only could man explain
the mystery of generation, reproduction, sprouting and growth—a mystery whose outward and visible sign was in the worship of the phallus, the lewdness and riotousness connected with which should not blind us to its deep religious significance.
Hence the conception of a series of "mothers"who became world-wide groups of deities, as in India the rice-mother and
the cotton-mother; in Europe the corn-mother; and in America the maize-mother; rites and festivals in honour of whom were elaborately developed.
Of these it must suffice to refer to the widespread European custom of leaving a few ears from the last sheaf, which are made up to represent a male or female doll, or some wild or tame animal, according to the locality. This image, which is known as the kern-baby, the corn-mother, the rye-sow, and so forth, is pre-
served till the next seed-time, in the belief that it is an incarnation of the spirit of the com or other cereal, the virtues of which, passing into the newly-planted seed, protect it from evil agencies and secure the harvest.
Hence, a group of ceremonies accompanying the sowing. 40 Among the ancient Peruvians the saramama, or maizemother, was worshipped under the form of a puppet made of the finest new maize stalks that could be found, and renewed at each successive harvest, in order that the maize seed might preserve its vitality. 41
In Malaya the rice-soul is taken from the last heap, and, with elaborate ritual performed by the Pawang, is made up into the shape of a baby, to be rigidly guarded till the next sowing season, when the rice grains are mixed with those sacred for seed, so that the quickening spirit may fertilize them. Thus do the Old and the New World meet.
But as further showing identity of act and motive between peoples who can have had no exchange of ideas, and as further proving the like attitude of mind before like phenomena, the
40 An exhaustive account of this custom and its significance is given in Frazer's Golden Bough.
41 Payne, vol. i., p. 416.
following supplies cogent examples from Dorset and the Far East:
"If you plant a tree or trees, and are very anxious that they should thrive, you must not go and look at them, or look out
of a window at them, 'on an empty stomach.'
There is a blasting influence in your eye then, which will make them pine away.
And the story is that a man, puzzled by this withering of his newly-planted choice trees, went to a white witch to inquire who was the evil worker. The white witch, after ascertaining the facts, told him it was himself. "The foregoing is from a letter from my friend Thomas Hardy, whose novels, great in so much else, are a mine of Wessex folk-lore. The parallel is from Skeats's Malay Magic, which cites this, among other directions: "Plant maize with a full stomach, and let your dibble be thick, as this will swell the maize ear."42
Dr. Johnson, on his visit to the Hebrides, says that the peasants expect better crops by sowing their seed at the new moon, and quotes a precept annually given in the almanac, "to kill hogs when the moon is waning, that the bacon may prove the better in boiling." Not many years ago in Scotland maidens would not marry if the moon was not
42 p. 217.