Animism - The Seed of Religion

ANIMISM - Conception of Power Everywhere, Conception of Spirit Everywhere

Turning to man himself, we have the evidence of Mr. Risley, an expert in of Power anthropology, gathered from extant peoples on a very low plane, and therefore of supreme value in any attempt to assume what was the attitude of man at his lowest. In trying to find out what "the jungle dwellers in Chota Nagpur really beheve," Mr. Risley tells 14 us that he was led" to the negative conclusion that in most cases the indefinite something which they fear and attempt to propitiate is not a person at all in any sense of the word.

If one must state the case in positive terms, I should say that the idea which hes at the root of their rehgion is that of power, or rather of many powers. What the Animist worships and seeks by all means to influence and concihate is the shifting and shadowy company of unknown powers or influences making for evil rather than for good, which resides in the primeval forest, in the crumbhng hiUs, in the rushing river, in the spreading tree; which gives its spring to the tiger, its venom to the snake, which generates

14 Census of India (1901), vol. i. part 1, pp. 352^
(Calcutta, 1903).


jungle fever, and walks abroad in the terrible guise of cholera, smallpox, or murrain. Closer than this he does not seek to define the object to which he offers his victim, or whose symbol he daubs with vermiHon at the appointed season.
Some sort of power is there, and that is enough for him. . . . All over Chota Nagpur we find sacred groves, the abode of equally indeterminate things, who are represented by no symbols and of whose form and function no one can give an
intelligible account. They have not yet been clothed with individual attributes; they finger on as survivals of the impersonal stage of religion."

If we assume for the moment the possibility that some such conception, essentially impersonal in its character, or less definite than the idea of a spirit, may have formed the germ of primitive religion, we can see how easily it may have
escaped observation. The languages of wild people are usually ill-equipped with abstract terms, and even if they had a name for so vague and inchoate a notion, it would certainly have to be translated into the refigious vocabulary of their anthropomorphic neighbours. "Melanesian 'plenty devil ' is the standard formula for de-


scribing a sacred place, and when we find these people putting off the inquisitive foreigner with the comprehensive word 'devil,' still retaining the belief in incorporeal beings with neither name nor shape, round whom no myths have gathered, who are not and never have been human, who control rain and sunshine, and are kindly disposed towards men, one is tempted to conjecture that the same sort of behef would be found in India by any one who could adequately probe the inner consciousness of the Animistic races."

This extract from statements buried in the details of a Census Report is of the highest value as helping us to realize a stage when man had not reached to conceptions, more or less vague, of his own personality, and to transfer of these conceptions to his surroundings, investing these with a life and will kindred to his own. In this reflection of himself there were the implicit elements of anthropomorphism which have survived in every religion.

It is at this point that the advance was made from Naturalism to Animism

How slow was the process none can tell. But we know that there


were hazy, intermediate stages during which man had no clear ideas of what psychologists call the objective and subjective, that is, of himself as a being apart from his surroundings. For this is the condition of large groups of modern savages in their inability to conceive what is outside their minds and what is inside them, a condition which will now have illustration.

Anthropologists are agreed that the impulse to man's conception of his personality and to that of a general doctrine of spirits comes from dreams, the inference from these having support in the phenomena of shadows, reflections and echoes, and in the abnormal mental states of hysteria, swooning, epilepsy and alhed disorders. Hobbes acutely anticipated modern theories of Animism in the twelfth chapter of Leviathan: "And for the matter, or substance of the Invisible Agents, so fancyed, they could not by naturall cogitation, fall upon any other concept, but that it was the same as that of the Soule of man, and that the Soule of man was of the same substance, with that which appeareth in a Dream, to one that sleepeth; or in a Looking-glasse, to one that is awake; which, men not knowing that such apparitions are nothing else but creatures of the


Fancy, think to be reall and extemaU Substances, and therefore call them Ghosts, as the Latines call them Imagines and Umbrae, and thought them Spirits, that is, thin aereaU bodies, and those Invisible Agents, which they feared, to bee hke them, save that appear, and vanish when they please. . . . And in these foure things, Opinion of Ghosts, Ignorance of second causes. Devotion towards what men fear, and Taking of things Casuall for Prognostiques, consisteth the Naturall seed of Religion." To the savage, dreams are not only "true while they last," but for ever afterwards. Few among us can shake off the influence of phantasies which have defiled through the brain in a certain order, or danced in mazy whirl through the myriad-celled brain when complete sleep is lacking. In the striking words of Lucretius:

"When sleep has chained down our limbs in sweet slumber, and the whole body is sunk in profound repose, yet then we seem to ourselves to be awake and to be moving our limbs, and amid the thick darkness of night we think we see the sun and the daylight; and though in a confined room, we seem to be passing to new cHmates, seas, rivers, mountains, and to be crossing plains on foot, and to hear voices,


though the austere silence of night prevails all round, and to be uttering speech, though quite silent. Many are the other things of this marvellous sort we see, which all seek to shake, as it were, the credit of the senses; quite in vain, since the greatest part of these cases cheat us on account of the mental suppositions which we add of ourselves, taking those things as seen which have not been seen by the senses. For nothing is harder than to separate manifest facts from
doubtful, which the mind without hesitation adds on of itself." 15

All which applies a fortiori to the barbaric intelligence.
A Zulu well expressed its hmitations to one of the most sympathetic and discerning of missionaries, the late Bishop Callaway, in these words: "Our knowledge does not urge us to search out the roots of it, we do not try to see them; if any one thinks ever so little, he soon gives it up, and passes on to what he sees with his eyes, and he does not understand the real state of even what he sees." The dead relatives and friends who appear in dreams and live their
old life, with whom he joins in the battle, the

15 De Rerum Natura, Book IV., pp. 453-468.


hunting and the feasting ; the foes with whom he struggles; the wild beast from whom he flees, or in whose clutches he feels himself, and, shrieking, awakens his squaw; the long distances he travels to sunnier climes; are all real, and no
"baseless fabric of a vision." Waking intervals confirmed the seeming reality; still more so would the aggravated
form of dreaming called "nightmare," 16 when hideous spectres press upon the breast, stopping breath and paralyzing motion, spectres that have played no small part in the creation of the vast army of nocturnal demons which, under
infinite variety of repellent form, have appalled and darkened countless lives.

This is only to echo Hobbes when he says: "From this ignorance of how to distinguish Dreams and other strong Fancies from Vision and Sense did arise the greater part of the Religion of the Gentiles in times past that worshipped Satyres, Faunes, Nymphs, and the like; and now adayes the opinion that rude people have of Fayries, Ghosts and Goblins, and of the power of Witches." 17

The obvious explanation which the savage gives

16 Literally " night-crusher," from Arj-an root, Mar, to crush.

17 Leviathan, chap ii. pt. 1.


is that there is within himself something which quits the body during sleep, and does the things of which he dreams. Innumerable proofs of this mental attitude are supplied by authorities who have spent years among the lower races, and it must here suffice to cite what one of the most competent of these has to say. In his book on the Indians of Guiana, Sir Everard im Thurn tells us that the dreams which come to these people are to them as real as any of the events of their waking lives. Dream acts and waking acts differ only in one respect: the former are done only by the spirit, while the latter are done by the spirit in its body. Seeing other men asleep, the Indian has no difficulty in reconciling that which he hears with the fact that the bodies of the sleepers were in his sight and motionless throughout the times of supposed action, because he never questions that the spirits, leaving the sleepers, played their parts in dream adventures.
As example of this, Sir Everard im Thurn gives the following personal experience: — "One morning when it was important to me to get away from a camp on the Essequibo River, at which I had been detained for some days by the illness of some of my Indian companions, I


found that one of the invalids, a young Macusi, though better in health, was so enraged against me that he refused to stir, for he declared that, with great want of consideration for his weak health, I had taken him out during the night and had made him haul the canoe up a series of difficult cataracts. Nothing could persuade him that this was but a dream, and it was some time before he was so far pacified as to throw himself sulkily into the bottom of the canoe.

At that time we were all suffering from a great scarcity of food, and, hunger having its usual effect in producing vivid dreems, similar events frequently occurred. More than once the men declared in the morning that some absent man, whom they named, had come during the night, and had beaten or otherwise maltreated them; and they insisted on much rubbing of the bruised parts of their bodies.
Another instance was amusing.

In the middle of one night I was awakened by an Arawak named Sam, the captain or head-man of the Indians who
were with me, only to be told the bewildering words, 'George speak me very bad, boss; you cut his bits!'
It was some time before I could collect my senses sufficiently to remember that
'bits,' or fourpenny-pieces, are the units in which,


among Creoles and semi-civilized Indians, calculation of money, and consequently of wages, is made; that to cut bits means to reduce the number of bits or wages given; and to understand that Captain Sam, having dreamed that his
subordinate George had spoken insolently to him, the former, with a fine sense of the dignity of his office, now insisted that the culprit should be punished in real life.

One more incident, of which the same Sam was the hero, may be told for the sake of the humour, though it did not happen within my personal experience, but was told me by a friend. This friend, in whose employ Sam was at the time, told his man, as they sat round the fire one night, of the Zulu or some other African war which was then in progress,
and in so doing inadvertently made frequent use of the expression, 'to punish the niggers.'

That night, after all in camp had been asleep for some time, they were roused by loud cries for help. Sam, who was one of the most powerful Indians I ever saw, was 'punishing a nigger ' who happened to be one of the party ; with one hand he had firmly grasped the back of the breeches-band of the black man, and had twisted this round so tightly that the poor wretch was almost cut in


two. Sam sturdily maintained that he had received orders from his master for this outrageous conduct, and on inquiry it turned out that he had dreamed this." 18

It is outside the scope of this booklet to refer in detail to the rites and ceremonies arising out of barbaric belief in the realities of dreams.
Obviously, that beUef has far-reaching consequences in the origination of numerous devices
for safeguarding the volatile and errant soul.
Danger attends the sudden waking of a sleeping man, lest the spirit should not return; precautions must be taken in illness to avert the permanent departure of the spirit, as among the Congo natives, when cases of wasting sickness
occur, "a search party is led by a charm doctor, and branches, land-shells, or stones are collected.
The doctor will then perform a series of passes between these articles and the sick man. The ceremony is called vutulanga moyo, or 'the returning of the spirit.' 19

"In Ambon and the Uliase Islands the medicine-man flaps a branch about, calling out the sick man's name until he
has caught the wandering soul in the branch;

8 pp. 344-34&
9 Jour» ArUhropol. Institute, vol. xxiv. p. 287.

Animism - The Seed of Religion

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