Animism - The Seed of Religion


waxing, and some even stipulated that at the time of the ceremony the tide should be flowing.

There are few more interesting subjects than that which treats of the intimate connection between agriculture and religion and the numerous associated magical rites; while in the great company of the gods of fertility—gods and goddesses of the field and rain and rivers, and many more besides—we can note conceptions of growing definiteness about these beings which took shape in anthropomorphism, and which, among the larger number of mankind everywhere, in that shape remain. The animistic ideas about the trees of the forest, which are older than the cultivated plants, have a strong family likeness all the world over.

Motion is to the savage a sign of life. When the Matabele first saw a locomotive engine at Bulawayo they declared that it was a large animal which fed on fire; that it hated work, else why did it scream before it moved? and that it suffered badly from malaria. Did not the white doctor pour medicine into it whenever it groaned? 43 The explorer

43 The Essential Kaffir. By Dudley Kidd (1904).


Paul du Chaillu says that the natives of Ashangoland looked on his watch as a mighty spirit.
"It is alive," said an Arawak to Brett the traveller, when shown a pocket compass; and the Bushmen thought that Chapman's big waggon was the mother of his smaller ones.

The Esquimaux believed that the ships in Ross's Expedition were alive because they moved without oars; and Sir Joseph Hooker frightened some hill tribesmen with his spring measuring-tape, which they felt sure was a snake.

Although the tree is rooted to one spot, it responds to every influence without. Swayed by the breeze, or smitten by the storm, it is never at rest.

Murmurs are heard in its leaves, or its branches creak and writhe as in agony; sounds are emitted from the gaunt stem
or hollow trunk; voices, the savage doubts not, of the indwelling spirit whose life seems permanently associated with the fixed tree.

While, whatever was mysterious about it added to his fears, he would honour, as the gift of the good power, the fruit-yielding tree.

Where the fermented juices, as of the soma plant, brought on frenzy; or where the fragrant tobacco 44 was

44 On the vise of tobacco in religious rites, see Payne,
vol. i., p. 387.


sacrificed to the well pleased spirits; there, and by other means, close relations between god and man and plant were set up.

How intimate these became is shown in the large body of customs based on behef in vital connection between man and vegetation, and in the widespread reluctance to cut down the Uving tree, or, when the necessity arises so to do, the apologies and petitions addressed to tree as well as to animal.

The Irish hesitate to fell the white thorn, because the crown of thorns which tortured Jesus was said to have been made from it.

The West Indian negro will on no account cut down a ceiba, or silk cotton tree, lest the "duppy" or spirit avenge the act.
The jibways would not cut down living trees, because of the pain caused them, and if a tree should emit from its trunk or branches a sound during a calm state of the atmosphere, or should any one fancy such sounds, the tree would be at once reported, and soon came to be regarded as the residence of some local god. 45

An old writer records that " when an oake is being felled it gives a kind of shriekes or groanes that may be heard a mile off, as if it were the genius of the

45 Dorman's Primitive Superstitions, p. 288.


oake lamenting." He quaintly adds: " E. Wyld, Esq., hath heard it severaU times." 46

There are some thickets and clumps of trees in Berar,
from which no stick is ever cut nor even the dead
wood picked up, though firewood is scarce and
timber valuable," 47

A recent traveller among the "primitive pagans" of Southern Nigeria reports this speech from a native: " Yes, we say,
this is our life—the big tree.

When any of us dies his spirit does not go to another country, but into the big tree; and this is why we will not have it cut.

When a man is sick, or a woman wants a child, we sacrifice to the big tree, and unless Oso'wo wants the sick man, our request is granted.

Oso'wo Uves in the sky, and is the Big God.

When any of us dies away from this place, his spirit returns to the big tree."

In such customs and beliefs as these are the materials of the manifold tree-cults; of the worship and propitiation of the god in the solitary tree, the Mexican Tota, the Greek Dionysus, and the Roman Jupiter Feretrius; of the gods of sacred groves and oracles; and the materials also

46 Aubrey's Remains of Qentilisme and Judaisme,
p. 24.
47 Lyall's Asiatic Studies, p. 12.


of the legends of the world life-tree; as the Ygdrasil of Scandinavian myth; and the giant cedar of Chaldean myth, whence perhaps that of the Hebrew Tree of Knowledge was derived.

The voices which the savage hears in the trees are more audible in the animal.

"Though the Indian knows that he no longer understands the language of the beasts and birds around him, yet he attaches but little weight to this, in that he is constantly meeting with other Indians of one or the other alien tribes which surround him, who speak languages at least as unintelligible to him as are those of birds and beasts." 48

The beast tales which amused our childhood record what to the barbaric mind are real incidents.

What happens to the man happens to the animal; where he parts company with it is in the attribution of abnormal power; when, for example, he watches the flight of the bird or the movements of the serpent.

The path of the one through the air has been the parent of a large number of superstitions, while in its brooding on the nest there is probably the source of the world-wide myth of the Creation Egg. And although much nonsense

48 Sir Everard im Thiarn, Indians of Ouiana, p. 352.


has been written about ophiolatry or serpent worship, its prominent place in barbaric and classic religions gives it special significance.

The lithe, sinuous, silent creep of the serpent, its beauty of colouring, its arresting eye, fatal venom, and other qualities, give it as exceptional place in the cults of the world as it holds in the animal kingdom, and explain why here it is worshipped as a god, and there dreaded as a demon; here a symbol of life, and there a symbol of death.
"More subtil than any beast of the field," as it is shrewdly described in the Book of Genesis, it has been the origin of some of the wildest theories that the fear and imagination of man have coined.
Its extensive range accounts for its well-nigh universal worship, examples of which in present times abound, while in ancient Greece the great heaven-father Zeus was himself worshipped under the form of a serpent, and in the temple of the Bona Dea snakes were kept "as the usual symbol of the medicinal art, and at the same time appropriate to her as an Earth-goddess." 49

Speaking of present day Animism, Sir Alfred Lyall says that "the most complete and absolute elevation

49 Warde Fowler, Roman Festivals, p. 104.


of an animal to the higher ranks of deified beings is to be seen in the case of Hanumun, who from a sacred monkey has risen, through mists of heroic fable and wild forest legends, to be the universal tutelary god of all village settlements.

The setting up of his image in the midst of a hamlet is an outward and visible sign of fixed habitation so that he is found in every township. . . . His traditions and attributes illustrate curiously the process by which a mere animal fetish, dreaded for his ugliness and half-human ways, soon rises to be an elfin king of the monkey tribe, next becomes a powerful genius, and latterly emerges into the full glory of divine Avatar, surrounded by the most extravagant fables to explain away the simian head and tail which have stuck to him through all his metamorphoses," 50

Ex uno disce omnes; all races have passed through corresponding stages of zoolatry, some remaining in the earlier stages, and the inquiry, pursued along the same hnes, would bring us to the same result.

Nearest to himself in some attributes, identical in many, the origin of man's belief in his descent from this or that animal, and

50 Asiatic Studies, p. 14 (1884 edition).


in the migration of his soul from one body to another, be it that of bird, beast, or reptile becomes easy of explanation. But the subjects of totemism and metempsychosis require separate treatment.

In dealing with savage ideas of the Worship, inanimate, it must be kept in mind that non-living things are worshipped or feared not in any symbolical sense, which is altogether foreign to the lower intelligence, but as the supposed home of a spirit, or as in some sense a vehicle of power.

Among the Melanesians the shape of a stone rules the idea as to what kind of spirit dwells within it, but in contrast to this, one of many examples that might be given, we find, among even civilized peoples, the worship of stones whose external aspect cannot have suggested a kindred idea.

Pausanias speaks of thirty shapeless stones worshipped as gods at Pharae, in Achaia, and says that amongst the Greeks such stones had in old times received divine honours. 51
But the rudeness of an object is no measure of the veneration that may be paid it, as witness the incredible daubs of virgins and saints before

51 Vol. vii. 22, 4. (Frazer's Commentary.)

Animism - The Seed of Religion

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