100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 13

 

 

 Mythology, religion, and magic

 

 

Mythmaking

 

Mythology is the ancient union of science and history and forms the backbone of religion. It is a body of stories of a particular culture told to explain the world and its myriad mysteries. Through many retellings, myths have become an accepted tradition and, because of their all-encompassing nature, can be used by scholars to illuminate many aspects of a culture. Myths are universal, and are typically a product of pre-literate times; people passed them orally from generation to generation in an attempt at satisfying their curiosities about the world. Even philosophical questions find answers in myth; the existence of evil found an elegant explanation in Greek mythology: the world’s evils were at one time contained in a box but they escaped when Pandora, the first woman, opened the container. Today, people rely on scientific theories to answer many questions, but in the remote past people’s ignorance of the natural world barred them from providing scientific answers. Therefore, they explained natural events using stories about gods, goddesses, and heroes. One theory even holds that all myth is ancient scientific, particularly astronomical, lore. For instance, almost all cultures have speculated on how and why the Earth was created and where humanity first appeared—these coalesce around creation myths. In addition, they have wanted to know how and why the operations of nature occur on a daily basis. The ancient Egyptians explained the rising and setting of the sun as caused by their sun god Ra’s sailing his ship from one end of the sky to the other.

   Myth can also be viewed as a way of thinking about and reconstructing the past. People often incorrectly identify the word myth as a fiction—something that never occurred, an invented story or fantastic account—this is far from the truth. A myth is often a bit of popular wisdom personified in poetic figures, as the story of Eden suggests the disillusionment of knowledge and the ties of love; furthermore, legend is often a fragment of history swelling with new fictions as it rolls down the years. No one reading it today accepts Homer’s Iliad as historically factual. However, at some time—centuries before Homer—there actually was a war between the Greek city-states and the inhabitants of northwest Asia Minor; here we can see myth as “garbled history.” In this latter sense, it flows into legend.

    Above all, mythology gives birth to religion and magic—topics which Sir James G. Frazer spent years researching in his monumental The Golden Bough.

 

The Sources of Religion

 

If we define religion as the worship of supernatural forces, we must observe at the outset that some peoples have apparently no religion at all, but such cases are exceptional, and the old belief that religion is universal is substantially correct. To the philosopher this is one of the outstanding facts of history and psychology; he is not content to know that all religions contain much nonsense, but rather the problem of the antiquity and persistence of belief fascinate him. What are the sources of the indestructible piety of humankind?

    Fear, as Lucretius said, was the first mother of the gods. Fear, above all, of death. A thousand dangers beset primitive life, which seldom ended with natural decay; long before old age could come, violence or some strange disease carried off the great majority of people. Hence, early man did not believe that death was ever natural; he attributed it to the operation of supernatural agencies. In the mythology of the natives of New Britain, death came to men by an error of the gods. The good god Kambinana told his foolish brother Korvouva, “Go down to men and tell them to cast their skins; so shall they avoid death. But tell the serpents that they must henceforth die.” Korvouva mixed the messages; he delivered the secret of immortality to the snakes, and the doom of death to humans. Many tribes thought that death was due to the shrinkage of the skin, and that man would be immortal if only he could molt.

    Fear of death, wonder at the causes of chance events or unintelligible happenings, hope for divine aid and gratitude for good fortune, cooperated to generate religious belief. Wonder and mystery adhered particularly to sex and dreams, and the mysterious influence of heavenly bodies upon the earth and man. Primitive man marveled at the phantoms that he saw in sleep, and was struck with terror when he beheld, in his dreams, the figures of those whom he knew to be dead. He buried his dead in the earth to prevent their return; he buried victuals and goods with the corpse lest it should come back to curse him. Sometimes he left to the dead the house in which death had come, while he himself moved on to another shelter. In some places, he carried the body out of the house not through a door but through a hole in the wall, and bore it rapidly three times around the dwelling, so that the spirit might forget the entrance and never haunt the home.

    Such experiences convinced early humans that every living thing had a soul, or secret life, within it, which could be separated from the body in illness, sleep, or death. “Let no one wake a man brusquely,” said one of the Upanishads of ancient India, “for it is a matter difficult of cure if the soul find not its way back to him.” Not humans alone but all things had souls; the external world was not insensitive or dead, it was intensely alive; if this were not so, thought primitive philosophy, nature would be full of inexplicable occurrences, like the motion of the sun, or the death dealing lightning, or the whispering of the trees. The personal way of conceiving objects and events preceded the impersonal or abstract; mythology preceded philosophy. Such animism is the poetry of religion, and the religion of poetry. We may see it at its lowest in the wonder-struck eyes of a dog that watches a paper blown before him by the wind, and perhaps believes that a spirit moves the paper from within; and we find the same feeling at its highest in the language of the poet. To the primitive mind—and to the poet in all ages—mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, stars, sun, moon, and sky are sacramentally holy things, because they are the outward and visible signs of inward and invisible souls. To the early Greeks the sky was the god Ouranos, the moon was Selene, the earth was Gæa, the sea was Poseidon, and everywhere in the woods was Pan. To the ancient Germans genii, elves, trolls, giants, dwarfs, and fairies peopled the forest primeval; these sylvan creatures survive in the music of Wagner and the poetic dramas of Ibsen. The simpler peasants of Ireland still believe in fairies, and no poet or playwright can belong to the Irish literary revival unless he employs them. There is wisdom as well as beauty in this animism; it is good and nourishing to treat all things as alive. To the sensitive spirit, says John Cowper Powys, the most sensitive of early 20th century writers,

 

    Nature begins to present herself as a vast congeries of separate living entities, some visible, some invisible, but all possessed of mind-stuff, all possessed of matter-stuff, and all blending mind and matter together in the basic mystery of being. . . . The world is full of gods! From every planet and from every stone there emanates a presence that disturbs us with a sense of the multitudinousness of god-like powers, strong and feeble, great and little, moving between heaven and earth upon their secret purposes.

 

The Objects of Religion

 

Since all things have souls, or contain hidden gods, the objects of religious worship are numberless. They fall into six classes: celestial, terrestrial, sexual, animal, human, and divine. Of course, we shall never know which of our universe of objects people worshiped first. One of the first was probably the moon. Just as our own folklore speaks of the “man in the moon,” so primitive legend conceived the moon as a bold male who caused women to menstruate by seducing them. He was a favorite god with women, who worshiped him as their protecting deity. The pale orb was also the measure of time; people believed it controlled the weather, and made it both rain and snow; even the frogs prayed to it for rain.

    We do not know when the sun replaced the moon as the lord of the sky in primitive religion. Perhaps it was when vegetation replaced hunting, and the transit of the sun determined the seasons of sowing and reaping, and its heat was recognized as the main cause of the bounty of the soil. Then the earth became a goddess fertilized by the hot rays, and men worshiped the great orb as the father of all things living. From this simple beginning, sun worship passed down into the pagan faiths of antiquity, and many a later god was only a personification of the sun. The learned Greeks exiled Anaxagoras because he ventured the guess that the sun was not a god, but merely a ball of fire, about the size of the Peloponnesus. The Middle Ages kept a relic of sun worship in the halo pictured around the heads of saints, and prior to the Second World War most of his people regarded the Emperor of Japan as an incarnation of the sun god. There is hardly any superstition so old but it can be found flourishing somewhere today. Civilization is the precarious labor and luxury of a minority; the basic masses of humankind hardly change from millennium to millennium.

    Like the sun and the moon, every star contained or was a god, and moved at the command of its indwelling spirit. Under Christianity, these spirits became guiding angels, star-pilots, so to speak; and Kepler was not too scientific to believe in them. The sky itself was a great god, worshiped devotedly as giver and withholder of rain. Among many primitive peoples the word for god meant sky; among the Lubari and the Dinkas it meant rain. Among the Mongols the supreme god was Tengri—the sky; in China it was Ti—the sky; in Vedic India it was Dyaus pitar—the “father sky”; among the Greeks it was Zeus—the sky, the “cloud-compeller”; among the Persians it was Ahura—the “azure sky”; and among ourselves men still ask “Heaven” to protect them. The central point in most primitive mythology is the fertile mating of earth and sky.

    For the earth, too, was a god, and every main aspect of it was presided over by some deity. Trees had souls quite as much as men, and it was plain murder to cut them down; the North American Indians sometimes attributed their defeat and decay to the fact that the whites had leveled the trees whose spirits had protected the Red Men. In the Molucca Islands blossoming trees were treated as pregnant; no noise, fire, or other disturbance was permitted to mar their peace; else, like a frightened woman, they might drop their fruit before time. In Amboyna they allowed no loud sounds near the rice in bloom lest it should abort into straw. The ancient Gauls worshiped the trees of certain sacred forests; and the Druid priests of England reverenced as holy that mistletoe of the oak, which still suggests a pleasant ritual. The veneration of trees, springs, rivers, and mountains is the oldest traceable religion of Asia. Many mountains were holy places, homes of thundering gods. Earthquakes were the shoulder shrugging of irked or irate deities: the Fijians ascribed such agitations to the earth-god’s turning over in his sleep; and the Samoans, when the soil trembled, gnawed the ground and prayed to the god Mafuie to stop, lest he should shake the planet to pieces. Almost everywhere the earth was the Great Mother; our language, which is often the precipitate of primitive or unconscious beliefs, suggests to this day a kinship between matter (materia) and mother (mater). Ishtar and Cybele, Demeter and Ceres, Aphrodite and Venus and Freya—these are comparatively late forms of the ancient goddesses of the earth, whose fertility constituted the bounty of the fields; their birth and marriage, their death and triumphant resurrection were conceived as the symbols or causes of the sprouting, the decay, and the vernal renewal of all vegetation. These deities reveal by their gender the primitive association of agriculture with woman. When agriculture became the dominant mode of human life, the vegetation goddesses reigned supreme. Most early gods were of the gentler sex; male deities superseded them presumably as a heavenly reflex of the victorious patriarchal family.

    Just as the profound poetry of the primitive mind sees a secret divinity in the growth of a tree, so it sees a supernatural agency in the conception or birth of a child. The “savage” does not know anything about the ovum or the sperm; he sees only the external structures involved, and deifies them; they, too, have spirits in them, and must be worshiped, for are not these mysteriously creative powers the most marvelous of all? In them, even more than in the soil, the miracle of fertility and growth appears; therefore, they must be the most direct embodiments of the divine potency. Nearly all ancient peoples worshiped sex in some form and ritual, and not the lowest people but the highest expressed their worship most completely; we find such worship in Egypt and India, Babylonia and Assyria, Greece and Rome. The sexual character and functions of primitive deities were held in high regard, not through any obscenity of mind, but through a passion for fertility in women and in the earth. Certain animals, like the bull and the snake, were worshiped as apparently possessing or symbolizing in a high degree the divine power of reproduction. The snake in the story of Eden is doubtless a phallic symbol, representing sex as the origin of evil, suggesting sexual awakening as the beginning of the knowledge of good and evil, and perhaps insinuating a certain proverbial connection between mental innocence and bliss.

    There is hardly an animal in nature, from the Egyptian scarab to the Hindu elephant, that people somewhere have not worshiped as a god. The Ojibwa Indians gave the name of totem to their special sacred animal, to the clan that worshiped it, and to any member of the clan; and this confused word has stumbled into anthropology as totemism, denoting vaguely any worship of a particular object—usually an animal or a plant—as especially sacred to a group. We have found varieties of totemism scattered over apparently unconnected regions of the earth, from the Indian tribes of North America to the natives of Africa, the Dravidians of India, and the tribes of Australia. The totem as a religious object helped to unify the tribe, whose members thought themselves bound up with it or descended from it; the Iroquois, in semi-Darwinian fashion, believed that they sprung from the primeval mating of women with bears, wolves, and deer. The totem—as object or as symbol—became a useful sign of relationship and distinction for primitive peoples, and lapsed, in the course of secularization, into a mascot or emblem, like the lion or eagle of nations, the elk or moose of our fraternal orders, and those dumb animals that are used to represent the elephantine immobility and mulish obstreperousness of our political parties. The dove, the fish, and the lamb, in the symbolism of nascent Christianity, were relics of totemic adoration; even the lowly pig was once a totem of prehistoric Jews. In most cases the totem animal was taboo—i.e., forbidden, not to be touched; under certain circumstances it might be eaten, but only as a religious act, amounting to the ritual eating of the god.* The Gallas of Ethiopia ate in solemn ceremony the fish that they worshiped, and said, “We feel the spirit moving within us as we eat.” The good missionaries who preached the Gospel to the Gallas were shocked to find among these simple folk a ritual so strangely similar to the central ceremony of the Mass.

    Probably fear was the origin of totemism, as of so many cults; men prayed to animals because the animals were powerful, and had to be appeased. As hunting cleared the woods of the beasts, and gave way to the comparative security of agricultural life, the worship of animals declined, though it never quite disappeared; and the ferocity of the first human gods was probably carried over from the animal deities whom they replaced. The transition is visible in those famous stories of metamorphoses, or changes of form, that are found in the Ovids of all languages, and tell how gods had been, or had become, animals. Later the animal qualities adhered to them obstinately, as the odor of the stable might loyally attend some rural Casanova; even in the complex mind of Homer glaucopis Athene had the eyes of an owl, and Here boöpis had the eyes of a cow. Egyptian and Babylonian gods or ogres with the face of a human being and the body of a beast reveal the same transition and make the same confession—that many human gods were once animal deities.

    Most human gods, however, seem to have been, in the beginning, merely idealized dead men. The appearance of the dead in dreams was enough to establish the worship of the dead, for worship, if not the child, is at least the brother, of fear. Men who had been powerful during life, and therefore people had feared, were especially likely to receive worship after their deaths. Among several primitive peoples, the word for god actually meant “a dead man”; even today, the English word spirit and the German word Geist mean both ghost and soul. The Greeks invoked their dead precisely as the Christians were to invoke the saints. So strong was the belief—first generated in dreams—in the continued life of the dead, that primitive men sometimes sent messages to them in the most literal way; in one tribe the chief, to convey such a letter, recited it verbally to a slave, and then cut off his head for special delivery; if the chief forgot something he sent another decapitated slave as a postscript.

    Gradually the cult of the ghost became the worship of ancestors. All the dead were feared, and had to be propitiated, lest they should curse and blight the lives of the living. This ancestor worship was so well adapted to promote social authority and continuity, conservatism and order, that it soon spread to every region of the earth. It flourished in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and survives vigorously in China and Japan today; many peoples worship ancestors but no god.* The institution held the family powerfully together despite the hostility of successive generations, and provided an invisible structure for many early societies. Moreover, just as compulsion grew into conscience, so fear graduated into love; the ritual of ancestor worship, probably generated by terror, later aroused the sentiment of awe, and finally developed piety and devotion. It is the tendency of gods to begin as ogres and to end as loving fathers; the idol passes into an ideal as the growing security, peacefulness and moral sense of the worshipers pacify and transform the features of their once ferocious deities. The slow progress of civilization reflects itself in the tardy amiability of the gods.

    The idea of a human god was a late step in a long development; it slowly differentiated itself, through many stages, out of the conception of an ocean or multitude of spirits and ghosts surrounding and inhabiting everything. From the fear and worship of vague and formless spirits men seem to have passed to adoration of celestial, vegetative, and sexual powers, then to reverence for animals, and worship of ancestors. The notion of God as Father probably derived from ancestor worship; it meant originally that the gods had physically begotten men. In primitive theology, there is no sharp or generic distinction between gods and men; to the early Greeks, for example, their gods were ancestors, and their ancestors were gods. A further development came when, out of the medley of ancestors, certain men and women who had been especially distinguished were singled out for clearer deification; so the greater kings became gods, sometimes even before their death. However, with this development we reach the historic civilizations.



* Freud, with characteristic imaginativeness, believes that the totem was a transfigured symbol of the father, revered and hated for his omnipotence, and rebelliously murdered and eaten by his sons. Durkheim thought that the totem was a symbol of the clan, revered and hated (hence held “sacred” and “unclean”) by the individual for its omnipotence and irksome dictatorship; and that the religious attitude was originally the feeling of the individual toward the authoritarian group.

* We may find relics of ancestor worship among ourselves in our care and visitation of graves, and our masses and prayers for the dead.

Ed. Note: As it is the tendency of fathers to begin as lovers and end as ogres.

The Methods of Religion

 

Having conceived a world of spirits, whose nature and intent were unknown to him, primitive man sought to propitiate them and to enlist them in his aid. Hence to animism, which is the essence of primitive religion, was added magic, which is the soul of primitive ritual. The Polynesians recognized a very ocean of magic power, which they called mana; the magician, they thought, merely tapped this infinite supply of miraculous capacity. The methods by which the spirits, and later the gods, were suborned to human purposes were for the most part “sympathetic magic”—a desired action was suggested to the deities by a partial or imitative performance of the action by men. To make rain fall some primitive magicians poured water out upon the ground, preferably from a tree. The “Kaffirs,” threatened by drought, asked a missionary to go into the fields with an opened umbrella. In Sumatra, a barren woman made an image of a child and held it in her lap, hoping thereby to become pregnant. In the Babar Archipelago, the would-be mother fashioned a doll out of red cotton, pretended to suckle it, and repeated a magic formula; then she sent word through the village that she was pregnant, and her friends came to congratulate her; only a very obstinate reality could refuse to emulate this imagination. Among the Dyaks of Borneo the magician, to ease the pains of a woman about to deliver, would go through the contortions of childbirth himself, as a magic suggestion to the fetus to come forth; sometimes the magician slowly rolled a stone down his belly and dropped it to the ground, in the hope that the backward child would imitate it. In the Middle Ages they cast a spell upon an enemy by sticking pins into a waxen image of him; the Peruvian Indians burned people in effigy, and called it burning the soul. Even the modern mob is not above such primitive magic.

    They especially applied these methods of suggestion by example to the fertilization of the soil. Zulu medicine men fried the genitals of a man who had died in full vigor, ground the mixture into a powder, and strewed it over the fields. Some peoples chose a King and Queen of the May, or a Whitsun bridegroom and bride, and married them publicly, so that the soil might take heed and flower forth. In certain localities, the rite included the public consummation of the marriage, so that Nature, though she might be nothing but a dull clod, would have no excuse for misunderstanding her duty. In Java, the peasants and their wives, to ensure the fertility of the rice fields, mated in the midst of them. For primitive men did not conceive of the growth of the soil in terms of nitrogen; they thought of it—apparently without knowing of sex in plants—in the same terms as those whereby they interpreted the fruitfulness of woman; our very terms recall their poetic faith.

    Festivals of promiscuity, coming in nearly all cases at the season of sowing, served partly as a moratorium on morals (recalling the comparative freedom of sex relations in earlier days), partly as a means of fertilizing the wives of sterile men, and partly as a ceremony of suggestion to the earth in spring to abandon her wintry reserve, accept the proffered seed, and prepare to deliver herself of a generous litter of food. Such festivals appear among a great number of nature peoples, but particularly among the Cameroons of the Congo, the “Kaffirs,” the Khoikhoi, and the Bantus. “Their harvest festivals,” says the Reverend H. Rowley of the Bantus,

 

are akin in character to the feasts of Bacchus. . . . It is impossible to witness them without being ashamed. . . . Not only is full sexual license permitted to the neophytes, and indeed in most cases enjoined, but any visitor attending the festival is encouraged to indulge in licentiousness. Prostitution is freely indulged in, and adultery is not viewed with any sense of heinousness, on account of the surroundings. No man attending the festival is allowed to have intercourse with his wife.

 

Similar festivals appear in the historic civilizations: in the Bacchic celebrations of Greece, the Saturnalia of Rome, the Fête des Fous in medieval France, May Day in England, and the Carnival or Mardi Gras of contemporary ways.

    Here and there, as among the Pawnees and the Guayaquil Indians, vegetation rites took on a less attractive form. A man—or, in later and milder days, an animal—was sacrificed to the earth at sowing time, so that it might be fertilized by his blood. When the harvest came, they interpreted it as the resurrection of the dead man; they gave the victim, before and after his death, the honors of a god; and from this origin arose, in a thousand forms, the almost universal myth of a god dying for his people, and then returning triumphantly to life. Poetry embroidered magic, and transformed it into theology. Solar myths mingled harmoniously with vegetation rites, and the legend of a god dying and reborn came to apply not only to the winter death and spring revival of the earth but to the autumnal and vernal equinoxes, and the waning and waxing of the day. For the coming of night was merely a part of this tragic drama; daily the sun god was born and died; every sunset was a crucifixion, and every sunrise was a resurrection.

    Almost every people seem to have honored at some time or another human sacrifice of which we have here but one of many varieties. On the island of Carolina in the Gulf of Mexico a great hollow metal statue of an old Mexican deity has been found, within which still lay the remains of human beings apparently burned to death as an offering to the god. Everyone knows of the Moloch to whom the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, and occasionally other Semites, offered human victims. In the early 20th century, people practiced the custom in Rhodesia. Probably it was bound up with cannibalism; men thought that the gods had tastes like their own. As religious beliefs change more slowly than other creeds, and rites change more slowly than beliefs, this divine cannibalism survived after human cannibalism disappeared. Slowly, however, evolving morals changed even religious rites; the gods imitated the increasing gentleness of their worshipers, and resigned themselves to accepting animal instead of human meat; a hind took the place of Iphigenia, and a ram was substituted for Abraham’s son. In time the gods did not receive even the animal; the priests liked savory food, ate all the edible parts of the sacrificial victim themselves, and offered upon the altar only the entrails and the bones.

    Since early man believed that he acquired the powers of whatever organism he consumed, he came naturally to the conception of eating the god. In many cases, he ate the flesh and drank the blood of the human god whom he had deified and fattened for the sacrifice. When, through increased continuity in the food supply, he became more humane, he substituted images for the victim, and was content to eat these. In ancient Mexico they kneaded with the blood of boys sacrificed for the purpose an image of the god made of grain, seeds, and vegetables, which they then consumed as a religious ceremony of eating the god. Similar ceremonies have been found in many primitive tribes. Usually the participant was required to fast before eating the sacred image; and the priest turned the image into the god by the power of magic formulas.

    Magic begins in superstition, and ends in science. A wilderness of weird beliefs came out of animism, and resulted in many strange formulas and rites. The Kukis encouraged themselves in war by the notion that all the enemies they slew would attend them as slaves in the afterlife. On the other hand, a Bantu, when he had slain his foe, shaved his own head and anointed himself with goat dung, to prevent the spirit of the dead man from returning to pester him. Almost all primitive peoples believed in the efficacy of curses, and the destructiveness of the “evil eye.” Australian natives were sure that the curse of a potent magician could kill at a hundred and sixty kilometers. The belief in witchcraft began early in human history, and has never quite disappeared. Fetishism*—the worship of idols or other objects as having magic power—is still more ancient and indestructible. Since many amulets are limited to a special power, some peoples are heavily laden with a variety of them, so that they may be ready for any emergency. Relics are a later and contemporary example of fetishes possessing magic powers; half the population of Europe wear some pendant or amulet which gives them supernatural protection or aid. At every step the history of civilization teaches us how slight and superficial a structure civilization is, and how precariously it is poised upon the apex of a never extinct volcano of poor and oppressed barbarism, superstition, and ignorance. Modernity is a cap superimposed upon the Middle Ages, which always remain.

    The philosopher accepts gracefully this human need of supernatural aid and comfort, and consoles himself by observing that just as animism generates poetry, so magic begets drama and science. Frazer has shown, with the exaggeration natural to a brilliant innovator, that the glories of science have their roots in the absurdities of magic. For since magic often failed, it became of advantage to the magician to discover natural operations by which he might help supernatural forces to produce the desired event. Slowly the natural means came to predominate, even though the magician, to preserve his standing with the people, concealed these natural means as well as he could, and gave the credit to supernatural magic much as our own people often credit natural cures to magical prescriptions and pills. In this way magic gave birth to the physician, the chemist, the metallurgist, and the astronomer.

    More immediately, however, magic made the priest. Gradually, as religious rites became more numerous and complex, they outgrew the knowledge and competence of the ordinary man, and generated a special class that gave most of its time to the functions and ceremonies of religion.

The priest as magician had access, through trance, inspiration, or esoteric prayer, to the will of the spirits or gods, and could change that will for human purposes. Since such knowledge and skill seemed to primitive men the most valuable of all, and supernatural forces were conceived to affect man’s fate at every turn, the power of the clergy became as great as that of the state; and from the latest societies to modern times the priest has vied and alternated with the warrior in dominating and disciplining men. Let Egypt, Judea, and medieval Europe suffice as instances.

    The priest did not create religion, he merely used it, as a statesman uses the impulses and customs of mankind; religion arises not out of sacerdotal invention or chicanery, but out of the persistent wonder, fear, insecurity, hopefulness, and loneliness of people. The priest did harm by tolerating superstition and monopolizing certain forms of knowledge; but he limited and often discouraged superstition, he gave the people the rudiments of education, he acted as a repository and vehicle for the growing cultural heritage of the race, he consoled the weak in their inevitable exploitation by the strong, and he became the agent through which religion nourished art and propped up with supernatural aid the precarious structure of human morality. If he had not existed, the people would have invented him.



* From the Portuguese feitico, fabricated or factitious.

 

The Moral Function of Religion

 

Religion supports morality by two means chiefly: myth and taboo. Myth creates the supernatural creed through which celestial sanctions may be given to forms of conduct socially (or sacerdotally) desirable; heavenly hopes and terrors inspire the individual to put up with restraints placed upon him by his masters and his group. Man is not naturally obedient, gentle, or chaste; and next to that ancient compulsion which finally generates conscience, nothing so quietly and continuously conduces to these uncongenial virtues as the fear of the gods. The institutions of property and marriage rest in some measure upon religious sanctions, and tend to lose their vigor in ages of unbelief. Government itself, which is the most unnatural and necessary of social mechanisms, has usually required the support of piety and the priest, as clever heretics like Napoleon and Mussolini soon discovered; and hence “a tendency to theocracy is incidental to all constitutions.” The power of the primitive chief increases by the aid of magic and sorcery; and even our own government derives some sanctity from its annual recognition of the Pilgrims’ God.

    The Polynesians gave the word taboo to prohibitions sanctioned by religion. In the more highly developed of primitive societies, such taboos took the place of what under civilization became laws. Their form was usually negative: certain acts and objects they declared “sacred” or “unclean”; and the two words meant in effect one warning: untouchable. So the Ark of the Covenant was taboo, and Uzzah was struck dead, we are told, for touching it to save it from falling. Diodorus would have us believe that the ancient Egyptians ate one another in famine, rather than violate the taboo against eating the animal totem of the tribe. In most primitive societies countless things were taboo; certain words and names must never be pronounced, and certain days and seasons were taboo in the sense that work was forbidden at such times. Primitive men expressed all their knowledge, and some of their ignorance, about food in dietetic taboos; and religion rather than science or secular medicine inculcated hygiene.

    The favorite object of primitive taboo was woman. A thousand superstitions made her, every now and then, untouchable, perilous, and “unclean.” The molders of the world’s myths were unsuccessful husbands, for they agreed that woman was the root of all evil; this was a view sacred not only to Hebraic and Christian tradition, but to a hundred pagan mythologies. They laid the strictest of primitive taboos upon the menstruating woman; any man or thing that touched her at such times lost virtue or usefulness. The Macusi of British Guiana forbade women to bathe at their periods lest they should poison the waters; and they forbade them to go into the forests on these occasions, lest enamored snakes bite them. Even childbirth was unclean, and after it the mother was to purify herself with laborious religious rites. Sexual relations, in most primitive peoples, were taboo in not only the menstrual period but also whenever the woman was pregnant or nursing. Probably women themselves, out of their own good sense and for their own protection and convenience, originated these prohibitions; but origins are easily forgotten, and soon woman found herself “impure” and “unclean.” In the end, she accepted man’s point of view, and felt shame in her periods, even in her pregnancy. Out of such taboos as a partial source came modesty, the sense of sin, the view of sex as unclean, asceticism, priestly celibacy, and the subjection of woman.

    Religion is not the basis of morals, but an aid to them; conceivably, they could exist without it, and not infrequently they have progressed against its indifference or its obstinate resistance. In the earliest societies, and in some later ones, morals appear at times to be quite independent of religion; religion then concerns itself not with the ethics of conduct but with magic, ritual, and sacrifice, and the good man is defined in terms of ceremonies dutifully performed and faithfully financed. As a rule religion sanctions not any absolute good (since there is none), but those norms of conduct which have established themselves by force of economic and social circumstance; like law it looks to the past for its judgments, and is apt to be left behind as conditions change and morals alter with them. So the Greeks learned to abhor incest while their mythologies still honored incestuous gods; the Christians practiced monogamy while their Bible legalized polygamy; slavery was abolished while dominies sanctified it with unimpeachable biblical authority; and in our own day the Church fights heroically for a moral code that the Industrial Revolution has obviously doomed. In the end, terrestrial forces prevail; morals slowly adjust themselves to economic invention, and religion reluctantly adjusts itself to moral change.* The moral function of religion is to conserve established values, rather than to create new ones.

    Hence, a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a “conflict between science and religion.” Institutions that were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end, a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.



* Cf. the contemporary causation of birth control by urban industrialism, and the gradual acceptance of such control by the Church.