The Making of Religion, by Andrew Lang

Preface to the New Edition

By the nature of things this book falls under two divisions. The first eight chapters criticise the current anthropological theory of the origins of the belief in spirits. Chapters ix.-xvii., again, criticise the current anthropological theory as to how, the notion of spirit once attained, man arrived at the idea of a Supreme Being. These two branches of the topic are treated in most modern works concerned with the Origins of Religion, such as Mr. Tyler’s “Primitive Culture,” Mr. Herbert Spencer’s “Principles of Sociology,” Mr. Jevons’s “Introduction to the History of Religion,” the late Mr. Grant Allen’s “Evolution of the Idea of God,” and many others. Yet I have been censured for combining, in this work, the two branches of my subject; and the second part has been regarded as but faintly connected with the first.

The reason for this criticism seems to be, that while one small set of students is interested in, and familiar with the themes examined in the first part (namely the psychological characteristics of certain mental states from which, in part, the doctrine of spirits is said to have arisen), that set of students neither knows nor cares anything about the matter handled in the second part. This group of students is busied with “Psychical Research,” and the obscure human faculties implied in alleged cases of hallucination, telepathy, “double personality,” human automatism, clairvoyance, and so on. Meanwhile anthropological readers are equally indifferent as to that branch of psychology which examines the conditions of hysteria, hypnotic trance, “double personality,” and the like. Anthropologists have not hitherto applied to the savage mental conditions, out of which, in part, the doctrine of “spirits” arose, the recent researches of French, German, and English psychologists of the new school. As to whether these researches into abnormal psychological conditions do, or do not, indicate the existence of a transcendental region of human faculty, anthropologists appear to be unconcerned. The only English exception known to me is Mr. Tylor, and his great work, “Primitive Culture,” was written thirty years ago, before the modern psychological studies of Professor William James, Dr. Romaine Newbold, M. Richet, Dr. Janet, Professor Sidgwick, Mr. Myers, Mr. Gurney, Dr. Parish, and many others had commenced.

Anthropologists have gone on discussing the trances, and visions, and so-called “demoniacal possession” of savages, as if no new researches into similar facts in the psychology of civilised mankind existed; or, if they existed, threw any glimmer of light on the abnormal psychology of savages. I have, on the other hand, thought it desirable to sketch out a study of savage psychology in the light of recent psychological research. Thanks to this daring novelty, the book has been virtually taken as two books; anthropologists have criticised the second part, and one or two Psychical Researchers have criticised the first part; each school leaving one part severely alone. Such are the natural results of a too restricted specialism.

Even to Psychical Researchers the earlier division is of scant interest, because witnesses to successful abnormal or supernormal faculty in savages cannot be brought into court and cross-examined. But I do not give anecdotes of such savage successes as evidence to facts; they are only illustrations, and evidence to beliefs and methods (as of crystal gazing and automatic utterances of “secondary personality”), which, among the savages, correspond to the supposed facts examined by Psychical Research among the civilised. I only point out, as Bastian had already pointed out, the existence of a field that deserves closer study by anthropologists who can observe savages in their homes. We need persons trained in the psychological laboratories of Europe and America, as members of anthropological expeditions. It may be noted that, in his “Letters from the South Seas,” Mr. Louis Stevenson makes some curious observations, especially on a singular form of hypnotism applied to himself with fortunate results. The method, used in native medicine, was novel; and the results were entirely inexplicable to Mr. Stevenson, who had not been amenable to European hypnotic practice. But he was not a trained expert.

Anthropology must remain incomplete while it neglects this field, whether among wild or civilised men. In the course of time this will come to be acknowledged. It will be seen that we cannot really account for the origin of the belief in spirits while we neglect the scientific study of those psychical conditions, as of hallucination and the hypnotic trance, in which that belief must probably have had some, at least, of its origins.

As to the second part of the book, I have argued that the first dim surmises as to a Supreme Being need not have arisen (as on the current anthropological theory) in the notion of spirits at all. (See chapter xi.) Here I have been said to draw a mere “verbal distinction” but no distinction can be more essential. If such a Supreme Being as many savages acknowledge is not envisaged by them as a “spirit,” then the theories and processes by which he is derived from a ghost of a dead man are invalid, and remote from the point. As to the origin of a belief in a kind of germinal Supreme Being (say the Australian Baiame), I do not, in this book, offer any opinion. I again and again decline to offer an opinion. Critics, none the less, have said that I attribute the belief to revelation! I shall therefore here indicate what I think probable in so obscure a field.

As soon as man had the idea of “making” things, he might conjecture as to a Maker of things which he himself had not made, and could not make. He would regard this unknown Maker as a “magnified non-natural man.” These speculations appear to me to need less reflection than the long and complicated processes of thought by which Mr. Tylor believes, and probably believes with justice, the theory of “spirits” to have been evolved. (See chapter iii.) This conception of a magnified non-natural man, who is a Maker, being given; his Power would be recognised, and fancy would clothe one who had made such useful things with certain other moral attributes, as of Fatherhood, goodness, and regard for the ethics of his children; these ethics having been developed naturally in the evolution of social life. In all this there is nothing “mystical,” nor anything, as far as I can see, beyond the limited mental powers of any beings that deserve to be called human.

But I hasten to add that another theory may be entertained. Since this book was written there appeared “The Native Tribes of Central Australia,” by Professor Spencer and Mr. Gillen, a most valuable study.1 The authors, closely scrutinising the esoteric rites of the Arunta and other tribes in Central Australia, found none of the moral precepts and attributes which (according to Mr. Howitt, to whom their work is dedicated), prevail in the mysteries of the natives of New South Wales and Victoria. (See chapter x.) What they found was a belief in ‘the great spirit, Twanyirika,’ who is believed ‘by uninitiated boys and women’ (but, apparently, not by adults) to preside over the cruel rites of tribal initiation.2 No more is said, no myths about ‘the great spirit’ are given. He is dismissed in a brief note. Now if these ten lines contain all the native lore of Twanyirika, he is a mere bugbear, not believed in (apparently) by adults, but invented by them to terrorise the women and boys. Next, granting that the information of Messrs. Spencer and Gillen is exhaustive, and granting that (as Mr. J.G. Frazer holds, in his essays in the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ April and May, 1899) the Arunta are the most primitive of mortals, it will seem to follow that the moral attributes of Baiame and other gods of other Australian regions are later accretions round the form of an original and confessed bugbear, as among the primitive Arunta, ‘a bogle of the nursery,’ in the phrase repudiated by Maitland of Lethington. Though not otherwise conspicuously more civilised than the Arunta (except, perhaps, in marriage relations), Mr. Howitt’s South Eastern natives will have improved the Arunta confessed ‘bogle’ into a beneficent and moral Father and Maker. Religion will have its origin in a tribal joke, and will have become not ‘diablement,’ but ‘divinement,’ ‘changée en route.’ Readers of Messrs. Spencer and Gillen will see that the Arunta philosophy, primitive or not, is of a high ingenuity, and so artfully composed that it contains no room either for a Supreme Being or for the doctrine of the survival of the soul, with a future of rewards and punishments; opinions declared to be extant among other Australian tribes. There is no creator, and every soul, after death, is reincarnated in a new member of the tribe. On the other hand (granting that the brief note on Twanyirika is exhaustive), the Arunta, in their isolation, may have degenerated in religion, and may have dropped, in the case of Twanyirika, the moral attributes of Baiame. It may be noticed that, in South Eastern Australia, the Being who presides, like Twanyirika, over initiations is not the supreme being, but a son or deputy of his, such as the Kurnai Tundun. We do not know whether the Arunta have, or have had and lost, or never possessed, a being superior to Twanyirika.

With regard, to all such moral, and, in certain versions, creative Beings as Baiame, criticism has taken various lines. There is the high a priori line that savage minds are incapable of originating the notion of a moral Maker. I have already said that the notion, in an early form, seems to be well within the range of any minds deserving to be called human. Next, the facts are disputed. I can only refer readers to the authorities cited. They speak for tribes in many quarters of the world, and the witnesses are laymen as well as missionaries. I am accused, again, of using a misleading rhetoric, and of thereby covertly introducing Christian or philosophical ideas into my account of “savages guiltless of Christian teaching.” As to the latter point, I am also accused of mistaking for native opinions the results of “Christian teaching.” One or other charge must fall to the ground. As to my rhetoric, in the use of such words as ‘Creator,’ ‘Eternal,’ and the like, I shall later qualify and explain it. For a long discussion between myself and Mr. Sidney Hartland, involving minute detail, I may refer the reader to Folk–Lore, the last number of 1898 and the first of 1899, and to the Introduction to the new edition of my ‘Myth, Ritual, and Religion’ (1899).

Where relatively high moral attributes are assigned to a Being, I have called the result ‘Religion;’ where the same Being acts like Zeus in Greek fable, plays silly or obscene tricks, is lustful and false, I have spoken of ‘Myth.’3 These distinctions of Myth and Religion may be, and indeed are, called arbitrary. The whole complex set of statements about the Being, good or bad, sublime or silly, are equally Myths, it may be urged. Very well; but one set, the loftier set, is fitter to survive, and does survive, in what we still commonly call Religion; while the other set, the puerile set of statements, is fairly near to extinction, and is usually called Mythology. One set has been the root of a goodly tree: the other set is being lopped off, like the parasitic mistletoe.

I am arguing that the two classes of ideas arise from two separate human moods; moods as different and distinct as lust and love. I am arguing that, as far as our information goes, the nobler set of ideas is as ancient as the lower. Personally (though we cannot have direct evidence) I find it easy to believe that the loftier notions are the earlier. If man began with the conception of a powerful and beneficent Maker or Father, then I can see how the humorous savage fancy ran away with the idea of Power, and attributed to a potent being just such tricks as a waggish and libidinous savage would like to play if he could. Moreover, I have actually traced (in ‘Myth, Ritual, and Religion’) some plausible processes of mythical accretion. The early mind was not only religious, in its way, but scientific, in its way. It embraced the idea of Evolution as well as the idea of Creation. To one mood a Maker seemed to exist. But the institution of Totemism (whatever its origin) suggested the idea of Evolution; for men, it was held, developed out of their Totems-animals and plants. But then, on the other hand, Zeus, or Baiame, or Mungun-ngaur, was regarded as their Father. How were these contradictions to be reconciled? Easily, thus: Zeus was the Father, but, in each case, was the Father by an amour in which he wore the form of the Totem-snake, swan, bull, ant, dog, or the like. At once a degraded set of secondary erotic myths cluster around Zeus.

Again, it is notoriously the nature of man to attribute every institution to a primal inventor or legislator. Men then, find themselves performing certain rites, often of a buffooning or scandalous character; and, in origin, mainly magical, intended for the increase of game, edible plants, or, later, for the benefit of the crops. Why do they perform these rites? they ask: and, looking about, as usual, for a primal initiator, they attribute what they do to a primal being, the Corn Spirit, Demeter, or to Zeus, or to Baiame, or Manabozho, or Punjel. This is man’s usual way of going back to origins. Instantly, then, a new set of parasitic myths crystallises round a Being who, perhaps, was originally moral. The savage mind, in short, has not maintained itself on the high level, any more than the facetious mediaeval myths maintained themselves, say, on the original level of the conception of the character of St. Peter, the keeper of the keys of Heaven.

All this appears perfectly natural and human, and in this, and in other ways, what we call low Myth may have invaded the higher realms of Religion: a lower invaded a higher element. But reverse the hypothesis. Conceive that Zeus, or Baiame, was originally, not a Father and guardian, but a lewd and tricky ghost of a medicine-man, a dancer of indecent dances, a wooer of other men’s wives, a shape-shifter, a burlesque droll, a more jocular bugbear, like Twanyirika. By what means did he come to be accredited later with his loftiest attributes, and with regard for the tribal ethics, which, in practice, he daily broke and despised? Students who argue for the possible priority of the lowest, or, as I call them, mythical attributes of the Being, must advance an hypothesis of the concretion of the nobler elements around the original wanton and mischievous ghost.

Then let us suppose that the Arunta Twanyirika, a confessed bugbear, discredited by adults, and only invented to keep women and children in order, was the original germ of the moral and fatherly Baiame, of South Eastern Australian tribes. How, in that case, did the adults of the tribe fall into their own trap, come to believe seriously in their invented bugbear, and credit him with the superintendence of such tribal ethics as generosity and unselfishness? What were the processes of the conversion of Twanyirika? I do not deny that this theory may be correct, but I wish to see an hypothesis of the process of elevation.

I fail to frame such an hypothesis. Grant that the adults merely chuckle over Twanyirika, whose ‘voice’ they themselves produce; by whirling the wooden tundun, or bull-roarer. Grant that, on initiation, the boys learn that ‘the great spirit’ is a mere bogle, invented to mystify the women, and keep them away from the initiatory rites. How, then, did men come to believe in him as a terrible, all-seeing, all-knowing, creative, and potent moral being? For this, undeniably, is the belief of many Australian tribes, where his ‘voice’ (or rather that of his subordinate) is produced by whirling the tundun. That these higher beliefs are of European origin, Mr. Howitt denies. How were they evolved out of the notion of a confessed artificial bogle? I am unable to frame a theory.

From my point of view, namely, that the higher and simple ideas may well be the earlier, I have, at least, offered a theory of the processes by which the lower attributes crystallised around a conception supposed (argumenti gratia) to be originally high. Other processes of degradation would come in, as (on my theory) the creed and practice of Animism, or worship of human ghosts, often of low character, swamped and invaded the prior belief in a fairly moral and beneficent, but not originally spiritual, Being. My theory, at least, is a theory, and, rightly or wrongly, accounts for the phenomenon, the combination of the highest divine and the lowest animal qualities in the same Being. But I have yet to learn how, if the lowest myths are the earliest, the highest attributes came in time to be conferred on the hero of the lowest myths. Why, or how, did a silly buffoon, or a confessed ‘bogle’ arrive at being regarded as a patron of such morality as had been evolved? An hypothesis of the processes involved must be indicated. It is not enough to reply, in general, that the rudimentary human mind is illogical and confused. That is granted; but there must have been a method in its madness. What that method was (from my point of view) I have shown, and it must be as easy for opponents to set forth what, from their point of view, the method was.

We are here concerned with what, since the time of the earliest Greek philosophers, has been the crux of mythology: why are infamous myths told about ‘the Father of gods and men’? We can easily explain the nature of the myths. They are the natural flowers of savage fancy and humour. But wherefore do they crystallise round Zeus? I have, at least, shown some probable processes in the evolution.

Where criticism has not disputed the facts of the moral attributes, now attached to, say, an Australian Being, it has accounted for them by a supposed process of borrowing from missionaries and other Europeans. In this book I deal with that hypothesis as urged by Sir A.B. Ellis, in West Africa (chapter xiii.). I need not have taken the trouble, as this distinguished writer had already, in a work which I overlooked, formally withdrawn, as regards Africa, his theory of ‘loan-gods.’ Miss Kingsley, too, is no believer in the borrowing hypothesis for West Africa, in regard, that is, to the highest divine conception. I was, when I wrote, unaware that, especially as concerns America and Australia, Mr. Tylor had recently advocated the theory of borrowing (‘Journal of Anthrop. Institute,’ vol. xxi.). To Mr. Tylor’s arguments, when I read them, I replied in the ‘Nineteenth Century,’ January 1899: ‘Are Savage Gods Borrowed from Missionaries?’ I do not here repeat my arguments, but await the publication of Mr. Tylor’s ‘Gifford Lectures,’ in which his hypothesis may be reinforced, and may win my adhesion.

It may here be said, however, that if the Australian higher religious ideas are of recent and missionary origin, they would necessarily be known to the native women, from whom, in fact, they are absolutely concealed by the men, under penalty of death. Again, if the Son, or Sons, of Australian chief Beings resemble part of the Christian dogma, they much more closely resemble the Apollo and Hermes of Greece.4 But nobody will say that the Australians borrowed them from Greek mythology!

In chapter xiv., owing to a bibliographical error of my own, I have done injustice to Mr. Tylor, by supposing him to have overlooked Strachey’s account of the Virginian god Ahone. He did not overlook Ahone, but mistrusted Strachey. In an excursus on Ahone, in the new edition of ‘Myth, Ritual, and Religion,’ I have tried my best to elucidate the bibliography and other aspects of Strachey’s account, which I cannot regard as baseless. Mr. Tylor’s opinion is, doubtless, different, and may prove more persuasive. As to Australia, Mr. Howitt, our best authority, continues to disbelieve in the theory of borrowing.

I have to withdraw in chapters x. xi. the statement that ‘Darumulun never died at all.’ Mr. Hartland has corrected me, and pointed out that, among the Wiraijuri, a myth represents him as having been destroyed, for his offences, by Baiame. In that tribe, however, Darumulun is not the highest, but a subordinate Being. Mr. Hartland has also collected a few myths in which Australian Supreme Beings do (contrary to my statement) ‘set the example of sinning.’ Nothing can surprise me less, and I only wonder that, in so savage a race, the examples, hitherto collected, are so rare, and so easily to be accounted for on the theory of processes of crystallisation of myths already suggested.

As to a remark in Appendix B, Mr. Podmore takes a distinction. I quote his remark, ‘the phenomena described are quite inexplicable by ordinary mechanical means,’ and I contrast this, as illogical, with his opinion that a girl ‘may have been directly responsible for all that took place.’ Mr. Podmore replies that what was ‘described’ is not necessarily identical with what occurred. Strictly speaking, he is right; but the evidence was copious, was given by many witnesses, and (as offered by me) was in part contemporary (being derived from the local newspapers), so that here Mr. Podmore’s theory of illusions of memory on a large scale, developed in the five weeks which elapsed before he examined the spectators, is out of court. The evidence was of contemporary published record.

The handling of fire by Home is accounted for by Mr. Podmore, in the same chapter, as the result of Home’s use of a ‘non-conducting substance.’ Asked, ‘what substance?’ he answered, ‘asbestos.’ Sir William Crookes, again repeating his account of the performance which he witnessed, says, ‘Home took up a lump of red-hot charcoal about twice the size of an egg into his hand, on which certainly no asbestos was visible. He blew into his hands, and the flames could be seen coming out between his fingers, and he carried the charcoal round the room.’5 Sir W. Crookes stood close beside Home. The light was that of the fire and of two candles. Probably Sir William could see a piece of asbestos, if it was covering Home’s hands, which he was watching.

What I had to say, by way of withdrawal, qualification, explanation, or otherwise, I inserted (in order to seize the earliest opportunity) in the Introduction to the recent edition of my ‘Myth, Ritual, and Religion’ (1899). The reader will perhaps make his own kind deductions from my rhetoric when I talk, for example, about a Creator in the creed of low savages. They have no business, anthropologists declare, to entertain so large an idea. But in ‘The Journal of the Anthropological Institute,’ N.S. II., Nos. 1, 2, p. 85, Dr. Bennett gives an account of the religion of the cannibal Fangs of the Congo, first described by Du Chaillu. ‘These anthropophagi have some idea of a God, a superior being, their Tata (“Father”), a bo mam merere (“he made all things”), Anyambi is their Tata (Father), and ranks above all other Fang gods, because a’ne yap (literally, “he lives in heaven”).’ This is inconsiderate in the Fangs. A set of native cannibals have no business with a creative Father who is in heaven. I say ‘creative’ because ‘he made all things,’ and (as the bowler said about a ‘Yorker’) ‘what else can you call him?’ In all such cases, where ‘creator’ and ‘creative’ are used by me, readers will allow for the imperfections of the English language. As anthropologists say, the savages simply cannot have the corresponding ideas; and I must throw the blame on people who, knowing the savages and their language, assure us that they have. This Fang Father or Tata ‘is considered indifferent to the wants and sufferings of men, women, and children.’ Offerings and prayers are therefore made, not to him, but to the ghosts of parents, who are more accessible. This additional information precisely illustrates my general theory, that the chief Being was not evolved out of ghosts, but came to be neglected as ghost-worship arose. I am not aware that Dr. Bennett is a missionary. Anthropologists distrust missionaries, and most of my evidence is from laymen. If the anthropological study of religion is to advance, the high and usually indolent chief Beings of savage religions must be carefully examined, not consigned to a casual page or paragraph. I have found them most potent, and most moral, where ghost-worship has not been evolved; least potent, or at all events most indifferent, where ghost-worship is most in vogue. The inferences (granting the facts) are fatal to the current anthropological theory.

The phrases ‘Creator,’ ‘creative,’ as applied to Anyambi, or Baiame, have been described, by critics, as rhetorical, covertly introducing conceptions of which savages are incapable. I have already shown that I only follow my authorities, and their translations of phrases in various savage tongues. But the phrase ‘eternal,’ applied to Anyambi or Baiame, may be misleading. I do not wish to assert that, if you talked to a savage about ‘eternity,’ he would understand what you intend. I merely mean what Mariner says that the Tongans mean as to the god Tá-li-y Tooboo. ‘Of his origin they had no idea, rather supposing him to be eternal.’ The savage theologians assert no beginning for such beings (as a rule), and no end, except where Unkulunkulu is by some Zulus thought to be dead, and where the Wiraijuris declare that their Darumulun (not supreme) was ‘destroyed’ by Baiame. I do not wish to credit savages with thoughts more abstract than they possess. But that their thought can be abstract is proved, even in the case of the absolutely ‘primitive Arunta,’ by their myth of the Ungambikula, ‘a word which means “out of nothing,” or “self-existing,”’ say Messrs. Spencer and Gillen.6 Once more, I find that I have spoken of some savage Beings as ‘omnipresent’ and ‘omnipotent.’ But I have pointed out that this is only a modern metaphysical rendering of the actual words attributed to the savage: ‘He can go everywhere, and do everything.’ As to the phrase, also used, that Baiame, for example, ‘makes for righteousness,’ I mean that he sanctions the morality of his people; for instance, sanctions veracity and unselfishness, as Mr. Howitt distinctly avers. These are examples of ‘righteousness’ in conduct. I do not mean that these virtues were impressed on savages in some supernatural way, as a critic has daringly averred that I do. The strong reaction of some early men against the cosmical process by which ‘the weakest goes to the wall,’ is, indeed, a curious moral phenomenon, and deserves the attention of moralists. But I never dreamed of supposing that this reaction (which extends beyond the limit of the tribe or group) had a ‘supernatural’ origin! It has been argued that ‘tribal morality’ is only a set of regulations based on the convenience of the elders of the tribe: is, in fact, as the Platonic Thrasymachus says, ‘the interest of the strongest.’ That does not appear to me to be demonstrated; but this is no place for a discussion of the origin of morals. ‘The interest of the strongest,’ and of the nomadic group, would be to knock elderly invalids on the head. But Dampier says, of the Australians, in 1688, ‘Be it little, or be it much they get, every one has his part, as well the young and tender, and the old and feeble, who are not able to go abroad, as the strong and lusty.’ The origin of this fair and generous dealing may be obscure, but it is precisely the kind of dealing on which, according to Mr. Howitt, the religion of the Kurnai insists (chapter x.). Thus the Being concerned does ‘make for righteousness.’

With these explanations I trust that my rhetorical use of such phrases as ‘eternal,’ ‘creative,’ ‘omniscient,’ ‘omnipotent,’ ‘omnipresent,’ and ‘moral,’ may not be found to mislead, or covertly to import modern or Christian ideas into my account of the religious conceptions of savages.

As to the evidence throughout, a learned historian has informed me that ‘no anthropological evidence is of any value.’ If so, there can be no anthropology (in the realm of institutions). But the evidence that I adduce is from such sources as anthropologists, at least, accept, and employ in the construction of theories from which, in some points, I venture to dissent.

A.L.

1 Macmillans, 1899.]

2 Op. cit. p. 246, note.]

3 See the new edition of Myth, Ritual, and Religion, especially the new Introduction.]

4 See Introductions to my Homeric Hymns. Allen. 1899.]

5 Journal S.P.R., December 1890, p. 147.]

6 Native Tribes of Central Australia, p. 388.]

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