Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
We have already seen how the Mikado of Japan and the divine King of Laondo lived surrounded with safeguards and restrictions. The dangers to which souls are exposed have also been touched upon. We shall now consider how these were guarded, and the fresh dangers to which taboos gave rise as restrictions were multiplied.
To the savage, as we know him, the great danger of existence is witchcraft and the action of charms and spells; and to secure himself against these he adopts such precautions as the nature of the case suggests. But witchcraft itself is a system which must have had an origin, and developed, from one or more simple conceptions, to be an art practised by persons who claimed to have communication with the unseen world. With the art we generally associate the ideas of pure mischief, but it was capable of being turned to good account, and the Scotch witches who banned rats from farmers barns were thought worthy of a night's quarters and a substantial honorarium for their service. It has been hastily inferred that they learned the art from ecclesiastics, who, with bell, book and candle could ban the devil himself; but it is far more likely that
priests learned the art of banning from an older cult coming down from the ages before the Flood.
With great persuasion I once induced an old woman to repeat to me a form of words for the banning of rats, which she had learned from "a woman that had the second sight and could do things." It is many years since I heard the doggerel, and can remember but one sentence of it, which, wedged in between imprecations and curses, was, that they should "shed the hair off their skulls" if they did not betake themselves to other quarters. This freed the farmer of the pest, but unfortunately the same power could be turned against any one who offended the witch. She in that case brought an army of rats down upon him, "to eat his corn and cut his sacks, and teach him to rue the day that he shut his door on Shoanad." This I heard from a Morven woman nearly thirty years ago, when quite a boy. If Andrew Lang, who in those days was a frequent visitor at Ardtornish, had but known Gaelic, we should have had a store of legends, rhymes and charms preserved to us which are now finally lost. I have travelled in all parts of the Highlands of Scotland, but nowhere have I met with such variety and richness of legend and myth as along the shores of the Sound of Mull.
If men need to guard against witchcraft in Scotland, how much more necessary must it be to do so in savagedom. Lives of great importance to the community we may expect to find guarded with special care, in the same way as we guard royalty
in Europe, from attack by evil-disposed persons, sane and insane. There are not only the dangers which may lurk unseen near at hand, but also unknown dangers from a distance, and which are associated with the arrival of foreigners. Besides, there are districts specially charged with such malign influences, and any one visiting these must be purged and purified before he has any communication with others. Thus the missionary New and his party were, on their return from Killimanjaro, sprinkled by a "professionally prepared liquor" on arriving on the borders of the inhabited country. This was done by the priest, and before they had had any communication with the tribe. In the Yoruba country there is a custom of keeping strangers standing outside the gate of the town till sundown, lest evil spirits should enter with them if admitted during the day. * In South Africa the traveller must halt at a distance from the "great place," and is invited to the chief's presence only after the magician has performed the necessary incantations. Dinka and Bongo tribes on the Nile, take the like precautions against the advent of evil spirits when visited by strangers. The South Sea Islanders subject those landing on their shores to a process of purgation to expel any evil which may hang about them. These are all general precautions taken for the benefit of the community. But do what he may, the savage cannot absolutely exclude evil from the tribe. Spirits do enter in the most unexpected manner, and witches will prowl
about and follow their unlawful calling while men sleep. So he takes special precautions to guard those whose lives are of great value; precautions which, in their own language, "cannot be taken for commoners."
The arts of witchcraft are so subtle that those marked for its victims can be affected through the food they eat, if the wizard can but get his fingers into it, or even see it; through articles taken from their persons, as cut nails, hair, arms, ornaments, saliva, and also through all those articles which sacred persons may not see or touch. Thus it happens that those whose lives are so guarded may not eat in public, nor must their food be seen except by trusted personal attendants. In Gondokoro a guest asked to a marriage sends a present of food, but it must be carefully covered with a napkin to protect it from the influence of wizards and witches, * through whom the whole bridal party might be affected. A Wanyoro will not return by the way he went; his very footprints may in the interval be bewitched. The King of Loango may not be seen eating or drinking, on pain of death. In Dahomey the same law exists, and Cameron in his walk across Africa paid men to let him see them eat or drink.
By judiciously extending these taboos life may be made a burden too grievous to be borne by the persons so guarded, and a day comes when, utterly wearied arid goaded to madness, the king defies the gods and asserts his own independence. Such defiance is the herald of reform and a further advance
of thought. Those having charge of sacred mysteries must adapt their teaching to the stern facts of life, and adopt such ritual as will be submitted to by those who have the civil power in their hands. And this illustrates a curious trait of religious life the world over, viz., that reforms are forced on sacred persons from without. From within it does not come. They cling to tradition and usage, and when a custom or dogma has outlasted its time, instead of boldly throwing it aside, an attempt is made to prop and buttress it up by fresh legislation and more extended ritual, till some one comes and shivers the structure, and it falls crumbling to dust and nothingness by its own weight.
But there is another side to this mystery of taboos, for if the sacred person must be guarded from harm from without, so must others be protected from receiving hurt from him. He is neither in heaven nor on earth, and it is men's interests that he should be suspended as evenly as may be between the two. His divinity will be injured by too much contact with earth and with men; but then this very divinity is a source of danger should men be brought, in the ordinary relations of life, into too close contact with him. He is a source of blessing under proper conditions, but let these be violated, and his divinity becomes a source of greatest danger; a fire which, if touched, will burst forth to scorch and burn. Should any one wear the Mikado's clothes without his leave, he would have swellings all over his body. * Nor is this
confined to Japan. The following quotation from J. G. Frazer, quoting the authority of W. Brown and a Paheka Madri, illustrates the lengths to which taboos were carried in New Zealand.
"It happened that a New Zealand chief of high rank and great sanctity had left the remains of his dinner by the wayside. A slave, a stout hungry fellow, coming up, saw the unfinished dinner, and eat it up without asking any questions. Hardly had he finished when he was informed by a horrorstricken spectator that the food of which he had eaten was the chief's. . . . . 'No sooner did he hear the fatal news than he was seized by the most extraordinary convulsions and cramp in the stomach, which never ceased till he died about sundown the same day. He was a strong man, in the prime of life, and should any one have said he was not killed by the taboo of the chief, he would have been listened to with feelings of contempt for his ignorance and inability to understand plain and direct evidence.'" This is not a solitary case. Mr. Frazer quotes several others, and in each case it is plain the persons died of sheer fright, so all-powerful can a fixed belief become among an ignorant and superstitious people.
With such results before his eyes, it is not to be wondered at if we find the savage placing sacred persons among the dangerous classes, and that he should extend taboos to persons and things supposed to be dangerous. Those who touch the dead are, in New Zealand and Africa, unclean till purified by magicians. Indeed, the rules of ceremonial purity
are so strict among some tribes that cases are on record where men have killed their wives for lying down on their mats at forbidden periods. * Hence it is that at such times women are secluded, as also after child-birth. In the former case they may be even rolled up in mats and suspended as in a hammock for a period of six or seven days, to be unstrapped and conveyed to a stream of water for necessary sanitary purposes.
"The rules of ceremonial purity observed by divine kings, chiefs, and priests; by homicides, women at child-birth, and so on, are in some respects alike. To us these classes of persons appear to differ totally in character and condition. Some of them we should call holy, others unclean and polluted. But the savage makes no such moral distinction between them To him they are dangerous and in danger, and the danger in which they stand and to which they expose others is what we should call spiritual or supernaturalthat is, imaginary." One of the substances most commonly tabooed by savages is iron. No iron may touch a sacred person's body. He may die when a simple incision might save his life, but the incision must not be made. A Hottentot priest never uses a knife in performing the operation of circumcision; he uses a sharp bit of quartz instead. Gold Coast natives remove all iron from their persons when consulting Fetish. Scottish Highlanders never use iron nails or hammers in making the fire-wheel
apparatus for the celebration of certain Yule festivals; they use wooden pegs and stone hammers instead. The Jews used no iron tools in building their Temple in Jerusalem, nor in making an altar.
The objection to iron arose in all probability when the metal was new and scarce, and so regarded with superstitious awe and reverence. But soon, daring spirits like Lamech arose, who, defying custom and taboo, and believing only in the strength of his own arm and the trusty weapons his son had forged for him, turned the dreaded metal to good account. A substance charged with such power that spirits could root endure it in their presence, and before which kings might fall down dead, put into men's hands a terrible weapon which could be used with disastrous effects even against the gods themselves. But if iron could be used against the gods, they in turn could use it against evil-doers, and the priesthood would not be slow in availing themselves of so potent a weapon. Apart from its obvious utility as an arm, when properly forged and shaped, it would be regarded as having magic and miraculous power, when properly used, for the expulsion of evil. And so we find iron, and the metals generally, occupying a prominent place in the superstitions of all countries. When a Scottish fisherman hears "the unclean animal"a pigmentioned, he feels for the nails in his boots and mutters "cauld iron." So, too, if one of the crew utters certain oaths or curses when at sea. He bans the devil of ill-luck and disaster by nailing a horseshoe, preferably that of a stallion, to the stern of
his boat. A Golspie fisherman a few years ago had a small boat with which he had an extraordinary run of luck in the prosecution of his calling. Inside the stem was nailed an entire horse's shoe, given to him by "a wise person" As he prospered his ambition grew till he purchased a larger boat, selling the small one and its belongings to a neighbour. From the first day he went to sea with his new boat luck forsook him, nor would fickle fortune be wooed. He bethought him of his horse-shoe, and went to his neighbour to demand restitution. This was denied, the new owner contending successfully that he had purchased the "boat and its gear." * To this day that man believes that to parting with an old shoe was due the entire failure of his season's fishing. Whether returning luckfor he still lives and prospershad an educative effect upon his mind, I do not know.
Sutherlandshire crofters and cottars ban, or expel, the spirit of death from a house after one dies, by placing bits of iron in the meal chest, the butter jar, whisky bottle, and other articles of food, without which precaution they would speedily "go to rottenness and corruption." Whisky not treated so has been known to turn white as milk and curdle. Among savages iron is held in the same veneration. The Baralongs, who are famous smiths, regard the blacksmith's trade as a sacred art. Furnaces are placed at a distance from the houses, and none dare approach when the metal begins to flow, except those versed in the mysteries of the craft.
But in Africa it is on articles from the person, or which have belonged to one regarded as sacred, that the greatest care is bestowed. This is common to the Zulu and the Dinka, to the Galla and Dahomeyan. We meet with it in every possible relation of life. For example, a young Zulu soldier, who was travelling to join his regiment with a companion, arrived at a village where they were to spend the night. They were directed to the "travellers hut," where they found a mat such as natives sleep upon. The soldier took the mat and unrolled it, when, to his dismay, he found it contained head ornaments and other articles of female dress, such as is only used by the king's household. Seeing this, he rolled the mat up again and put it aside. It belonged to a girl of the king's harem, on her way to the capital, who had stayed there a few nights before. She had forgotten her mat and ornaments. On arriving at headquarters he was at once detailed for cattle-guard, but on his return in the evening he was met by a young man of his regiment, who told him his companion had been put to death, and that he was to be killed for having touched articles belonging to sacred persons. * He fled, but was overtaken and put to death. If touching ornaments is a capital offence, stepping over the head of a recumbent African is a yet more serious crime, if the sleeper be a person sacred in virtue of position or office. The head is peculiarly sacred, and to step over it is the most grievous offence that a man can commit, if it be not excelled in enormity by pulling his hair.
[paragraph continues] When this sanctity of the head and the consequent difficulty of disposing of shorn locks is borne in mind, it will be seen that the barber's vocation is, if an honourable one, a dangerous office. Suppose an artist is called to perform a necessary office for his chief, whose ample locks have become too secure a retreat for the colonies that take shelter under them, he must be first purified with sprinkling, and have the tools of his craft cleansed by the magicians. He then proceeds to the royal residence, and, in presence of the king's guards and officers of State, removes the mass close to the skull. If after the operation the king takes a chill the poor barber is accused of something more than neglect of duty: * he bewitched the king, or he may have given a hair to his friend the wizard to enable the latter to do the evil deed. In either case the barber must stand his trial, in the first case as a principal, in the second as an accessory, and failing his divulging the wizard's name, must take the consequences of his guilt if the magicians decide the case as one of bewitching.
But should he honestly perform his office and no untoward events follow, there remains the difficulty of disposing of the shorn locks. Burn them, says common sense; but to the savage common sense often is what the law was to the elder Weller, "a hass." To burn shorn locks would be to invite all the demons of a locality to secure and treasure up the very essence they are in search of in the ascending smoke. To them the smell of burning hair or
nail clippings is what the carcase is to the vulture. Nor is it safe to keep them by one, for who can guard against rats and white ants, not to speak of accidents of fire, war, and theft. The only prudent course is to bury them. * But how and where? And here the sacred and lawful art of the magician comes to the aid of the perplexed. Sacred spots are set apart for such purposesa kind of consecrated ground where the chief can bury his shorn locks and cut nails, as well as dispose of other necessary superfluities in the most approved fashion prescribed in Deuteronomy xxiii. 13; there as a wise sanitary precaution; in Africa as a sacred function; at the lowest as a precaution against the works of the devil.
And here I may say that those who had charge of my own youth were most remiss in a necessary and most important particular, evidence of which I have to go before any jury of Celts over seventy years of age with. One of my earliest recollections is having my hair cut by an itinerant tailor, who combined the art of clothing one's limbs with that of unclothing the head. I remember him still: a gaunt, lean-looking man, with hollow eyes and a sepulchral voice. When the operation was finished he directed that the severed locks should be gathered up and burned, because, should the birdsit was spring-time, and the danger was realget the smallest particle, even a single hair, to build their nests, I should be grey at twenty-one. This he insisted upon with the strongest asseveration
of its truth; while I, evil imp as I must have been, gathered up a handful of hair, which I threw over the window for the robins. The deed was done. The artist stood aghast, and now, though a good decade from the time when grey hairs should appear, I carry the evidence of my own folly to kirk and market.
The gods of the Dakota Indians are mortal, and propagate their kind. Their Onkteri resemble a bull, and can extend their tails and horns to the sky, the seat of their power. * The earth is believed to be animated by the spirit of the female Onkteri, while the water and the earth beneath the water is the abode of the male god. The Onkteri have power to issue from their bodies an essence, signifying a god's arrow, which can work wholesale destruction. The priests possess or claim all the power ascribed to the gods, and are believed to pass through a series of inspirations by which they receive the god-spirit. They lay hold on all that is mysterious, predict events, and declare that they bring about events of which they made no prediction. They have duplicate souls, one of which remains with the body, while the other wanders at will. Clearly it is necessary that such persons should be surrounded by such restrictions as will ensure the peace and safety of the community. And so we find in Africa, America, Asia, and the South Seas the same system of taboo; the same objections to certain objects and animals, and the same sanctity of others, running into clan badges and totems, which are at once sacred and to be cared
for, while they afford protection to those whose symbols they are.
But let men guard as they may; let them surround divinities with restrictions, and take every precaution against evil persons getting possession of objects dangerous to their lives, accidents will happen and evils will accumulate, with a corresponding increase among those spirits who cause them. So, as we have a process of evolution going on among the gods, we have also a development of the doctrine of devils. This I do not propose to trace fully, but it is necessary to refer to the subject in general terms before we consider the methods adopted for their expulsion.
How man arrived at the idea of good and evil spirits as personal beings is impossible to determine with accuracy. It is probable after he reached the conception of a soul separate from the body, personal and immortal, or at least capable of existence in a distinct spirit-world, he began to attribute to such souls the same character as was borne by the man while he lived. The soul of a seditious man would foment sedition on earth among those whom he could influence after his death. So, too, the soul of a murderer, a thief, or a contentious man would incite to similar crimes. These would be regarded as evil spirits, to be dealt with as men of like disposition are dealt with. To secure society against their influence, only two ways were open to primitive man: one, to defy them, as is often done in the case of men of evil disposition, and so make them practically outcasts; another to conciliate
them, and so by acts of bribery and flattery secure their good offices, or at least their neutrality. Both these methods are found wherever savage man dwells. Devils are cursed, defied, expelled the country, and treated as we do our dangerous classes. At other times they are flattered, cozened, and feasted with sacrifice, in order that the largeness of the offering may be a sufficient inducement for them to refrain from evil. We shall in the present inquiry meet frequently with devil-worship, but here it may be well to inquire how primitive man sought to rid himself of spirits which he both feared and hated.
90:* Journal Anthrop. ix.
90: J. G. Frazer.
90: C. J. Gordon Cumming.
92:* Rev. A, Mackay, MS. notes.
93:* Hon. C. Brownlee.
94:* J. Sutton, MS. notes.