Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
The festivals and ceremonial acts of any people give a clue to the original form of their institutions, and when these can be compared with what still exists, in its original form, among untutored nations, it affords evidence which is of the first importance in tracing the development of religion and the growth of civilisation.
The Yam festivals, as observed in Ashantee, were referred to in considering substitutionary sacrifice, and we saw how closely bound up with the religious life of the people are all the facts relating to the ripening of crops and the gathering in of the harvest. Nor is this peculiar to Ashantee. Everywhere the feasts of first-fruits are intimately associated with the religious observances of the people and the homage which they render to the gods. Among savages this homage is to the powers of nature, whose efforts are crowned with success when the creative and reproductive spirit of vegetation yields its increase to man. When a Pondo chief is to hold the feast of first-fruits, some of his people procure a ripe plant of the gourd family, pumpkin or calabash, from another tribe. This is cooked; the inside cleaned out, and the rind made ready for use
as a vessel. It is then presented to the chief with much ceremony. * The first-fruits are now brought forward, and a sacrifice, generally a young bull, is offered, after which the feast commences. The chief issues certain orders for the conduct of the proceedings, tastes the fruits which are served in the gourd dish with which he has been presented, and then abdicates all his functions while the festival lasts.
The cattle from all the neighbouring villages are collected in the vicinity, and now they are brought together, and the bulls incited to fight to determine which is to be king among them for the next year. The young people engage in games and dances, feats) of strength and running. After these are over the whole community give themselves over to disorder, debauchery, and riot. In their bull-fights and games 1 they but did honour to the powers of nature, and now, as they eat and drink, the same powers are honoured in another form and by other rites. There is no one in authority to keep order, and every man does what seems good in his own eyes. Should a man stab his neighbour he escapes all punishment, and so too with all other crimes against the person, property, and morality. People are even permitted to abuse the chief to his face, an offence which at any other time would meet with summary vengeance and an unceremonious dispatch to join the ancestors. While the feast continues a deafening noise is kept up by drumming, shouting, hand-clapping, and every kind of instrument that can be made to emit sound. Men advance to the chief and explain their origin,
and also the object they hold sacred, by imitating the sounds and movements of their most sacred animal. This is the person's totem. Others imitate, the gurgling made by an enemy when stabbed in the throat. Those who adopt this latter emblem are known as "children of the spear."
When the ceremonies, revels, and mummeries are ended, the chief repairs to his accustomed place, and sitting down there, by that act resumes his kingly functions. He calls the bravest of his braves before him, who is immediately clothed and decorated with skins of animals suggestive of courage and strategy. He performs a dance amid the frenzied shouting of the multitude, after which the chief declares the 'festival at an end and harvest commenced. *
The facts deserving of special notice here are the sacrifice, the fighting of the bulls, and the honour done to the reproductive powers of nature. These, and the abdication of the chief, would lead to the inference that the festival is a true survival of what, in earlier times and under a ruder system, existed when a temporary king was appointed and killed as a sacrifice, the incarnate god himself being slain that nature might revive in spring. Whether from such facts men came at last to infer a resurrection of the body, it is impossible to determine. The Pondos are not singular in their observance of harvest customs. The Hos of North-east India have a notion that at this period men and women are so overcharged with vicious propensities that it is absolutely necessary to let off steam by allowing
for a time full vent to their passions. * For the time they give themselves up to feasting, drinking, and debauchery. The men lose all respect for the women and for themselves, and the women all notions of modesty. Usually the Hos are a quiet, reserved, and well-behaved moral people, but at the harvest festival all this is reversed, and their nature seems to undergo a complete change. The curious thing is, that when all is over they settle down into their old steady, sober habits as if nothing had happened.
But what is most peculiar about harvest festivals and feasts of first-fruits is, their close resemblance to one another among all peoples the world over, and how near those of civilised man are to the savage; differing not in kind, but only in the manner of conducting them; thus showing to us, that they are among the most ancient and primitive of man's ritual and customs. For example. The Peruvians believe that all useful plants are animated by a divine being, that is spirit, who causes their growth. These divine beings are named after the particular plant, as the Maize mother, the Rice mother, or the Potato mother. Figures of these mothers made from the stalks of the respective plants, and dressed in women's clothes, are worshipped. As the mother, these figures had power of giving birth to or producing much rice, maize, or potatoes, as the case might be, and in this acted according as they were treated. The Peruvian mother of the Maize was kept a whole year, and burned at the time of harvest:
when a fresh one took her place. During the festival, eating drinking and general rejoicing goes on. In Ashantee all laws are abrogated for one day at the Yam festival, and for the time every man does whatever he pleases. One custom observed is to bring out, to be placed before the fetish house, the skulls of noted enemies killed in war, and it is said the skull of an English baronet did duty for many yearsin fact, was still in existence, kept in a brass basin, when the late king's power was overthrown by the English. The people during the day of liberty give themselves up to dancing and revelry. Executioners caper about, ornamented with necklets made from the jaws of victims they slew as offerings or king's "messengers" to the nether- world, and with girdles of skulls. Before eating the new yams the king bathes in fetish water as a ceremonial act; when all is over he resumes his authority as we saw done by the chief of Pondoland.
These customs, of which examples might be multiplied from every region of Africa and the heathen world generally, differ in no essential feature, and are singularly like the survivals we have in Europe. In Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the last sheaf cut, or "maiden," is carried home in merry procession by the harvesters. It is then presented to the mistress of the house, who dresses it up to be preserved till the first mare foals. The maiden is then taken down and presented to the mare as its first food. * The neglect of this would have untoward effects upon the foal, and disastrous consequences
upon farm operations generally for the season. In Caithness the person who cuts the last sheaf is called "winter," and so remains till next harvest. The sheaf itself is carefully preserved till it is displaced by another the following year. The Celts of the west country attached great importance to cutting the last sheaf. All the harvesters stood round in a circle while the youngest girl among the reapers cut a few straws left standing at the corner of the field for that purpose. This sheaf was ultimately used, as I have been assured by old people, for making Brüd's bed, which was as follows:On Candlemas day the mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats, and dress it up in women's apparel. They put it in a large basket, and beside it a club of wood. They then cry three times in chorus, "Brüd is come, Brüd is welcome." This is done just before they retire to rest, and in the morning they examine the ashes; expecting to find among them the mark of Brüd's club. If they do, it is an indication of a prosperous year and good crops; if not, the opposite. *
In the district of Lochaber, where dancing and merry-making on the last night of harvest used to be universal, and is still generally observed, the ceremonies without the "maiden" would be like a wedding without the bride. The maiden is carried home with tumultuous rejoicing, and after being suitably decorated is hung up in the barn, where the dancing usually takes place. After supper, which is served in the barn ball-room, and before
dancing begins, one of the company, generally the oldest man present, fills himself a glass of whisky, which he drinks, after he has turned his face to the suspended sheaf and said: "Here's to the maiden." The company follow his example, each in turn drinking to the "maiden." This I have seen done more than once. Shall I add that I have myself done it? Very similar to this is the custom observed in the neighbourhood of Dantiz, as recorded by Frazer, who follows Mannhardt. He says: "When the winter corn is cut and mostly bound up in sheaves, the portion which still remains to be bound is divided amongst the women binders, each of whom receives a swath of equal length to bind. A crowd of reapers, children, and idlers gathers round to witness the contest, and at the word 'Seize the old man,' the women fall to work, all binding their allotted swaths as hard as they can. The spectators watch them narrowly, and the woman who cannot keep pace with the rest, and consequently binds the last sheaf, has to carry the 'old man' (the last sheaf) to the farm-house and deliver it to the farmer with the words: 'Here I bring you the old man.' At the supper which follows the 'old man' is placed at the table and receives an abundant portion of food, which, as he cannot eat it, falls to the share of the woman who carried him. Afterwards the 'old man' is placed in the yard, and all the people dance round him. Further, the woman who bound the last sheaf goes herself by the name of the 'old man' till the next harvest; and is often mocked with the cry, 'Here comes the old man.'"
In Bavaria each reaper, as they are about to finish, has a patch to cut. They reap as fast as they call, and he who has to cut the last few handfuls "drives out the old man." Near Stettin the woman who binds the last sheaf has "the old man," and bears the nickname for a year. Formerly she was herself dressed up in pease-straw and carried home, when the harvesters danced with her till the straw fell off.
These examples illustrate the contests in reaping and binding, as well as the subsequent treatment of the sheaf and the person cutting it; and when it is remembered that the person who is last at reaping represents the corn spirit, the idea is fully expressed by dressing him in corn straw. That it is the corn spirit that is represented is clearly seen from the customs of parts of Germany, where a man and woman, called the "oats wife" and the "oats man" dance at the harvest festival, after which the corn stalks are plucked from their bodies till not a particle is left. In these cases the idea is that the corn spiritthe "old man"the woman, or maiden, is the last sheaf, and that the spirit lives in the barn during the winter. At sowing time it goes out to the fields again to resume its functions And, as we saw, in the giving of the maiden to the first mare that foals, in Aberdeenshire, and as is done in parts of the West Highlands, where it is distributed among the cows at Christmas, these functions include reproduction among cattle as well as growth of corn.
This points to our harvest customs as being a
survival from primitive times, and that in one form or another they have passed down from generation to generation, adapting themselves to all conditions of life and of faith. They carry us back to the wild revelry that surrounded the man-god when he gave his people the gifts of harvest. They still have an echofaint it may be but realof the days when the chief abdicated for a time that he and his people might do homage to the corn spirit, and to other darker rites when a victim was slain as the personification of that spirit, to ensure a resurrection in spring. Even in Christian times, and before our forefathers had freed themselves from the lingering customs of paganism, they preserved the maiden as an act of faith and religious duty. What is now a pleasant ending to the labours of the season was formerly a serious fact, a rite which, if omitted, might entail the entire subversion of the order of nature for the season. Formerly the god was present among men, and could give or withhold blessings, and on that account his rites could not be neglected with impunity. Man has travelled far in his conceptions of divinity since then, but the facts of the present connect the life and knowledge of modern times with a long-forgotten past, which carries us back to the youth of the world, when man first began to make his way, by slow and painful steps, to an understanding of the facts of the universe around him, and the supernatural which he felt must exist somewhere. The significance of his acts has changed, and the ideas which are associated with them have no resemblance to what an earlier people
conceived, but the acts remain. They are the same substantially the world over. It is impossible they could have been so universally borrowed, and the only conclusion is, that they existed from earliest times.
137:* J. Sutton, MS. notes.
138:* J. Sutton, MS. notes.
139:* Dalton, "Ethnology of Bengal," quoted by J. G. Frazer.
139: J. G. Frazer.
140:* Miss J. Ligertwood, MS. notes.