Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
It may at first appear as if there were no connection between the religion of primitive peoples and their social usages. The latter, according to European ideas, have so little of the nature of religious rites that they are seldom associated with piety and devotion to the gods. Some men spend their lives among savages and never look below the surface, nor do they suspect that those whom they daily meet have any forms of religious observance. I was once told by a missionary of twenty years standing in Africa that certain ceremonial acts performed by natives had no religious significance. In fact, he went so far as to say, "These people have no religion; they live a purely animal existence; whatever they do is just custom." How the worthy man, for he was a truly pious soul, could ever get into sympathy with them, or make any impression upon their minds, I have often wondered. I have long ceased to wonder how a man of such unblemished life and absolute devotion to duty, but so totally blind to the facts of savage life, should have to confess with a sigh and the shadow of a life's sorrow, that "the people about here are very hardened; few of them have come under the influence of the Gospel. It is
very sad, and I at times doubt if I should be here, but I try to labour on in faith." Being at the time a novice in Africa, I accepted both statements without question. Since then I have learned a good deal, and among other things, that my aged friend's faith must have often been sorely tried as he endeavoured to do his duty in a sphere that never could have been congenial, but having made the mistake of becoming a missionary, he heroically stuck to the guns he had not learned the art of using. To gain any influence over savages one must first of all master their system of thought, and learn how to connect the most trivial acts with their philosophy, and such conceptions as they have of the supernatural. It is impossible to know what an act of devotion is till one has learned something of social usage and myth. To illustrate.
When a Dongolowa belle is to be married the eligible young men assemble, each armed with a kurbach or slave-whip. The elders of the tribe and a number of women gather as spectators and judges of the contest that is to follow. The young men, stripped stark naked, begin a mutual process of flogging, and he who stands this ordeal best is the successful wooer. * No other consideration or feeling is allowed to interfere with custom, as that would be displeasing to the gods. Should a woman marry without such a contest, her prospects would be poor indeed, having despised an ordinance of heaven. At times there is a tie between two young men in the flogging match, and in that case the girl has to
decide the matter, between them. This she does, not by choosing one, for that would be to despise another equally worthy suitor whose hide in the end might prove the toughest. The matter must be decided in a more excellent way. It is done thus:The coy maiden straps a knife to each of her arms, the blades projecting an inch or two below her elbows. She then sits down on a log, a suitor on either side sitting close beside her. At a given signal she raises her arms from the elbows, and leaning slowly forward rests her weight upon the young men's thighs, into which she steadily presses the knife blades. He who does not wince, or winces least under the ordeal, wins the bride and carries her off triumphant.
In Unyoro, the relatives of the late king fight for the throne. Here, too, it is a case of the toughest skin, but it is no vulgar contest, but a sacred function conformable to the will of the gods who delight in manly vigour. A Mitto chief warns those entering his country of war being made upon them, should they persist, by displaying on a tree near the path, an ear of corn, a feather and an arrow. * He who touches corn or cock will receive an arrow. In that country, too, a man wishing to marry applies to his chief for a wife. If thought worthy one is bestowed upon him, as all persons and property within the territory belong to the king. Both Mitto and Niam-Niam bury their dead, with strict regard to the points of the compass; men being buried with the face towards the east; women looking to the west.
[paragraph continues] This is conformable to the rule that women must eat alone, and not come near men at meals, unless it be to attend upon them. When a Waneka arrives at the age of puberty, he is smeared with white clay and decorated, after which he betakes himself to the woods, either alone or in company with others of his own age. There they must remain till they meet and kill a man, after which they wash off their clay and return home to be feasted and honoured. * They are now men, not boys. A Waneka prophetess begins operations at midnight by frantic screams. When all are astir she declares, "Roma, i.e., spirit or the god, is here, and demands the sacrifice of a black ox." This is at once provided, and men heave a sigh of relief to find it is not a more costly victim.
The men of Jagga spit on a departing guest as an act of courtesy, and to bid him God speed. By so doing, they bestow on him their highest mark of honour, for it is a religious act. A Wakamba must carry away his bride by strategy, and for this purpose may have to lie in wait for months. Before he begins his vigil he pays the parents the dower. Hottentots preserve a certain membrane at birth, a bit of which is worn through life. Its loss would entail evil here and hereafter. Common people in Dahomey may not grow grain except for domestic purposes, as all property belongs to the king. So, too, the persons of his subjects. At certain annual festivals he holds a sale of marriageable young women. Court favourites receive wives free, but all others pay. Unlawful wounding is an injury done
to the king's person in that of his subject. All things merge in him as the head of the State and the object of reverence. To his people he is divine.
The house of the Bodio or high priest of the Kroomen is a sanctuary to which criminals may flee for refuge. From it they cannot be removed except by his orders, and, as he gives no reason for his decision, he shelters a large number of ruffians, who, more secure under his protection than ever Jew was in a city of refuge, live and enjoy themselves, doing-all the dirty work and throat-cutting for the Bodio in their nightly prowlings. A Manganga magician, or even wizard, can soar aloft on the wings of the wind like a Highland beldam on her broomstick. The prophet among the same people can discover a criminal in the following manner. He calls a muster of the tribe, and then taking a bundle of reeds in his hand rushes round the circle of the assembled tribesmen. If the criminal is among them, one of the reeds flies out of his hand as he approaches him. This reed he picks up, as the magic reed, and lays the bundle aside. He then presses it against the man indicated, when, if he is guilty, the rod revolves in his hand. * When an earthquake occurred at Accra, the king issued a proclamation that his father's spirit was giving the earth a shake, because the children were not obeying the customs, and giving due reverence to the reigning monarch. After this, he called for three of his principal chiefs, gave each a drink of rum, delivered to them a message for his father to the effect that his wishes would be attended
to, and then had them beheaded. Thirty-four others were enclosed in jar-like baskets, their heads projecting from the neck. These were brought in one by one and promptly beheaded, to go as an escort with the chiefs who carried the king's dutiful message. He then retired to his gardens, satisfied he had done an act of most reverent devotion. His conduct will not seem so strange and horrible as at first sight appears, when it is borne in mind that as late as 1230 human sacrifices were offered in Prussia in honour of the goddess of corn and fruits. *
When old King Chop of Calabar drank, a chief held his great toe. The chief of Old Town kept his soul in a sacred grove near a spring of water. Some Europeans, in frolic or ignorance, cut down part of the grove, to the intense indignation of the spirit, who, according to the king, would visit them with all manner of evil. A successor is not chosen till the king is buried and all the ceremonies completed. These are elaborate and protracted. What becomes of the soul in the grove I do not know; probably it enters the new king, who in turn deposits it in the wood for safe keeping. For, after all, this is the great object of savage man in guarding divinity, and if a perfectly safe place could be found for the purpose of depositing the soul there, he would be supremely happy. But as love laughs at locksmiths, so do wizards at man's arts in concealing the whereabouts of souls. To enter the council of government among the Waneka, the candidate is placed in an enclosure where he lies down as if stone dead. His head is
then covered with a thick layer of mud. A mixture of clay and hair is spread over his face. Horns are mounted over his eyes, and his body decked with feathers. He is then led to the edge of the forest, where he wanders till he has killed a man, after which he returns and has a ring of rhinoceros hide placed upon his arm as a badge of office and to indicate that he is now a sacred person. * Some tribes regard twins as the greatest good luck, others as monsters to be killedthe harbingers of calamity. Most, if not all Africans have some sacred animal which they do not kill, and with which their lives are in some way bound up. This is in reality fetish, totem or clan badge, according to the stage of civilization at which a people has arrived. Among the Majame strangers are received in the following manner:A goat is brought forward by the tribal priest, which the chief takes by the horns and spits on its forehead, saying, "As this stranger has come into our land, and says he is our friend; if he lies may he perish, he and all his caravan." The stranger then takes the goat, and doing as the chief has done, says, "If I practise any evil against Maganine, him or his people, his cattle or his lands, may I utterly perish, and this caravan." The goat's head is then cut off "that blood and saliva may mingle." The skin of its forehead is divided into two parts and one given to each of the parties to the contract. A small slit is made in this and worn as a ring on the middle finger in token of brotherhood. The Wagorengo of the same region practise blood brotherhood to
cement friendship. * The people of Kiwendo never sacrifice a goat, but at their great religious meetings they turn one adrift to wander where it will. The animal has a collar of cowries tied round its neck, by which it is distinguished from a strayed animal. This is the only approach to the idea of a scapegoat, as understood by the Jews, I know of in Africa. The goat is devoted to Lubare. Of old, when a Scottish king gave an unjust judgment his neck took a twist, and so remained till justice was done. African chiefs have boils in such a case as this.
These customs I have set down at random, selecting them from the observances of peoples widely apart. My object is not to trace the development of any idea, but to show that all these are in the savage mind associated with religion and the worship of the gods. This will be better understood if we now consider acts of devotion, and the object aimed at. by the performance of these acts.
177:* Elmslie, Krapf, Perry.
178:* Dr. Maclear.