Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
In any inquiry into the religion of primitive men, it is necessary, if we are to understand the significance of many actions and familiar customs, to take account of woman's position and her true sphere in savage life. Many travellers describe woman among untutored tribes as a beast of burden pure and simple; an animal to be driven while it lasts and can do useful work; then left neglected to die, sometimes of hunger, but oftener by means still more equivocal. There could be no greater error than to accept such statements as correct, or as giving a clue to woman's position and influence among the community. That labour, which, according to western ideas, belongs exclusively to men, falls to the lot of women is true. Nor do they have a voice in village councils and palavers. Even domestic arrangements as brewing beer, the food for the day, washing and the like are regulated by the men, but this is largely accounted for by the system of polygamy. It is, however, this outward and apparent position of woman, which makes her appear to the stranger of so little consequence in the affairs of the community. She seems to be a mere drudge; a beast of burden with intelligence, and whose duty it is to
labour for her husband; bear children and rear them, but take nothing to do with the produce of her own labour or the training of her offspring.
We have already seen the prophetess at her work in the Lake Region. We might find a woman regent in South Africa. The wife of the noted chief Makoma acted as regent during the minority of her son, Sandili, and with conspicuous success. A woman was once war doctor to Hintsa, and among the Khonds a woman is not supposed to be unworthy of representing the god life of creative energy and reproduction. But it is more in the code of restrictions or taboos to which women are subject that we learn the important place assigned to them in the moral and religious codes of savage men. Individual women rising to eminence might prove too much if that were taken by itself, but when we place such facts beside the general treatment they receive, we see how important is the place they occupy and the influence they have on national life and religion. For example. Among the objects placed under taboo is blood, and especially woman's blood. So great is the dread of its touching any part of the person, and especially the head, which, in savage philosophy is peculiarly sacred, that an Australian will not pass under a leaning tree or the rails of a fence lest a woman should have been on it, and that blood from her, resting on the tree, might fall on him. * The Siamese think it unlucky to pass under a rope on which women's clothes are suspended. In New Zealand the blood of women is supposed to have
disastrous effects upon males. If a South African touches the blood of woman at certain periods his bones become soft. If a woman steps over him, or even over his spears he cannot hit his enemy in battle. In Burmah it is an indignity to have a woman overhead in a house of more than one story, hence it is that most houses have but one floor. In a house raised on piles, a servant will not go in below the house for any purpose lest a woman should be in the rooms over his head.
With divine and sacred persons a number of rules have to be observed for their own safety and the safety of the community. One of these is that the sun may not shine upon them. The Mikado might not touch the ground with his foot, nor was the sun thought worthy to shine on his royal head. The heir to the throne of Bogota forfeited his right to the succession if the sun shone direct upon him. In Sogomoso the heir-apparent is shut up in seclusion for seven years without seeing the light of the sun. * Now, it is remarkable that girls at puberty and women at regular intervals and after delivery are subjected to the same rule of restrictions during a variable period. In Laondo, a purely negro State, girls at puberty are confined in separate huts, and may on no account touch the ground during the period with any part of their body. Among the Zulus and kindred tribes, when the first signs of womanhood show themselves, a girl, should she be walking or working in the fields, runs to the river and hides herself for the day among the reeds that she may not be
seen by men. Her head she covers with her blanket that the sun may not shine on it and shrivel her up into a withered skeleton, an assured result of any disregard of custom. At night she returns home and is closely secluded for a period of seven days. She then resumes her work. New Ireland girls are confined for four or five years in small cages and kept in the dark. *
Customs akin to these are world-wide, and have left in the folk-lore of all nations evidence of their being once universal. For example. A Greek story warns a princess to be careful in her fifteenth year lest the sun should shine on her. A Tyrolese legend tells how a lovely maiden was doomed to be transported to the belly of a whale, Jonah fashion, if ever a sunbeam fell upon her. Old Highland women, when I was a boy, always made a great ado if girls went, say to a hayfield, with bare heads. Boys might, but it was not good for girls. It was not altogether because they would get sunburned. There were "other things," all of which was conveyed to them in hints of Delphic ambiguity, but which was very awful to our youthful imagination.
The ground of this seclusion and guarding from sunlight lies in the dread primitive man has of woman's blood. Hence a woman must live apart during the period; she is then unclean, and, should any one come near her inadvertently, she must give them warning not to approach. Similar restrictions are imposed on women after delivery, when they are secluded and guarded for weeks. Nor are
restrictions confined to the periods referred to. Precautions must be taken against accidents, as these may happen at any moment. Scores of times did I put the question to South Africans: "Why do your women never enter the village by the paths the men follow?" before I could get a satisfactory answer. I was told it was custom; women must be taught obedience; people always did it; or that the master made rules and all must obey; that it was to keep wives from quarrelling if they saw the head of the village walking frequently with a favourite wife; because men are greater, that is, more sacred, than women; "the woman is to a man a child." Gradually and indirectly I came to know that the restriction was designed to avoid accidents such as might happen with the advent of womanhood unexpectedly. The object of all such restrictions is to neutralise the dangerous influences which are supposed to be connected with women at certain periods. The woman is viewed as charged with certain properties; properties productive of evil in themselves, and which, in certain circumstances, she can use with infinite power for mischief. These must be kept within bounds. If not, they may prove destructive to the woman herself, as in the Zulu shrivelling up, and to all with whom she comes into contact.
The uncleanness of woman and the sanctity of the sacred or divine man do not, to primitive men, differ from one another. Both must be guarded against and avoided when that is possible. Both must be surrounded by taboos for this object as well as for
their own sakes, so that their properties, which are good or bad as they are directed, may be guided to be conducive of good to man.
Persons charged with such properties, and having at their disposal such powers for good or evil, cannot be without influence upon the community. Where every action has a supernatural significance, it is impossible to have any force in existence without its tending to give colour to all the institutions existing among men.
In a land where a woman may not touch a cow's udder * on pain of direst results, we may expect to find her wielding power however harshly she may be treated. Even from the most closely guarded harem come influences which go to make or mar the state. The Lubare of Uganda may be under the direction of a prophetess. In the Lake Region, the prophetess is all powerful, and may determine peace or war, as she often does in the south. The women of most African tribes are modest and retiring, and seldom address strangers except when they bring articles for sale, and even then it is not uncommon to find a husband or father accompany the woman to do the actual trading while she carries the burden. But this is not universal. There are tribes where the women are bold, aggressive and self-assertive. The Monbutto women are independent, obtrusive and immodest. They do the field work as is done by all African women, but in other respects assert their independence in a manner rarely met with. The Monbutto are an island of humanity, in the very
heart of Africa, differing in customs and habits from all the surrounding tribes. Their laws and observances resemble, and especially the aggressive immodesty of their women, those of certain minor tribes inland from Inhambane more than that of any other African people. Dr. Schweinfurth does not give in detail an account of their behaviour, but leaves the reader to infer that as regards public morality there is much to be desired. Our information regarding the Inhambane tribes referred to is also meagre. A few years ago, a Lieut. Underwood and a German missionary were travelling together through the country. Both were new to African travel, and their ignorance of the language may have prevented their understanding the meaning of facts which came under their notice with painful prominence. So obtrusive did they find the women that they were compelled to get some of their own Swazi women camp-followers to mount guard over their persons in their tents while they slept. * Whether this was a natural aggressiveness of character, or the ordinary courtesies of the country I do not know. It is common enough for a chief to order one of the members of his harem to be given to a distinguished stranger during his stay, but the women will only repair to his tent at night and as if by stealth. Though not objecting to a temporary change of husband, they cannot effect the change during the day lest the gods should be offended. When Dr. Felkin pressed King Mtesa to replenish the mission larder, the king wearied
with similar demands and anxious to settle the question once for all, sent the doctor a parcel of eighteen wives to attend upon him, and supply his wants. The ungrateful man refused the kingly gift.
The subject of public morality it is impossible to discuss in a popular work. But though not suitable for the pages of a book intended for general readers, its value in forming an estimate of the people's character is considerable, and the man whose lot is cast in Africa, cannot, without grave loss to his own usefulness, dispense with an intimate acquaintance with much that is unsavoury. To indicate the difficulty of dealing with this, I transcribe the first note I made in collecting material for a separate chapter on the subject. It is as follows:"Before a Kordufan girl consents to marry, she stipulates how many free nights per week she may enjoy, and generally secures every fourth night to do as she pleases." So different are African standards from ours that any thing said could only be suited for the pages of a scientific journal, as is illustrated by the following incident:A missionary was one day addressing a crowd of natives, many of whom had taken part in a regular saturnalia held in the vicinity a few days before. As he proceeded to denounce their customs and their doings, I noticed a curious restlessness among them. The climax was reached when he compared their behaviour, in search of drink and other enjoyments, to that of strange dogs arriving at a village, and sniffing about the places frequented by local curs. To the natives this was not preaching; it was moral turpitude, and their feelings were tersely
expressed by an old chief, who, when outside, uttered the single word "filth," and walked away. The reason of this was plain. If there is one thing beyond all others against which the soul of an African rebels, it is to be compared to a dog, or to have it suggested that there can be anything in common between himself and his dog. A thief, it is true, is a wolf, but then thieves like wolves are made to be destroyed. So far is the aversion carried that there is a distinct "dog language," and the words composing it are never applied to men, except in defiance, or as the language of insult. To bid a man begone by the use of the word one applies to a dog, would be equivalent to throwing a glass of wine in a gentleman's eyes in the days when Irish steeple-chasing was in its glory. In a land where cowdung and urine are necessary requisites of the toilet, burying a dog would prevent the growth of the season's crops. * It is by a knowledge of such customs and prejudices we can reach the minds of such peoples, and come to have an understanding of their domestic life. By beginning with what they can understand, we can gradually advance leading them to higher conceptions both of man and of God.
But while it is impossible to discuss the details of their moral code, there are broad outlines common to all primitive peoples which help us to an understanding of the progress of thought among them. The harem and zenana we may regard as a comparatively late development; the product of an advancing civilisation, and the growth of exclusive political
power in the hands of the chief The exclusiveness and sanctity of the harem could only be the product of settled government, permanent residence, and suitable buildings. Among a nation of hunters, wandering from place to place, a zenana would be an impossibility. Seclusion of any considerable number of persons would entail settled residence. At the same time, we find among primitive races that infidelity on the part of any of the king's wives is a capital offence, even if the custom is all but universal among the lower orders. To them a lapse on the part of a member of the royal household is a serious crime, while their opinion regarding other orders is faithfully expressed in the reply of the Kaffir to whom his missionary said, "I know many of you spend your nights roaming about after other men's wives." "No, master," he answered, "we do not do that, we have our own wives at night; it is during the day our people go to see other women they love." * Another Scotch parson was asked, "How many wives have you," and on his replying that he had none, his interrogator asked sympathetically, "Was that because you could not get the cattle?"
195:* J. G. Frazer, quoting E. M. Curr.
196:* J. G. Frazer, quoting Alonzo de Zurita.
197:* Rev. B. Banks.
200:* Underwood, MS. notes.
202:* Scillocks and Dinka.
203:* Rev. J. Lundie. MS. notes.