Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
A more savoury subject than public morality is courtesy, which in Africa is all that could be desired. Hospitality hardly knows any bounds, and the chief who receives a stranger as his guest treats him with courtesy and kindness. Many chiefs, on the great caravan routes, are now demoralised quite, and demand blackmail as one enters their territory, a demand sure to be repeated as he leaves. Man in the early days of the world regarded his neighbour as having a claim upon him, and in the age of hunting, food, while it lasted, was practically common property. To this day in times of great scarcity food is hardly ever stored up by families for their own use; they share it with their more needy neighbours. They reason in this way:The gods are good to men. They give them their food. They watch over the actions of their children, and as the fathers, who are now above, were good and kind to the stranger and the poor, it is their will that their children should obey custom. The whole of the past is wrapped in a halo of glory which myth weaves round it, and each man feels that he falls short of the ideal life if the stranger leaves his house hungry or empty-handed. When the native bards
sing the praises of the mighty dead, their deeds of valour occupy a secondary place, as if that were the necessary accompaniment of hospitality and the courtesies of life to the hungry wayfarer.
The king, as the father of his people, is responsible for village hospitality, and by a kind of fiscal arrangement he levies a tax for this purpose on those of his people best able to bear a burden. His acts of kindness to strangers are representative acts, and any failure on his part is a disgrace to the tribe. * I remember once visiting a man of some local standing. He sent me a fowl for my supper, and the councillor who brought it seemed to be ashamed of his commission. Little was said, but I felt the reception I met with did not promise success to my mission. I was mistaken. After the clatter of tongues by the camp fire ceased and all was still, the door of the hut I occupied was cautiously opened, and the councillor who had brought the fowl entered. In a low whisper he said, "Here is meat," at the same time taking a whole sheep's carcase from a young man who accompanied him. I asked what it meant; and the old man's reply I shall never forget, "It is," he said "nothing. You have bought it. Brandy has killed my chief." Here was loyalty; loyalty to a chief whose whole soul was in strong drink, to the neglect of all the functions of royalty. He, as a councillor, could not offer to do what his chief neglected, but his sense of honour, and particularly the honour of his chief and tribe, prompted him to do by stealth what he felt was necessary to uphold ancient tradition, though
by doing it he put his neck in some danger. Very pathetic too were his words, Brandy has killed my chief." The chief had not changed; had not neglected the stranger; did not forget the honour of his tribe. No. He was dead, that was all, and for his dead chief this loyal man did the courtesies of hospitality.
Philosophers and traditional theologians never weary of discussing the savage's moral sense and his innate ideas of right and wrong. They find it difficult to agree as to whether conscience is an inherent faculty, uniform in its manifestations among all classes and conditions of men, or an education of the moral sense which is capable of development according to man's stage of progress. I am not a philosopher nor a professed theologian. I am simply an observer of facts as these are met with every day in Savagedom. But as an observer I have often puzzled over the philosopher's right and wrong, and the ideas attached to these terms; over his uniform manifestations, and the theologian's sweeping generalisations regarding all classes and conditions of men. I have wondered whether the philosopher's ideas of right and wrong are based on our Western conceptionssaturated as we have been by centuries of Christian ethicsof a well-ordered state and social system, or whether he would admit the Mosaic code as a correct expression of the innate ideas of right and wrong among the Jews at that time. And if so, whether conscience as such, apart from education, can have anything to say to such questions as arise about a plurality of wives, for example? I
have asked in vain if the traditional theologian would admit within the sphere of men acting according to their conscience, those who give their property, their subjects, and even their children to propitiate gods which to us are purely imaginary? Or whether we must regard them as wilfully violating the most sacred instincts of human nature in obedience to requirements which their sense of right and wrong calls vanity? Here again one asks, and asks in vain. No light is offered, or it is deeper than the mirk.
The one thing of which I am certain is this:That these African races, whose religion we have been studying, not only profess their faith in its doctrines but really regulate their conduct by them, and that down to the minutest details of life. Their philosophy may be crude, but it is a philosophy. Nor is it altogether a false philosophy. It is the premises that are wrong, not the conclusion. It is their want of knowledge, not their lack of moral purpose. Their religion may be worse than none, but it is the form of it and the channels in which it runs which vitiate it, for the sincerity of the worshippers is infinitely more real than that of men who meet in Christian temples or worship God by proxy. The code of ethics practised by primitive man may shock our sensibilities, but he has reached it slowly, painfully, and prayerfully notwithstanding. To him religion is no pastime with which to amuse himself, but a matter of the most terrible reality; a matter on which depends his present fortune and his future place among the ancestors. Does he bring his women
to market? He knows no better way, and must observe the prescribed rule for his own protection and theirs. Is his slain enemy's heart found in his broth pot? This is not necessarily for love of human flesh, but to give him qualities which will ensure his own and his tribe's safety in war. Cannibalism I regard as a late development relatively; a taste acquired in times of famine when men died like sheep and were devoured by their famished companions. This opinion I base on the partial distribution of the practice and its entire absence among most of the older races with which we have, in recent times, been brought into contact. For example:
The Monbutto have no domestic animals, except dogs, and they are among the most pronounced cannibals in Africa. Such a people would suffer terribly if the crops failed even for a single season, and a succession of bad harvests would reduce them to actual starvation. What more natural than that this practice should have originated during a period of dire distress and want, and so became a national habit almost unconsciously. Stanley's forest cannibals seem, so far as we know, to depend entirely on vegetable substances for food. To them a few seasons of drought might mean extermination if they did not resort to human carrion. Abnormal developments do not belong to the ordinary progress of thought as I have attempted to trace it; and the acts to which necessity has driven civilised men should warn us against hasty conclusions. Especially should it warn us against assuming that cannibalism
was derived from any system of philosophy rather than from necessity and dire distress.
When primitive men walk abroad in nature's robes, and women adorn themselves with a tail of grass behind their backs as their sole garment after the manner of the Baris, * we are shocked at their immodesty, and cry out that they must be devoid of all sense of morality. This is exactly what a Monbutto mother would say to her daughter, if she appeared arrayed in the ample loin cloth worn by her brother rather than in her own bit of leaf attached lightly to her girdle. These are nature's own children doing nature's own bidding. They are advancing by steps so slow as to be imperceptible, by the same road by which our ancestors travelled thousands of years ago. They are at a stage of development now corresponding to that of the remote ancestors of the Ancient Greeks. To the primitive European, as to the primitive African, a simple code of morals was not only sufficient, it was complete, wise, and good; the will of the gods. Only as he advanced did his moral perceptions grow, and so too will the primitive African's; only let not the European expect too much, or look for permanent good on a large scale from a precocious and abnormal development of an individual here and there. Such individuals may do something within the sphere of their personal influence to raise their fellow countrymen. But only when new conceptions come to permeate the mass of the people, and the new philosophy commends itself as true for all classes, can
there be a general upward movement. Such movements, when permanent, are by way of evolution rather than revolution.
We are far from exhausting the religious aspect of custom and myth when we have disposed of public morals and the relation of the sexes. Religion enters into the prosecution of the industrial arts and even the amusements of life. The hunter has his religious rites which he performs before he enters the forest, and after he kills the first animal of the chase. His return from a successful expedition must be signalised by performing ceremonial acts. Even the manner of carrying home the game is prescribed by ritual.
When iron ore is dug and smelted, the smith must observe certain rules and conform to the necessary religious observances. * His forge must be placed at a distance from the village dwellings, and no one dare approach at the critical moment when the molten metal begins to flow, except those versed in the mysteries of the art. The fire used to cook first-fruits must not be kindled by a vulgar brand snatched from the domestic hearth, but must be sacred fire made by the magician in the time-honoured way. While the crops are growing and before the feast of first-fruits is held, no forest tree may be cut, as that would be to wound the spirit of vegetation, which, to primitive man, would be equivalent to wounding the god.
The sanctity of fire I have touched upon only incidentally, but in connection with it there is an
elaborate ritual and endless restrictions. Fire as such is venerated. To kindle fire in an enemy's country during war is to invite sunshine and prosperity on one's foes. The sun is regarded as the father of fire. The moon too has her votaries and the devil dances of the Damaras are usually observed when the moon is full. So too the moon dances of West Africa, where their devil-houses are roofed with human skulls. * Dances before engaging in war are held during moonlight, and must not be neglected on pain of defeat and dire calamity. These and a thousand other minute observances enter into the daily religious life of the African, as they do into that of all primitive peoples. And the curious thing is, not that they resemble customs once common among civilised men, for the human mind in its search for knowledge works by the same methods in all lands, but that so much of what is ancient, dating back far beyond historic time, should survive among the nations of Europe.
A number of the observances referred to have been illustrated by survivals in civilised countries. These could be multiplied almost indefinitely. Even the Pondomise law forbidding the cutting of green wood while the crops are growing, has, or had recently, its corresponding custom in the remote Highlands of Scotland. I recollect hearing a Gaelic rhyme which enumerated the trees which might not be cut after "the opening of the leaf." The mountain ash, if to be used as a talisman, must be cut "while the leaf is in the bud." The willow must
not be touched "after April day." I have no means of recovering the rhyme, but the woman who used to repeat it declared that in her younger days its directions were always observed by "wise people," but were now neglected by "a generation whose end was near." The worthy matron had the reputation of "knowing more than others."
Another custom which survived in Scotland till within the last seventy years, and which was doubtless a survival from very early times, was the Tein egin or forced fire. This was kindled on Mayday, and each villager, all domestic fires having been extinguished the previous evening, received a brand from the sacred pile with which to kindle their domestic hearths. Men who had failed to pay their debts, or had been guilty of notorious acts of meanness were refused the sacred fire, and this was equivalent to expulsion from one's club. It was for the time social ostracism. Nor were our Highlanders ignorant of trial by ordeal. They tied their witches hand and foot, after which they tossed them into a pond. If they floated they were taken out as the oracle proclaimed their innocence, but those of them who sank were allowed to drown. No farther trial was needed, for the ordeal never lied. So, too, the Felata of West Africa ascertains if the king's death was caused by his own wives by giving each member of the harem a dose of poison. These same Felata women, should they see the Juju or great fetish, when carried in procession, had such accidents as occasionally happen to pregnant mothers, and became sterile from that time. A similar fate
happened to Highland women who saw the fairy bull. Blood brotherhood, which is so common in Africa, bears a close resemblance to foster brotherhood as between the heir to the chieftainship and the clansman with whom he was reared. But to enumerate more of such minor customs would be tedious. Their general tendency is all in one direction, and goes to show how slow is the process of evolution through which religious thought must pass before it reaches the higher conception of one supreme God, and the substitution of a single Incarnation, revealing the will of God to man, for the multitude of prophets who claim to hold converse with the unseen. From the ranks of these prophets, as the order recedes from its original ideal and purpose, men arise who strike into new paths and lead their fellows into the light of a higher conception of human life and the destiny that awaits humanity.
205:* J. Sutton, M.S. notes.
210:* Myer, Killimanjaro.
210: G. M. Theal.
210: J. Sutton, MS. notes.