Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, , at sacred-texts.com
It seems probable, despite theological cavils, that Petronius was right in his signal saying, Fear first made the Gods. In the words of a recent hierologist, "we may be sure that primitive man took to himself the credit of his successful attempts to work the mechanism of nature for his own advantage, but when the machinery did not work he ascribed the fault to some over-ruling supernatural power.....It was the violation of [previously exploited] sequences, and the frustration of his expectations, by which the belief in supernatural power was, not created, but first called forth." 1
The fact that this writer proceeds to repudiate his own doctrine 2 is no reason why we should, save to the extent of noting the temerity of his use of the term "supernatural." There are some very strong reasons, apart from the à priori one cited above, for thinking that the earliest human notions of superhuman beings were framed in terms of fear. Perhaps the strongest of all is the fact that savages and barbarians in nearly all parts of the world appear to regard disease and death as invariably due to purposive hostile action, whether normal, magical, or "spiritual." 3 Not even old age is for
many of these primitive thinkers a probable natural cause of death. 1 If then the life of early man was not much less troublous than that of contemporary primitives, he is likely to have been moved as much as they to conceive of the unseen powers as malevolent. "On the Gold Coast," says a close student, "the majority of these spirits are malignant......I believe that originally all were conceived as malignant." 2
And how, indeed, could it be otherwise? Those who will not assent have forgotten, as indeed most anthropologists strangely forget when they are discussing the beginnings of religion, that man as we know him is descended from something less human, more brute, something nearer the predatory beast life of fear and foray.
[paragraph continues] When in the period of upward movement which we term civilisation, as distinct from animal savagery, there could arise thrills of yearning or gratitude towards unknown powers, we are æons off from the stage of subterhuman growth in which the germs of conceptual religion must have stirred. If the argument is to be that there is no religion until man loves his Gods, let it be plainly put, and let not a verbal definition become a petitio principii. If, again, no numina are to be termed Gods but those who are loved, let that proposition too be put as a simple definition of term. But if we are to look for the beginnings of the human notion of numina, of unseen spirits who operate in Nature and interfere with man, let it be as plainly put that they presumably occurred when fear of the unknown was normal, and gratitude to an Unknown impossible.
But in saying that fear first made the Gods, or made the first Gods, we imply that other God-making forces came into play later; and no dispute arises when this is affirmed of the process of making the Gods of the higher religions, in their later forms. Even here, at the outset, the play of gratitude is no such ennobling exercise as to involve much lifting of the moral standpoint; and even in the higher religions gratitude to the God is often correlative with fear of the evil spirits whom he wards off. This factor is constantly present in the gospels and in the polemic of the early Fathers; 1 and has never disappeared from religious life. The pietist who in our own day pours out thanks to "Providence" for saving him in the earthquake in which myriads have perished is no more ethically attractive than philosophically persuasive; and the gratitude of savages and barbarians for favours received and expected can hardly have been more refined. It might even be said that a cruder egoism presides over the making of Good Gods than over the birth of the Gods of Fear; 2 the former having their probable origin in an individualistic as against a tribal instinct. But it may be granted that the God who ostensibly begins as a private guardian angel or family spirit may become the germ of a more ethical cultus than that of the God generically feared. And the process chronically recurs. There is, indeed, no generic severance between the Gods of fear and the Gods of love, most deities of the more advanced races having both aspects: nevertheless, certain specified deities are so largely shaped by men's affections that they might recognisably be termed the Beloved Gods.
It will on the whole be helpful to an understanding of the subject if we name such Gods, in terms of current conceptions, the Christs of the world's pantheon. That title, indeed, no less fitly includes figures which do not strictly rank as Gods; but in thus widely relating it we shall be rather elucidating than obscuring religious history. Only by some such collocation of ideas can the inquirer surmount his presuppositions and take the decisive step towards seeing the religions of mankind as alike man-made. On the other hand, he is not thereby committed to any one view in the field of history proper; he is left free to argue for a historical Christ as for a historical Buddha.
Even on the ground of the concept of evolution, however, scientific agreement is still hindered by persistence in the old classifications. The trouble meets us on one line in arbitrary fundamental separations between mythology and religion, early religion and early ethics, religion and magic, genuine myths and non-genuine myths. 1 On another line it meets us in the shape of a sudden and local reopening of the problem of theistic intervention in a quasi-philosophical form, or a wilful repudiation of naturalistic method when the inquiry reaches current beliefs. Thus results which were reached by disinterested scholarship a generation ago are sought to be subverted, not by a more thorough scholarship, but by keeping away from the scholarly problem and suggesting a new standard of values, open to no rational tests. It may be well, therefore, to clear the ground so far as may be of such dispute at the outset by stating and vindicating the naturalistic position in regard to it.
1:1 F. B. Jevons, Introduction, to the History of Religion, 1896, p. 19; cp. p. 23, p. 137, and p. 177. Cp. Adam Smith, essay on The History of Astronomy, sect. iii.
1:2 Jevons, as cited pp. 106, 233, 410. Exactly the same self-contradiction is committed by Professor Robertson Smith, on the same provocation of the phrase, Primus in orbe deos fecit timor. See his Religion of the Semites, pp. 27, 35, 55, 88, 129.
1:3 Cp. John Mathew, Eaglehawk and Crow, 1899, pp. 91, 123, 144; Sir A. B. Ellis, The Tshi-speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast, 1887, pp. 13-14; Livingstone, Travels and Researches in South Africa, ed. 1905, p. 409; Schweinfurth, The Heart of Africa, 3rd ed. i, 144-5; Major Glyn Leonard, The Lower Niger and its Tribes, 1906, pp. 171-sq., 361; Mary H. Kingsley, West African Studies, ed. 1901, pp. 98-100, 105-9, 178; Spencer and Gillen, Native Tribes of Central Australia, 1899, p. 48; Northern Tribes of Central Australia, 1904, p. 479; Rev. R. Taylor, Te Ika a Maui: or, New Zealand and its Inhabitants, 1870, p. 137; w. w. Skeat, Malay Magic, 1900, pp. 56-57, 94, 410, 533 sq.; J. Chalmers, Pioneer Life and Work in New Guinea, 1895, p. 199; Thurston, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, 1909, iii. 275; iv, 53, p. 19, 160; vii, 350, etc.; Admiral Lindesay Brine, Travels amongst American Indians, 1894, pp 184-5 363; A. R. Wallace, Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, 2nd ed. 1889, pp. 347-8; A. F. Calvert, The Aborigines of Western Australia, 1894, p. 20; G. Taplin, The Narrinyeri: An Account of the Tribes of South Australian Aborigines, 2nd ed. Adelaide, p. 2 1878, pp. 19, 25; Perceval Landon, Lhasa, 2nd ed. 1905, p. 39; W. A. Pickering, Pioneering in Formosa, 1898, pp. 73, 75; Turner, Samoa a Hundred Years Ago, 1884, pp. 21, 321; A. E. Pratt, Two Years among the New Guinea Cannibals, 1906, p. 312; Paul Kollmann, The Victoria Nyanza, 1899, p. 166; Lionel Decle, Three Years in Savage Africa, 1900, pp. 75, 152; Dobrizhoffer, An Account of the Abipones, Eng. tr. 1821, ii, 84; W. Ellis, Polynesian Researches, 2nd ed. 1831, i, 395-6; iv, 293, 315; Batchelor, The Ainu of Japan, 1892, pp. 195, 199; B. Douglas Howard, Life with Trans-Siberian Savages, 1893, p. 193; Adolf Bastian, Der Mensch in der Geschichte, 1860, ii, 106 sq., 116 sq.; Tylor, Primitive Culture, 3rd ed. i, 138; E. Clodd, Tom Tit Tot, 1898, pp. 133-4; E. Crawley, The Mystic Rose, 1902. pp. 18-22, 26-28; Ross, Pansebeia, 4th ed. 1672, p. 100; N. W. Thomas, art. in Journal of the African Society, October, 1908, p. 24; D. M. Kranz, Natur- and Kulturleben der Zulus, 1880, p. 106; S. P. Oliver, Madagascar, 1886, ii, 39.
At a higher stage of civilisation, or among tribes who have had some contact with white men, we find a differentiation in which medical treatment is recognised, and only the obscurer maladies or dangerous wounds are magically dealt with. Cp. Schrader, Prehistoric Antiquities of the Aryan Peoples, Eng. tr. 1890, p. 420, with Miss Kingsley, West African Studies, p. 153, and Brine, as cited, p. 174.
It cannot be said that this view of disease was transcended among the most civilised nations of antiquity, the scientific views of the Greek physicians being accepted only by the few. Under Christianity there was a nearly complete reversion to the savage view, which subsisted until the assimilation of Saracen science in the Middle Ages. Cp. Mosheim's notes to Cudworth's Intellectual System, Harrison's trans. 1845, ii, 284-6; A. D. White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, 1897, ii, i, 3, 25, and refs.
2:1 In some cases old age is recognised as a sufficient cause. Cp. Rev. J. Macdonald, Light in Africa, 1890, p. 164; Gill, Myths and Songs of the South Pacific, 1876, p. 35; Decle, as cited, pp. 489, 491; Crawley, as cited, p. 26.
2:2 A. B. Ellis, as cited, p. 12. Cp. Schweinfurth, as cited, and Major Mockler-Ferryman, British West Africa, 2nd ed. 1900, p. 384: Beneficent spirits are almost unknown to the pessimistic African, to whom existence must seem a veritable struggle." "Their [the Matabele's] idea of power, known or unknown, is always associated with evil" (Decle, as cited, p. 165: cp. pp. 153, 343). To the same effect W. Ellis, Polynesian Researches, i, 336; Rev. R. Taylor, Te Ika a Maui, as cited, and p. 104; Livingstone, Travels and Researches, ed. 1905, pp. 405, 409-10; Calvert, as cited, p. 38; Perceval Landon, Lhasa, 2nd ed. 1905, ii, 36-38, 40; Hyades and Deniker, Mission Scientif. du Cap Horn, 1891, cited by Hobhouse, Morals in Evolution, 1906, i, 46; T. Williams, Fiji and the Fijians, ed. 1870, pp. 189, 155; H. Cayley Webster, Through New Guinea and the Cannibal Countries, 1898, p. 357; Lawes, cited in C. Lennox's James Chalmers of New Guinea, 1903, p. 76; Joh. Warneck, Die Religion der Batak, 1909, pp. 2-3. The last-cited writer is particularly emphatic as to the overwhelming predominance of the factor of fear in the religion which he presents: "Diese Furcht, nicht die Pietät, nicht das Abhängigkeitsgefühl von der Gottheit, ist die treibende Kraft......" Of the ancient Roman, again, it can be said that "he was beset on all sides by imaginary foes" (Professor Granger, The Worship of the Romans, 1895, p. 75). The same statement can be made with nearly the same emphasis concerning the population of Christian Greece. See J. C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion, 1910, pp. 9-25, 47, 256, and passim. And as the common folk of Christian Greece are very much on the pagan plane of thought (id. p. 51), the inference as to pagan Greece is clear. Cp. G. Roskoff, Geschichte des Teufels, 1869, i, 20, and Das Religionswesen der rohesten Naturvölker, 1880, pp. 34, 171; Sir H. Johnston, George Grenfell and the Congo, 1908, ii, 635-6; K. Rasmussen, The People of the Polar North, 1908, pp. 123-5; Miss J. E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 2nd ed. 1908, pp. 7, 9; Thurston, Castes and Tribes, as cited, ii, 86, 180, 215, 427; vii, 354. Mr. Decle notes one or two African exceptions; e.g., a tribe on the Tanganika plateau "have a vague sort of Supreme Being called Lesa, who has good and evil passions" (p. 293); the Wakamba have a similar conception, and are further notable for not believing that death is caused by witchcraft (p. 489); and the Wanyamwezi have "the idea of a superior being whose help might be invoked" (p. 316). The exceptions all occur in the lake region. Cp. Kollmann, The Victoria Nyanza, 1899, p. 169.
3:1 Cp. Arnobius, Adv. Gentes, L. 48-52, ii, 11; Lactantius, Div. Inst. iv, 15; Tertullian, Apol. 23, 40; Augustine, De Civ. Dei, B. passim.
3:2 This is said in a different sense from that of the proposition of Miss Harrison (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 2nd ed, pp, xii and 6) that the religion of fear of evil has ethical value as recognising the "mystery" thereof.
4:1 Cp. the author's Christianity and Mythology, 2nd ed. p. 2.