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The Mind of Primitive Man

EARLY man, in common with present-day savages, was unable to form correct inferences concerning the world about him. The reason for this seems to lie in the ignorance and in the intensely powerful imagination of the savage, which make him unable to distinguish truth from error. This characteristic, in turn, may be due to the fact that the brain of the savage is not developed enough physiologically to enable him to form correct associations and to draw correct inferences. Furthermore, the imaginings of the savage are heightened by his precarious life and by the intensity of the dangers which beset him in his struggle to survive. This inability to think correctly led, for instance, to the feeling that blood possessed peculiar and dangerous properties--a feeling extremely common among savages, and, for that matter, even among civilized persons.

So in the old Roman days Titus Manlius, having killed a gigantic Gaul in a hand-to-hand conflict, cut off the Gaul's head, "wrenched off his necklace and placed it, reeking with blood, on his own neck." From that time on he and his descendants bore the surname Torquatus (torques--a chain or necklace). 1 The family of Torquatus had the necklace as a device down to the time of the Emperor Caligula, who forbade its use. 2 Again, in a much later time, during one of the pagan persecutions, a Christian, Saturus, was thrown to the leopards. A single gnash of the wild beast bathed him in blood. Turning to a soldier who was also, but in secret, a Christian, he asked for the ring which he was wearing; and when the soldier gave it to him, he smeared it with his own lifeblood and handed it back. 3

These are not merely the actions of a bloodthirsty soldier, crazed with victory, and of a religious fanatic. It was the inability to think correctly that caused Torquatus to place the gory necklace of his slain opponent about his own neck, and that impelled Saturus to smear the ring of his fellow Christian with his own blood and hand it back to him.

The curious twist in thinking which produced these actions has been considered a characteristic of the so-called age of magic; but it is by no means limited to that theoretical period, nor, indeed, to the savage, for it may be found to-day among children and even among adults. Thus a four-year-old child came running to her kindergarten teacher in a fright, sobbing out, "The sky barked at me!" 4 The child had observed the barking of a dog; the sky made a noise which seemed to her exactly like it. Hence she felt that the sky was like a dog, if not actually a dog.

In his capacity as a minister my father frequently had occasion to christen children, sprinkling them with water. One of his parishioners, on returning from a visit to Palestine, brought back a gallon of water from the Jordan. The members of the parish, learning of this, made frequent requests that this water be used to sprinkle their children at christening ceremonies. Had anyone asked them why they wanted their children christened with Jordan water, they would probably have been quite at a loss, or else have suggested some sentimental reason or other. But their actions, if analyzed, might have yielded the following process of reasoning: Christ was baptized in the Jordan two thousand years ago; the Jordan is, therefore, a holy river. Water from the Jordan, having been in contact with Christ, is equal to Christ, so far, at least, as its sanctifying effects are concerned. Therefore children who are sprinkled with water from the Jordan come in contact with Christ.

No one would assert that the child, before crying out that the sky barked at her, went through any conscious process of thinking. No more did Torquatus reason when he smeared the necklace with the blood of his Gallic foe. But their actions can only be analyzed by tracing the faulty and unconscious line of reasoning upon which they were based. Folk stories abound in similar actions, capable of analysis on the basis of the modes of thinking of an educated man.

This primitive type of reasoning leads a person to believe, for instance, that a thing which has been in contact with another thing is still in contact with it, however far removed it may be in reality. This may be referred to as the principle of contact.

In the Attic Nights of Gellius 5 we read that, if a dispute involving land was to be settled, the disputants, together with the judge, were compelled to go to the land involved and "lay hands" on the property. With the growth of Italy, however, the judges found it inconvenient to leave Rome to "lay hands" on the actual property; so the disputants would visit the land, returning with a clod of earth taken from it, and perform at Rome the necessary "laying on" of hands, just as if present on the land itself.

Apuleius preserves for us 6 the story of Thelyphron, who lost his nose and ears in a most remarkable manner. On his arrival at Larissa on the way to the Olympian Games, he rambled about the streets, seeking some means of bettering his fortunes. Presently he heard an old man in the market place crying out at the top of his voice: "If anyone is willing to keep watch over a corpse, he shall receive a reward." Thelyphron inquired the reason for this strange request. "In Thessaly," the old man said, "witches bite off pieces here and there from the faces of the dead, and with these they reinforce their magic arts." He further revealed how witches would often change themselves into birds, or dogs, or mice, or even flies, and thereby accomplish their nefarious ends. He then added these significant words: "If anyone shall fail to restore the corpse untouched in the morning, whatever has been snatched from it shall be snatched from his own face to patch up the face of the corpse." Thelyphron agreed, even in the teeth of this knowledge, to watch over the dead man, for he was sorely in need of money. He fell asleep at his task: a witch, in the guise of a weasel, entered, tore off the nose and ears of the dead man and replaced them with wax. Next morning the widow, ignorant of the witch's trick, rewarded Thelyphron according to the agreement. But by a strange accident his fault was revealed. As the funeral cortege passed along the street, it was interrupted by an old man proclaiming that the deceased had been poisoned by his wife. In order to ascertain the truth concerning this murder, an Egyptian soothsayer was consulted. In bringing the dead man to life for a moment, he incidentally revealed the witch's stratagem. Thelyphron, realizing that, according to the superstition, he must lose his ears and nose, felt for these members, and they instantly fell off. According to the original rite, Thelyphron's nose and ears would have been cut off, presumably by a member of the dead man's family; but in Apuleius' retelling, the parts which the corpse had lost the man lost by sheer sympathetic magic.

During the Middle Ages Rome suffered from a plague of flies. Vergil, who, as the people believed, often came back as a wonder-working wizard, was called upon to rid the city of the pests. As the story goes, he consulted Il Moscone, the king of the flies, and at his suggestion caused a great golden image of a fly to be set up, which miraculously drove the pests from the city. 7 This illustrates the axiom that "like cures like," a principle which magic and medicine have in common.

The Romans themselves had some inkling of the principles involved in such stories as these. Cicero, for example, writes: 8 "For, since bodies fell to earth, and these were covered with earth . . . men would think that the rest of the life of the dead was passed under the earth." Lucretius, in describing the struggles of primitive man, says: 9 "But in those times mankind was much hardier in the fields, as was fitting, because the earth which had produced them was hard." According to Ovid, 10 the reason why the Romans gave gifts of dates, figs and honey on New Year's Day was "that the year might in sweetness go through the course which it had begun." Apuleius, in his defense against the charge of using a certain fish for magic purposes because of its indecent name and form, retorts: 11 "Tell me, is there anything more foolish than to infer from the similarity in the names of things that their force is identical?" And, finally, Servius writes: 12 "In sacrifices, likenesses are accepted for realities. Hence, when animals which are difficult to find must be sacrificed, they are made of bread or wax and are accepted as the real victims."

In all these instances there was some misconception, some inability to form inferences correctly; and in every case there has been an action performed in accordance with this misconception or incorrect inference. It did not, moreover, take modern anthropologists to discover this fact; the Romans themselves were conscious of it.

Positive and Negative Mana

Now religion seems to be the outgrowth of man's need to overcome the obstacles which nature places in his way in his struggle to survive. 13 Rain, drought, hail destroy his crops; lightning strikes his house; pestilence carries off his loved ones and his cattle. These evils, of whose origin he is ignorant, he must ward off, if he would survive; and he must, similarly, force the phenomena about him to do him good. In his effort to overcome these obstacles man reasons illogically much in the same way as the characters in our stories; or perhaps we should say, rather, that man's actions, from our viewpoint, suggest such illogical reasoning. For in most cases there has been no conscious process of thinking; or, if there has been any thinking, it is incomplete and hopelessly confused. Many of the superstitions, religious misconceptions and actions on the part of men grew out of this imperfect understanding of the facts of the universe, and out of man's inability to think correctly about these facts.

The ancients, as well as modern anthropologists, were aware of the difficulties which primitive man had to encounter in his struggle to survive; and while the former were as yet unable to study these problems scientifically, occasionally some of them like Lucretius or Cicero would remark a principle, upon the discovery of which modern anthropologists still plume themselves. Lucretius, the Roman exponent of Epicureanism, anticipated many modern problems in physical and social science. He has left us  14 a vividly imaginative account of some of these early struggles of man:

"They neither knew how to treat things with fire nor how to use the skins of wild animals to clothe their bodies; but they used to live in groves and in the caves of mountains and in forests; and they would hide their savage forms among the bushes, when driven to avoid the lashing winds and rains. . . . It caused them anxiety, poor wretches, that wild creatures often made sleep fatal to them. Driven out at the approach of the foaming wild boar and the powerful lion, they would flee their rocky shelters; and in the depth of night, panic-stricken, they would often yield their leaf-strewn resting-places to their wild guests. It was more likely then than now that mortal men would leave the sweet light of ebbing life. For then each would be seized and mangled by the teeth of wild beasts, furnishing them with living food. All the while he would fill the groves, mountains, and forests with his groans, beholding, as he did, his living vitals buried in a living grave. But those whom flight had saved, although their vitals were torn away, later, as they held their trembling hands over their foul sores, would cry heartrendingly for death to take them; and then their cruel gripings would separate them from life, helpless as they were and ignorant of what was needed to heal their wounds. . . . In those days lack of food would bring death to their fainting limbs; in our times, on the contrary, it is overabundance which sinks them in ruin."

Cicero once wrote: 15 "Is it not as clear as day that the awe which early man felt because lightning and thunder had terrified him led him to believe that Jupiter, mighty in all things, caused these phenomena too?"

As soon as man becomes self-conscious, he feels that anything different from himself is potentially dangerous: it contains a mysterious power to do him harm and he must if possible compel it to do him good. If he finds by experience that it cannot do him good, but harm only, he must avoid it; and when this is impossible he must find some means to rid himself of the evil effects of contagion--usually by water or fire. Now he soon realizes that some things which are potentially dangerous--for example, rain, which brings floods and destruction in its wake--at times are beneficent; for rain may also cause his crops to grow and bring cooling showers after the heat of the day. However, other persons, things, or actions are found to be always harmful.

To this mysterious force, whether harmful or helpful, or potentially so, the name mana is given. 16 Mana which has been found to be always harmful is called taboo, and to this we choose to give the name negative mana. 17 Mana which has been found to be always good is usually called simply mana; but to this it seems better to give the name positive mana. Now there is no essential difference between a person, thing, or action possessing positive mana, which one compels by a magic act or a charm (or prayer) to do one's will, and the person, thing, or action which is as we say taboo, or which, to use our new term, possesses negative mana. In both cases there is, prior to experience with the person, action, or thing, potential danger or potential benefit inherent. In the case of negative mana the results of experience have shown that the danger is not only potential but actual; and in the case of positive mana experience has shown that potential good can be forced into actual good by a magic act. With negative mana or taboo the potential danger has been realized by experience to be actual, and so avoidance is necessary, or, if this is impossible, rites of purification must be performed to rid one's self of the evil of contagion.

A stranger possesses for the savage mind the peculiar property to which we have given the general name mana; he comes from the unexplored forest and may be harmful or helpful. When the stranger has attacked the savage, the latter realizes that the stranger possesses a power to harm (negative mana). When a second stranger comes from the woodland, the savage associates with him the harm done by the first stranger, and hence he has an uncanny feeling on seeing not only the stranger but anything which has been in contact with him, or, indeed, anything which has come from the same place as the stranger. If he cannot avoid the stranger and comes in contact with him or anything belonging to him, he must protect himself from the evil effects of contagion by a rite of purification. Hence, generals, soldiers, and their equipment must be purified before they enter the city on returning from a campaign, for they have been in unavoidable contact with their foes.


In the early stage of his development man has no conception of a superior being on whom he is dependent, whose will he must win; but he believes that by performing some mysterious action, usually imitating the action desired, and often assisted by an incantation or charm--whether it be an amulet for defense or a talisman for offense--he can force the desired result.

This mysterious action and incantation, passing under the name of magic, arises, as we have seen, from a curious twist in thinking which leads a person to believe that the effect is the same thing as the cause, that something like a person or thing is the person or thing itself, that similarity in thought is similarity in fact, and that something which has touched a person is still in contact with him.

When the individual imitates the action to be effected, anthropologists speak of homoeopathic magic; when he makes use of some object, such as clothes, hair, or nails, which has been a part of, or was in contact with, the individual, the name contagious magic is given. The general term sympathetic magic includes both types; for a mysterious sympathy is supposed to exist between the object to be influenced and the object which is like it or has been in contact with it. Often the same rite is both contagious and homoeopathic.

These definitions will become clearer in the following example, taken from a familiar rite of private magic.

The shepherdess in the song of Alphesiboeus, in Vergil's eighth Eclogue--which follows closely the second Idyll of Theocritus--essays to bring back her lover, Daphnis, by performing elaborate rites, accompanied by an incantation. In these magic rites, lustral water, sacred boughs, and frankincense are used. The homoeopathic element appears when the enchantress winds about the image of Daphnis three threads of different hues, in each of which is a knot; thus, as she binds the image of Daphnis, she hopes to bind Daphnis himself to his sweetheart, with the aid of an incantation, "Lead Daphnis home from the city, my charms, lead Daphnis home," repeated nine times during the rites. The enchantress employed two images of Daphnis, one of clay, representing him in his attitude toward other girls, toward whom he will harden as the clay hardens; the other, of wax, which melts and causes Daphnis to melt with love for his sweetheart. "As this clay hardens and this wax melts with one and the same fire," she sings, "so may Daphnis melt with my love." In these rites, some personal effects which Daphnis has left behind are hidden by the witch in the earth under the threshold. As she buries them, she addresses the earth: "These relics, O Earth, I entrust to thee. These pledges are bound to give me Daphnis." This element in the rites is "contagious," since the objects had once been in contact with Daphnis.


We now turn to another subject--animism 18--which, like magic and taboo, is often considered a "period" in the development of religion; but here, again, the phenomena associated with animism belong to no especial age or people. Psychologists tell us that human beings in their development from childhood to maturity pass through the experience of the race in its upward growth. Thus a child will talk to a toy dog as if it were a living, sentient being; and if you were to protest that the dog did not understand what was said to it, the child would vigorously contradict you. He is passing through the animistic stage. I was amused recently by the facility with which a group of children became, in quick succession, tigers, lions, elephants, camels. They had been to the circus the day before.

This characteristic of the child is typical of the childhood of the race as well as of the savage of to-day. Each conceives of the things about him in terms of his own consciousness. The folk stories of all peoples abound in illustrations of this tendency. In one of the most graceful stories ever told, that of Cupid and Psyche, the mischievous Cupid falls in love with a mortal, Psyche, whose beauty, rivaling that of Venus, has won her divine honors. Venus, in hatred and jealousy, gains control of the unfortunate girl and imposes upon her several tasks which are quite impossible to execute without superhuman aid. One of these tasks is to fetch the golden fleece of certain sheep which browse along the banks of a near-by stream. Psyche, in desperation at her inability to perform the task, prepares to fling herself into the waters of the stream, when

"rising from its flood, a green reed, nurse of sweet music, divinely inspired, thus prophesies, while a pleasant breeze sets it vibrating: 'Psyche, sorely tried by such great hardships as yours have been, pollute not my holy waters with your wretched, wretched death; approach not the dread sheep as long as they borrow their heat from the glow of the sun, when they are carried away, as is their wont, by a raging madness, when their horns are sharp and their brows are stony, and, at times, their bites are poisonous and they are raging for the death of mortals. But until after midday has allayed the heat of the sun and the flocks have found rest in the serene river breeze, you can hide secretly beneath yonder tall plane tree which drinks the river waters just as I do. And as soon as the fury of the sheep is abated and they have relaxed their angry passions, cut through the foliage of the adjacent grove, and you will find the golden fleece clinging everywhere to the arched branches.' Thus prophesied the simple reed." 19

E. B. Tylor, in his classic chapter on animism, 20 shows that primitive man believes that he possesses not only a body, but a shadowy image of his body, which in dreams and in trances can quickly flit from place to place, performing most of the actions of the real body. This belief is widespread even to-day among savages. Dreams, then, are a source of man's belief in spirits, and to the savage mind the experiences of the dream are as real as those of the waking moments. Frazer, for example, records 21 that an Indian had a dream in which his master compelled him to carry a canoe up several rapids. The next morning the Indian angrily reproved his master for assigning him such a hard task. He believed that his soul had left his body during the night. Hence it is that primitive peoples will not wake one who is sleeping, for if this is done suddenly, the spirit may not have time to return to the body. Carveth Wells, who spent six years among the Malays, writes: 22 "I never remember being actually called or awakened by a Malay servant. They consider it dangerous to waken a sleeping person because they believe that during sleep the body and soul are separated and that an attempt to awaken a person suddenly might result in instant death; so they wait patiently until their presence clse to a sleeper awakens him gradually."

Inasmuch, too, as the objects about him attended him on his journeys, primitive man assigned spirits to these. Again, shadows cast by his moving form, the echo of his voice from the hillside, his reflection in the lake--all tended to assist the spirit-making. Moreover, the observation that a corpse was different from a living body, especially in its lack of motion, led him to believe that something had disappeared from it--a spirit. In dreams the body was similarly inert, and thus he knew that in dreams the soul departed from it.

This wandering abroad of the soul in dreams finds expression in Lucretius: 23

"Again, when sleep has bound the limbs in sweet repose and the whole body lies sunk in the deepest slumber, then, in spite of this, we are, as it seems to us, awake and moving our limbs. And in the inky darkness of the night we think we see the sun and the light of day; and, though in a confined place, we seem to be changing sky, sea, rivers, mountains, and to be crossing plains on foot, and to hear sounds, though everywhere the night is sternly silent; though in reality speechless, we seem to be speaking."

And again in Pliny the Elder 24 we read about the travels of a soul while the body was in a cataleptic state: the soul of Hermotimus of Clazomenae was wont to leave the body and to visit distant places, while the body, to all seeming, was lifeless. His enemies burned his body during one of these seizures and thus, as Pliny writes, "deprived the soul, on its return, of its sheath--if one may use that term."

In the animistic period, the things to which early man assigns spirits are those which help and those which oppose him in his struggle to survive: the cooling waters of the spring at which he slakes his thirst; the stream on which he launches his rude bark and from which he spears his fish for the support of life; the sky which sends cooling showers and causes his crops to grow, or parches them and brings blight and pestilence; the meteors which fall from heaven with a blaze of light, filling him with a strange awe; the fire which, in a friendly mood, parches his spelt and warms his body, but destroys his hut and his food when it is angry; the forest from whose twilight come wild beasts which mangle his sheep, or human enemies with whom he does battle to protect his wife and children. We might proceed almost ad infinitum enumerating the things to which the Roman gave spirits, so that Petronius and Pliny the Elder could correctly say that there were more spirits (numina) among the Romans than there were human beings. 25

The animistic stage in the development of religion has been ascribed to the failure of magic. It would seem rather to be due to the growing self-consciousness of early man, resulting in a changed attitude toward the objects he wishes to influence. This shift in attitude may be seen by studying the manner in which early man, in the magic period, addresses the objects directly (naturalism) and, in the animistic period, the spirits resident in these objects. For an illustration of the former we shall draw upon Apuleius once more. 26 The witch Meroe plunges a sword up to the hilt into the neck of Socrates, catching the blood, as it gushes out, in a small bladder; and after thrusting her hand far into the entrails of his body, draws forth the heart. She then staunches the wound wlth a sponge, which she addresses as follows: "O sponge, born in the sea, beware lest thou pass over a running stream."

The transition stage between magic and animism is seen in Ovid's account of the Festival of Pales, where the farmer calls upon Pales "to appease the springs and the spirits of the springs."  27 Here, the farmer addresses first the springs (naturalism), then the spirits resident in them (animism).

We have already seen that in the magic stage the things which man, before experience with them, feels are potentially dangerous, he finds, after experience with them, are in some cases good (positive mana); and these he induces to help him by a magic act, assisted by an incantation or spell. The accompanying magic process is purely mechanical. The person performing the rite wills that a certain effect ensue, and this is bound to occur if the magic act and the incantation have been flawless. The volition lies with the person. The tendency of the growing mind of early man was to assign a spirit to the object addressed, and the incantation changed its character somewhat. But the difference between the spell of the period of magic and the prayer of the animistic period lies not so much in any inherent change in the nature of either, as in a shift in the attitude of mind toward the object to be influenced, and in the consequent alteration in the tone of the prayer. 28


1 Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae IX, 13:6-19 (quoting Quintus Claudius Quadrigarius). The story, to be sure, may have been invented to explain why the family had the necklace as an emblem, but for our purpose this matters little. The Romans believed it to be a possible explanation, and that is enough to assist us in understanding the psychology underlying such stories.

2 Suetonius, Caligula XXXV, 1.

3 Acta SS. Perpetuae et Felicitatis Martyrum, 57 (in Migne, Vol. III, p. 57).

4 Quoted from the Chicago Tribune in George W. Gilmore, Animism, p. 15.

5 Noctes Atticae XX. 10, 8-9.

6 Metamorphoses II. 21-26.

7 Charles G. Leland, The Unpublished Legends of Vergil, pp. 45-49.

8 Tusculanae Disputationes I. 36.

9 De Rerum Natura V. 925-926.

10 Fasti I. 185-188.

11 Apologia XXXIV.

12 Servius on Vergil's Aeneid II. 116.

13 W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People, p. 3.

14 De Rerum Natura V. 953-957. 982-998, 1007-1008.

15 De Divinatione II. 18, 42.

16 See R. R. Marett, On the Threshold of Religion, P. 137.

17 Marett, in a private letter to W. Warde Fowler (quoted in the latter's The Religious Experience of the Roman People, p. 42, note 4) writes as follows: "In taboo the mystic thing is not to be lightly approached (negative aspect); qua mana, it is instinct with mystic power (positive aspect)."

18 See Edward Clodd, Animism; George W. Gilmore, Animism; F. B. jevons, The Idea of God, pp. 15-18.

19 Apuleius, Metamorphoses VI. 12.

20 E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol. 1, Chapter XI.

21 J. G. Frazer, Taboo, pp. 36-37.

22 Carveth Wells, Six Years in The Malay Jungle, pp. 73-74.

23 De Rerum Natura IV. 453-461.

24 Naturalis Historia VII. 52, 174.

25 Ibid. II. 7, 16; Petronius, Satyricon XVII.

26 Metamorphoses I. 13.

27 Fasti IV. 759-760.

28 I have already treated this subject in an article entitled "The Magic Elements in Roman Prayers," in Classical Philology, XXV (1930). pp. 47-55.

Next: Chapter II: Positive and Negative Mana (Taboo)