Source Book For Social Origins

Comment on Part VI: Magic, Religion, Myth

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The savage attitude of mind indicated in the papers of Frazer, Jones, and Howitt should be taken as a starting-point in the explanation of the origin of religious belief. I am inclined to regard Jones's paper as the most important single statement on the nature of early religion.

Religion and magic are both attempts to control life, and they are both expressions of the power of abstraction and the attempt to determine cause and effect. They are the primitive philosophy. Theoretically magic and religion are separable and both must exist wherever the human mind exists. The examples cited in Frazer demonstrate the primitive belief that objects in juxtaposition, in an order of sequence, or having points of resemblance have also a causal connection. And this belief existed, and continues to exist in many of our modern superstitions, without any reference to religious belief. The belief that if you see the new moon "through brush" your life will be "obstructed" throughout the lunar month is an example of this.

But in addition, a mind which seeks explanations of mysteries and of incidents uncontrolled by human agency is forced to assume the presence of invisible personal agents, or spirits. Sleep, dreams, and death, as indicated by Spencer and Tylor, have a powerful influence in fixing the belief that some of these spirits are surviving souls, but the belief in invisible agency, and consequently in spirits, would exist if there were no such things as sleep, dreams, and death. Both magic and religion are expressions of the logical faculty of a mind working unscientifically.

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Put while theoretically separable, magic, religion, belief in ghosts, and belief in nature-spirits practically run into one another and become inextricably mingled. It is idle also to attempt to establish a priority in favor of any one of these elements. They are all expressions of the human mind, as soon as there is such a mind, and the dominance of one element or another is determined by the incidents of life and the operation of the attention.

Spencer's theory that ancestor-worship is the original form from which all others are derived has nothing in its favor except its admirable ingenuity. There are many classes of objects which cause the mind to speculate and to reach a belief in spirits. Death is one of these. But the sun, moon and stars, and the echoes, shadows, reflections and mutations of nature are other sets of objects operating in the same way. Reproduction, the renewal of life, the revival of the earth in the spring-time, and the consequent multiplication of food, both animal and vegetable, is one of the great mysteries, and leads to phallic worship. The animal was the focus of primitive man's attention, not only on account of its value, but because of its surpassing ability in its own field. The serpent's mysterious motion and its poison, and the intoxicating and poisonous qualities of the plant made them the objects of speculation and worship quite aside from any idea that they contained the spirits of dead ancestors. Spencer's statement that "hats and owls are conceived to be winged spirit and from them arise the ideas of devils and angels," is an illustration of the extremity to which he is capable of pushing a theory. Angels and devils are images of good and evil, just as Lazarus and Dives are images of poverty and

( 735) wealth. The mind always attempts to associate its abstractions with pictures. Another palpable and particularistic error is Spencer's statement that "dream-experiences necessarily precede the conception of a mental self; and are the experiences out of which the conception of a mental self eventually grows." It is hardly necessary to say that if man were dreamless he would vet have arrived at the conception of a mental self.

On the other hand there are points of value in Spencer's essay. The confusion of thought arising in connection with names is an important consideration. It is even probable that this played a rôle in directing man's attention and worship to animals. But the animal itself must be regarded as capable of calling out man's attention and worship without regard to his filiation with it.

In a word, Spencer has singled out one branch of religion and made it the mother of all the others, whereas all sprang in common from the mind. Whether worship is directed toward ancestors, nature, animals, plants, or the symbols of reproduction, is a matter determined in the history of thought in particular regions. As a matter of fact all these elements usually enter, and frequently the rites attaching to different objects maintain themselves separately, in the same region.

Both the mental life and the religious consciousness of the savage should be studied in connection with his mythology and his rituals. The following bibliography suggests materials for such a study. The mythology of the North American Indian is a particularly interesting field.


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