Folk-Lore/Volume 23/The Several Origins of the Ideas of Unseen, Personal Beings



An inquiry into the origin of the belief in unseen, personal powers is primarily concerned with the individual geniuses of the social groups considered. From time to time new ideas come to birth in the minds of specially gifted individuals, and through them become the possession of the community. This fact should be kept in mind throughout the following paper. But the statement that the conceptions out of which the gods arise are of individual origin is not inconsistent with the fact that the individual and religion are, in a very real sense, the products of the social group.

It is, I suppose, the passion for simplicity and unity that has led anthropologists and historians stubbornly to seek the origin of superhuman, personal powers in some one class of phenomena. According to Tylor, the idea of gods had its starting point in such things as dreams, visions, swoons, trances. Spencer is even more emphatic in deriving gods and worship from one original source,—the worship of the dead. Max Müller also ascribes to the gods one origin; he holds that the god-ideas proceed from the personification of natural objects. This unfortunate assumption of the unitary origin of the ideas of gods is, I believe, one of the chief causes of the unsatisfactory condition of our knowledge regarding the origin and the development of religion. In this paper I shall advance brief arguments, both psychological and historical, in support of the four following propositions:—

1. Gods grew out of several different ideas of superhuman beings.

2. These beings had independent origins.

3. The attributes of the gods differ according to their origin.

4. The historical gods are usually mongrel gods, the outcome of the combination of characteristics belonging to superhuman beings of different origins.

The need of accounting for observed phenomena gives rise to one class of sources of the belief in unseen, superhuman beings; the affective and moral needs give rise to another class.

Class I. This class contains several independent groups of external and internal phenomena. They are by far the most prolific sources of ideas of superhuman beings.

(a) Apparitions of animals and persons yet living, seen in sleep and in the hallucinations of fever or insanity, lead to the belief in "doubles" and "ghosts." When these apparitions come after the death of the person they represent, they produce the belief in "souls" or "spirits."

(b) States of seeming death followed by apparent return to life,—sleep, trances, and other states of temporary loss of consciousness,—suggest a belief similar to the preceding.

(c) The spontaneous though fleeting personification of striking natural phenomena such as thunder, lightning, fire, flood, and tempest, or the sudden appearance of animal or vegetable life, may well lead to the belief in personal agents behind visible nature.

(d) The problem of creation no doubt forces upon the primitive mind very early the necessity of a Maker. It may be that a crude conception of a Creator is attained even earlier than that of a soul or double.

(e) The facts of conscience: the feeling of duty, the categorical imperative; transformations of personality, conversion, etc.

(f) Various experiences included under the terms clairvoyance, divination, monition, etc.

(g) Striking motor and sensory abnormalities, such as are met with in hysteria.

The desire to explain the phenomena of the last three groups implies a considerable degree of mental development; therefore, before these causes could become operative, man must have been already in possession of a variety of ideas of superhuman beings and of gods. But, if these phenomena could hardly have become sources of original god-ideas, they have undoubtedly led to important modifications of them by the ascription to the gods of the moral qualities and of the powers implied in these experiences. With the appearance of the moral conscience, for instance, gods became promoters of morality.

It is to be noted that the metaphysical arguments for the existence of God,—for instance, the cosmological and the ontological proofs and the argument from design,—stand in a different relation from the facts here classified to the belief in superhuman beings. The metaphysical proofs are primarily arguments by which man sought to establish the objective validity of god-ideas already in existence. These proofs have also served to give greater precision to the god-ideas, and, above all, to modify their content. How radically the metaphysical and the naive empirical methods differ becomes evident in a comparison of the cosmological argument with the manner in which non-civilized man comes to believe in a Maker.

Class II. The affective and the moral needs. These needs become potent relatively late in human history; so that, when they appear as factors in the making of gods, beliefs in superhuman beings have already come into existence through the agency of phenomena of the first class. The experiences of this second class result, therefore, in a transformation of existing superhuman beings by the ascription to them of affective and moral qualities. In an essay on a group of Christian mystics,[1] I have indicated four kinds of affective needs, only two of which need be mentioned here:—

(a) The needs of the heart. Affection and love seek perfect objects that they may be perfectly gratified. Under stress of this need a Nature-god or the impassable Absolute may be transformed into the Great Friendly Presence, the benevolent Father, even the Passionate Lover.

(b) The needs of conscience, (not, as in Class I., the interpretation of the facts of conscience). We crave strength in order to fulfil its imperative commands. These cravings are father to the belief in a Being who is able and willing to assist in the conflicts of the "spiritual" against the "natural" man. Here might be placed also the conviction that justice must be fulfilled, either in this life or in another. This conviction is usually connected with the belief in a Dispenser of punishment and reward, a Fulfiller of the law of justice.

The modern belief in the existence of God rests nearly entirely upon the experiences of this second class. Dreams, hallucinations, trances, personification of striking phenomena, the idea of a Maker,—these empirical data, together with the metaphysical arguments, have lost all or almost all the value they had once as prompters of the belief in God.

Subclasses Ia and Ib.—I proceed to a few remarks concerning the first four groups of the first class, and I begin with groups a and b.

Most anthropologists seem to be of the opinion that the idea of the "double" or "ghost" is the exclusive source of the original belief in souls, in invisible spirits, and consequently in gods. Very recently, however, a distinguished sociologist, E. Durkheim, has vigorously attacked this view.[2] He maintains that the conception of soul did not have its origin in dreams, visions, and trances, although the conception may be of service in an attempt to account for some of these phenomena. As the point raised by Durkheim is of considerable importance, I give his chief objections under four heads, and offer answers which seem to me sufficient to refute his arguments.

1. The belief in soul is not the simplest way to account for dreams, visions, etc. Why should not man instead have imagined that he could see at a distance through all kinds of obstacles? This is a simpler idea than that of a double made of a semi-invisible, ethereal substance.

2. Many dreams are refractory to the ghost-interpretation; for instance, dreams of things that we have done in the past. The double might transport himself into the future, but how could he live over again the past existence of the body to which he belongs? How could a man when awake really believe that he has taken part in events which he knows to have taken place long ago? It is much more natural that he should think of memories, since these at least are familiar to him.

3. How could he be so stupid and non-inquisitive as not to be impressed by the fact that the person whose alleged double has conversed with his own double while he slept had also had dreams that same night and was with another person than his own double? There is, thinks Durkheim, some naïveté in the blind credulity ascribed to primitive man by this theory.

4. Even though the ghost-explanation should be sufficient to account for all dreams, it would remain unlikely that man ever sought for an explanation of his dreams; they are too common occurrences. "What is dream in our life? How small a place it holds . . . and how surprising it is that the unfortunate Australians spend so much energy in evolving a theory of it."

Let it be observed, first, that whatever objection there may be to the ghost-hypothesis as a means of interpreting the phenomena in question, the savage actually does account for them by that notion. This fact, which even Durkheim admits, causes many of his arguments to lose their relevancy. Sir Everard im Thurn relates the following incident in his book, Among the Indians of Guiana[3]: —

"One morning when it was important to me to get away from a camp on the Essequibo river, at which I had been detained for some days by the illness of some of my Indian companions, I found that one of the invalids, a young Macusi, though better in health, was so enraged against me that he refused to stir, for he declared that, with great want of consideration for his weak health, I had taken him out during the night and had made him haul the canoe up a series of difficult cataracts. Nothing could persuade him that this was but a dream, and it was some time before he was so far pacified as to throw himself sulkily into the bottom of the canoe. At that time we were all suffering from a great scarcity of food, and, hunger having its usual effect in producing vivid dreams, similar events frequently occurred. More than once, the men declared in the morning that some absent man, whom they named, had come during the night, and had beaten or otherwise maltreated them; and they insisted upon much rubbing of the bruised parts of their bodies."

That man should have originally regarded as memories vivid dreams in which he feels and hears himself walking and talking with another person, whose face he sees and whose voice he hears as clearly as in waking life, seems to me an impossible supposition; and to try to explain the dreadful experience of feeling the hand of one's enemy around one's neck, and choking in his grasp, on the ground of remembrance seems mere mockery. I do not know any explanation simpler than the assumption that the person one has felt and seen was actually present. If by chance one knows that person to have been elsewhere, then the immediate inference is that he is double. Certain savages believe that men have four souls. One may, of course, offer objections to this interpretation; but the savage does not realize the difficulties that thrust themselves upon the reflecting mind. Observations of the beliefs of intellectually inferior persons of civilized races show that for most of them there is no contradiction sufficient to make them give up an explanation to which they have become attached. Durkheim alludes to other simpler and more adequate explanations of dreams, but these he does not himself advance.

In the life of young children are found indications of the possibility of the dream-origin of the idea of doubles. Preyer relates of his child, then in his fourth or fifth year, that "he sometimes cried out in the night, and imagined that a pig was going to bite him. He seemed to see the animal as if it were actually there, and he could not be convinced that it was not there even after his bed was brightly lighted up."[4] In the Diary of a Father, published as an appendix to Sully's Studies of Childhood, we read of C., four years old:—"He evidently takes these dream-pictures for sensible realities, and when relating a dream insists that he has actually seen the circus-horses and fairies which appear to him when asleep."[5] Yet he knows that he has spent the night in a room into which horses could not enter; but it does not seem to be one of the wishes of children to get rid of contradictions otherwise than by dismissing the thought of them. The non-civilized adult behaves similarly, and in this he differs simply in degree from ourselves. It is unnecessary to multiply similar instances, yet the following may not be out of place as an illustration of the manner in which a child deals with a situation resembling in one respect that by which primitive man is confronted in the explanation of his dreams and visions. A boy of my acquaintance, nearly four years old, had been deeply impressed by the dragon in a performance of the Play of Saint George. He was told that it was a skin inside which a person roared and gave life-like movements to the skin. He seemed readily to understand and to accept the explanation, yet he still firmly believed the dragon to be alive. In order to complete the explanation, the dragon's skin was brought to the child, and in his presence a man got into it, roared, and moved about. The child, of course, understood, yet the next day he was ready to go hunting for the dragon, and this was not simply in play, if a careful observer can judge at all what is and what is not play in a child's behaviour. What happened in this case is a common experience; emotion made it impossible for him to bring his knowledge and his critical sense to bear upon the problem. An occasional terrifying vision would be sufficient, it seems, to establish and keep up the belief in doubles. Regarding the frequency of hallucinations among savages, Mary Kingsley writes of the West Africans:—"I also know that the African, in spite of all his hard-headed common sense, is endowed with a supersensitive organisation—he is always a step nearer delirium, in a medical sense, than an Englishman; a disease that will by a rise of bodily temperature merely give an Englishman a headache will give an African delirium and its visions."[6]

The four objections just reviewed are offered by Durkheim as an argument against animism. That theory, taken as an original philosophy of life, I do not defend; nor, indeed, do we need to concern ourselves with it at all. The question in point is simply whether dreams, visions, and the like have been an original source of belief in ghosts or doubles. I see nothing in Durkheim's criticisms to invalidate Marett's assertion that it is "one amongst the few relative certainties which Anthropology can claim to have established in the way of theory."[7]

Subclass Ic.—I am ready to grant that the spontaneous personification of striking nature phenomena, such as thunder, fire, floods, cataracts, and heavenly bodies, by bestowing upon them either human or animal attributes, was a factor of less importance than dreams and visions. This mode of origin seems to have played an uncommonly important role among the old Aryans, who worshipped "the heavenly ones," "the shining ones," that is, the powers of the luminous heaven. More frequently, perhaps, the tendency to personify served to confirm beliefs in powerful invisible beings and to give to them new characteristics.

Conclusions as to the probability of this origin may be drawn from the behaviour of the child. Many a child barely able to speak forms the habit of ascribing human or animal nature to what is for the adult simply non-personal. He personifies not only because it is for him a natural form of explanation, but also because he finds an inexhaustible source of delight in the fictitious world he creates. Who can make the division between belief and pretence in this mythopoeic world? It was during his fourth year that C. began "to create fictitious persons and animals, and to surround himself by a world, unseen by others, but terribly real to himself."[8] In this connection one should keep in mind the fact of great individual differences. Some children live almost entirely in the real world, and many probably never confuse make-believe with reality. But there are also those who hold firmly to the reality of a world of their own creation. It is these believing children who make the traditions and the dogmas of childhood. Is it improbable that savages should, both in earnest and in play, have placed personal and animal beings behind certain striking phenomena? How otherwise could they better gratify at once a demand for explanation and a love of dramatic play?[9]

The personifications of the primitive man, as well as those of the child, often are classed as animal forms. Nothing could be more natural. Is not the animal world more varied and mysterious to the savage than the human? The size, appearance, and behaviour of animals are so exceedingly diverse that one may expect almost anything that shows self-movement to be an animal. Why, for instance, should not the savage believe that the sun is an animal? Is its shape too simple, or its motion too regular? I do not see how uncivilized man could set limits to the shapes of animals. And as to the sun's movements, they are not, after all, so regular as the scientist would make them. The sun rises at different points winter and summer, and traverses the heavens by different paths. It hides away for long periods, and then shows itself constantly for many days. Even its heat is variable.

But, even though the personification of natural phenomena is to be expected of savages, it is perplexing to find people as far advanced as the old Egyptians, for instance, continuing to worship nature-gods. One must in this case reckon with the momentum of psychic life, just as one does with physical inertia. Habits once formed and expressed in venerated institutions cannot easily be cast aside. But something else contributes also to the production of this paradox: the literal assumes a poetic or a moral sense, and the change remains long unrecognized or unacknowledged. The ease with which most men pass, without knowing it, from a genuine belief in God to one which is merely conventional or is maintained for aesthetic or moral reasons is a fact as amazing as it is pregnant with sociological consequences. One may observe among us at present the passage from a vital belief in the traditional personal God to a survival-belief of the kind just mentioned.[10]

Subclass Id.—The idea of creation, it seems, should lead more directly than any other to the conception of beings possessing the attributes of divinities; for the notion of a Maker includes from the first power, dignity, authority, and some degree of benevolence. Yet this very early and potent source of the idea of great unseen beings has been very insufficiently taken into account. The idea of a mighty Maker of things may safely be attributed to men as low in general intelligence as are the lowest tribes now extant, for it appears very early in the child. The first definite inquiries about causes are usually made towards the end of the second year. After that time the question "What makes that?" is for many months frequently on the child's lips. At first his inquiries bear upon particular things and not upon the origin of things in general. Moreover, he does not necessarily think of personal causes. A little later on, however, he passes from particular problems to the general one, and thinks of a personal Creator.[11] Many persons have had the good fortune to be present at the child's sudden awakening to this problem and his immediate solution of it by the assumption of a great Maker conceived vaguely as a human being. A child notices a curiously made stone, and asks who made it. He is told that it was formed in the stream by the water. Then suddenly he throws out in quick succession questions that are as much exclamations of astonishment as queries: "Who made the streams? Who made the mountains? Who made the earth?" If children five years old begin of themselves to inquire into the origin of the world, one must admit the presence of such queries in the mind of the most intelligent individuals of the lowest tribes.

The Great Maker or Makers usually take on a human shape, probably because men and not animals are to primitive man the constructors of things. The nests of birds and lairs of animals are no better than the huts of the savage himself, and animals make no implements of any sort. The making of weapons and other necessary objects is one of primitive man's vital occupations. One may well suppose, therefore, that, when he thought of the making of things about him, he placed the Great Maker in the human rather than in the animal group. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that in some cases the Great Maker should have assumed an animal form.

In many primitive societies certain names supposed to designate high personal Gods have been found by later scholars to have only a non-personal significance. If we accept both this conclusion and the one now reached concerning belief in a Great Maker, we shall expect to find among primitive peoples one name for a general non-personal force and another for a great Creator. But after a time the non-personal power may naturally enough in many tribes have come to assume personal characteristics, either by direct personification, or by fusion with the creator-idea.

The Consequences of the Presence of Ideas of Superhuman Beings of Several Independent Origins.

I know of no sufficient reasons, either psychological or historical, for denying any of the following propositions. Each appears to me possible, and, under appropriate circumstances, probable.

(1) Several of the sources may have operated simultaneously in the formation of diverse ideas of superhuman beings and subsequently of gods, so that several gods of different origins may have, from the first, divided the attention of the community.

(2) These sources may have been effective not simultaneously but successively. A ghost-ancestor may have first attained dominance and, later on, a Great Maker.

(3) Any order of succession is possible. It is nearly simultaneously that the belief in unseen personified causes of external events arises in the child's mind, that dreams begin to play a part in his waking life, and that the problem of creation presents itself to him. The question as to which is the first cannot be given a universally valid answer. If we imagine a group of children living in close companionship, uninfluenced by adults, we may conceive that belief in beings arising from any of these sources would, according to the peculiarities of the children and the circumstances of their lives, first gain ascendancy.

(4) When several gods existed side by side, fusion and confusion of their characteristics could hardly be avoided: to a deified ancestor may have been ascribed the attributes of a creator, and to a creator the role of an ancestor; a non-moral nature-divinity may have been raised above the natural phenomenon to which it owed its origin, and become, as among the old Aryans, creator and governor of the world. An interaction of god-ideas of different origin,—and therefore of different nature,—is one of the fundamental facts to be taken into account by the student of the origin of religion.

It is for the anthropologist and the historian to discover what, in any particular case, has actually happened in these four respects, and to determine the origin or origins of any particular god. They will have to say, for instance, why Shintoism is a cult addressed exclusively to ancestral spirits, to family and national ancestors, while the other god-ideas have remained unknown to the Japanese, or have been suppressed under the influence of circumstances favourable to the worship of ancestors. It was otherwise with the Aryans. Their imagination was captured by ideas of nature-gods, sun, fire, storms, etc. The richness and versatility of the Greek mind provided that wonderful race with a pantheon composed of ancestor-gods, creator-gods, and nature-gods. Why these differences? As to the psychologist, he may regard his task as completed when he has pointed out the several possible origins of the god-ideas, the characteristics of each, and the nature of the causes which determine the dominance of particular gods.

I close this paper with an illustration of the usefulness of the principles I have just set forth in solving a different problem in the history of early religion.

It is an old opinion that even the lowest savage entertains a belief in a Supreme Being, however dimly conceived and little reverenced. This view was originally based quite as much on the propensity of Christians to discover at the beginning of society beliefs in agreement with their own, as on actual facts concerning these peoples. Although this opinion suffered temporary discredit from the discovery that in several instances the alleged monotheistic beliefs really proceeded from the teaching of missionaries, recent anthropological researches furnish sufficient evidence to warrant a return to this view. It seems now established that in every part of Australia except perhaps among the Arunta, a tribe of the central regions, there is a belief in an All Father, who is perhaps always regarded as creator. He is variously named in the different tribes,—Baiame, Duramulum, Mungamongana, Nureli, etc., that is, our father, father of the whole people, father of all the tribes who observe the law, great master, and the like.

In Africa there also exists, it seems, a general belief in a great god conceived as creator. Miss Mary Kingsley says that—

"The god, in the sense we use the word, is in essence the same in all of the Bantu tribes I have met with on the Coast: a non-interfering and therefore a negligeable quantity. He varies his name; Anzarnbi, . . . Nyam, Ukuku, Suku, and Nzam, but a better investigation shows that Nzam of the Fans is practically identical with Suku south of the Congo. . . . They regard their god as the creator of man, plants, animals, and the earth, and they hold that having made them, he takes no further interest in the affair. But not so the crowd of spirits with which the universe is peopled, they take only too much interest and the Bantu wishes they would not and is perpetually saying so in his prayers, a large percentage whereof amounts to "Go away, we don't want you." "Come not into this house, this village, or its plantations.""[12]

Concerning the natives of central Australia,—the most primitive of that continent,—Spencer and Gillen write,—"In all of the tribes there is a belief in the existence of alcheringa (or its equivalent) ancestors, who made the country and left behind numberless spirit individuals."[13]

From Melanesia the evidence is equally interesting. Codrington mentions two superhuman beings who at any rate "were never human, yet in some ways originators of the human race; both were female, both subjects of stories not objects of worship." A little farther on he expresses some surprise at the existence in the New Hebrides and Banks' Islands of spirit-beings of two orders. He writes of Qat, —

"The place of Qat in the popular beliefs of the Banks' Islands was so high and so conspicuous that when the people first became known to Europeans it was supposed that he was their god, the supreme creator of men and pigs and food. It is certain that he was believed to have made things in another sense from that in which men could be said to make them . . . The regular courses of the seasons are ascribed to him, the calm months from September to December, when the un, Palola sea-worm, comes, the yearly blow, and the high tide in the month wotgoro. . . . With all this it is impossible to take Qat very seriously or to allow him divine rank. He is certainly not the lord of spirits."[14]

Let us note that these creators are not worshipped, although they occupy a higher station than any of the worshipped gods.

If recent travellers are to be believed, even the Negritos of central Africa, who are among the lowest human beings, know of a Great Maker, above and distinct from the host of spirits that are around them.[15]

Although the general existence of the belief in High Gods is now accepted by most anthropologists, there is no unanimity of opinion in regard to the origin of the belief Some supporters of the Christian religion have tried to make capital out of this so-called original monotheism. They have referred it to a revelation.[16] Andrew Lang, approaching the same facts in a different spirit, has drawn from them conclusions which contain certainly a valuable element of truth. He revives the discredited view of the existence, at the origin of human society, of a relatively noble religious belief, and of its subsequent degeneration into rites of propitiation and conciliation addressed to beings greatly inferior in power and in worth to the original High God, and he claims that his "theory, rightly or wrongly, accounts for the phenomena, the combination of the highest divine and the lowest animal qualities in the same being. But I have yet to learn how, if the lowest myths are the earliest, the highest attributes came in time to be conferred on the hero of the lowest myth."[17]

In my opinion, the priority of the High Gods is not the important point in the interpretation of the facts I have just cited; and, further, it would not necessarily follow from priority that the lower beings are degraded High Gods. The truth of the matter, as I see it, is that the High Gods proceeded from an independent and specific source; they are, or were originally, the Makers. The essential elements of my theory are that man comes to the idea of superhuman beings along several routes, that the characteristics of these beings depend upon their origin, and that one,—or one class,—of these beings, the one arising from curiosity about the making of things, is necessarily a relatively lofty conception, awe-inspiring, and suggestive of power and benevolence. Gods arising from the belief in ghosts, or from the personification of portentous natural phenomena, might have appeared first, without at all hindering the coming into existence of a Creator-god; and, whenever that conception appeared, the god would have possessed the comparatively high and noble endowment naturally belonging, in the mind of even the lowest savage, to the Creator of man and things. The question of the order in which these notions found their way into the human mind is of subordinate importance.

This theory is quite consistent with our present anthropological knowledge; namely, that there exists among the most primitive people now living the notion of a Great God high above all others, to whom is usually assigned the function of creator, that these same people also believe in a crowd of spirits and ghosts, and that within the limits of definite historical periods "sacrifice and prayer become more and more numerous and more artificial in proportion as the idea of a Supreme Being grows dim."[18] The following considerations will, I hope, convince the reader that these facts do not necessarily support the corollary drawn by Lang, as well as by the defenders of an original revelation, that our most primitive tribes mark a deterioration from the earliest condition of humanity, but rather that the facts are consistent with a natural development and indicate the presence of no factor not operative in modern progressive societies.

The idea of a Maker I suppose to have originally presented itself to the race very much as it does to a five or six year old child who is suddenly struck with the idea that some one must have made the world. It did not, therefore, involve such notions as eternity, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. The concept of a great Maker is, of course, awe-inspiring, because of the power it implies and of the mystery surrounding the operations of such a being. Some degree of interest and benevolence towards that which he has made is also, it seems, unavoidably associated with even the simplest idea of a Maker. Such a being must thus have been relatively exalted.

What modifications would this idea undergo when it passed beyond the gifted individuals who had conceived it and became the property of every tribesman, however brutish and ignoble? Undoubtedly there would occur the kind of modifications that history records in the case of more recent gods: they are transformed into beings more nearly like the worshippers themselves. But this process does not necessarily imply the deterioration of the people. The gods have been debased, but the people themselves have been raised to a higher level by these lofty notions, even though somewhat corrupted. This degrading process is the natural unavoidable method by which the masses gradually rise towards the level of those who have set for them unattainable ideals. Thus it is that the return to origins is frequently a progress.

In the case before us, special factors probably made the degrading process speedier and more irresistible. The exalted Maker found himself, in the mind of the people, in company with other superhuman beings of much humbler extraction. Even though one disregards the possibility of the personification of natural events, one must in any case reckon with the belief in the beings suggested by visions, temporary loss of consciousness, and other similar occurrences. Since these beings are human doubles, they may possess all the meanness and cruelty of the lowest of men. Their power, though not definitely known, is sufficient to excite fear, but not in most cases great enough to inspire awe. When associated with the ever-present, troublesome doubles, and the many petty spirits conceived in the same way as ghosts, the Maker could hardly preserve his identity and his high attributes. A confusion must have taken place, and as the common is more easily understood and retained than the unusual, the lofty attributes of the High God conceived by the primitive philosophers became obscured and to him were attributed meaner traits originally belonging to lower gods. One may thus admit that, even in the absence of any real degeneration of a community, the oldest conception of the Maker was the noblest, provided a limited and specific historical period is considered. When this period of absorption and incubation is past, philosophers and seers again appear, who enlarge the reigning conceptions, charge them with higher worth, and return them to the people, who degrade them anew in the travail of their own elevation.

The fact that to many has seemed unaccountable, namely, that the Maker and All Father is not among early people an object of worship, while lower beings are prayed to and propitiated, seems to me just what would be expected of human nature. It is true that a Maker seems the being best qualified to become a God, since he possesses the necessary power and greatness, and must be, on the whole, benevolently inclined towards those whom he has created, and since man can hardly fail to feel his dependence upon a being from whom he proceeds; whereas the mysterious beings springing from human lineage, ghosts and low spirits, have not originally all the qualities required of a divinity. They must first be magnified and exalted if they are to inspire the religious attitude. Under these circumstances, the speedy appearance of religious practices addressed to the High God would seem unavoidable. Why then is he not sooner worshipped? Because his very greatness and remoteness stand as an obstacle in the way of practical religion, while ordinary spirits and great ancestors, more familiar and closer to man than a Maker, call forth more readily those methods of propitiation and of worship constituting the lowest forms of religious expression.

The kind of attitude to be expected of an uncivilized man towards the Over-God is well illustrated, in at least one of its aspects, in the following report concerning the "noble tribes of the Bight of Panavia":

"At each new moon, the chief of a village goes out and stands alone in the open and talks to Anyambie. He does not praise Anyambie; he does not request him to interfere in human affairs; he, the chief, feels competent to deal with them, but he does want Anyambie to attend to those spirits which he, the god, can control better than a man, and he always opens the address to the great god with a catalogue of his, the chief's, virtues, saying: "I am the father of my people; I am a just man; I deal well with all men," etc. ... At first hearing these catalogues of the chief's virtues used to strike me as comic, and I once said: "Why don't you get some one else to say that for you; praising yourself in that barefaced way must be very trying to you." "Oh no," said the chief, "and, besides, no man knows how good he is except himself," which is a common West Coast proverb. But by and bye—when I had been the silent spectator of several of these talks with the great god—the thing struck me as really very grand. There was the great man standing up alone, conscious of the weight of responsibility on him of the lives and happiness of his people, talking calmly, proudly, respectfully to the great god who he knew ruled the spirit world. It was like a great diplomat talking to another great diplomat. . . . there was no whining or begging in it, . . . the grandeur of the thing charmed me."[19]

This is of course neither worship nor propitiation; Anyambie is apparently too high a personage to concern himself with the details of human life, or to care for such offerings as would please a tribal chief. And yet he is not great or good enough to elicit awe, admiration, and reverence. Miss Kingsley's oft-repeated question, "Is he good?" was always answered negatively except by natives who had been under the influence of missionaries. "No! they say firmly, he is not what you call good; he lets things go too much, he cares about himself only, and I have heard him called "lazy too much, bad person for business," and a dozen things of that kind."[20] Now, if Anyambie's character were loftier, the chief might not so readily enter into conversation with him.

The difficulty of entering into formal relation with the Maker may be overcome, or rather avoided, by the introduction of intermediaries between man and the Almighty. It is quite probable that religious rites first appeared in connection with the belief in spirits very near to man; the closer to him, the more readily would he enter into practical relations with them, as he would with a great and powerful man. The practices of placing food in the graves, of making a fire near them, of placing hunting or fighting implements in them, not in the expectation of profit, but simply out of humane feeling, are probably prototypes of the earlier religious offerings and sacrifices.

The Maker, though not worshipped and propitiated so early as the lower gods, nevertheless exercises from the first an influence at times profound and often the most ennobling known to the primitive mind. In this connection one should remember Howitt's statement concerning the All Father of the South-Eastern Australians. He is, we are told,

"imagined as the ideal of those qualities which are, according to their standard, virtues worthy of being imitated. Such would be a man who is skilful in the use of weapons of offence and defence, all-powerful in magic, but generous and liberal to his people, who does no injury or violence to any one, yet treats with severity any breaches of custom or morality."[21]

Howitt, Hartland, and others have been unwilling to take the High Gods as Creators in the true sense of the word. They have held them to be primarily ancestors and, in particular, great chiefs deified. They have had no difficulty in showing that the All Father of the Australians is often spoken of as chief of the other world. G. M‘Call Theal says that the more reliable traditions mention Umkulunkulu, the Great Great One of the South African natives, as the most powerful of their ancient chiefs, and therefore he is unwilling to describe him as a Creator. Be this as it may with regard to Umkulunkulu, it remains established that the High God is usually spoken of as a Creator. To say, as Hartland does, that the concept of creation as we understand it is a notion foreign to the savage is beside the point, and, moreover, it is true only if “we” means the highly cultured few. The savage thinks of a Maker as children and even many civilized adults do. What is more likely than that this Maker of man and things should come to be spoken of as Great Chief, Ruler of the Sky Country, or First Ancestor?

The application of the term “monotheism” to the belief in the High God of the uncivilized is to be deprecated; for monotheism, in the current acceptance of the term, means more than a belief in a Maker; it means also that there exists no other god but him. This is obviously not implied in the conception of the High God. The Maker is the highest god, but there exists side by side with him other powerful gods. One should not expect the relation of the Maker to the other gods to be clearly and consistently defined. After all, the monotheism of our uneducated population is of a similar sort. Pure monotheism belongs to the few; the masses are rather henotheists.[22]

Summary.—The observation of a variety of natural phenomena suggests to the primitive mind the existence of unseen agents of different sorts: (1) dreams, trances, and allied phenomena generate the belief in ghosts and spirits of human form and attributes; (2) the personification of natural objects leads to the belief in nature-beings conceived frequently, but not necessarily, as animals; (3) the problem of creation gives rise to the belief in a Maker or Makers in the form of man.

These beliefs are neither manifestations of a diseased mind nor the outcome of a revelation; they arise from perfectly normal mental processes. There are few men living to-day, barring the mentally defective, who, if deprived of the inheritance of civilization, would not again people an unseen world with these unreal creatures.

But ghosts, spirits, and makers are not in themselves gods. Only a few of them possess from the first or acquire later on the attributes necessary to the establishment of the system of relations called religion, and are thus transformed into gods.[23]

  1. J. H. Leuba, "Les Tendances Fondamentales des Mystiques Chrétiens" and "Les Tendances Religieuses chez les Mystiques Chrétiens," Revue Philosophiqiie de la France etc., tome liv. (1902), pp. 1-36, 441-487.
  2. E. Durkheim, "Examen Critique des Systemes Classiques sur la Pensée Religieuse," Revue Philosophique de la France etc., tome lii. (1900), pp. 10-15. What he regards as the origin of the soul I do not know, for at the present writing the book has not appeared of which the article from which I quote is to be a chapter.
  3. Pp. 344-5.
  4. W. Preyer (Trans. H. W. Brown), The Mind of the Child, Part I., 1893, pp. 168-169.
  5. P. 455.
  6. "The Forms of Apparitions in West Africa," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. xiv. (189S-99), p. 331.
  7. R. R. Marett, The Threshold of Religion, p. 9.
  8. J. Sully, op. cit. p. 453.
  9. I have given some details concerning an unusual instance of fondness for personifying in "The Personifying Passion in Youth, with remarks upon the Sex and Gender Problem," The Monist, vol. x. (1900), pp. 536-548.
  10. The theory of Max Müller and of Adelbert Kuhn, according to which the starting point of religion was the personification of the more striking natural objects, bears only a superficial resemblance to the theory that the origin of superhuman beings was by the direct, spontaneous personification with which we are concerned. The process of personification which these authors describe is an accident due to the distorting action upon thought of an insufficiently definite language. Natural objects, they explain, were originally described by their effects, in terms similar to those used to name the actions of human beings. The sun, for instance, was "the one which darts shafts of light." The one, because of linguistic indefiniteness and the natural tendency to conceive movement as arising from a personal cause, came to be understood in a personal sense. Thus, according to this theory, arose the nature-gods and the myths clustering around them.
  11. Before her eighth year, Helen Keller, who is blind, deaf, and mute, had begun to ask questions regarding the origin of things and of herself. Her teacher, Miss Sullivan, thought it preferable to delay an explanation, and told her that she was too young to understand. Her inquiries became more and more urgent. In May, 1890, (she was born in June, 1880), she wrote on her tablet,—"Who made the earth and the seas, and everything? What makes the sun hot? Where was I before I came to mother?" See Miss Sullivan's report of 1891 (p. 370), republished in the supplement to The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, (1903). It is not uncommon for a normal child to puzzle about these questions from his fifth year or even earlier.
  12. Travels in West Africa, pp. 442-3. See also Mrs. L. Parker, The Euahlayi Tribe, pp. 4-10.
  13. The Northern Tribes of Central Australia., p. 14.
  14. The Melanesians, pp. 150, 154-5.
  15. Mgr. A. Le Roy, La Religion des Primitifs (Paris: Beauchesne), 1909.
  16. See Father Wilhelm Schmidt in "L'origine de l'idée de Dieu," Anthropos, vol. iii. (1908), iv. (1909). These papers are researches at second-hand by a well-informed person who is evidently before all else a priest of the Roman Catholic Church and an apologist of the traditional Christian system.
  17. The Making of Religion, 2nd ed.. Preface, p. xvi. As to the origin of the belief in a kind of germinal Supreme Being, he makes in the preface to the second edition (p. x) the following suggestion:—"As soon as man had the idea of 'making' things, he might conjecture as to a Maker of things . . . He would regard this unknown Maker as a 'magnified non-natural man'." What is still happening to William James on account of The Varieties of Religious Experience happened to Andrew Lang. The authority of his name was claimed in support of a theory of revelation. In the preface to the second edition of The Making of Religion, he declares that he never intended to countenance the belief in an original revelation.
  18. Father Schmidt, Anthropos, iii., p. 604. This statement is probably much too sweeping.
  19. M. H. Kingsley, "The Forms of Apparitions in West Africa." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. xiv. (1898-9), p. 334.
  20. Op. cit. p. 335.
  21. A. W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, p. 507.
  22. For discussions regarding High Gods see the following: Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion; E. Sidney Hartland, “The High Gods of Australia,” Folk-Lore, vol. ix., pp. 290-319 (a critical review of The Making of Religion); Lang, “Australian Gods,” Folk-Lore, vol. x., pp. 1-46, (a reply to Hartland); Hartland, “Australian Gods: a Rejoinder,” ibid., pp. 46-57; Hartland, “The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, by A. W. Howitt,” Folk-Lore, vol. xvi., pp. 101-109; Lang, "All-Fathers in Australia,” ibid., pp. 222-224; A. W. Howitt, “The Native Tribes of South-East Australia,” Folk-Lore, vol. xvii., pp. 174-189; Father Schmidt, Anthropos, vol. iii., pp. 819-833; A. van Gennep, Mythes et Légendes d'Australie.
  23. For a discussion of other topics relating to the origin of Religion and of Magic, see the author’s forthcoming work, The Psychology of Religion: its Origin, Function, and Future.