Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/December 1885/The Scientific Study of Religions

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 28‎ | December 1885









THE general history of religions is taught, if I am not mistaken, only in Leyden, Paris, Tübingen, and Geneva. In giving a place to this new branch, the University of Brussels has again shown its fidelity to the liberal spirit that actuated its founders. Imperfectly qualified as I am to give direction to studies on this subject, I am encouraged to undertake it by the thought that to teach the history of religions, it is not necessary to be acquainted, with all the languages of all the peoples who have professed them. I am far from depreciating such knowledge, and readily recognize that the founders of the science of religions have nearly all been trained in special studies of this very kind. But all the branches of the ancient literatures, through the discoveries of those who have so laboriously delved in them, now offer general results sufficiently certain and well developed to enable us, without doing over the work of the specialists, to attempt the synthesis of their conclusions, and relate the history of religions as we do the history of arts, sciences, languages, or peoples.

Henceforth the science of religions will be chiefly a question of method and assimilation. As Professor Tiele stated in 1877, for the Assyrio-Babylonian religion: "The historian, the ethnologist, and the scholar, who devote themselves to the science of comparative religions, have each their several tasks. The domain they occupy can no more be disputed as against them than they can encroach upon that of the epigraphist and the philologist."

It might be asked why, if it is so easy to get positive information on the nature of the different religions, it is not more widely diffused. It is principally because, aside from a few fugitive notions, often quite obsolete, on the mythology of Greek and Latin antiquity, the history of religions is wholly unprovided for in our courses of instruction; and, secondly, because there prevails a mass of prejudices tending to restrict the application of scientific methods to this study.

Among these prejudices there are some which are always found, although in a less degree, in all the subdivisions of historical science, while others are peculiar to this particular branch. Some of them tend to hinder even the existence of hierography, while others simply falsify its applications or vitiate its conclusions. My object is to point out the most formidable of these prepossessions by exhibiting, through a few examples, the mistakes into which they may cause even the best intentioned persons to fall.

We will begin with examining some prejudices that are connected with the very object of our study—the religious and the anti-religious prejudice. It should be understood that when I use the word prejudice in this connection, I employ it in its etymological sense of a judgment fixed in advance, and not in the ordinary sense of something offensive. Our purpose is to study religions, not to insult them.

Max Müller has written that there have existed two systems broad enough to tolerate a history of religions—primitive Buddhism and Christianity. He doubtless meant Christianity as he professes it, and as he saw it professed around him—the Christianity of Stanley and Colenso, of Maurice and Martineau, of Kuenen and Tiele, of Reville and Lenormant. He does not hesitate to recognize with what facility one may be led away from the historical method by belief in the possession of a supernatural revelation, when this revelation is formulated by the agency of a man of reputed infallibility, of a church assembled in council, or of a book finished and closed forever: when it pretends to trace around its affirmations a circle impenetrable to free examination, it is wanting in the most essential conditions for passing serious criticism. When the believer's right to interpret the sacred books is acknowledged, a place is left open for exegesis, but that exegesis still remains the slave of particular texts or dogmas that limit and consequently trammel it.

Let us take a single story from the Bible—that of Jonah, and examine the different acceptations it has received. We could hardly find a richer stock of interpretations vitiated by what I call the religious prejudice. According to the rationalist mode of interpretation that flourished in Germany at the beginning of this century, Jonah was an envoy from Israel to Nineveh, who was picked up after having been shipwrecked, three days from the shore, by a ship carrying the image of a whale as its figure-head. Another interpretation is that of Grimm, that the whole history passed off in a dream. This is to save the letter, but at the expense of the spirit. The important matter in the critical study of a text is to find what its authors intended to put in it, and not what it ought to contain in order to conform to our ideas of truth or of justice. "There have been and still are," said Dean Stanley, relative to these points, in his funeral address on Sir Charles Lyell at Westminster Abbey, "two methods of interpretation which have wholly and justly failed: the one that attempts to distort the real sense of the words of the Bible, to make them speak the language of science; and the one which tries to falsify science, in order to satisfy the supposed exigencies of the Bible."[1]

We pass next to the symbolic interpretation. There is nothing to prevent our seeing in Jonah the symbol of the soul, and in the whale that of death or the tomb, so that we might reduce it all to an allegorical representation of man's immortality, such as we see among the monuments of the Catacombs. Or, we might imagine, with Professor Herman von der Hardt, that the vessel in the storm is a figure of the Jewish state, its captain of the high-priest Zadok, and Jonah of King Manasseh, taken prisoner by the Babylonians.[2] I am far from despising the value of this method of reconciling faith with reason, and I have not the courage to blame those who seek thus to save the integrity of their beliefs. But if symbolism permits the accommodation of religious tradition with the progress that has been made in most of the sciences, one branch of knowledge must be excepted from the rule, and that is history, whose mission is to ascertain, not if the old bottles will hold new wine, but what was put into them in the first place.

There is, however, one means of reconciling independence in criticism with belief in the divinely inspired character of a story. It consists in limiting the inspiration to the philosophical and moral truths included in the text, and letting the rest go. Thus, what in the book of Jonah may be of divine origin are the exalted lessons to be drawn from it respecting the prophetic mission of Israel, on the efficacy of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and on the equality of Jews and Gentiles before God. And there is nothing to prevent our seeing in the incident of the whale and the other fabulous details of a narrative which M. Edouard Reuss calls a moral story, a simple invention to give more force and color to the religious and moral lessons, or perhaps a reminiscence of the mythical adventure attributed by the cuneiform texts to Bel Merodach,[3] and which is found besides in the solar mythologies of the Greeks, the Polynesians, the Algonquins, and the Caffres, and in the oldest version of "Little Red Riding Hood." Instead of losing by this, the book of Jonah becomes, as M. Kuenen remarks, the book of the Old Testament farthest removed from Jewish particularism, and most nearly approaching to Christian Catholicity; and this should be ample compensation for the sacrifice of its miraculous and supernatural part. M. Francis Lenormant has applied the same method in his studies on the "Origins of History according to the Bible and the Traditions of the Oriental Peoples." "I do not recognize," he writes, "a Christian science and a freethinking science; I admit only one science, the one that has no need of any other epithet, which lays aside theological questions as foreign to its domain, and of which all seekers in good faith are the servitors, whatever may be their religious convictions. That is the science to which I have consecrated my life; and I believe it would be a violation of a holy duty of conscience if, influenced by a preoccupation of another kind, however worthy of respect, I should hesitate to speak sincerely and without ambiguity the truth as I discern it."

It is nevertheless true that hitherto orthodoxies have hardly shown themselves disposed to understand the rights of science in this way.

If religious prejudice opposes itself to the scientific study of one's own religion, can it also interpose an obstacle to the knowledge of strange religions? At first thought we might be tempted to answer in the negative. How can any opinions, even those which we hold as absolute truth, prevent us from observing, classifying, and describing the beliefs, or, if you prefer, the errors of another?

It is a fact that, if we arrange all religious opinions in two categories—that of our own, which we believe came down ready-made from heaven, and that of the religions of others, which we declare indiscriminately to be the results of perversions—we become incapable of grasping the real nature of the religious sentiment, and consequently of its different manifestations. With the Iranians, who personify their supreme being in the great Ahura, the devas represent the agents of the bad principles. To the Brahmans, who adored the devas, the asuras were the adversaries of gods and men. To the historian of religions, asuras and devas are analogous conceptions, which a priori he connects with the normal development of the human mind, and a posteriori shows to have been derived from the same religious center, anterior to the separation of the Persians and the Indians, and to the organization of dualism in the Aryan theologies.

How shall we preserve the even mind and the freedom of appreciation essential to all impartial analysis of foreign ideas and customs, if we imagine, like some of the fathers, that they are the work of the evil-one? The Christians of the first centuries had no doubt of the real existence of the pagan divinities, but they regarded them as evil spirits who had turned the worship of men from the only God by a caricature of the true religion. Such is likewise the recent explanation given by Father Hue of the curious resemblances which he discovered between the rites of Buddhist worship and some of the practices of Roman Catholicism.

It would be unjust to award to Christendom the monopoly of intolerance. The Emir Hakem had collected at Cordova a great number of books which had been found in the East among the ruins of paganism. The usurper Al-Mansour had them torn up and burned. Those which escaped this reaction of Mussulman fanaticism perished, three centuries later, with eighty thousand manuscripts that Roman Catholic fanaticism caused to be thrown into the flames of Granada, after the expulsion of the Moors.[4] Even the Protestants are not free from reproach in this matter. Sir George Mackenzie relates, in his "Travels in Iceland," that the Lutheran clergy used all its power to prevent the first publication of the "Eddas," the ancient epics of Scandinavian mythology.

Greeks and Trojans were not more bitter in their disputes over the body of Patroclus than Protestants and Catholics in wresting honestly the texts of the fathers and the monuments of the Catacombs to deduce from them the justification of their respective views on the questions in controversy between them. What should we expect, then, when the question is one of giving to a rival cult the place which legitimately belongs to it in the development of man? Bishop Huet would find but few imitators in this age of his efforts to discover Moses in the persons of Zoroaster, Orpheus, Apollo, Vulcan, Faunus, Thoth, Adonis, and Tammuz.[5] But even the best-informed and most sincere apologists allow themselves to exaggerate the antiquity of the Hebrew traditions while looking for the source or the affiliations of the biblical stories.

Thus, we had long known, from fragments of ancient authors, that the Babylonians had a cycle of legends presenting some analogies with the traditions of Genesis. They were generally believed to be an infiltration or a vague echo of the Mosaic account. But in 1872 Mr. George Smith deciphered from a Kinevite tablet an account of the deluge, which was singularly like the Hebrew version in the details of the composition, the course of the narration, and the style. The priority of this document to the first book of the Bible seems established in evidence. Lenormant declares that it must have been composed several centuries before Moses. The Babylonian version illustrates the original signification of the tradition, by showing it to be a myth of a great storm or of the rainy season; while, in the Mosaic version, the naturalistic character almost disappears under the more elevated interpretation, conceived from the moral and monotheistic point of view. We, therefore, seem authorized to conclude that, if the story in Genesis is not derived directly from the Chaldean tradition, the latter nevertheless represents a version much nearer to the common source. Yet the contrary opinion prevails among the majority of orthodox students, because they take as their point of departure the necessary infallibility and priority of Genesis.

Sometimes the prejudice is frankly avowed. In January, 1680, the Abbé de Broglie began at the Catholic Institute of Paris a course on the history of non-Christian religions, and the "Polybiblion" of the next month gave the following summary of his opening lecture: "he proposes to show from the history of the most widely spread false cults that they are not to be compared with Christianity, and, coming down from generalities to a more special study, he will make a brilliant demonstration of the superiority of our religion." This is not history, but apologetics.[6]

We very frequently meet with an inverse kind of apologetics among the adversaries of religious ideas. In fact, the anti-religious prejudice, which rests, like the religious prejudice, on an exclusive view of things, is a direct result of dogmatic intolerance. If one is in the habit of regarding the ideas of others as a heap of superstitions and impostures, it is easy to conceive that, when he loses faith in the supernatural origin of beliefs, he will confound all the religions of the earth and the religious sentiment itself in a contempt that will henceforth recognize no exception.

Some think that to occupy themselves with religions is to waste time; as if religious questions did not figure among the vital questions of our epoch. "When I published the translation of the 'Life of Jesus,' by Strauss," writes Littré,[7] "the objection was made, from the point of view of the freethinker and revolutionist, that I was undertaking a wholly useless work, and one that was out of date, and that the eighteenth century had performed, better than all the Strausses in the world, all the work of demolition that was needed. Yes, the negative work, but not the positive work. And this is no subtile distinction that stops short of going to the bottom of things. Let us consider the aberrations that haunted the mind of the eighteenth century on the subject of religions. It was impossible for it to comprehend anything of their origin, of the part they played, or of their life. They were, according to some, inventions of crafty men who worked upon popular credulity and thereby gained power and wealth. According to others, nothing could be seen in them but periods of ignorance and superstition which it was impossible sufficiently to despise or lament. According to others, again, some favor might be granted to Jupiter and Olympus, for whom magnificent temples and beautiful statues had been erected; but the Hood of historical indignation must be turned upon the shame of shames, of Christianity and the middle ages. Such aberrations, with all their variations, form a vast network of prejudices which is not yet broken up and which still holds bound in its toils the whole radical party of France."

Some minds, struck by the ills which religions have engendered, are willing to admit the utility and even the necessity of hierography; but they do not pretend to look for anything in the science but arguments, or weapons, with which to contest the various forms of belief around them.

Is there any need of explaining that such can not be the purpose of this course? In saying that I will try to treat religions by the processes of science, I am by implication engaged to make neither an antireligious polemic nor a religious propaganda. Parties and sects are at liberty to draw all the conclusions they please from science; but science should never stoop to be their instrument or sign.

When, in 1879, the French Senate discussed the scheme for introducing the history of religions into the Collége de France, Edouard de Laboulaye became the spokesman of a prejudice that disputes even the possibility of using historical methods in the study of any religion, saying: "When you believe it is true, everything will seem natural to you. When you believe it is false, everything will seem absurd. How are you going to find a way of teaching impartially?"

Henry Martin replied: "I do not say that the comparative history of religions will be to the profit of intolerant religious ideas that proscribe one another as they proscribe irreligious ideas; but it will surely be to the profit of the idea of that universal religion which lies at the bottom of all religions, and is their essence."

I will go further, and say that the historian of religions need not be at the trouble of asking whether the object of the religious sentiment is real or not, or, in other words, whether the belief in the existence of the Deity is well-founded or illusory.

I would also add that, to write the history of religions, it would be necessary to put one's self at the positivist point of view, provided this phrase is not taken to signify a formal adhesion to the philosophical system of Auguste Comte, who also has come to hierography with a preconceived theory. Here, again, I enter upon a new order of prejudice, the philosophical prejudice, or that which involves finding in the facts the confirmation of a doctrine determined upon in advance. Orthodox positivism omits from its scientific classification, experimental psychology, the study of which is indispensable, as Herbert Spencer declares, for obtaining the key to the religious sentiment and its evolutions. When the positivists affirm that man must pass, in his individual and social development, through the theological, metaphysical, and positive stages, they mistake for successive stages three different aspects of the human mind. And, when they declare that all religions must have traversed successively the three phases of fetichism, polytheism, and monotheism, they again sacrifice the facts to the spirit of system. By fetichism, Comte understands the worship of material objects, trees, stones, shells, rivers, mountains, celestial bodies, etc., which the imagination of the primitive man arbitrarily invested with supernatural powers, without, however, seeing in them the work or residence of a spirit. But the numerous observations made in our days on non-civilized peoples tend to establish, as Max Müller, Herbert Spencer, Albert Reville, and many others have superabundantly demonstrated, that fetichism as thus understood is nowhere a primitive religion; that it always accompanies and presupposes belief in spirits lodged in things or wandering in space; that it is unknown among people who are placed at the bottom of the religious scale, and reaches its maximum among nations that are relatively advanced.

If by fetichism we understand, with M. Girard de la Rialle, "the tendency to regard all phenomena, all beings, and all the bodies of nature as endowed with wills and feelings like those of man, with only a few differences in intensity and activity"[8]—which constitutes the religious state defined as Naturism by M. Albert Reville—I am ready to admit that something of the kind may have been the first form of religious practice. But the definition goes no further than that of the orthodox positivists, for it implies a previous distinction of body and mind, and worship is in reality exclusively addressed to the latter. Mr. Frederic Harrison maintains that the official religion of China had preserved the type of primitive fetichism, because in it the sky, the earth, and the heavenly bodies were adored, considered objectively, and not as the residences of immaterial beings. Now, all those who have closely studied the ancient religion of the Chinese Empire tell us that veneration is addressed, not to the material appearances of the phenomena of nature, but to the invisible spirits of which the sky, the earth, and the constellations appear respectively as the inseparable envelope, the sensible manifestation, the vestment, or the body. As to adoration of material objects frankly regarded as such, fetichism is a secondary derivative, and not the first form of the religious sentiment.

Another philosophical prejudice, of a contrary bearing, is the one that represents the historical religions as the feeble echo of a primitive monotheism, qualified by natural religion. It seemed to receive a striking confirmation in the first half of this century, when the most ancient monuments of Eastern thought put off their veils before our dazzled eyes. All that we had known till then of the religions professed among the Hindoos, Persians, and Egyptians, with their monstrous idols, their barbarous practices, and their incoherent and coarse myths, seemed either an ignorant distortion, or a willful disguise of the pure and profound doctrines taught in the earliest ages of the world.

From Germany, where the symbolical school of Creuzer had pretended to find in the ancient fables allegories veiling the treasures of primitive religion, this illusion passed to France and to England, where it still has many adepts.

A more complete and more minute study of the documents in which it was believed the echoes of primitive humanity could be found, has discovered that they contain much chaff mixed with the good grain; that they depict, not a monotheism in its decline, but a monotheism in course of formation; and that they are the product of a long sacerdotal elaboration, not the primary expression of the religious feeling in its contact with Nature.[9]

Nowhere has the contradiction between the theory of original perfection in religion, and the accumulated conclusions of archæology, ethnography, experimental psychology, general history, and religious science appeared to me more marked than in the recent work of M. de Pressensé on the "Origins," precisely because the writer in it impartially expounded all the facts acquired or legitimately presumed by contemporary science. He shows that the religious sentiment has been exalting and purifying itself since prehistoric times. Does not the logical conclusion from this seem to be that that sentiment began with most imperfect and gross manifestations? But M. de Pressensé, generalizing from the fact that a confused belief in a supreme divinity is met among some savages addicted to the practices of fetichism, concludes that monotheism was the primitive faith of man. "Because man in his extreme degradation," he says, "tried to find the divine idea and attach himself to it, he must necessarily have possessed it primitively in its grandeur."[10] M. de Pressensé approaches the problem of our moral and religious origins with the preconceived notion of a fall, of a degradation suffered by mankind for having violated the moral law, during a first trial of liberty. He does not see that this explanation explains nothing, and that it leaves intact the question, how mankind could at first have realized the divine idea in its plenitude—except by causing to intervene at the beginning, as M. de Pressensé seems inclined to do, a supernatural revelation, or by holding with the poet—

"L'homme est un dieu tombé qui se souvient des cieux"
(Man is a fallen god, who has memories of the sky).

The mind proceeds from the known to the unknown. This is the highway that leads to science, but on condition that the traveler does not wander from it to launch himself into hasty conclusions. The philosophers of the last century, seeking to explain how primitive man fell under the yoke of positive religions, maintained that they were invented by the priests; some added, and by kings. It is true that priests and governments have used religious too much for personal or political interests. But that is no reason for believing that they invented them.

Good sense teaches that the existence of the priest is posterior to the birth of the religious sentiment. Besides this, nothing is more contrary to the tendencies of contemporary science than to regard man as a lump of dough indefinitely plastic in the hands of legislators and mystagogues. Not only is it henceforth averred that all known peoples have religious faiths, in the sense that they admit the existence of superhuman powers intervening in the destiny of the individual, but I shall also have occasion to show that they all possess—at least in a rudimentary state—the essential elements of worship, prayer, sacrifice, and symbols; and that these elements are clad with analogous forms among the most diverse races, and that, wherever we can trace the course of religious evolution, we see faiths passing through phases, if not identical, coming under general laws. Religions make themselves, and are not invented.

From the fact that some kings and heroes have been deified, a few philosophers have concluded that all the gods were deified men. In this way, according to Evémère, among the ancients, the first chiefs or the first sages, having obtained domination by means of their physical or intellectual superiority, have had a supernatural power attributed to them, and have consequently received divine honors. If we had asked this philosopher whence the first believer derived the idea of the supernatural and divine to apply it to kings and priests, he would have been greatly embarrassed to answer us. Evémère's school, resting upon a tradition that Zeus once reigned in Crete, and on the fact that his tomb is shown there, maintained that the master of Olympus was an ancient Cretan sovereign, deified by his subjects. We know now that Ζενς πατήρ is found among the Romans, the Hindoos, and the Germans, under the names respectively of Jupiter, Dyaus-Pitar, Zio, or Tyr, and with the general character of Heaven-father, the first form of "father who is in heaven."[11]

Another school obtained a better conception of the real character of the gods, when it associated them with Nature deified in its phenomena. As early as the sixth century before our era, Theogenes of Rhegium declared that Apollo, Helios, and Hephaestos were fire under different aspects—Hera the air, Poseidon water, Artemis the moon, and the rest likewise. This was a current opinion among the Stoics. Cicero makes some philosophers, in his treatise "De Natura Deorum," say that the gods recruited either from among the phenomena that strike the imagination, or from among the natural objects that render services to man.[12]

These views have been confirmed in our days, not only for the Greek and Roman Pantheon, but also for the gods of all known peoples. Only here again we must take account of other theogonic factors. Among the gods there are some who are certainly men or animals deified. Others are derived exclusively from moral abstractions, such as Virtue, Good Faith, Prudence, Fortune, etc., or from metaphysical speculations, like the supreme Brahm of the Hindoos. It should also be remembered that the gods of Nature tend, among some peoples, to become transformed into gods superior to Nature, so that their primitive significance is at last obscured and lost, as Assur among the Assyrians, Ahura Mazda among the Persians, and Jahveh among the Israelites. It was through the failure to grasp these shades that Dupuis, at the end of the last century, wasted his time and learning in maintaining the astronomical significance of all ancient and modern gods and cults.[13]

We can easily explain how the personification of the celestial bodies and of natural phenomena has led to the representation of their movements and relations as adventures of heroes or of gods. Antiquity had already penetrated the sense of its most transparent myths. But the interpretation of mythology has found its methods only in our own days.

Otfried Müller regarded myths as local legends that translated into a form of personality some particular features of geography or circumstances of history.

Others with Mr. Max Müller have insisted on the solar signification of myths; they have seen in them a reflection of the impression produced on the imagination of infantile people by the periodical succession of light and darkness, of day and night, of summer and winter. Thus, the labors of Hercules are simply the works of the sun during the twelve months of the year. Œdipus personifies the day-star; son of the Dawn, he kills his father every morning; son of the Night, he marries his mother every evening.

Others still, among them Adalbert Kuhn, have set forth that the mind of primitive men was most manifestly affected by the irregular phenomena of Nature and sudden changes of the atmosphere; by this theory the principal myths dramatized the apparent struggles of the sky and the storm, of the sun and the cloud, of the fire and the dark. Developing this view, M. Darmesteter has shown how among the Hindoos, Persians, Greeks, Latins, and Germans, the story of the creation corresponds with the picture afforded by the apparent new birth of the world after each storm.[14]

There are those who have seen in myths simple metaphors conceived by poets and taken seriously by their hearers. Thus, when Pindar represents Excuse as the daughter of Reflection, when Prodicus speaks of Hercules as the butt of two women who personify Pleasure and Virtue, they give those images the sense that we ourselves would attach to them; but the figures are taken in earnest by the masses, and so myth arises from metaphor and parable. With still more probability has some confusion of this kind resulted from changes of language, when the appellations of objects personified in this way have lost their primitive signification, and no longer suggest anything but proper names.

Some postulate besides this auricular mythology an ocular one, holding that the origin of myths should be sought in uncomprehended or badly interpreted drawings. Coins, cups, and primitive objects of art in which emblems, personages, and real or fancied scenes are represented, have set the imagination at work of strangers who acquired them, and they have tried to explain the figures by extemporized legends. According to M. Clermont-Ganneau, the Chimæra and its legend originated in a composition quite common on the Lycian monuments, in which a lion appeared to be devouring a deer. The two animals, if we should suppose them combined by an inexact or ignorant copyist, might in fact give the idea of a monster formed by an amalgamation of the lion and the deer or goat. So the triple Geryon, slain by Hercules, is found among the Egyptian monuments under the form of three men kneeling before a victorious hero.[15]

According to Mr. Herbert Spencer, the adventures attributed to the celestial bodies and personified phenomena, to the sun, moon, sky, twilight, etc., originally related to human beings bearing the names of those bodies or phenomena as their heroes. Thus, a person who left a living memory among following generations was called Aurora, because he was born at dawn, or for some other reason. Gradually he became confounded with the dawn, and his adventures were interpreted in the way that the phenomena of the nascent day made most plausible. Then, as the same name may have belonged to several persons of different tribes and times, such a juxtaposition of contradictory stories as we find in most mythologies would inevitably have been brought about.[16]

My conclusion is that there is truth in each of these theories, and that they do not all exhaust the matter. The law of intellectual development is one, but its combinations are infinite, and to seek to bring all the myths under a single process of formation is to pretend to open all doors with the same key. There is no pass-key in mythology.

We have still stronger reasons for being on our guard against seeing myths in everything. Our century has witnessed numerous attempts to reduce, not only the great religious initiators, Moses, Jesus, and Buddha, to myths, but all the persons who have played a considerable part in the traditions of history, from Lycurgus to Charlemagne. A sportive essay has even been made to show that Napoleon I was a solar hero, and sustained by arguments the force of which is hardly exceeded by their wit,[17]

Even the knowledge that some students have of a particular religion may become a cause of errors. Every one has not the sure glance and the fullness of information that have permitted Max Müller to study the origin of religions "in the light of the religions of India." Read the captivating work on "The Science of Religions," by a writer to whom the Sanskrit antiquities were a kind of family heritage, M. Émile Burnouf. The author sets out to show that "the center from which have radiated all the great religions of the earth, is the theory of Agni, of which Jesus Christ is the most complete incarnation."[18] This theory, as it is laid down in the Vedas, is nothing else than the scientific doctrine of the identity of the principle of fire and motion, of life and thought. How does the author fill the gap between the Vedic ages and that of the composition of the gospel of St. John? He supposes that this theory, formulated previously to the dispersion of the Indo-Iranians, was transmitted by the Persians to the Jews in captivity at Babylon, and that Jesus, having received it from the latest prophets, communicated it to his disciples, to be divulged only after the formation of the Church. Is it necessary to stop to show that this is simply a hierographic romance?

To still another category of preconceived ideas, calculated to falsify the results of religious criticism, belong the preferences arising from the isolated study of a single science. Such preferences give rise to a natural predilection for the field of investigations we have chosen, and to a tendency to refer to it all the problems we are called upon to resolve. Now, when a student applies the processes of one science to another, he runs a strong risk of erring on the one side by approaching facts with an insufficient method, and on the other by perceiving only the phase corresponding to his order of habitual preoccupations. I will draw my example from the two sciences which have perhaps rendered the most service to the history of religions—linguistics and anthropology.

Both assume to make hierography a simple province of their respective empires. Sometimes linguists wish to interdict anthropologists from illustrating by comparison myths that do not belong to the same group of languages; sometimes ethnographists and students of folk-love accuse linguistics of having reduced mythology to a mirage, and, under the pretext that philologists do not agree in their etymologies, deny that they have contributed to the knowledge of myths, even within the circle of the Indo-European languages.[19] Let us examine the force of these conflicting pretensions:

The comparative grammar of the Indo-European languages is incontestably not sufficient to interpret the myths of peoples belonging to other ethnic groups, or to explain all the mythology of the Aryan peoples. Where myths occur under a form nearly identical among different races, beginning with the uncivilized people of our own epoch, we have a general fact, the source of which should be sought elsewhere than in the language or the isolated history of a particular race. Every one has heard of were-wolves. An explanation of the origin of lycanthropy has been sought in a supposed Greek pun, resting upon the assonance of λύκος wolf, and λενκὸς white. Tradition may have spoken of personages dressed in white; whence a popular legend that they were transformed into wolves. But anthropology disposes of this theory by telling us that among uncivilized peoples very distant one from another, in Asia, Africa, and America, the power is attributed to some men of transforming themselves into wild or dangerous animals, and explains that such a belief flows naturally from the idea that the savage forms of the mutual relations of man and the animal world,[20]

It is nevertheless true that philology alone can disengage the original sense of some names and some myths from the confusion of gradual changes and parasitical surcharges. How could we have been able to penetrate the myth of Prometheus, or write the real history of Jupiter, without the study of Sanskrit?[21] Sir John Lubbock attempts to explain the origin and attributes of Mercury, or Hermes, by the usage, widely extended among non-civilized peoples, of paying worship to erect stones. These stones, we observe, mark the respective limits of the tribes, are set up in pastures, point out roads, designate the location of markets and intertribal meeting-places, bear inscriptions, and cover tombs. Hence, Mercury came to be regarded as the patron of shepherds, travelers, merchants, and, sarcastically, of thieves, the god of games and letters, and the conductor of souls, "He was the messenger of the gods," Sir John Lubbock adds, "because embassadors met at the frontiers; and of eloquence, for the same reason."[22]

Unfortunately for this explanation, Kuhn has traced the connection between Hermes or Hermias and the two sons of Saramâ, the messenger of Indra, who brought back cows stolen by the demon of the storm. They, the Sâramâyau, represented the mythical dogs that guarded the road to the other world and led souls to Yama, the subterranean sun, and king of the infernal regions. Going with the Greeks to the West, one of these personages, named Çarvara, became Cerberus; the other was promoted to be Hermes—personifying the wind or the twilight; and we find in Max Müller that that identification "is one of the guiding threads that have pointed out to science the right road in the labyrinth of the ancient Aryan mythology."

Thus we see how, by this exchange of good offices between linguistics and anthropology, the sciences check and correct, and consequently complement one another, each bringing its contingent to the constantly increasing treasure of our historical knowledge. The sesame of this treasure is, "No exclusiveness, no prejudice."

I have now passed in review the principal forms that have served as the vehicle of the aspirations of the human mind toward the invisible and beyond—from vague adoration of luminous and nourishing force to the highest conception of a God at once spirit, love, and truth—from the worship concerned with ghosts and fetiches to the identification of religion with faith in the moral order of the world. What picture could be presented more varied, more instructive, more capable of attracting those who are occupied at the same time with the modern discoveries of science and the great problems of humanity?

If any are animated with the desire of contending against superstitions (using the word in its etymological sense), they can find no stronger tool than this study with which to sap the foot of clay of all idols.

To those who hold to the religious traditions of their childhood, I believe I have said enough, however much our views may diverge, to reassure their conscience, provided it does not resist the impartial search for truth. At all events, they should meditate on that phrase of Chateaubriand's: "We must not say that Christianity is good because it comes from God, but that it comes from God because it is good." This thesis implies full liberty of examination, comparison, and criticism.

I insist on the importance, were it only from motives of patriotism, of propagating the more exact knowledge of religious facts. The conclusions of history are not alone lessons of truth; they are also lessons of tolerance. The historical study of religions, I repeat, is not being anxious to learn whether this or that cult is true or false, or even whether the religious sentiment rests upon a real or an illusory basis. There, however, is a point of view that wonderfully facilitates the knowledge of religions, while it also seems to comprise the supreme conclusion of their comparative history. It is the thought that, among the "innumerable manifestations of the religious feeling of man, no one possesses the absolute truth, but each one includes a relative truth; that all represent, as the later sages of pagan antiquity had already discerned, imperfect efforts to realize a perfect ideal." Here is a ground on which the enlightened partisans of different religions can shake hands, not only with one another, but also with the pupils of science and the friends of progress.


  1. The defenders of the Bible have not been the only ones to venture in this way. Thus, M. Jules Soury, in his desire to make the cylinders square with the doctrine of evolution, once asserted the entire conformity of the Chaldean creation myths with Darwin's theories of the origin and transformation of species. ("Le Temps," 13th and 23d November, 1879.)
  2. See the "Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets," by E. Henderson, London, 1846, p. 200.
  3. Professor Sayce, "Chaldean Genesis," vol. iii.
  4. Ernest Renan, "Averroes et l'Averroism," pp. 4, 60.
  5. But we have recently seen—probably by way of reprisal—M. Jacolliot finding in Moses, as well as in Menes and Minos, the Manu of India.
  6. The abbé seems to have recognized this himself, for at the beginning of his third year (1881-82) on the "History of the Religions of India," he changed the title of his lectures to "Course of Christian Apologetics." What, now, becomes of the compliment addressed by the "Polybiblion" to the Catholic Institute of Paris for having inaugurated a course on "Comparative Religion" before the state, with the resources of the budget at its disposal, organized one at the Collége de France?
  7. See the review "La Philosophic Positive," vol. xxii, p. 368.
  8. "Mythologic Comparée," Paris, 1878, p. 2.
  9. Mr. Max Müller has done me the honor to quote a passage from my lectures on India, in which I brought out the contrast of the ancient Brahmanic philosophy with the idolatry, almost fetichism, with which the stranger's eyes are struck on his arrival in Hindostan. But by this, I in no way intended to maintain that the vulgar practices of Hindooism were a degradation of the Vedic theology, still less that that represented the original and complete condition of the Hindoo conceptions.
  10. E. de Pressensé, "Les Origines," Paris, 1883, p. 491.
  11. M. J. Darmesteter identifies him also with the Ahura Mazda of the Persians and the Svarogu of the Slavs.
  12. Cicero, "De Natura Deorum," I, 42; II, 23.
  13. "Origine de tous les cultes, ou religion universelle," by Dupuis, "Citoyen Français, Paris, the Year III."
  14. J. Darmesteter, "Les Cosmogonies Aryennes, Essais orientaux," Paris, 1883.
  15. Ch. Clermont-Ganneau, "Mythologie Iconographique," Paris, 1878, pp. 9-12.
  16. Herbert Spencer, "Sociology," vol. ii, chap. xxiv.
  17. This joke has been renewed by some students of Oxford, who have demonstrated, at length and sagaciously, that Max Müller never existed. (See the magazine "Mclusine," July 5, 1884.)
  18. "La Science des Religions," Paris, 1876, p. 209.
  19. See, in particular, in the "Athenæum" of August 30, 1884.
  20. "To those who live m countries where wicked people and witches are supposed constantly to assume the form of wild beasts," says Sir A. C. Lyal, writing of India, "the explanation of lycanthropy by a confusion between λύκος and λενκὸς appears utterly idle."
  21. Even Mr, Andrew Lang, who holds to the possibility of accounting for myths without the aid of philology, had to have recourse to it when he came to the Indo-European myths. (See, in the "Encyclopædia Britannica," vol. xvii, p. 153.)
  22. "On the Origin of Civilization and Primitive Condition of Man." New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1871. P. 205.