Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/January 1893/Totemism in the Evolution of Theology



THE thoughtful student of universal history can plainly see, under the clear light afforded by modern research, that the line of continuity from the lowest savagery, to the highest civilization is unbroken; the vast interval between the two extremes being filled by "the series of advances through which the marvelous and complicated mechanism of refined societies has issued from the savage condition in which the first men long lived."

Anthropologists study closely the myths, customs, and traditions of uncivilized tribes of our own time, as they are thought to present the most reliable ideas of ancient peoples when they were in a similar stage of mental development.

This method commends itself to that large class of cultured minds, trained in the doctrine of evolution, who believe that, in examining things present, they have data from which to reason in regard to what has been; there being no necessity for imagining other causes than those now in action to account for the past in either the physical or psychical world.

The savage regards all Nature as a combination of distinct intelligent personalities. He draws no line of separation between himself and material things, but thinks every object upon which his eyes rest is endowed with life akin to his own. He even believes that the sky, wind, sun, and dawn are persons, "with human parts and passions." He looks upon the lower animals as more powerful than himself, and therefore worships many of them as divine and creative. This crude personalism has well been termed the distinctive philosophy of primitive culture.

Totem is a word introduced into our literature by an Indian interpreter of the last century, but it is only within recent years that totemism has been studied scientifically. It prevails almost universally among the aborigines of Australia at the present time. It is also found among savage tribes in North and South America, as well as among peoples in the same primitive stage of culture all over the world. The totem is never an isolated object like a fetich, but always a class, such as species of plants or animals—usually the latter—which certain stocks of men worship, and from whom they consider themselves descended. The clans take the name of their animal deity, such as Wolf, Bear, Serpent, Raven, and Fox. The stock name is generally traced through the female line, and no man is allowed to marry a woman who has descended from the same animal ancestor.

There are many conclusive reasons for believing that all ancient races, during their early development, lived under this crude system, and, like the savage stocks of our own time, based their laws, both social and religious, upon the well-marked lines of totemism.

The figures of the gods in ancient Egypt were represented on the monuments for ages in animal form. The organization of the local population ran on totem lines. Each city had different beast gods. In the royal genealogies, beasts are named as ancestors; showing that the early Egyptians actually considered themselves descendants of animals. The primitive element in the early Greek religion has been preserved in the "sacred chapters," fragments of which have been given us by Herodotus, Pausanias, and others—proving that the oldest images of the Grecian gods were represented in animal forms, and that the different royal houses claimed descent from animals, as do the savages of America and Australia. Mr. J. McLennan, in his papers on The Worship of Plants and Animals, calls our attention to many evidences that the early Romans as well as the Greeks worshiped totems. The Old Testament records show—notwithstanding the various revisions through which these venerated books have passed—many indications of animal-worship among the Israelites, which must have lasted for ages before the prohibition inculcated in the second line of the Decalogue was formulated. At a comparatively late date "Jehovah was worshiped under the popular symbol of a bull, while the twelve oxen upholding the laver in Solomon's temple, as well as the horns adorning the altar, were drawn from the prevalent bull-worship."[2] Modern research has also proved that the cherubim were represented in the form of winged bulls. M. Lenormant, in his famous book on the Beginnings of History, says that, during the time of the kings and prophets, "most assuredly the cherubim, as there described, are animals."

The process by which the anthropomorphic god superseded the worship of the totem deity has been suggested by Mr. Andrew Lang. "The encyclopædia of myths," as he has been rightly called, has gained the lasting gratitude of all earnest students of primitive culture for his lucid explanations of the puzzling problem of animal-worship. He says: "Among certain peoples, as in Samoa, we see the process of advance toward the Greek and Syrian view of sacred animals. They allege that, in these various beast-totems of their various stocks, the one god common to all these stocks is incarnate. . . . Savage ideas like these would account for the holy animals of different deities, especially in Greece, where each god has a small menagerie of sacred animals; and it seems probable that these animals were originally the totems of the different stocks subsumed into the worship of the anthropomorphic deity."

In Egypt, when animal-worship became associated with anthropomorphic conceptions, the figures of the gods after the twelfth dynasty exhibit a gradual transition by being represented in a mixed figure of an animal's head upon a human form.

Apis, the sacred bull, was worshiped from the earliest period, but does not appear on the monuments until the fourth dynasty. Apis was supposed to have been born from a virgin cow rendered pregnant by a moonbeam, or a flash of lightning. We find in the theology of an African tribe the story of one of their gods being born in a similar mysterious way from a cow; and we see a survival of this savage thought in regard to Indra recorded in the Rig-Veda: "His mother: a cow, bore Indra, an unlicked calf." The mother of Apis shares on the monuments the honors of the bull, and is represented, under the attributes of Isis Hathor, as a goddess with a cow's head. The hieroglyphics represent Osiris adorned with horns, or with the head of a bull, and unite the two names, Apis-Osiris. According to Greek tradition, Apis was the incarnation of Osiris.[3]

Careful study proves to us that "the peculiar mark of the wilder American tribe legends is the bestial character of the divine beings, which is also illustrated in Australia and Africa, while the bestial clothing, feathers or fur, drops but slowly off Indra, Zeus, Dionysus, the Egyptian Osiris, and the Scandinavian Odin."

In following the slow advance in culture from animal-worship to the highest monotheistic conception, we are forced to admit that "all religions are one and the same religion, in various stages of evolution, taking on different colors from local soils and climates, and thus developing many varieties." In the earliest phases of religious development we find the idea of two beings, one good and the other evil, who are supposed to be engaged in constant warfare. This widely spread dualistic myth seems to have originated in the primitive mind through an attempt to explain the origin of evil in the world. Men ask in Australia, as in Persia, "Why do things go wrong?" and are answered by the myth—still surviving in modern theology—of the evil one who has thwarted the Creator of all things. Among the Thlinkuts, on our Western continent, the great opponent of their totem deity—the Raven—is the wicked Wolf, the ancestor of the wolf race of men. In certain Australian tribes their creative totem—the Eagle Hawk—is always at war with the evil crow.

While among savage tribes the evil being is represented by different members of the animal kingdom, in nearly all mythologies of civilized peoples the evil power is depicted in the form of a gigantic serpent. Indra—in the form of a bull—fights the demon serpent Vitria. In Persia the same idea is represented in the evil Ahriman, in his continual warfare with the good Ormuzd. In Egypt, it was Osiris and Typhon; in Scandinavia, Odin and Loki; and in Judaism, Jehovah and Satan.

The necessity of a third being to mediate between the two opposing powers seems the natural outgrowth of this dualistic conception, producing the triad. It is worthy of note that the idea so prominent in savage theology—immaculate conception—remains imbedded in the mythology of civilized races, the third member of the triads being always represented as virgin-born. In Egypt, Horus, the son of the virgin goddess Isis, overcomes the power of the evil Typhon. Zoroasterism retained for a long period the dualistic conception, finally added to the two antagonistic powers, Mithras as the Savior and Mediator. In India it was Vishnu, who took upon himself the form of a man, and became known as the Restorer.

The same impulse which forced men to rise from the disconnected fancies of animal-worship, compelled a further advance to the adoration of one God. This monotheistic element is seen running through the theological conceptions of savage and civilized peoples, in their worship of one supreme God presiding over a number of inferior deities. Even in polytheistic Rome there can be framed from the leading Roman authors an almost complete system of monotheism; while it is well known that, from the time of Anaxagoras (500 b. c.), the great philosophers of Greece were virtually monotheists. The conception of one God was accepted by the Israelites through the spiritual teachings of the great prophets, a few centuries before the Christian era; yet modern scholarship has proved bejond all doubt that this belief "was the evolution there of a germ implanted in the human mind everywhere." "When the gentle Prophet of Nazareth—aided by that energetic philosopher Paul—had freed the Hebrew God from the narrow limit of nationality, and portrayed the Soul of the Universe as the loving All-Father, who is a spirit and should be worshiped in spirit and in truth, the highest monotheistic conception was given to the world.

The striking likeness exhibited in sacrificial ceremonies among all ancient peoples proves that they can be traced to one type of society common to primitive man, and that form, according to the highest scholarship, is based upon the system of totem stocks. The animal worshiped as a totem is never eaten by members of the clan excepting upon occasions of expiatory sacrifices, although among those clans who have what is called a split totem—that is, parts of animals—only a special part is forbidden as food. Dr. Robertson Smith, who has given us so many evidences of totemism among the Semites, says, "In totemism, and in no other system, laws of forbidden food have a direct religious interpretation, and form the principal criterion by which the members of one stock and religion are marked off from all the others." Colonel Garrick Mallery, in his highly suggestive address, before the Association for the Advancement of Science, on the Israelite and Indian, assures us that "the survival of totemism may be inferred from the lists of forbidden food in Leviticus, xi, and Deuteronomy, xiv. It would appear that, at about the time of the Exodus, the Israelites were organized upon the basis of families or clans, tracing through female lines, and named Hezir (swine), Achbor (mouse), Aiah (kite), Arod (wild ass), Shapan (coney), and so on.

Each of the clans refrained from eating the totem animal, or only ate it sacramentally. As the totemic organization declined, the origin would be lost, but the custom lasted, and when the legislation was codified it was incorporated in the code.[4]

The primary meaning of sacrifice, is food offered to the gods, for they were supposed to partake of the gifts of food. In Greece originally each clan had its own gods, which were real totem ancestors. Apollo Lycius had his statue in wolf form at the Lyceum, and, at this god's sanctuary in Sicyon, "legend preserves the memory of the time when flesh was actually set forth for the wolves, as totem-worshipers habitually set forth food for their sacred animals." Prof. Smith states that even the highest antique religions show by unmistakable signs that in their origin sacrifices were literally "the food of the gods."

In Israel the conception, against which the author of the fiftieth Psalm protests so strongly, was never eliminated from the priestly ritual in which the sacrifices are called "food of the deity" (Leviticus, xxi).[5] The idea of a relation between the god and an individual was never grasped by primitive peoples, but they thought the relation existed between the deities and some social group, such as a tribe, clan, or nation. This peculiar method of thought gave rise to the belief that in any offense committed by one member of the tribe all were equally guilty; consequently, when any calamity came upon them it was an evidence that some sin had been committed that must be expiated. This childish fanoy developed into atoning sacrifices, the primordial germ of which is found in the worship of totem deities. It is evident that human sacrifices predominated in early times, but as people became less savage the horrors of the ritual were modified by the substitution of animals.

Among totem-worshipers the substitute for the life of a member of the tribe was naturally an animal of the kind which the devotees and god claim as kindred. Among our Indian worshipers of totems the sacred animal is eaten, body and blood, once a year, in a solemn sacrifice of itself unto itself in a mystical ceremony. These gross rites are thought to have an atoning efficacy, as they claim that the sacred animal shares the nature of their god, who in this manner dies for his people, while at the same time the life of the sacred beast passes into the lives of the communicants and unites them to their deity and each other in lasting bonds. These savages believe, however, that the sacrificed deity is made alive again; just as in Athens, when the sacred bull was slaughtered, the mystic ritual asserts that "the dead was raised in the same sacrifice."

We find strict attention to form and ritual among all primitive peoples, and the more cruel and mysterious the rites the lower the mental plane of the devotees.

That the religious forms called mysteries, of Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and other ancient nations, evolved from the crude mysteries of their savage ancestors, is the firm conviction of our most profound scholars. In the celebration of these mysteries, which were enacted all over the ancient world, it is found that "the doctrine of a future life, connected with the legend of some hero or deity, who had died and descended into the under world, and again risen to life, dramatically represented in the personal experience of the initiate, was the heart of every one of the secret religious societies of antiquity.[6]

The Egyptian mysteries were devoted to the worship of their supreme god Osiris, whose name we find very near the beginning of what is known of the religion of Egypt. The early form of the legend shows its savage origin. In the constant warfare between Osiris and Typhon, the evil overcomes the good, and Osiris is killed, but afterward returns to life in the form of an animal, and urges his son to avenge him. Horus and Typhon fight in animal form, and the evil one's power is destroyed, but Typhon is not annihilated. As the Egyptian religion lasted for at least five thousand years, it was subjected to innumerable influences, which modified somewhat this crude legend. In time the worship of Osiris spread from Abydos, the oldest royal seat, all over Egypt, until all the religious mysteries and the whole doctrine of life after death attached themselves to the Osirian worship, where every year was enacted with many sad rites the death of Osiris, ending with joyful ceremonies, celebrating the resurrection.

We are assured that the Grecian mysteries originated from the same animistic plane as those of the mystic ritual of Egypt. Even Plutarch admitted that the myths of Dionysus, Apollo, and Demeter, "all the things that are shrouded in mystic ceremonies and are presented in rites," are just as absurd as the legend of Osiris and Typhon.

The mysteries of Dionysus originated in ancient Phrygia, and passed into Greece in early times. Archaeologists state that it is impossible to fix a date for the beginning of this kingdom, as it appears to have risen on an older civilization. It was a Greek tradition that the Phrygians were the oldest people, and their language the original speech of mankind. Zabazius was the original name of Dionysus in Phrygia, and his earliest images were of wood, with the branches attached. Later he was represented in the form of a bull with a human head; and when the anthropomorphic stage was reached his image was in human form, sometimes adorned with the horns of a bull. He had many sacred animals, but the bull was the one particularly connected with his worship.

The reproductive forces of Nature being dramatically portrayed in these mystic ceremonies, and the symbols given in forms which would explain their meaning to all beholders, it naturally follows that the method upon which these signs were based might be pure or obscene, according to the mental development of the people by whom they were given. Tradition shows that the latter predominated in the rites of that which has been termed Nature-worship. The class who have made a careful study of this subject state that there is not one of the ancient religions—the Israelite not excepted—which has not deified the sexual relation by some ceremonial rite connected with the solemn service of religion. It is evident that these forms evolved from such savage customs, as is still witnessed amid the orgies of the serpent-worshipers in Africa.[7] The peculiar custom of circumcision is thought to have originated in these gross symbols, as a sacrifice to the deity supposed to rule over the reproductive forces, as well as being also a substitute for human sacrifices. After the Phrygian mysteries were introduced into Greece, Sabazius was known under the name of Dionysus, or Bacchus, the god of the vine, whose functions were similar to those of the Vedic god Soma. Here Bacchus was called the son of Zeus and Demeter, and his birth, death, and resurrection were dramatically represented in the Grecian mysteries. Out of the combined rites connected with the worship of Bacchus, Apollo, and Demeter evolved the famous and widely popular Eleusinian mysteries. These religious ceremonies are thought by those who have made a study of early Greek life to have been instituted about the time of the first record of the Olympian games—776 b. c.—but the final molding of this elaborate ritual was not completed before the sixth century b. c. "The mysteries of Eleusis were the one great attempt of the Grecian genius to construct a religion that would keep pace with the growth of thought and civilization." The survival of savage thought in these rites, the progressive spirit of this cultured age, attempted to overcome, while trying at the same time to preserve, their fervor and self-devotion. There were four successive stages in the ceremonies connected with the celebration of the Eleusinian mysteries—confession, purification through immersion in water, the initiatory rites, followed by the last and crowning one, when the communicants were admitted to the most holy place and partook of the flesh of Demeter, or Circe, and drank the blood of Bacchus—this rite taking the place among these people of the holy sacrament in the Christian Church. We find many evidences from the Greek authors of that period that the people who joined this religious assembly were thought to lead better lives, and that through this connection salvation after death was assured them. Sopater asserted that "the initiation establishes a kinship with the divine nature." Plato wrote: "He that has been initiated has learned that which will insure his happiness hereafter." Plutarch, in a letter to his wife, wrote: "Some say the soul will be entirely insensible after death, but you are too well acquainted with the doctrine delivered in the mysteries of Bacchus and with the symbols of our fraternity to harbor such a thought." Thomas Taylor has given us these lines from an old Orphic hymn:

"The soul that uninitiated dies,
 Plunged in the blackest mire of hades lies."

Modern research has proved that the celebration of the Eucharist, in the mysteries of all ancient peoples, was considered by them as their highest act of worship and the most solemn ordinance of their religion. In the Egyptian mysteries the communicants partook of bread which had been consecrated by their priests, and was then regarded as the veritable body of Osiris, just as in ancient Mexico the worshipers of the supreme Mexican god ate sacramentally paste images made of corn and blood, after a sacred formula was pronounced over the symbols. The devotees informed the Spaniards who witnessed these ceremonies that they were partaking of the body and blood of their god. When the Mithraic mysteries were introduced into Rome, and were celebrated in the world's metropolis, the holy sacrament of bread and wine was a prominent feature in the worship of Mithras.

"There is a remarkable syncretist painting in a non-Christian catacomb in which the elements of the Greek mysteries of Demeter are blended with those of Sabazius and Mithra, in a way which shows that the worship was blended also." The most important rite of all these antique mysteries being the Eucharist, led the celebrated Cicero to exclaim, "Can a man be so stupid as to imagine that which he eats to be a god?" It has required a great effort for intelligent minds in all ages to reconcile their imaginations to the bloody ritual so prominent in all religious ceremonies from the earliest age. It is a relief to refined and spiritual natures to be able to look down the long ages of time and see that the early rite from which each evolved was instituted by savage peoples, and celebrated in their ignorant worship of animals.

It is a self-evident truth that "the ideas which the religious instinct has once grasped it seldom abandons"—consequently there are countless survivals along the entire line of religious progress, of beliefs and customs belonging to lower planes of culture, which have been, as far as possible, adapted to higher systems by giving them new names or more spiritual explanations. To this cause must be ascribed the fact—so evident to all students of comparative theology—of the early Christian Church becoming incrusted with the rituals and religious customs of the pagan world. The late Dr. Hatch, in the Hibbert Lectures of 1888, demonstrated, in the most convincing manner, "the influence of Greek ideas and usages upon the Christian Church." Every thoughtful person who has made even a slight study of this all-important subject is compelled to unite with him in saying: "Greece lives—not only its dying life in the lecture-rooms of universities, but also with a more vigorous growth in the Christian churches. It lives there, not by virtue of the survival within them of this or that fragment of ancient teaching, and this or that fragment of an ancient usage, but by the continuance in them of great modes and phases of thought, of great drifts and tendencies, of large assumptions. . . . No sooner is any new impulse given, either to philosophy or religion, than there arises a class of men who copy the form without the substance, and try to make the echo of the past sound like the voice of the present. So it has been with Christianity. It came into the educated world in the simple dress of a prophet of righteousness. It won that world by the stern reality of its life, by the subtile bonds of its brotherhood, by its divine message of consolation and hope. Around it thronged the race of eloquent talkers, who persuaded it to change its dress and to assimilate its language to their own. It seemed thereby to win a speedier and completer victory. But it purchased conquest at the price of reality" Rev. Dr. Hatch, not only proves that a majority of the rites of the Grecian mysteries have been transported into the Christian Church, but he also solemnly asserts that the peculiar tendency of the Greek mind to speculate, define, and dogmatize led to the establishment of the orthodox faith. The original meaning of dogmas are "simply personal convictions," and, while the statement of one man's convictions may be accepted by other men, still they never can be quite positive that they fully grasp the meaning of the original framer. "The belief that metaphysical theology is more than this, is the chief bequest of Greece to religious thought, and it has been a damnosa hereditas. It has given to later Christianity that part of it which is doomed to perish, but which yet, while it lives, holds the key to the prison-house of many souls."

  1. Suggested by reading A Washington Bible Class, by Gail Hamilton.
  2. Wrong and Right Uses of the Bible. By Rev. H. R. Newton.
  3. Article Apis, by Dr. Samuel Birch. Encyclopædia Britannica, ninth edition.
  4. See Popular Science Monthly for November and December, 1889.
  5. See article Sacrifices, Encyclopædia Britannica, ninth edition.
  6. Alger, History and Doctrine of a Future Life.
  7. See Vudu Worship, by Major Ellis, in The Popular Science Monthly, 1891.