Cults, myths and religions (1912) by Salomon Reinach - PDF ebook

Cults, myths, and religions

Cults, myths and religions
Cults, myths, and religions



In the eyes of the evolutionist — and we are all evolutionists nowadays — man springs from the beast, humanity from animality. But man, take him where and when you will, is a religious animal; and religiosity, as the Positivist would say, is the most essential of his attributes.

 It can no longer be maintained, with Gabriel de Mortillet and Hovelacque, that quaternary man was ignorant of religion. Unless, then, we admit the gratuitous and childlike hypothesis of a primitive revelation, we must look for the origin of religions in the psychology, not of civilized man, but of man the farthest removed from civilization. 

Of this man, anterior to all history, we have no direct knowledge, beyond what we glean from the implements and artistic products of the quaternary period. True, these teach us something, as I have striven to show on a later page; but, equally true, they teach us far less than we could wish. To supplement our information, three other sources have to be tapped: the psychology of the present-day savage, the psychology of children, and the psychology of the higher animals. It is probable that animals, certain that savages and children are animists — that they project the twilit intelligence, stirring within them, into the external world, and people the universe, especially the beings and objects that surround them, with life and sentiment akin to their own. 

Poetry, with her personifications and her metaphors, is only a self-conscious survival of this state of mind, which we might even say has found an eleventh-hour justification in the scientific monism which discerns everywhere the manifestations of one identical principle of energy. The higher animals not only obey that residuum of ancestral experience known as instinct; they have their physical energies curbed by scruples. ' Hawks do not pike out hawks' eyes,' says the homely adage; and any exceptions that may be alleged against the general rule serve only to confirm it. 

This scruple, regarding shedding the blood or devouring the flesh of the species, may not be primitive; but in the case of every species, whose young need to be suckled or protected, it is a vital condition of its preservation. Where no such scruple existed, the species has quickly and inevitably disappeared: natural selection is powerless against suicide. 

With primitive or savage humanity, the scruple of blood would seem less general than among certain animals. Homo homini lupus, said Hobbes. On the other hand, it is singularly intense in certain groups united by ties of consanguinity; that is to say, in clans whose members believe themselves to be descended from a common mother — descent from the female being the only form of filiation which can be absolutely established. 

Thus the scruple — this barrier opposed to the destructive appetites — is a heritage transmitted to man from animals. Scruples, or at least certain scruples, are as natural to him as the religious sentiment itself. In fact, scruples and animism combined are the starting point of religion.

 For if animism is the mother of mythology, scruples lie at the root of religious laws and piety. Here a third element, peculiar to the homo sapiens, comes in. Many of the higher animals live in a gregarious state, implying the scruple of the blood of the species; but they do not form communities. Man, however, is not only a social animal: he is also, in the Aristotelian phrase, a political animal. Possibly, bees and ants fall into the same category; but among mammals, with the single exception of man, there is nothing similar. 

This social instinct, a development of the gregarious instinct, impels man to seek the company, the friendship, and the protection of his kind. But he goes further, and, under the influence of the animistic illusion, enlarges indefinitely the circle of his relations, actual or imaginary. The savage finds certain animals and certain plants about him, and the very mystery of their existence leads him to give them a place in the group formed by the members of the clan. Soon he infers that animal and plant must spring from a common origin with himself, and he proceeds to apply the same scruple to them as to his own people. This respect for plant and animal life is the germ of dendrolatry and zoolatry. In 1900 I called it hypertrophy of the social instinct, and I do not believe that anyone has since proposed a more acceptable explanation. 

The irrational scruple, leading up to a blank, unreasoning interdiction, the sanction of which is death, is found in all human communities and at all periods. These interdictions, in their most primitive and explicit form, have been carefully studied in Polynesia, where they bear the name of Taboo Sociologists have acquiesced in this barbarous but convenient term, and I sec no reason for discarding it. Taboo is not only the inter- diction itself; it is also the being or the object protected by that interdiction. Thus blood is taboo, and conversely, we speak of the taboo of blood. 

Zoolatry and dendrolatry, like the worship of inanimate objects, or fetichism, were familiar enough to the classical civilizations, but only as survivals pure and simple. It was among the North American peoples of the eighteenth century that they were first observed in general and active operation, entailing the most serious consequences for the constitution of the family itself. Hence— via the missionaries has come the name totem, which the red man applied to the animal, the plant, or (more rarely) the mineral or celestial body, which his clan recognized as an ancestor, a protector, and a rallying symbol. The primitive form of zoolatry and dendrolatry, antedating any kind of anthropomorphism, is totemism. It may not be so widespread as animism, but the fact remains that it exists, or has existed, among numerous tribal groups, both living and dead, in Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Oceania.

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