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- Myth, Ritual, and Religion, Vol. 1 - 20/59 -


vivacity of intellect is rather injured, even if the Amazonian myths were imported from Africa. Mr. Spencer based his disbelief in the intellectual curiosity of the Amazonian tribes and of Negroes on the reports of Mr. Bates and of Mungo Park. But it turns out that both Negroes and Amazonians have stories which do satisfy an unscientific curiosity, and it is even held that the Negroes lent the Amazonians these very stories.[1] The Kamschadals, according to Steller, "give themselves a reason why for everything, according to their own lively fancy, and do not leave the smallest matter uncriticised".[2] As far, then, as Mr. Spencer's objections apply to existing savages, we may consider them overweighed by the evidence, and we may believe in a naive savage curiosity about the world and desire for explanations of the causes of things. Mr. Tylor's opinion corroborates our own: "Man's craving to know the causes at work in each event he witnesses, the reasons why each state of things he surveys is such as it is and no other, is no product of high civilisation, but a characteristic of his race down to its lowest stages. Among rude savages it is already an intellectual appetite, whose satisfaction claims many of the moments not engrossed by war or sport, food or sleep. Even in the Botocudo or the Australian, scientific speculation has its germ in actual experience."[3] It will be shown later that the food of the savage intellectual appetite is offered and consumed in the shape of explanatory myths.

[1] See Amazonian Tortoise-Myth., pp. 5, 37, 40; and compare Mr. Harris's Preface to Nights with Uncle Remus.

[2] Steller, p. 267. Cf. Farrer's Primitive Manners, p. 274.

[3] Primitive Culture, i. 369.

But we must now observe that the "actual experience," properly so called, of the savage is so limited and so coloured by misconception and superstition, that his knowledge of the world varies very much from the conceptions of civilised races. He seeks an explanation, a theory of things, based on his experience. But his knowledge of physical causes and of natural laws is exceedingly scanty, and he is driven to fall back upon what we may call metaphysical, or, in many cases "supernatural" explanations. The narrower the range of man's knowledge of physical causes, the wider is the field which he has to fill up with hypothetical causes of a metaphysical or "supernatural" character. These "supernatural" causes themselves the savage believes to be matters of experience. It is to his mind a matter of experience that all nature is personal and animated; that men may change shapes with beasts; that incantations and supernatural beings can cause sunshine and storm.

A good example of this is given in Charlevoix's work on French Canada.[1] Charlevoix was a Jesuit father and missionary among the Hurons and other tribes of North America. He thus describes the philosophy of the Red Men: "The Hurons attribute the most ordinary effects to supernatural causes".[2] In the same page the good father himself attributes the welcome arrival of rainy weather and the cure of certain savage patients to the prayers of Pere Brebeuf and to the exhibition of the sacraments. Charlevoix had considerably extended the field in which natural effects are known to be produced by natural causes. He was much more scientifically minded than his savage flock, and was quite aware that an ordinary clock with a pendulum cannot bring bad luck to a whole tribe, and that a weather-cock is not a magical machine for securing unpleasant weather. The Hurons, however, knowing less of natural causes and nothing of modern machinery, were as convinced that his clock was ruining the luck of the tribe and his weather-cock spoiling the weather, as Father Charlevoix could be of the truth of his own inferences. One or two other anecdotes in the good father's history and letters help to explain the difference between the philosophies of wild and of Christian men. The Pere Brebeuf was once summoned at the instigation of a Huron wizard or "medicine-man" before a council of the tribe. His judges told the father that nothing had gone right since he appeared among them. To this Brebeuf replied by "drawing the attention of the savages to the absurdity of their principles". He admitted[3] the premise that nothing had turned out well in the tribe since his arrival. "But the reason," said he, "plainly is that God is angry with your hardness of heart." No sooner had the good father thus demonstrated the absurdity of savage principles of reasoning, than the malignant Huron wizard fell down dead at his feet! This event naturally added to the confusion of the savages.

[1] Histoire de la France-Nouvelle.

[2] Vol. i. p. 191.

[3] Vol. i. p. 192.

Coincidences of this sort have a great effect on savage minds. Catlin, the friend of the Mandan tribe, mentions a chief who consolidated his power by aid of a little arsenic, bought from the whites. The chief used to prophesy the sudden death of his opponents, which always occurred at the time indicated. The natural results of the administration of arsenic were attributed by the barbarous people to supernatural powers in the possession of the chief.[1] Thus the philosophy of savages seeks causas cognoscere rerum, like the philosophy of civilised men, but it flies hastily to a hypothesis of "supernatural" causes which are only guessed at, and are incapable of demonstration. This frame of mind prevails still in civilised countries, as the Bishop of Nantes showed when, in 1846, he attributed the floods of the Loire to "the excesses of the press and the general disregard of Sunday". That "supernatural" causes exist and may operate, it is not at all our intention to deny. But the habit of looking everywhere for such causes, and of assuming their interference at will, is the main characteristic of savage speculation. The peculiarity of the savage is that he thinks human agents can work supernaturally, whereas even the Bishop reserved his supernatural explanations for the Deity. On this belief in man's power to affect events beyond the limits of natural possibility is based the whole theory of MAGIC, the whole power of sorcerers. That theory, again, finds incessant expression in myth, and therefore deserves our attention.

[1] Catlin, Letters, ii. 117.

The theory requires for its existence an almost boundless credulity. This credulity appears to Europeans to prevail in full force among savages. Bosman is amazed by the African belief that a spider created the world. Moffat is astonished at the South African notion that the sea was accidentally created by a girl. Charlevoix says, "Les sauvages sont d'une facilite a croire ce qu'on leur dit, que les plus facheuse experiences n'ont jamais pu guerir".[1] But it is a curious fact that while savages are, as a rule, so credulous, they often laugh at the religious doctrines taught them by missionaries. Elsewhere they recognise certain essential doctrines as familiar forms of old. Dr. Moffat remarks, "To speak of the Creation, the Fall and the Resurrection, seemed more fabulous, extravagant and ludicrous to them than their own vain stories of lions and hyaenas." Again, "The Gospel appeared too preposterous for the most foolish to believe".[2] While the Zulus declared that they used to accept their own myths without inquiry,[3] it was a Zulu who suggested to Bishop Colenso his doubts about the historical character of the Noachian Deluge. Hearne[4] knew a Red Man, Matorabhee, who, "though a perfect bigot with regard to the arts and tricks of the jugglers, could yet by no means be impressed with a belief of any part of OUR religion". Lieutenant Haggard, R.N., tells the writer that during an eclipse at Lamoo he ridiculed the native notion of driving away a beast which devours the moon, and explained the real cause of the phenomenon. But his native friend protested that "he could not be expected to believe such a story". Yet other savages aver an old agreement with the belief in a moral Creator.

[1] Vol. ii. p. 378.

[2] Missionary Labours, p. 245.

[3] Callaway, Religion of Amazulus, i. 35.

[4] Journey among the Indians, 1795, p. 350.

We have already seen sufficient examples of credulity in savage doctrines about the equal relations of men and beasts, stars, clouds and plants. The same readiness of belief, which would be surprising in a Christian child, has been found to regulate the rudimentary political organisations of grey barbarians. Add to this credulity a philosophy which takes resemblance, or contiguity in space, or nearness in time as a sufficient reason for predicating the relations of cause and effect, and we have the basis of savage physical science. Yet the metaphysical theories of savages, as expressed in Maori, Polynesian, and Zuni hymns, often amaze us by their wealth of abstract ideas. Coincidence elsewhere stands for cause.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, is the motto of the savage philosophy of causation. The untutored reasoner speculates on the principles of the Egyptian clergy, as described by Herodotus.[1] "The Egyptians have discovered more omens and prodigies than any other men; for when aught prodigious occurs, they keep good watch, and write down what follows; and then, if anything like the prodigy be repeated, they expect the same events to follow as before." This way of looking at things is the very essence of superstition.

[1] II. p. 82.

Savages, as a rule, are not even so scientific as the Egyptians. When an untoward event occurs, they look for its cause among all the less familiar circumstances of the last few days, and select the determining cause very much at random. Thus the arrival of the French missionaries among the Hurons was coincident with certain unfortunate events; therefore it was argued that the advent of the missionaries was the cause of the misfortune. When the Bechuanas suffered from drought, they attributed the lack of rain to the arrival of Dr. Moffat, and especially to his beard, his church bell, and a bag of salt in his possession. Here there was not even the pretence of analogy between cause and effect. Some savages might have argued (it is quite in their style), that as salt causes thirst, a bag of salt causes drought; but no such case could be made out against Dr. Moffat's bell and beard. To give an example from the beliefs of English peasants. When a cottage was buried by a little avalanche in 1772, the accident was attributed to the carelessness of the cottagers, who had allowed a light to be taken


Myth, Ritual, and Religion, Vol. 1 - 20/59

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