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- The Making of Religion - 40/68 -


[Footnote 38: Op. cit. p. 19.]

[Footnote 39: Callaway, pp. 20, 21.]

[Footnote 40: Pp. 26, 27.]

[Footnote 41: Pp. 49, 50.]

[Footnote 42: P. 67.]

[Footnote 43: P. 122.]

XIII

MORE SAVAGE SUPREME BEINGS

If many of the lowest savages known to us entertain ideas of a Supreme Being such as we find among Fuegians, Australians, Bushmen, and Andamanese, are there examples, besides the Zulus, of tribes higher in material culture who seem to have had such notions, but to have partly forgotten or neglected them? Miss Kingsley, a lively, observant, and unprejudiced, though rambling writer, gives this very account of the Bantu races. Oblivion, or neglect, will show itself in leaving the Supreme Being alone, as he needs no propitiation, while devoting sacrifice and ritual to fetishes and ghosts. That this should be done is perfectly natural if the Supreme Being (who wants no sacrifice) were the first evolved in thought, while venal fetishes and spirits came in as a result of the ghost theory. But if, as a result of the ghost theory, the Supreme Being came last in evolution, he ought to be the most fashionable object of worship, the latest developed, the most powerful, and most to be propitiated. He is the reverse.

To take an example: the Dinkas of the Upper Nile ('godless,' says Sir Samuel Baker) 'pay a very theoretical kind of homage to the all-powerful Being, dwelling in heaven, whence he sees all things. He is called "Dendid" (great rain, that is, universal benediction?).' He is omnipotent, but, being all beneficence, can do no evil; so, not being feared, he is not addressed in prayer. The evil spirit, on the other hand, receives sacrifices. The Dinkas have a strange old chant:

'At the beginning, when Dendid made all things, He created the Sun, And the Sun is born, and dies, and comes again! He created the Stars, And the Stars are born, and die, and come again! He created Man, And Man is born, and dies, and returns no more!'

It is like the lament of Moschus.[1]

Russegger compares the Dinkas, and all the neighbouring peoples who hold the same beliefs, to modern Deists.[2] They are remote from Atheism and from cult! Suggestions about an ancient Egyptian influence are made, but popular Egyptian religion was not monotheistic, and priestly thought could scarcely influence the ancestors of the Dinkas. M. Lejean says these peoples are so practical and utilitarian that missionary religion takes no hold on them. Mr. Spencer does not give the ideas of the Dinkas, but it is not easy to see how the too beneficent Dendid could be evolved out of ghost-propitiation, 'the origin of all religions.' Rather the Dinkas, a practical people, seem to have simply forgotten to be grateful to their Maker; or have decided, more to the credit of the clearness of their heads than the warmth of their hearts, that gratitude he does not want. Like the French philosopher they cultivate _l'independance du coeur_, being in this matter strikingly unlike the Pawnees.

Let us now take a case in which ancestor-worship, and no other form of religion (beyond mere superstitions), has been declared to be the practice of an African people. Mr. Spencer gives the example of natives of the south-eastern district of Central Africa described by Mr. Macdonald in 'Africana.'[3] The dead man becomes a ghost-god, receives prayer and sacrifice, is called a Mulungu (= great ancestor or = sky?), is preferred above older spirits, now forgotten; such old spirits may, however, have a mountain top for home, a great chief being better remembered; the mountain god is prayed to for rain; higher gods were probably similar local gods in an older habitat of the Yao.[4]

Such is in the main Mr. Spencer's _resume_ of Mr. Duff Macdonald's report. He omits whatever Mr. Macdonald says about a Being among the Yaos, analogous to the Dendid of the Dinkas, or the Darumulun of Australia, or the Huron Ahone. Yet analysis detects, in Mr. Macdonald's report, copious traces of such a Being, though Mr. Macdonald himself believes in ancestor-worship as the Source of the local religion. Thus, Mulungu, or Mlungu, used as a proper name, 'is said to be the great spirit, _msimu_, of all men, a spirit formed by adding all the departed spirits together.[5] This is a singular stretch of savage philosophy, and indicates (says Mr. Macdonald) 'a grasping after a Being who is the totality of all individual existence.... If it fell from the lips of civilised men instead of savages, it would be regarded as philosophy. Expressions of this kind among the natives are partly traditional, and partly dictated by the big thoughts of the moment.' Philosophy it is, but a philosophy dependent on the ghost theory.

I go on to show that the Wayao have, though Mr. Spencer omits him, a Being who precisely answers to Darumulun, if stripped (perhaps) of his ethical aspect. On this point we are left in uncertainty, just because Mr. Macdonald could not ascertain the secrets of his mysteries, which, in Australia, have been revealed to a few Europeans.

Where Mulungu is used as a proper name, it 'certainly points to a personal Being, by the Wayao sometimes said to be the same as Mtanga. At other times he is a Being that possesses many powerful servants, but is himself kept a good deal beyond the scene of earthly affairs, like the gods of Epicurus.'

This is, of course, precisely the feature in African theology which interests us. The Supreme Being, in spite of the potency which his supposed place as latest evolved out of the ghost-world should naturally give him, is neglected, either as half forgotten, or for philosophical reasons. For these reasons Epicurus and Lucretius make their gods _otiosi_, unconcerned, and the Wayao, with their universal collective spirit, are no mean philosophers.

'This Mulungu' or Mtanga, 'in the world beyond the grave, is represented as assigning to spirits their proper places,' whether for ethical reasons or not we are not informed.[6] Santos (1586) says 'they acknowledge a God who, both in this world and the next, measures retribution for the good or evil done in this.'

'In the native hypothesis about creation "the people of Mulungu" play a very important part.' These ministers of his who do his pleasure are, therefore, as is Mulungu himself, regarded as prior to the existing world. Therefore they cannot, in Wayao opinion, be ghosts of the dead at all; nor can we properly call them 'spirits.' They are _beings_, original, creative, but undefined. The word Mulungu, however, is now applied to spirits of individuals, but whether it means 'sky' (Salt) or whether it means 'ancestor' (Bleek), it cannot be made to prove that Mulungu himself was originally envisaged as 'spirit.' For, manifestly, suppose that the idea of powerful beings, undefined, came first in evolution, and was followed by the ghost idea, that idea might then be applied to explaining the pre-existent creative powers.

Mtanga is by 'some' localised as the god of Mangochi, an Olympus left behind by the Yao in their wanderings. Here, some hold, his voice is still audible. 'Others say that Mtanga never was a man ... he was concerned in the first introduction of men into the world. He gets credit for ... making mountains and rivers. He is intimately associated with a year of plenty. He is called Mchimwene juene, 'a very chief.' He has a kind of evil opposite, _Chitowe_, but this being, the Satan of the creed, 'is a child or subject of Mtanga,' an evil angel, in fact.[7]

The thunder god, Mpambe, in Yao, Njasi (lightning) is also a minister of the Supreme Being. 'He is sent by Mtanga with rain.' Europeans are cleverer than natives, because we 'stayed longer with the people of God (Mulungu).'

I do not gather that, though associated with good crops, Mtanga or Mulungu receives any sacrifice or propitiation. 'The chief addresses his own god;'[8] the chief 'will not trouble himself about his great-great-grand-father; he will present his offering to his own immediate predecessor, saying, 'O father, I do not know all your relatives; you know them all: invite them to feast with you.'[9]

'All the offerings are supposed to point to some want of the spirit,' Mtanga, on the other hand, is _nihil indiga nostri_.

A village god is given beer to drink, as Indra got Soma. A dead chief is propitiated by human sacrifices. I find no trace of any gift to Mtanga. His mysteries are really unknown to Mr. Macdonald: they were laughed at by a travelled and 'emancipated' Yao.[10]

'These rites are supposed to be inviolably concealed by the initiated, who often say that they would die if they revealed them.'[11]

How can we pretend to understand a religion if we do not know its secret? That secret, in Australia, yields the certainty of the ethical character of the Supreme Being. Mr. Macdonald says about the initiator (a grotesque figure):--

'He delivers lectures, and is said to give much good advice ... the lectures condemn selfishness, and a selfish person is called _mwisichana_, that is, "uninitiated."'

There could not be better evidence of the presence of the ethical element in the religious mysteries. Among the Yao, as among the Australian Kurnai, the central secret lesson of religion is the lesson of unselfishness.

It is not stated that Mtanga instituted or presides over the mysteries. Judging from the analogy of Eleusis, the Bora, the Red Indian initiations, and so on, we may expect this to be the belief; but Mr. Macdonald knows very little about the matter.

The legendary tales say 'all things in this world were made by "God."' 'At first there were not people, but "God" and beasts.' 'God' here, is Mlungu. The other statement is apparently derived from existing ancestor-worship, people who died became 'God' (Mlungu). But God is prior to death, for the Yao have a form of the usual myth of the origin of death, also of sleep: 'death and sleep are one word, they are of one family.' God dwells on high, while a malevolent 'great one,' who disturbed the mysteries and slew the initiated, was turned into a mountain.[12]

In spite of information confessedly defective, I have extracted from Mr. Spencer's chosen authority a mass of facts, pointing to a Yao belief in a primal being, maker of mountains and rivers; existent before men were; not liable to death--which came late among them--beneficent; not propitiated by sacrifice (as far as the evidence goes); moral (if we may judge by the analogy of the mysteries), and yet occupying the religious background,


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