Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
We have seen in the preceding chapter that the king or divine ruler was endowed with supernatural powers, by means of which he was able to regulate rain and sunshine, the growth of crops and the capture of bird, beast, and fish. His power over nature was analogous to that which he exercised over his subjects. He had but to will in order to have his purpose accomplished, neither nature nor subject having a choice in the matter. But with strange contradiction of thought, while the course of nature was dependent upon and subject to the king's will, phenomena were often supposed to be not only independent of him, but inimical to his interests and dangerous to his life, as were also certain objects, should he touch or even see them. His will was supreme in regard to all conditions of wind and weather, sunshine and shadow; but his body occupied the anomalous position of at once influencing the forces of nature and being liable to take harm from the simplest elements. His divine organism was so finely balanced that a movement of head or hand might disturb the equilibrium of the universe, and if in an evil moment he gave hidden forces a wrong impulse, it might entail such
wholesale destruction as the falling of the sky or the hurling the world away into limitless space. Even such a simple act as drinking a glass of wine in the presence of another was so fraught with danger that the spectator had to be put to death. One case is on record in which the king's son, a boy of twelve, saw his father drink accidentally. He was seized, finely arrayed, and killed. After that his body was quartered and sent about with a proclamation that he had seen the king drink. * No more was needed.
Of this class of divine rulers is the Mikado of Japan, a descendant of Izangi, who gave birth to the god of fire. After her death, her spouse, who was her own brother, purified himself by bathing in a stream of running water. As he threw his garments on the bankthe gods seem to have been familiar with the modern tailor's art in those daysfresh deities were born from each article. From his left eye emerged the goddess of the Sun, who was the ancestress of all the divine generations of rulers. The following account of the Mikado was written about two hundred years ago:
"Even to this day princes descended of this family, more particularly those who sit on the throne, are looked upon as persons most holy in themselves, and as popes by birth. And in order to preserve those advantageous notions in the minds of their subjects they are obliged to take uncommon care of their sacred persons, and to do such
things which, examined according to the customs of other nations, would be thought ridiculous and impertinent. He thinks that it would be very prejudicial to his dignity and holiness to touch the ground with his feet; for this reason, when he intends to go anywhere he must be carried thither on men's shoulders. Much less will they suffer that he should expose his sacred person to the open air, and the sun is not thought worthy to shine on his head. There is such a holiness ascribed to all the parts of his body that he dares to cut off neither his hair, nor his beard, nor his nails. However, lest he should grow too dirty, they may clean him in the night when he is asleep, because, they say, that which is taken from his body at that time hath been stolen from him, and that such a theft does not prejudice his holiness or his dignity.
In ancient times he was obliged to sit on the throne for some hours every morning with the imperial crown on his head, but to sit altogether like a statue, without stirring either hands or feet, nor, indeed, any part of his body, because by this means it was thought that he could preserve peace and tranquillity in his empire, for if, unfortunately, he turned himself on one side or other, or if he looked a good while towards any part of his dominions, it was apprehended that war, famine, fire, or some great misfortune was near at hand to desolate the country. But it having been afterwards discovered that the imperial crown was the palladium which by its mobility could preserve peace in the empire, it was thought expedient to deliver
his imperial person, consecrated only to idleness and pleasures, from this burthensome duty, and therefore the crown is at present placed on the throne for some hours every morning. His victuals must be dressed every time in new pots, and served at table in new dishes, both very clean and neat, but made only of common clay, that without any considerable expense they may be laid aside, or broken, after they have served once. They are generally broken for fear they should come into the hands of laymen; for they believe religiously that if a layman should presume to eat his food out of these sacred dishes, it would swell, and inflame his mouth and throat." So much for the Mikado's habits of life.
But this guarding of kings is not confined to an advanced cult. Among primitive peoples we find priestly persons and divine kings guarded with equal jealousy and care. At Shark Point, West Africa, the king lives alone in a wood. He may never leave his house. He may not touch a woman. On no account must he quit his royal chair, even to sleep, for in that case the wind would die down and all navigation would be stopped. * The supreme ruler at Congo is such another. Regarded as a god on earth, no subject would, on any consideration, taste the new crop till an offering of it is made to him. Then he leaves his residence to visit other parts of his territory, all married persons are under obligation to observe stringent laws of continence, any violation of which would prove immediately fatal to Chitome.
[paragraph continues] Were he to die a natural death, the world would be annihilated. *
Illustrations might be multiplied, but whether in Africa, Japan, or the South Sea Islands, the order and regularity of nature is bound up with the life of the ruler. It is evident he must be regarded by his people as at once a source of untold blessing and inexpressible danger to society. The care of his person must be their first consideration in their home and foreign policy, for any accident, through oversight or lack of vigilance, might prove fatal to the State. If he gives them rain, sunshine, genial warmth, successful hunting and fishing,, he can also withhold these blessings and reverse the order of nature. When the working of visible phenomena is so closely bound up with his person that hurting his toe might set up such a tremor as would overthrow the foundations of the earth, the care bestowed on his safe keeping must be infinite. For their own safety his subjects must surround him with restrictions and safeguards. There must be set and accurate rules for the regulation of his conduct both public and private. So it happens that his life is valuable only in so far as he discharges the functions for which he exists.
When he fails to order the course of nature so as to benefit his people, his deposition is not only a duty but a necessity. The homage and worship he received is turned into contempt and hatred, for he is not only useless, he is now positively hurtful. Disgraced as a ruler, he is disgraced as a god, and
then put to an ignominious death. During his life, or at least his reign, he lives hedged in by such restrictions and limitations that he ceases to be a free agent, even when his people prostrate themselves before him, and offer to him the most costly gifts and sacrifices, perhaps their sons or daughters.
Of the divine King of Loango it is said that the greater his divinity the more restrictions or taboos he must observe. These regulate all his actions, his walking and his sitting, his eating and drinking, his sleeping and waking. * To the same restrictions the heir is subjected from infancy, only that the number of observances during childhood are comparatively few, but increasing in number, till on his reaching manhood he is lost in the swaddling-clothes of taboos. The kings of ancient Egypt were, and in fact all rulers now worshipped as divine are, subject to the same life of immobility and inaction. King Egbo, West Africa, when he went abroad was concealed in an ark as became a divine and supernatural being. This was carried on the shoulders of men who were set apart for the sacred office, and were themselves sacred persons. The sacred bearers still remain, but when Egbo, who has left the palace to the actual ruler, and now lives in a sacred grove that none may enter or explore, goes abroad, the ark contains but a dummy which is followed by the reigning monarch walking on foot. The king prefers the advantages of substantial power to the honours of divinity, and so does homage to the ghost of his
own divinity, rather than enter the sacred box himself, to be the toy of party politicians.
When the office of ruler grew to be at once so burdensome and so useless there could be but one result. Men of action closed up the god in a box and went on foot. Contenting themselves with the substance of power, they left the honour and semblance to some nerveless aspirant to the priesthood who was satisfied with homage and honour in his sacred retreat, while his rival ruled the kingdom. This in course of time would lead to a separation between the offices of ruler and high priest, and so we gradually reach a farther stage in the development of human thought and the evolution of deity as that presented itself to primitive man. So burdensome did the office of king become, in the days when kings were divine, that we find in West Africa, when a king dies, a family council secretly held to elect his successor. The hapless victim is seized, bound hand and foot, and then thrown into the fetish-house till he consents to accept the kingly honours thus forced upon him. The Gallas of the East elect their king once in eight years. They are selected from five families who are royal, and through whom the succession to the throne is carefully kept up. They have a custom called Rab which compels the four families out of office to destroy all their children; those reigning for the time being allowed to rear theirs. * It is doubtless from such examples being common, that facts such as those recorded in the Book of Exodus regarding
the drowning of infants became possible as a political precaution. Powerful kings like those of ancient Egypt, or of Dahomey and Ashantee in modern times, may succeed in combining a vigorous policy with sacred functions and the idea of a man-god, but the tendency is towards degeneration and extinction. When a man ceases to move from his royal chair, to see any of his subjects except those whose interests it is to tell him only what suits their own purpose; when a movement of hand or head is dangerous to the stability of the world, and that he must give all needed blessings while carefully wrapped up in the swaddling-bands of taboo, his final disappearance cannot be long delayed. His memory lasts, but it becomes a shadow merging into ancestor worship, or kept in a closed ark in the fetish-house.
There was another, and perhaps a more powerful, reason among primitive men why those who were men of action should decline the honours of divinity, and that was the practice of killing the god. * Ancient mythology has made us familiar with the idea of the death of the gods, and if divine and spiritual deities were subject to decrepitude, decay, and death, how much more the human gods of primitive man? It was natural that men in faraway times should bestow the greatest care on their divinities, and surround them with taboos and restrictions calculated to keep them out of harm's way. But no care could make human gods immortal, and the worshippers had to take account
of the stern fact and meet it as best they might. If the course of nature depended on the god, what might not old age and imbecility bring upon the nation? Should his powers decay and his perceptions become dimmed, he might in a second precipitate calamities which would prove disastrous to himself and his subjects. The world itself might be thrown out of place, and projected no one knew where, for in those days the powers of divine persons were not restricted to "projecting" bits of flimsy French paper in the form of letters with indifferent spelling.
There was only one way open by which the danger could be met, and that was by putting the god to death while still in the full possession of his faculties or on the first appearance of outward symptoms of decay, as a grey hair or hollow tooth, and thus secure the entrance of his soul or divinity into his successor. * Should he die a natural death, even in his prime, and before the dangers of decay appeared, his soul might be stolen, or stray away into winter and night to wander for ever. If the world were to collapse on the King of Congo dying a natural death, such a contingency could only be averted by dispatching him to the land of shadows by violent means. So it was that when a king fell ill his heir and successor entered his house with a rope and club, and either strangled or clubbed him to death. "The King of Quiteva, in Eastern Africa, ranked with deity," and this continued till one of the kings lost a tooth, and feeling no disposition to
follow the practice of his predecessors by quitting the upper air on the appearance of the first bodily defect, published to his people that he had lost a front tooth, in order that "when they might behold they might yet be able to recognise him." The historian continues: "He declared at the same time that he was resolved on living and reigning as long as he could, esteeming his existence requisite for the welfare of his subjects. He at the same time loudly condemned the practice of his predecessors, whom he taxed with imprudence, nay, even with madness, for condemning themselves to death for casual accidents to their persons; and abrogating this mortal law, he ordained that all his successors, if sane, should follow the precedent he gave, and the new law established by him." *
This man, whose name is not given, was as bold a reformer as was Ergamenes of Meroe. There the kings were worshipped as gods, but whenever the priests sent a message that the king must die, he voluntarily submitted to be put to death. When the summons came to Ergamenes he replied to it by putting the priests themselves to the sword, thus reversing the order, and putting an end to the practice once for all. In Unyoro the king is killed by his own wives when seriously ill.
Nor is the custom of killing the divine king confined to Africa. The King of Calicut could only rule twelve years, after which he must publicly commit suicide according to an approved method; a method only a little less suggestive of the shambles
than the Harakiri of the Japanese. The first modification of the Calicut law of succession was made towards the end of the seventeenth century, when at the end of the twelve years a tent was pitched, and the king had a great feast lasting ten or twelve days, at the end of which any one might kill him and gain the crown. * To do so he must cut his way, sword in hand, through the king's bodyguard to reach him in his tent. The desperate attempt was at times made but never with success.
They were bold men who ventured on drastic reforms in far-away days; bolder still were those who ventured to curb the power of the priests after the offices of ruler and high-priest cane to be separated, as not a few European monarchs discovered to their cost when kept standing, barefooted and bareheaded, waiting the pleasure of an arrogant ecclesiastic. But limitations were not put to the power of the priesthood without a long period of transition, during which many expedients were adopted to preserve time-honoured usage, and adjust that to the inevitable, as represented by a truculent ruler who wished to enjoy the upper air as long as nature permitted him to do so, and who acquired awkward habits of answering the arguments of philosophers with sword-cut or gallows. To only one of such expedients can we refer, that of temporary kings or substitutes.
Where kings were put to death at the end of fixed periods or on the appearance of the first signs of
decay, rulers would anxiously endeavour to discover a means of evading the letter of the law while giving such obedience to its spirit as would satisfy their subjects and worshippers. Some boldly set the law at defiance by refusing to submit to its requirements. Others sought out substitutes, and introduced to men's minds the idea of one taking, in a grave crisis, the place of another, and being regarded as the person he represented; his own individuality being lost in the act of self-surrender and substitution. He became the king, the very man-god whom people worshipped, in his office and act. The real king in fact died, and in resuming the government it was a new king who ascended the throne to reign for another stated period. At first a relative of the king would act as substitute, but this could not continue long without the sense of justice inherent in man revolting against such a barbarous practice, and a slave or condemned criminal would be substituted for a brother or son. This substitute, whether son or slave, was for a time clothed with kingly authority and lived in regal state, while the king retired into private life. Even the royal harem might be invaded by the temporary king, a fact, when we consider the extraordinary jealousy with which they were guarded, which shows clearly that only for the most weighty reasons could such a thing be permitted. It could only be in order that the temporary king should be invested with full regal authority without restriction or limitation. At the end of the time allowed, the temporary king was put to deathkilled as a godthe king resuming office. The
custom is in some places softened down still more, and the substitute is not actually put to death, a mock execution being sufficient. This latter custom is observed in Cambodia, where the temporary king receives the revenues during his three days of office, as is also done by the same functionary in Siam, only the latter seizes ships entering harbour, and holds them till redeemed. At the end of his term of office he goes to a field and draws nine furrows, where seed is sown by old women. When the ninth furrow is finished, the spectators rush to pick up the seed just sown to mix with their own, and so secure a plentiful crop. This temporary king is known as "Lord of the Heavenly Host." * These customs, and especially the killing of the king or his substitute, introduce us to the earliest form of human sacrifice, a system which developed to such gigantic proportions as men's conception of the supernatural advanced from the ideas of human divinities to personal spiritual existences, whether as the spirit of corn or vegetation generally, the powers of nature or the souls of departed ancestors. To the development of this form of religion and worship we shall now turn.
21:* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.
21: Chamberlain; Things Japanese.
21: Kaempfer, "History of Japan," in Pinkerton's Voyages and Travels.
23:* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.
24:* J. G. Frazer, quoting Labat.
27:* Frazer, Golden Bough.
28:* J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough.
28: Dos Santos.
29:* Dos Santos.
30:* Hamilton, quoted by J. G. Frazer.
32:* J. G. Frazer, quoting Pallegoix.