Religion and Myth, by James Macdonald, , at sacred-texts.com
To the savage who is constantly surrounded with spiritual beings, and whose life is dependent on securing their continued favour, no actions can be performed without a religious significance. He has not arrived at the idea of natural law apart from agents which regulate phenomena. To these agents he owes allegiance, because of the benefits he receives at their hands, and according to his conceptions of their wants and wishes, their tastes and fancies, will his life and actions be ordered. At first sight it would appear as if the whole business of religion were left to its avowed professors, for these are in evidence in connection with every event which happens. But there could be no greater error that to conclude that the magician's vocation represents the domestic religious life of the people. We may take it as a general rule that the magician's services are required only in connection with what is unusual in village life, as births, marriages, deaths, accidents, evil omens or any circumstance the meaning of which may be doubtful. The religion of ordinary life, of eating and drinking, sleeping and walking, working and talking is conducted by each individual according to the approved method of the tribe. In
the details of this religion he has been instructed from childhood. His intellectual faculties lie dormant, but the ritual of life has been burned into his very soul and become part of his being. An African is no more likely to forget the minutest detail of private devotion than a European is to forget to undress when he retires to rest. The chief, as in the case of the Barotsi, may be a demigod, * and his people flock to his village for protection during a thunderstorm, but it would be an error to suppose the Barotsi devoid of a religion and ritual, because of this simple childish trust in the divinity of the chief. They have a peculiar method of presenting their offerings. A sacred horn is stuck into the ground, and when they sacrifice they pour the blood of the victim over the horn. It is also customary to tie pieces of cloth devoted to the gods round it. The horn is generally placed in a sacred grove, and is really an altar to which the worshipper repairs to do his private devotions.
There seems but little religion in a number of love-sick swains battering one another with slave whips, nor in a maiden running knife-blades into their thighs, but in a land where the bull is the emblem of universal life the gods rejoice to see a display of vigour and virile power. That and heroic endurance are the cardinal virtues. A free fight with bare sabres for a crown is not consistent with our ideas of succession, and the suggestion of weapons of war banishes all thoughts of devotion from our minds. But he who is to sit upon the
throne favoured by the gods must, as an act he owes to them, win his position by giving evidence of the physique as well as mental vigour necessary for upholding the dignity of the tribe. A chief hanging on to the toe of old King Chop as he regaled himself with trade rum is not suggestive of altars and incense, but then King Chop himself was divine and represented the god-life to his people. To hold his toe was a sacred office, an act of dutiful obedience to the gods. Who could tell but, as he poured the "devil water" down his throat, the god spirit might escape by his toes if these were not held by a sacred person? The Waneka who wandered in woods with murderous intent during his novitiate believed himself to be doing a religious duty of the most sacred nature, and that without this preliminary the gods would never give him wisdom in council nor strategy in war. By obedience he was qualifying himself to advise regarding the affairs of gods and men, so different are savage man's conceptions of qualification for office from ours.
The King of Dahomey while doing homage to the gods would to us appear to be engaged in a profitable commercial transaction, and but for his being himself divine there would be a strong suspicion that considerations of profit influenced him. All the women of the country are his by divine right. It is an act of divine favour to bestow a wife on a subject, and when he does bestow one he expects. handsome black mail. It is he who gives to men all they possess. They must toil for the corn which
the king gives through regulating the course of nature, and if they must pay by toil for the lower gifts, it would be impiety not to labour also for the higherthat is, for their wives. The king has given his subjects fecundity; they in return must reward him for the blessing, else the younger generation of women will be barren.
Thus we see that many acts, which according to Western ideas are far removed from the region of devotion and worship, are in reality parts of a life every act, word, and movement of which has a significance in a religious sense. I have seen natives of Africa perform acts of devotion before the eyes of men who declared that they had no idea of worship nor of gods. When a native glances at the sun or moon, he prays; when he drops a small particle of food on the ground before he begins to eat, he offers an oblation; if he throws a tuft of grass, a bit of stick, or a stone, out of his hut door in the morning before he emerges himself, he has said matins. Nor does he neglect to sing vespers when he turns his face to the bright constellations overhead be-tore rolling himself up in his skin blanket for the night. These are all acts of devotion, and represent forms of worship common among a large proportion of primitive men. They are performed by each individual on his own account, apart from the more formal religious rites which are the proper functions of the magician. And this is consistent with what we know of the growth of religious ritual among those nations where the evolution of religion can be best studied. The earliest forms of devotion of
which we have an account among the Jews were very simple and acts of sacrifice were exceptional and rare. With the development of the religious life of the people different orders sprung up, and these confined themselves to particular functions. But though we know but little of domestic and individual religion among the mass of the people, such indications as we have go to show that each man did perform acts of devotion however simple these might be.
We have seen that the king of Old Town kept his soul in a sacred grove, and that this was an act of devotion. It, however, gives the clue to a class of myths which are common from the Ganges to the Atlantic, and that is the soul dwelling apart from the body. It is difficult to classify the legends and folk-lore tales in which these myths are met with. They partake of magic certainly; but are more of the nature of devotion, and the caring for the soul's welfare by placing it in such safe keeping as to defy the enemies of mankind to obtain access to it.
In a former chapter reference was made to the soul's absence during sleep or fainting. Some of the dangers of soul-snatching by ghosts, wizards, and evil spirits have also been noticed. The dangers of the soul during its temporary absence were considerable. While resident in a man's body it was comparatively safe; but even then there were dangers, and dangers of such nature as to be difficult to guard against. While a man remained in sound vigorous health his soul was safe, but should he be taken ill his soul was then in danger, for it could
be reached and injured, perhaps stolen, through his body, as in the case of the soul which the wizard got as it was handed about among the gods at the sick man's door. This being an admitted and recognised fact, it would be of the utmost importance for a man to have a place of safe keeping where he could deposit his soul in time of danger, and if this place were very secure, it would be a manifest advantage to have his soul kept there permanently. This would make a man independent of wizards on the one hand and of magicians on the other. The former could no longer hurt him; the latter he could dispense with when freed from the fear of witchcraft. Such a man could boldly strike out a new course, and become a reformer by a defiance of the powers of evil, and a total neglect of the gods. Hence it is that such men, in popular imagination, are regarded as giants, monsters of impiety, cruel and cunning, regardless of all interests except their own, and oppressing all who come into their power. Evidence of this is found in the folk-lore tales taken from the traditions of peoples living widely apart, and the number and variety of such tales is proof that, at one time, this was a sober belief widely diffused throughout the world, and is a faithful reflection of the facts of life, in relation to the unseen, as these appeared to primitive man. These tales would in the first instance be preserved and recited as a true statement of the facts, and, handed down through millenniums of years, told at one time to warn the impious, at another as nursery rhymes, or by the fitful light of a blazing log on a winter's
night, to amuse the curious, they would preserve much of their original form, though places and circumstances would change.
Such was the story of "Headless Hugh," of my own nursery days. I still, when the winds howl about the gables and among the trees, find my mind running back to the time when Headless Hugh was a real living man, who on stormy nights rode along the sea shore "between wave and sand," and watched whether little boys went to sleep quietly. If they did not he took them away on "the grey filly that never had a bridle." It must be nearly thirty years since I heard old Betty Miles tell the story. I could repeat it word for word now, so persistent are the impressions of childhood, especially when accompanied by a wholesome state of terror.
Hugh was a prince of Lochlin, and was long held captive by a giant who lived in a cave overlooking the Sound of Mull, and known by his name to this day. For many years Prince Hugh lived in the dismal recess of this grotto. One night there was a violent altercation between the giant and his wife, and Hugh who lay very still listening, knowing that he would be killed and eaten if it was known that he overheard their conversation, discovered that the giant's soul was in a great pearlliterally precious gemwhich he always wore on his forehead. The prince watched his opportunity, seized the pearl, and having no means of escape or concealment, hastily swallowed the gem. Like the lightning from the clouds, the giant's sword flashed from its scabbard and flew between Hugh's head and his body to
intercept the gem before it could be swallowed. It was too late, and the giant fell down, sword in hand, and expired without a gasp. Hugh had lost his head, but having the giant's soul in his body, saved his life and gained his liberty. He took the giant's sword, slew his wife, and then with the trusty weapon buckled to his side he mounted "the grey filly that never had a bridle, and swifter than the east wind," and made his way home unconscious of the loss of his head. His friends did not recognise him, declared he was a ghost, and refused to admit him to the palace, and so "he wanders in shades of darkness for ever, riding the grey filly faster than the east wind." On stormy nights he is seen riding along the shore "between waves and sand." He has taken many boys who would not go quietly to bed, and none of them have ever returned. This is the outline of a story I often heard from an old beldam who made my young life a long-continued torment while she had the opportunity of doing it.
Compared with it, the following Hindoo tale betrays a common origin in the days when such facts were soberly believed. The story is of a giant or magician who had held a beautiful queen captive for twelve years. At last the queen's brother came to visit her, and they both spoke the magician fair. He told them, in a moment of confidence, that he kept his soul thousands of miles away in a desolate country covered with jungle. In this jungle there was a circle of palm trees; within the circle six water tanks, piled one above another; under the lowest a birdcage with a small green parrot in it.
[paragraph continues] The parrot was his soul, or rather he kept his soul in the parrot. The queen's brother hearing this sought out the jungle, and at last found the cage which he brought to the magician's palace. When the magician saw it, he cried, "Give me my parrot." The boy tore off a wing; the magician lost an arm. In this way he was torn limb from limb, and, finally, when the parrot's neck was wrung he fell down dead, his neck broken. * In another Hindoo story the soul is in a necklet. In a well-known Highland story the giant says: "There is a great flagstone under the threshold; under the flagstone is a wether; in the wether's belly is a duck; in the duck's crop an egg, and that egg contains my soul." The egg, as usual, is found and crushed and the captive is set free. The giant dies, of course.
The same form of superstition and myth is common to Teutons, Norse, Slavonians, Ancient Greeks, and Jews. The history of Samson, as recorded in the Book of Judges, is a case in point. He remained invulnerable till, through the wiles of his wife, he was shorn of his locks, and then his strength departed. The variations in this case from the Hindoo and Celtic tales is nothing more than might be expected, when the national characteristics of the Jews and their peculiar history is taken into account. This form of myth is as wide as humanity. I was on one occasion sitting in a Hlubi chief's house waiting for the appearance of the great man, who was doing his toilet, to hold a palaver. Several of his chiefs and
councillors were present, and entered freely into conversation with my attendants. I did not pay any particular attention to what passed till one of my own people said, in English, "Ntame has his soul in these horns," at the same time pointing to a pair of magnificent ox-horns placed in the roof by the lightning doctor to protect the house and its inmates from the thunderbolt. The horns were those of an animal offered in sacrifice and were sacred. I took the statement at the time to mean that to hold a palaver with Ntame was equivalent to holding converse with an ox, and made no farther inquiries. Whether my factotum spoke a parable, or stated a sober fact gathered from the councillors present, I cannot say. He addressed me in English, which he spoke fluently, and as no one else present understood a word of what he said Î took his statement to be a hint to be careful what I said, and how I received our host's promises and professions of friendship. I have had no opportunity of verifying the statement, but the idea is in no way foreign to South African thought. A man's soul there may dwell in the roof of his house, * in a tree, by a spring of water, or on some mountain scaur.
This form of superstition leads by an easy transition to totemism, and it is on this account I regard it as more religion than magic or witchcraft. The object where the soul dwells is sacred, and it gets its sanctity because it is the home of the soul. This may be a bird, as the tufted crane among Kaffirs; an animal, as the crocodile, among Bechuanas; an insect,
as among the Hottentots, who regard the mantis religiosa as a divinity. All these objects are sacred because either a person's life is bound up with a particular specimen, or the tribal life with a class. The horns of a lightning sacrifice are sacred, and must not be touched except by the doctor, but this does not extend beyond the family in whose interests the sacrifice was offered, while animals that are sacred to the tribe are sacred to each individual member of it. To shoot a crane would be a more heinous offence than to shoot a fox before the hounds. Again, tribes are named after animals or objects, as the elephant people, the swimmers, men of the wood, and such other names or titles descriptive of supposed qualities as tradition has preserved.
In Sutherlandshire at the present day there is a sept of Mackays known as "the descendants of the seal." These claim as their ancestor a laird of Borgie, who married a mermaid, and as the legend has never been in print, I give it here as recently told me by one well versed in north-country mythology. * It is as follows:The laird was in the habit of going down to the sea rocks under his castle to bathe and drink salt water. One day he saw a mermaid close in shore, combing her hair and swimming about as if anxious to land. After watching her for a time, he noticed her cowl on the rocks beside him, and knowing she could not go to sea without it he carried it up to the castle, hoping she would follow him. This she did; but he refused
to give up the cowl and detained the maid herself, whom he made his wife. To this she consented with great reluctance, and told him her life was bound up with the cowl, and if it rotted or was destroyed she would instantly die. The cowl was placed for safety in the centre of a large hay-stack, and there it lay for years. One day, during the master's absence, the servants were working among the hay and found the cowl. They showed it to the lady of the house, not knowing what it was. She took it, and then, strapping her child securely in its cot, she left and went to sea never to return again to Borgie. For Years she used to come close in shore that she might see her boy, and then she would weep because he was not of her own kind so that she might have him at sea with her. The boy grew to be a man, and his descendants have always been exempt from drowning. They are famous swimmers, and are known locally to this day as "Sliochd an roin," that is, the descendants of the seal.
It is difficult to give an explanation of such myths as this, but when I first heard it I began to make inquiries, and discovered that there are floating traditions of shipwrecked crews having settled down among the native population, and I have thought that the Borgie mermaid may have been a cast-away maiden. If so, was she detained against her will? Did she make her escape? Were there negotiations about the custody of her child between her friends and the wild septs of the Reay country? And did local tradition weave these facts into the legend as it was current half a century ago? An
answer to these questions is made all the more difficult by the existence of other local traditions. There is a sept known as "the men of the hide" in the same district, and the tradition regarding their name, if not their origin, is this:The devil visited the district to get the names of all those who were willing to aid him. The laird of Cobachy met the stranger, whom he found a "nice-spoken gentleman," albeit he was attired in a bull-hide with the horns attached. The laird noticed that his visitor kept his feet concealed, but in leaping a bog he got a glimpse of the cloven hoof, and to get rid of him recommended a visit to Melness. The devil put to sea in his bull-hide, and raised the Kyle of Tongue into foam and furrow as he crossed. After an interval he returned, and called to pay his respects to his friend Cobachy. The latter asked how he had succeeded. "Oh," said he, "that is the place to go to; I have covered my hide with names. I got so many that some are marked on the horns." * The men of the district are known as Fir-na-Siochthe men of the hide. This the present generation resent, and are apt to fly to their fists if bull-hides are mentioned.
182:* Arnot, Garanganze.
189:* Mary Frere, Old Deccan Days.
190:* J. Sutton, MS. notes.
191:* Rev. A. Mackay.
193:* Rev. A. Mackay, MS. notes.