Book: Religion and Myth
Author: James Macdonald

Religion and Myth By James Macdonald

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 159
Publication Date: 1883

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Published in 1883, this is a study of comparative African religious beliefs which draws on ethnographies, folklore studies, historical and traveler's accounts. In the last chapter, Macdonald condemns European attempts to 'civilize' Africans, observing that Africans have just as much cultural potential as any other people.

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Religion in the widest sense may be defined as man's attitude towards the unseen, and the earliest forms of human thought furnish the clue from which must be traced the development of those great systems of religion that have at different periods been professed by the majority of men. Under the term religion we must include, not only beliefs in unseen spiritual agencies, but numerous customs, superstitions, and myths which have usually been regarded, by both travellers and students, as worthless and degrading, till within a comparatively recent period. Only by taking account of such, and comparing usages common among tribes far removed from the influence of civilisation with survivals in other parts of the world, can we arrive at any definite knowledge regarding the world's earliest systems of thought.

In both ancient Greece and Italy the union of royal title with priestly functions was common. At Rome the tradition was, that the sacrificial king had been appointed to perform sacred functions formerly belonging to the ruling monarch, after the overthrow of the ancient dynasty and the expulsion of the kings. In republican Athens the second magistrate of the city was called King, and his wife Queen. The functions of both were religious. Other examples will occur to readers familiar with the classics. Such traditions and usages leave no doubt but in very early times kings were not only civil rulers, but also the priests who offered the sacrifices and stood between the worshippers and the unseen world. The king would thus be revered as the ruler and father of his people who protected and cared for them. He would be also alternately feared and loved as the ghostly intercessor of men, and regarded as himself partaking of the ghostly nature, for the divinity which hedged a king in those days was no empty title, but a sober fact. He was regarded as able to bestow or withhold blessings; to bring blight and curse, and remove them; and so, being above and beyond the control of his subjects, reverence and fear would easily pass into adoration and worship. To us this may appear strange, but it is quite consistent with savage thought.

To the savage African or South Sea Islander the world is largely, if not exclusively, worked by supernatural agents, and these act on impulses similar to those which move and influence men, and with which he is familiar in himself and others. Where the forces of nature are under the control of the king-priest, the worshipper sees no limit to his power and the influence he can exert on the course of nature, or even upon the material universe itself, as when a man's father's spirit shakes the earth because the king hurt his toe. He holds converse with the gods. From them come abundant crops, fecundity, success in war, and kindred blessings, and the king who bestows these is regarded as having the god residing in his own person; to the savage man he is himself divine. There is another way by which the idea of a man-god may be reached. In all countries we find traces of a system of thought which attributed to sympathetic magic events which can only happen in the ordinary course of nature, but which are supposed to be produced by will-power through some object. One of the leading principles of this sympathetic magic is, that any effect may be produced by the imitation of it. Perhaps the most familiar illustration of this is the Highland "Corp Creadh." This consisted, or consists—for it is said the practice is not extinct—of a clay image of the person to be bewitched being made and placed on a door, taken off the hinges, before a large and constantly replenished fire. Sharp thorns, pins and needles, were pushed into it; oaths and imprecations were uttered over it, the victim writhing in agony the while; elf arrows were darted against it, and the fire stirred to a blaze as the image was turned and toasted to make the sufferer feel all the torments of the damned. Finally, the "Corp Creadh" was broken to pieces, when the patient died a horrible death, blue flames issuing from his mouth. In Africa a small bundle, with a charm, tied to a pigeon's leg, keeps the person bewitched nervous and restless as the bird flits from twig to twig. If no accident happens to the charm or the bird that carries it, there is no hope for the patient's recovery; he will simply be worried to death. This magic sympathy goes farther. It is supposed to exist between a man and any portion of his person that may be severed from the body, as cut nails, hair, saliva, or even the impression left when he sits down on the grass. The same sympathy exists between persons hunting, fishing, on a journey, or at war, and those left behind. If those who remain at home break any of the prescribed rules, disaster or failure overtakes those of their friends who are absent. According to the same superstition, animals, fowls, and crops may be influenced through tufts of hair, feathers, or green leaves of corn as the case may be, and among savages elaborate precautions are taken for their protection and preservation. "Medicine" poured out on the path by which a man usually approaches his dwelling affects him,. should he return by that path, as if he had swallowed it.