Taboo, Magic, Spirits: A Study Of Primitive Elements In Roman Religion
Eli Edward Burriss
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Pages (PDF): 132
Publication Date: 1931
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ROMAN religion, as we meet it in historical times, is a congeries of many elements. One of the problems of the modern scholar is to separate and interpret these various elements--primitive, Latin, Etruscan, Greek, Oriental. Even the casual student of comparative religion, who is also familiar with Latin literature, cannot fail to recognize, running through the enormous mass of facts and ideas about religion and superstition, elements which are common to all religions, past and present, whether among savages or civilized men. Such elements, when discovered in a developed religion, may fairly be called primitive. In the study of the religion of any people, the starting point should be with these common elements.
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The Mind of Primitive Man
EARLY man, in common with present-day savages, was unable to form correct inferences concerning the world about him. The reason for this seems to lie in the ignorance and in the intensely powerful imagination of the savage, which make him unable to distinguish truth from error. This characteristic, in turn, may be due to the fact that the brain of the savage is not developed enough physiologically to enable him to form correct associations and to draw correct inferences. Furthermore, the imaginings of the savage are heightened by his precarious life and by the intensity of the dangers which beset him in his struggle to survive. This inability to think correctly led, for instance, to the feeling that blood possessed peculiar and dangerous properties--a feeling extremely common among savages, and, for that matter, even among civilized persons.
So in the old Roman days Titus Manlius, having killed a gigantic Gaul in a hand-to-hand conflict, cut off the Gaul's head, "wrenched off his necklace and placed it, reeking with blood, on his own neck." From that time on he and his descendants bore the surname Torquatus (torques--a chain or necklace). The family of Torquatus had the necklace as a device down to the time of the Emperor Caligula, who forbade its use. Again, in a much later time, during one of the pagan persecutions, a Christian, Saturus, was thrown to the leopards. A single gnash of the wild beast bathed him in blood. Turning to a soldier who was also, but in secret, a Christian, he asked for the ring which he was wearing; and when the soldier gave it to him, he smeared it with his own lifeblood and handed it back.
These are not merely the actions of a bloodthirsty soldier, crazed with victory, and of a religious fanatic. It was the inability to think correctly that caused Torquatus to place the gory necklace of his slain opponent about his own neck, and that impelled Saturus to smear the ring of his fellow Christian with his own blood and hand it back to him. The curious twist in thinking which produced these actions has been considered a characteristic of the so-called age of magic; but it is by no means limited to that theoretical period, nor, indeed, to the savage, for it may be found to-day among children and even among adults. Thus a four-year-old child came running to her kindergarten teacher in a fright, sobbing out, "The sky barked at me!" The child had observed the barking of a dog; the sky made a noise which seemed to her exactly like it. Hence she felt that the sky was like a dog, if not actually a dog.
In his capacity as a minister my father frequently had occasion to christen children, sprinkling them with water. One of his parishioners, on returning from a visit to Palestine, brought back a gallon of water from the Jordan. The members of the parish, learning of this, made frequent requests that this water be used to sprinkle their children at christening ceremonies. Had anyone asked them why they wanted their children christened with Jordan water, they would probably have been quite at a loss, or else have suggested some sentimental reason or other. But their actions, if analyzed, might have yielded the following process of reasoning: Christ was baptized in the Jordan two thousand years ago; the Jordan is, therefore, a holy river. Water from the Jordan, having been in contact with Christ, is equal to Christ, so far, at least, as its sanctifying effects are concerned. Therefore children who are sprinkled with water from the Jordan come in contact with Christ.
No one would assert that the child, before crying out that the sky barked at her, went through any conscious process of thinking. No more did Torquatus reason when he smeared the necklace with the blood of his Gallic foe. But their actions can only be analyzed by tracing the faulty and unconscious line of reasoning upon which they were based. Folk stories abound in similar actions, capable of analysis on the basis of the modes of thinking of an educated man.
This primitive type of reasoning leads a person to believe, for instance, that a thing which has been in contact with another thing is still in contact with it, however far removed it may be in reality. This may be referred to as the principle of contact.
In the Attic Nights of Gellius we read that, if a dispute involving land was to be settled, the disputants, together with the judge, were compelled to go to the land involved and "lay hands" on the property. With the growth of Italy, however, the judges found it inconvenient to leave Rome to "lay hands" on the actual property; so the disputants would visit the land, returning with a clod of earth taken from it, and perform at Rome the necessary "laying on" of hands, just as if present on the land itself.
Apuleius preserves for us the story of Thelyphron, who lost his nose and ears in a most remarkable manner. On his arrival at Larissa on the way to the Olympian Games, he rambled about the streets, seeking some means of bettering his fortunes. Presently he heard an old man in the market place crying out at the top of his voice: "If anyone is willing to keep watch over a corpse, he shall receive a reward." Thelyphron inquired the reason for this strange request. "In Thessaly," the old man said, "witches bite off pieces here and there from the faces of the dead, and with these they reinforce their magic arts." He further revealed how witches would often change themselves into birds, or dogs, or mice, or even flies, and thereby accomplish their nefarious ends. He then added these significant words: "If anyone shall fail to restore the corpse untouched in the morning, whatever has been snatched from it shall be snatched from his own face to patch up the face of the corpse." Thelyphron agreed, even in the teeth of this knowledge, to watch over the dead man, for he was sorely in need of money. He fell asleep at his task: a witch, in the guise of a weasel, entered, tore off the nose and ears of the dead man and replaced them with wax. Next morning the widow, ignorant of the witch's trick, rewarded Thelyphron according to the agreement.
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