Folk-Lore/Volume 1/Recent Research in Comparative Religion

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Folk-Lore Volume 1, 1890
Number 3 (September)

Recent Research in Comparative Religion—Joseph Jacobs




The Religion of the Semites: Fundamental Institutions, by W. Robertson Smith. (Black). 1889.

The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, by J. G. Frazer. (Macmillan.)

The Pre-Historic Antiquities of the Aryan Peoples, by O. Schrader. (Griffin.)

The Origin of the Aryans, by Isaac Taylor. (Scott.)

THE first two books on our list are a veritable triumph for folk-lore, and especially for that conception of the science which has been consistently advocated by the Folk-Lore Society. Here we have two books dealing with the primitive religion of the two great groups of nations from which civilisation has obtained its chief spiritual material, and both avowedly appeal to folk-lore for methods of investigation and for corroborative criteria. Both use freely the analogy of savage custom and ritual to explain those of Semites and Aryans. Both apply with confidence the method of “survivals”, in order to reconstruct the primitive systems from which the “survivals” derive. The two books deal with the deepest problems of human thought, and neither disdain, in seeking for their solution, the light that may be obtained from folk-tales, superstitions, and even games, those seemingly trivial remnants of older ways of thinking which folk-lore collects or investigates. As some justification for claiming the works of Prof. Smith and Mr. Frazer for our science, I think it would be generally admitted that there is no English specialist journal in which they could be more appropriately reviewed than in Folk-lore. Would that the suitability of the review were matched by the capacity of the reviewer!

Of the two books, we may deal with Prof. Smith’s first, as it appeared earlier, and is, perhaps, the more important. Though professedly dealing with the Religion of the Semites, it is mainly concerned with a hypothetical history of the ritual practices of the early Arabs in their relations to those of the Old Testament. Assyriological evidence is rejected as of too advanced and hieratic a character to throw light on origins. The evidence relating to Phœnicians and Syrians is too scanty and precarious to be of much value, though Prof. Smith refers to it now and again. So that, practically, all we have to go upon for the religion of the Semites is provided by the Old Testament and the traditions of Arabia in the times of ignorance before Mahomet. With regard to the latter, the evidence is very late, being mainly derived from the songs and anecdotes of pre-Islamite Arabs contained in the Hamasa and the Kitab Al Aghani. To these are added a few notices in the commentators and geographers, as well as those contained in classical sources. One of the latter, indeed, an account of the habits of the Sinaitic Arabsjn the fourth century A.D. by Nilus, does Prof. Smith yeoman’s service, as we shall see.

It is thus obvious, by a recital of Prof. Smith’s sources, that he adopts fully one of the main principles of the anthropological method. He seeks for origins among the primitive conditions of savage or quasi-savage life, and does not go on the assumption that the earlier in date is necessarily the earlier in development His implicit assumption throughout his book is, that the practices of the nomad Arabs, even though recorded much later, are more primitive and nearer the common source than the customs of the sessile and more civilised Hebrews. It need scarcely be said that such an assumption will meet with no demurrer in the pages of Folk-Lore or from any follower of Dr. Tylor. And equal welcome will be accorded to Prof. Smith’s practice in resorting for confirmatory evidence to savage nations among non-Semites; it would have been well, indeed, if he had had more frequent recourse to this class of evidence.

On the subject of sources, it is strange that Prof. Smith has not had more frequent recourse to the Talmud and kindred literature of the later Hebrews. Here, if anywhere, we should expect to find “survivals” of archaic custom; and much of Talmudic ritual carries on the face of it evidence of more archaic practice than the more ideal codes of Ezekiel and the Pentateuch. Prof. Smith rightly praises the works of Spencer and Selden in the seventeenth century, but he would have done well to have followed their example in using the Talmud. He would, besides, have been able by this means to test the current hypothesis of the sequence of the three codes into which the Pentateuch has been divided by the Dutch and German critics. If these point to a development in a certain direction, we ought to find that development carried still further in the same direction in Talmudic times. As a matter of fact, literary analysis is of little use in archaeological research, and is scarcely mentioned more than once or twice by Prof. Smith.

Another point in which Prof. Smith adopts the methods of the anthropological school, is, that he seeks for his origines in early practice rather than in early thought or theory. In other words, he looks for the religion of the primitive Semites in the ritual of Semites less primitive, and not in their creed, if indeed any ancient religion can be said to have a creed. Thus the present instalment of his work deals in the main with the ritual of Sacrifice, and its meaning among the primitive Semites; and the subject of Semitic mythology is left for the second series of the Burnett Lectures. Here again Prof. Smith is at one with Mr. Spencer, Dr. Tylor, Mr. Lang, and all those who have treated of early religion from an anthropological stand-point.

So much for method, which is entirely that of the English schools. It is scarcely a year ago since I expressed a hope in these pages (Arch. Rev., iii) that Biblical Archæology would be treated by anthropological methods, and even as I wrote, Prof. Smith was applying those methods with signal mastery. I need not say how cordially I welcome Prof. Smith’s weighty contribution to Biblical Archæology, and if in the sequel I demur to some of his conclusions, it is on the understanding that in a field of such complexity and precarious footing the first and foremost thing is right method, and herein—let me emphasise the fact from the start—Prof. Smith has found salvation.

The subject of this first series is, as I have said, mainly the ritual of Semitic sacrifice and its meaning. Prof. Smith has a few preliminary lectures on the nature of the Semitic gods, in which he has an ingenious suggestion explaining the Baalim as divine lords of the manor, so to speak, and a still more ingenious application of the Jinn (the Genii of our youth and of the Arabian Nights) as “potential totems” of the waste places of the desert. But all this is only introduced to emphasise the conception of the Semitic gods being regarded as of the same kin as their worshippers, and so to lead on to Prof. Smith’s theory of Semitic sacrifice.

This is, briefly, that sacrifice is a common meal of the god and his worshippers, by which their community of blood (in a literal sense) should be reinforced from time to time. Prof. Smith shows that a similar conception governs the blood-bond made between two individuals. He gives instances where blood is used on the altar or sprinkled on the worshipper. He minimises the importance of vegetable offerings, and sees in them the quite late and advanced modes of approaching the god. Except, however, in the one instance given by Nilus, and referred to above, he fails to find an actual sacred meal in which the absorption of blood into the worshippers seems part of the rites.[1] Nor has he been able to show any analogous rites with such an avowed object among savages. Mr. Frazer, indeed, in his new book gives numerous examples of such meals, but none in which the object is to restore communion between god and worshipper. The whole idea of communion seems to me too theologically abstract to be at the basis of savage rites of sacrifice. For these we must look to some utilitarian motive, based, it may be, on some savage and seemingly absurd idea, but logically deduced from it. Now, it is difficult to see what advantage a savage can derive from being made one with his god, by eating the same flesh as he. One could understand the use of “eating the god”, by which to obtain the divine qualities and powers: Mr. Frazer gives many examples of this. But what is the use of eating the same thing as the god?

Even in the totem systems there does not seem to be any attempt to renew a tribal bond with the totem, though there is, in initiatory ceremonies, an attempt to give blood-communion with the fellow-tribesmen (Frazer, Totemism, 45-6). At the basis of Prof. Smith’s views, indeed, there is an assumption of the existence of totemism among the primitive Semites, the evidence for which he has brought forward in his Kinship and Marriage in Ancient Arabia. Now, this is a question still sub judice, and there are extremely few judices. I cannot think of more than four men in Europe who are competent, from knowledge of pre-historic Arabia, to pass judgment on the success of Prof. Smith’s attempt to prove totemism in Arabia; and of these, two, Wellhausen and Goldziher, are adverse to his claims. But even assuming Arabic totemism to be proved, Prof. Smith has still to show that in totemistic communities sacrifice is of the character of a communion. The blood-communion between god and worshipper cannot be regarded as a vera causa till it has been shown to exist among savage tribes with the avowed object of restoring communion between the totem or god and his worshipper.[2]

With regard to the application of Prof. Smith’s theory to the Semites, there is the further difficulty that those Semites whose ritual we know best the Hebrews were rigidly scrupulous in avoiding the taste of blood. No reason is given for this tabu, and this is just one of those seemingly irrational practices that are most likely to be primitive, or at least archaic. And on the ordinarily accepted view of the origin of sacrifice—which regards it as a gift to propitiate a superior being—this can be easily understood as the avoidance of the worshipper of taking what belongs especially to the god, the essence of the victim’s life, the blood. In a similar way, almost all the practices of Hebrew ritual may be explained on the tributary theory of sacrifice,[3] where we do have a utilitarian basis for the practice. As a savage, I give the most precious gift I can to the god, my own blood, the life of an animal, or the most precious food I know, in order to prevent him injuring me, or to induce him to do me good. The analogy is with a tribute to a king, not, as Prof. Smith would have it, with a carouse with a comrade.

It will thus be seen that Prof. Smith’s theory traces religion to a sort of friendship rather than, as on the older tributary theory of sacrifice, to a feeling of fear. “It is not with a vague fear of unknown powers,” he says, p. 55, “but with a loving reverence for known gods, who are knit to their worshippers by strong bonds of kinship, there religion in the true sense of the word begins.” That is an attractive picture, but it scarcely answers to what we know of savage practice and feeling about the higher beings. It does not answer, for the matter of that, to the feeling of the majority of men who are not savages. And it is met by the further difficulty of the facts of magic which are certainly worship, and are as certainly dominated by fear. To this Prof. Smith objects that magic is never religion nor its source. But surely its simplest explanation is that it is the survival of an older religion, and its gloomy aspect is due to its antinomianism with regard to the later and generally purer creed.

Another obstacle that stands in the way of Prof. Smith’s theory is the fact of human sacrifice. That cannot be a common meal of god and worshippers, and accordingly Prof. Smith has to make the most ingenious hypotheses to explain the late origin of human sacrifices among the Semites, among whom it certainly existed. But if ever a practice bore on the face of it the marks of primitiveness it is that of human sacrifice, and its existence stands in the way of the loving reverence for a kindred god postulated by Prof. Smith’s theory.

Finally, it would not be impossible to explain away much of the crucial significance attached by Prof. Smith to Nilus’s account of the morning rites of the Sinaitic Arabs. Thus the importance attached to the completion of the sacrificial meal between the rising and disappearance of the day-star seems to point to some form of astral worship which we know to have been current among the Northern Arabs. And even with regard to the blood-drinking, I notice an important discrepancy in Prof. Smith’s account. On p. 263, the flesh was eaten “half raw, and merely softened over the fire”. On p. 320, the company “hack off pieces and devour them raw”; in the former case the significance of blood is practically nil.

Thus altogether for these reasons I cannot consider that Prof. Smith has made out a case for the view that sacrifice among the Semites was in its origin a blood-bond between god and worshipper. The most favourable verdict that can be given for such a contribution is the Scotch one of “Not proven”. Perhaps some of the want of conviction which Prof. Smith’s book produces is due to its style and arrangement. The retention of the lecture-form has given a dogmatic tone to the presentation which is signally inappropriate in a field where facts are so scanty and theories so hypothetical. Little attention has been paid to the reader’s needs for explanation, and the book, as a whole, is decidedly hard reading.

Prof. Smith’s book suffers much by contrast with that of Mr. Frazer, whose literary skill is to be recognised throughout, both in arrangement and his clear and careful summaries at appropriate pauses of his argument. So great is his skill in this respect that one scarcely notices that his book is made up of somewhat incongruous elements. The avowed object of the book is to explain the curious rule of succession to the Arician priesthood, the priest of Aricia being succeeded by the man who managed to slay him after plucking the Golden Bough from the tree under which he lived. But besides this, Mr. Frazer has desired to make known to English readers Mannhardt’s remarkable views and facts about agricultural deities. And beyond this, it is clear that Mr. Frazer has also seized the opportunity of putting into print some of the vast materials of primitive custom and belief that he has been collecting for many years. In noticing his book we may, perhaps, separate these three threads of this cunningly woven weft.

Mr. Frazer’s explanation of the Arician rule is, briefly, that the Priest-king of Aricia had to be slain by his successor, as he represented the sacred life of the fields around him, and this would be kept at its highest point of efficiency by being passed on when the priest’s powers began to fail. He gives elaborate parallels for the existence of priestly kings or royal priests, and for their being regarded as incarnations of the forest or field divinities. He points out similar cases where king, priest, or even god is slain, so that he should not die a natural death with his powers enfeebled. There can be little doubt that he has proved this part of his case up to the hilt. I am not so convinced, however, of his success with the bough that plays the title rôle to his book. This he considers to be the “external soul” (“Life-Index” was Capt. Temple’s very apt title for it) of the tree, and probably of the grove. So far so good, but why should a would-be successor of the Arician priest have to pluck it before beginning the fight with the present possessor? There can be two or more external souls of a being, answers Mr. Frazer, and both must be slain or annihilated before the soul can pass in fresh to a new external home. The moral of that would seem to be, rather keep one of the external souls vigorous, and all will be well. As one of Mr. Stevenson’s characters remarks, “It’s not much use killing a man if he’s got another life.” The Golden Bough may be the mistletoe, and the external soul of the oak, but why it had to be plucked before the combat in the grove of Nemi, is, I confess, to me a mystery still.

So much for the nominal subject of the book, which, after all, is but one of the curiosities of custom that are interesting to solve indeed, but yet seem by-paths in the search after mythological truth. But those who remember Mr. Frazer’s first and still most brilliant piece of work in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute, for 1885, on Burial Customs, will know that it is his way to tack on to such seeming trivialities an enormous mass of well-digested facts bearing on his nominal subject, but really of more interest than it. He has pursued the same course on the present occasion. He has incorporated in this book the greater part of Mannhardt’s researches on agricultural customs and their significance, with additions from his own unrivalled collections. The most remarkable of these is that deduced from Harvest Home games, which would seem to render it probable that human sacrifices were common in archaic times to ensure the fertility of the soil. If the inferences of Mannhardt and Mr. Frazer are to be trusted, there is scarcely a field in Europe that has not at one time or another been reddened by the blood of such a sacrifice. I would, myself, hesitate before accepting such a sweeping assertion, simply on inference from folk-lore “survivals”. We should have somewhat more explicit evidence of such general carnage before we can assert its general existence all over the countries where the folk-lore customs extend. Here, as elsewhere, Mr. Frazer seems to me to overlook the imitative nature of man, and the possible spread of the customs and the rhymes from one centre.

Mr. Frazer, again following Mannhardt, applies these agricultural customs to explain some of the most archaic myths, as, e.g., those of the deaths of Osiris and Adonis. These he connects with the habit of killing the “corn-demon” to ensure its vigorous life in another personality. Mr. Frazer confesses, in his preface, to some misgivings that he has pushed his hypothesis too far, and in the cases of Attis, Osiris, and Dionysus this seems to be the case, their connection with agriculture being of the slightest. Mr. Frazer might have taken more account of the thesis of Von Hehn, who suggests that the association of certain plants with certain deities—e.g., the olive with Athene—was really due to its introduction by the priests of the god or goddess. However, it is the duty of every hypothesiser to push his theory to its furthest extent. Someone has said that the use of philosophical systems is in their weak places. So, too, the strength of an hypothesis is best shown in its weak places. Mr. Frazer’s views have some plausibility, even when stretched and strained to their utmost.

But the merit of Mr. Frazer’s book resides, not so much in his theories, ingenious as they are, as in his facts and in his co-ordinations of them. “The Golden Bough” is really a series of monographs on folk-lore and mythological subjects. Some of these attain almost to the rank of treatises, e.g., the section on royal and priestly taboos in vol. i, and that on the external soul in vol. ii.[4] Mr. Frazer’s mastery of the whole literature of folk-lore and savage life is something remarkable, and is clearly based on a thorough and systematic search through all likely sources (the Dutch reports on their Eastern possessions are a quite unworked field). One quite envies Mr. Frazer the hours of happy work which must have been passed in compiling this mass of information. He must often have felt the supreme joy of the researcher in finding his chaotic materials slowly rounding themselves into an intelligible whole. He must, by this time, have pigeon-holed the greater part of savagism and folk-lore (if we can distinguish between the two), and “The Golden Bough” from this point of view offers greater promise than even its very great performance.

Looking back on the two books, which I have now, perhaps, sufficiently though summarily characterised, a few general remarks suggest themselves. Though to a certain degree the authors have worked together, it is somewhat curious to find them tending to opposite conclusions on the same point. Thus Prof. Smith traces the theocracy, or the conception of God as king, to the establishment of monarchy in Israel; Mr. Frazer, on the other hand, regards kingship as primarily incarnate deity on earth. Royal taboos, according to Mr. Frazer, are strictly the divinity that doth hedge a king. Prof. Smith regards taboo as the origin of holiness. I have already referred to the different attitudes of the two authors as regards human sacrifice, though it is fair to remember that Mr. Frazer is speaking mainly of the agricultural stage, Prof. Smith of the nomad or pastoral.

The two books, indeed, suggest that in the very near future we may see the very desirable application of institutional archæology to mythology. The gods and rituals of a nomad or pastoral people will differ from those of an agricultural type of society, and we should find traces of the difference in the passage of one nation through these stages. Prof. Smith at times makes use of this criterion, but the institutional archæology of the Semites is in too immature a state to be of much use in this direction at present.

Both books are slightly old-fashioned in assuming a unity and solidarity among both Aryans and Semites, which all recent research tends to disprove. In all branches of pre-historic and folk-lore research the tendency is to regard customs, language, and institutions as having a definite origin at a fixed place and epoch, and their spread is to be explained through diffusion by borrowing. I have already referred to this in connection with Mr. Frazer’s book, but the point is important enough to deserve reiteration. The borrowing hypothesis is clearly applicable to mythology, since the religions of the whole world have been borrowed from opposite races, the Buddhism of the Mongol races from the Aryans of India, the Christianity of Europe from the Semites of Judæa, and the Mahommedanism of Turkey, India, and Africa from Semitic Arabia. Those are borrowing facts which lend great plausibility to the borrowing hypothesis on a smaller scale and in less wide areas.

The last two books on our list deal on a large scale with this borrowing process, in language, custom, and institutions among the early Aryans. Dr. Schrader’s book gives the facts of the pre-historic antiquities of the Aryan peoples, as deduced from their languages and their material archaeology, with German thoroughness; but, alas! with German unreadableness. Though professing to review and revise the facts of philology by the facts of archæology, the book is, in the main, philological. It chiefly interests us here as giving the latest word on the original Aryan mythology, which, twenty years ago, was going to give us the key to all the mythologies. Judging from Dr. Schrader’s results, the key has broken in the wards. He declines to grant a single god common to the whole of Aryan-speaking peoples.

The resemblances in names are reduced to two or three notably Zeus = Dyaus, and these are explained away without the resort to the hypothesis of a common worship of the early Aryans. Thus, of the great mythological myth of the sixties one great stronghold is taken. The Aryans had no common gods. Dr. Schrader is even so heretical as to deny that they ever had a common home, and certainly not in Asia. This is a theme taken up with great skill by Canon Taylor, whose lucidity is a pleasant contrast to Dr. Schrader’s painstaking piling up of materials for a book. Canon Taylor adds to the subsidiary aids of philology the use of anthropology. His craniology strikes one as somewhat amateurish, but his ethnological treatment of the subject brings out the main thesis of his book with great skill. This I take to be that the Aryan tongue was imposed upon the peoples now speaking Aryan by conquest, and was not a common possession of six or seven sets of races. In short, there was only one Aryan race and tongue, and the latter has been passed on to various races by conquest. Authorities are disagreed as to the Ur-Aryans: some are for the Scandinavians, some for the Celts. Canon Taylor himself has a brief for the Letts; but all seem to agree that there was never such a thing as a common Aryan race from whom Celts, Teutons, etc., “swarmed off” as they increased in numbers. The whole outcome is a remarkable lesson against precipitate decision in such inquiries. Twenty years ago we could all have sworn that the original home of the Aryans was in Asia, that they were all of one blood, that they had a common culture and worship, and that they passed into Europe westwards. All this was presented to us with such confidence, eloquence, and insistence, that denial seemed ignorant presumption. Now all this is changed, and great is the fall of the originators thereof. And with their fall has gone the folk-etymology theory of the origin of the early mythologies.

No one theory has taken the place of the sun-myths and the rest. A wise syncretism is taking the place of the single key that was to fit all wards. There are gods of the woods and of the fields, there are totem-gods and ancestral gods, the generative powers were worshipped, stocks and stones received their cult, even the sun and moon had their votaries. Few would nowadays be prepared to reduce all these forms of man’s reverence for the Divine to any one single principle. And even in details, the passion for explaining away the facts as given in ancient records is fast disappearing. When the sacrifice was given “as a sweet savour unto the Lord” the modern inquirer does not desire to explain this away. He thinks the ancient who spoke thus meant what he said, and no more or less. The results thus reached may often seem ludicrous, but they are not more so than facts observed every day in savage life. We ought not perhaps to be surprised to find that as man has risen from the beasts we can catch him at times in stages of mind which can be but little higher than the beast’s.

The hope that the study of comparative religion would throw some light on religion itself seems to be fading away. It seems, in fact, as if the mythological show has somewhat disappointed the sight-seers. They have been invited by eloquent showmen to enter and take their seats, and they would see what they would see. What they have seen has been a curtain covered with figures, some beautiful and some grotesque, but all of lower orders of art. Many have been the guesses as to the meaning of these figures, and as to what was behind the curtain. But the curtain has never been raised, and some among the audience are beginning to ask, “Is the curtain the picture, and is there nothing behind the veil, behind the veil?”

Joseph Jacobs.

  1. As the passage from Nilus is of such crucial importance for Prof. Smith’s views, it would have been well if he had reprinted it in an Appendix. It is not everyone who has access to Nili opera quædam inedita, Parisiis, 1639.
  2. I may refer the reader to my discussion of the question, “Are there Totem Clans in the Old Testament?” in the Archæological Review, vol. iii.
  3. It is, perhaps, worth while remarking that the most general Hebrew term for sacrifice, Corban (familiar to the reader from the New Testament), simply means offering or gift, and there is no doubt about the etymology.
  4. Mr. Clodd’s “Philosophy of Punchkin”, F.-L. J., ii, might have been referred to in this connection.