Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/February 1887/Fetichism or Anthropomorphism

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IN the recent controversy between Mr. Spencer and Mr. Harrison on the subject of the relation between science and religion, the question of the historical priority of fetichism over spiritism or anthropomorphism was discussed at some length, and was somewhat dogmatically determined in the negative, by Mr. Spencer. Mr, Spencer, in his last contribution to the general controversy, cited a large number of authorities to support the position that all instances of fetichism are to be explained as the results of animism, namely, that a stone or a tree never has become an object of religious worship except as associated in some way with the notion of a ghost or a dream-spirit. The discussion was closed with this statement, and has not since been reopened. It may be, however, of interest to suggest some considerations which tend to show that Mr. Spencer's conclusion on this point was perhaps hasty and subject to revision, and that Mr, Harrison was possibly correct in asserting that the attitude of primitive men toward the universe must be supposed to have been fetichistic rather than anthropomorphic.

In attempting to ascertain the probable nature of primitive religion, no direct evidence, of course, is attainable. Man is now supposed to have existed upon the earth for perhaps more than fifty thousand years, and the earliest or most rudimentary beliefs known to have existed in historical times can be regarded only as survivals of thought in no respect necessarily primitive.

Arguments from the probable course of evolution, and various indirect arguments from analogy and from the application of ordinary common sense, furnish all the light that is possible on this question.

The simplest and most permanent element of religion in general is admitted to be a vague sense of wonder and awe in the presence of the external universe. Emotions of wonder and awe depend upon a consciousness of something mysterious or unexplained, and a consciousness of the lack of explanation can not arise until some perception has been gained of the relation of cause and effect.

The processes of evolution have been continuous, according to Mr. Spencer and modern men of science, from the inanimate world to man, or, at any rate, from the first speck of protoplasm that appeared on the earth's surface. With the first emergence of conscious perception on the earth of cause and effect, that is, practically, with the rise of reason as distinguished from instinct, must be placed the first beginning of the qualities or habits of thought or feeling that in time became religion. In an interesting essay on "Fetichism in Animals," Mr. Romanes has collected several instances of a sense of the mysterious, accompanied by wonder and awe or alarm in the higher animals. Of a like nature is the terror of a horse at the first sight of a steam-engine, of a dog at a person who makes unaccountable grimaces at it, and of most animals at the sound of thunder.

The sense of the mysterious, combined with instinctive or even conscious wonder and terror at unaccountable phenomena, can not, however, in itself be said to constitute religion. It is an element, but only one element, of religion. Even a sense of entire dependence upon external or higher powers would not, as Canon Liddon well said, be sufficient. "What is this power? That is a question which must be answered before feeling can determine its complexion."[1] The power to ask, much more the power to devise some answer to such a question as this, belongs clearly to a much later stage of evolution than does the simple perception of cause and effect that gives rise, as has been seen, to a sense of the mysterious. Phenomena must have been vaguely felt and contemplated, and from time to time wondered at, long before curiosity would be excited as to their nature; primitive savages would for ages observe natural movements without much intellectual curiosity, simply observing that the sun and moon moved, and animals and other things moved, without asking why they moved, but merely noticing and recording the fact of their motion.

The sense of the mysterious, which is one chief element of religion, would be excited clearly at first, not by the general order of Nature, not by familiar sights and sounds, but by unusual events, more especially by events occurring suddenly and attended or followed by danger or disaster; and it would not be until a spirit of curiosity was active that such events would be attempted to be explained. Curiosity is of late appearance in the course of mental evolution in animals, as Mr. Romanes has pointed out in his book on that subject: it is most marked in the family of apes, and must have been a principal factor in determining the development of human attributes in certain branches of that or a kindred family of primates. The natural operation of curiosity in those half-animal beings, when directed toward especially unaccountable cosmical events, would determine the nature of primitive religion. In what manner such curiosity would be satisfied can be approximately ascertained only by considering the mental operations that at that time had been evolved.

At the time in question, prior to the existence of definite language, reasoning could be little more than half-conscious, half-unconscious inferences from one set of objective phenomena to another, reasoning by analogy, of the crudest, baldest, most unscientific and unphilosophic form. This process of reasoning has its purely physical counterpart in the simplest reflex actions of the least developed organisms, that react in a similar manner to similar impressions. A Venus's fly-trap will clasp and inclose a little stone as well as a fly, although the fly only is digestible; and it is only by the gradual evolution of more and more delicate organs of sense and of nerves and nerve-centers of corresponding delicacy and complexity, that things apparently, but not really, alike come to be discriminated. The senses do not deceive, but it is the reasoning powers that fail, when a fish rises to a worsted fly, or a bird pecks at a painted cherry, or a little puppy barks and snaps at a rolling ball; and the method of reasoning, instinctive or conscious, is in each case the same, from similarity of appearance to similarity of cause. The basis of all reasoning is essentially the same, depending on the involuntary association of ideas, by which is simply meant the tendency when two ideas have once been associated in the mind for the first idea on its subsequent recurrence to recall the second idea, and vice versa. Similar habits of thought must have been normal among primitive men, largely instinctive, and unmodified by reflection. To the earliest men the movements of other men would seem to require no philosophical explanation, as to a dog the movements of another dog presumably seem to require none, except so far as their actions might seem indicative of hostility or assistance. To such men the movements of animals would be regarded as not different in kind from the actions of their fellow-men, and until they had learned better by experience or experiment they would tend to regard animals as not widely different from men, proper to coax or to blame, or if very strong and ferocious, to supplicate. In a similar way all moving things might naturally seem alive, agencies alike for good or evil, with powers mysterious indeed but not wholly dissimilar. Even inorganic things, stones and sticks, whatever may ever have been observed to move without apparent cause, might be supposed to be able to move, as animals might naturally be supposed to be able to talk. As the primitive man would urge on his half-tamed wolf or jackal to seize the deer or wild beast he was hunting, he would tend to caress or urge on the spear he threw or the bow he aimed; for, before subjective knowledge or abstract thought was possible, as soon as a thing moved, although the man pushed it, bent or threw it, it would become a moving thing, and seem to him to act as a living thing. The notion of a cause of motion, wholly independent of the moving thing, could not arise without greater power of abstract thinking than can be attributed to primitive men.

So soon as intelligent curiosity began to mingle with the dull wonder with which human beings had long regarded unusual natural events—such as, for instance, an eclipse, a flash of lightning, or a flood—the only explanations that could suggest themselves would be the logical result of the prevalent habits of thought, of such simple analogical reasoning as has been referred to. All moving things being vaguely felt to be living, the sun in eclipse would be thought of as sick or wounded; the lightning as a creature like a rattlesnake that makes a noise, glides swiftly, and strikes suddenly; the flood as the river itself in a rage or passion. Such vague explanations as these of the nature of the external universe, or of special events in it—explanations so little self-conscious and so little reasoned as hardly to deserve the name of "explanations"—would seem to be in the natural course of evolution the first notions that could be called religious; but such notions are pure fetichism. The characteristic of such a state of thought is, that the moving principle is not thought of as separate from the moving thing, nor the living principle as separate from the living being, nor the spirit of other men or animals as separate from their bodies. The observances appropriate to such a religion would consist in appeals to those external beings or imprecations upon them, similar to those appropriate between man and man, because those beings would be regarded as living and so not felt to be wholly different from men; but in every case the thing or object itself, and not anything unseen, would be the object of any ceremonial observance.

A community of children between the ages of two and five might naturally evolve a somewhat similar religious system. The baby who cries out, "Naughty door!" when it pinches its fingers in the hinges; the child who urges a spinning-top to continue spinning, or is angry with it for stopping; or who listens with wondering awe to a watch and asks if it is alive, long before any of them have any notion of spirit or ghost, or of unseen causes of action—all illustrate how naturally fetichism results from simple modes of thinking and reasoning. Similar habits of thought account for much of both ancient and modern mythology, without the intervention of spiritism; they appear as a revival in civilized nations in the astrology and alchemy of the middle ages, and may to-day be traced among many savage tribes. The Zuñis, for instance, observe that the rattlesnake makes a rattling noise, moves with rapid zigzag motion across the grass, strikes and kills suddenly. They notice that the lightning is succeeded by rattling thunder, that it moves with rapid zigzag motion across the sky, strikes and kills suddenly; they therefore call the lightning the brother of the rattlesnake, and they refrain from killing a rattlesnake for fear the lightning may strike them! It is plain that such a notion could have arisen without any conception of a spirit of the lightning distinct from the lightning, of a ghost or snakeship distinct from the snake. Similarly, the Zuñis speak of the rainbow as akin to the measuring-worm, because it appears after rain, and has a striped, arched back, and so forth. It is plain that such a notion could have also arisen without any conception of a rainbow-spirit or of a worm-spirit. If fetichism could have arisen without any connection with spiritism, it must scientifically be held to have so arisen, unless spiritism could have resulted from as early or from an earlier stage of thought.

While fetichism, however, could and naturally would result from purely analogical reasoning from one object to another, anthropomorphism or animism could possibly result only from reasoning of a much less simple character. It is essentially subjective, and involves considerable power of abstract thinking. It is subjective; since, before a savage could imagine unseen personalities as the cause of visible movement, he must have a notion of his own personality, distinct from his body, as the cause of his own movements. The notion of personality is an abstract idea that is peculiarly complex, and that is but slowly developed in conscious beings. Even a modern baby is supposed to attain the notion of "self" and the meaning of "I" and "me" but slowly, as is aptly described by the poet in "In Memoriam." It is clear that a general notion or abstract idea may be formed from objective perceptions much more easily than the simplest abstract idea that can result only from self-conscious reflection, and no number of purely objective perceptions could ever suggest the notion of "will," "cause," or "spirit," for there are no simple states of consciousness excited by sensation corresponding to such notions. It is unscientific, therefore, to assume that the earliest biped that could be called human rather than anthropoid possessed an innate intuition of personality, and if he had no such intuition, his crude notions about the nature of the universe could not have been anthropomorphic or animistic.

The simplest power of abstract thinking is, even by Mr. Romanes, denied to animals. It is generally admitted to be impossible without language, and language not in its simplest, most elementary form. It is unscientific, therefore, to ascribe such a power to primitive men in whom articulate speech was but just beginning to emerge from inarticulate noises and gestures. Even if, then, it were admitted, as Chauncey Wright suggested, that the notion of "will" and "personality" arose primarily from the objective observation of other men, since those ideas involve abstraction, it is yet unscientific to assert that the attitude of primitive men toward the universe was in any sense anthropomorphic.

Dream-spirits and ghosts may, indeed, have been the earliest theory to account, in a semi-scientific way, for cosmical movements and events; but, from an historical point of view, it would seem that phenomena must have been wondered at, and half-unconsciously classified, long before there was any attempt at any even partly coherent explanation of them. To prehistoric men the world must have seemed for ages, if the theory of evolution is accepted, as a mysterious jumble of half-living creatures, until it became partly intelligible as the theatre of the operation of a multitude of spirits. During those remote ages these strange creatures would themselves be the only possible objects of worship—and such worship would be properly termed fetichism—it could most certainly not be termed anthropomorphism or spiritism. Spiritism, when, with increasing intelligence and reasoning powers, it first began to be suggested, would have seemed almost like the revelation of a new religion, or like the discovery of a new scientific truth; older forms and notions would be retained, but with new meanings and new explanations, and the original meanings and explanations would be soon forgotten; but the beginnings of religion, unless the principle of continuity is discarded, must be sought for in the incoherent and fetichistic fancies that animism supplanted. There is some reason for believing that in recent times some such change from a simple analogical fetichism to animism has taken place among the Zuňis. It is asserted, for instance, that until lately they conceived of a bow as akin to a beast of prey, but that now they speak of it as inhabited or directed by the spirit of a deceased warrior.

The argument may now be summed up briefly as follows: Fetichism would naturally result from the simple objective observation and elementary analogical methods of reasoning that must have been characteristic of primitive men. Anthropomorphism involves a power of subjective introspection and of abstract thinking that can not have been possessed by primitive men. Between the earliest anthropomorphic conceptions of the universe of which we have record, and the simplest possible attitude toward the universe that could be described as in a rudimentary form religious, there must have been a long period of evolution—a period that may well have been measured by thousands of years—during which there may have been an indefinite number of gradations of religious sentiment and theory. During that period, then, there must have been some stages of thought, as an essential condition in the evolution of anthropomorphism, from the mild-eyed, incurious wonder of anthropoid apes or troglodytes that could be called by no other name than fetichism.

It may, at least, be said in conclusion, that the absence of extant evidence of such a stage of thought no more proves that it never existed .than the absence of the bones of the missing link proves that men are not descended from non-human ancestors. All the negative evidence, then, that Mr. Spencer has so laboriously collected for the annihilation of Mr. Frederic Harrison, has no conclusive bearing on this question.

Note.—The conclusions of this article are confirmed by a variety of arguments and instances collected by Dr. Fritz Schultze, in "Fetichism: a Contribution to Anthropology and the History of Religion." Chapter III, on "The Relation between the Savage Mind and its Object," is of special value in this connection.

It may be further noticed that the evidences of fetichistic habits of thought among children are daily accumulating. In "Mind," vol. xli, page 150, for instance, Mr. E. M. Stevens relates the following anecdote of his son:

"He personifies the sun in an amusing way. One day, when he was about two years and two months old, he was sitting on the floor in a great temper over some trifle. He looked up and saw the sun through the window. He suddenly stopped crying, and said angrily, 'Sun not look at Hennie!' He said this two or throe times, and then, finding the sun persistently looked at him, he changed his tone to one pathetically imploring, and said, ' Please, Sun, not look at poor Hennie!" I have noticed this adjuration of the sun, when he has been crying, two or three times since." Is it to be supposed that this little two-year old boy believed in a ghost or spirit, apart from and different from the bright sun that was dazzling his eyes?—G. P.

  1. H. P. Liddon, "Some Elements of Religion," London, 1873, p. 11.