Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/December 1875/Idol-Worship and Fetich-Worship

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 8 December 1875  (1875) 
Idol-Worship and Fetich-Worship
By Herbert Spencer


FACTS already named show how sacrifices to the man recently dead pass into sacrifices to his preserved body. We have seen that to the corpse of a Tahitian chief daily offerings were made on an altar by a priest; and the ancient Central Americans performed kindred rites before bodies dried by artificial heat. That, along with a developed system of embalming, this grew into mummy-worship, Peruvians and Egyptians have furnished proof. Here the thing to be observed is that, while believing the ghost of the dead man to have gone away, these peoples had confused notions, either that it was present in the mummy, or that the mummy was itself conscious. Among the Egyptians, this was clearly implied by the practice of sometimes placing their embalmed dead at table. The Peruvians, who by a parallel custom betrayed a like belief, also betrayed it in other ways. By some of them the dried corpse of a parent was carried round the fields that he might see the state of the crops. How the ancestor, thus recognized as present, was also recognized as exercising authority, we see in this story given by Santa Cruz. When his second sister refused to marry him, "Huayna Capac went with presents and offerings to the body of his father, praying him to give her for his wife, but the dead body gave no answer, while fearful signs appeared in the heavens."

The primitive idea that any property characterizing an aggregate inheres in all parts of it, implies a corollary from this belief. The soul, present in the body of the dead man preserved entire, is also present in preserved parts of his body. Hence the faith in relics. Ellis tells us that, in the Sandwich Islands, bones of the legs, arms, and sometimes the skulls, of kings and principal chiefs, are carried about by their descendants, under the belief that the spirits exercise guardianship over them. The Crees carry bones and hair of dead persons about for three years. The Caribs, and several Guiana tribes, have their cleaned bones "distributed among the relatives after death." The Tasmanians show "anxiety to possess themselves of a bone from the skull or the arms of their deceased relatives." The Andamanese "widows may be seen with the skulls of their deceased partners suspended from their necks."

This belief in the power of relics leads in some cases to direct worship of them. Erskine tells us that the natives of Lifu, Loyalty Islands, who "invoked the spirits of their departed chiefs," also "preserve relics of their dead, such as a finger-nail, a tooth, a tuft of hair, . . . and pay divine homage to it." Of the New Caledonians Turner says: "In cases of sickness, and other calamities, they present offerings of food to the skulls of the departed." Moreover, we have the evidence furnished by conversation with the relic. Lander says: "In the private fetich-hut of the King Adólee, at Badagry, the skull of that monarch's father is preserved in a clay vessel placed in the earth." He "gently rebukes it if his success does not happen to answer his expectations." Similarly, Catlin describes the Mandans as placing the skulls of their dead in a circle. Each wife knows the skull of her former husband or child—

"and there seldom passes a day that she does not visit it, with a dish of the best-cooked food. . . . There is scarcely an hour in a pleasant day, but more or less of these women may be seen sitting or lying by the skull of their child or husband talking to it in the most pleasant and endearing language that they can use (as they were wont to do in former days), and seemingly getting an answer back."

Thus propitiation of the man just dead leads to propitiation of his preserved body or a preserved part of it; and the ghost is supposed to be present in the part as in the whole.

Any one asked to imagine a transition from worship of the preserved body, or a preserved part of it, to idol-worship, would probbly fail; but transitions, such as imagination does not suggest, actually occur.

The object worshiped is sometimes a figure of the deceased, made partly of his remains and partly of other substances. Landa says the Yucatanese

"cut off the heads of the ancient lords of Cocom, when they died, and, as if to cook them, cleared them from flesh; they then sawed off half of the top of the head, leaving the anterior part with the jawbones and teeth, and to these half-skulls they joined what they wanted in flesh with a certain cement, and made them as like as possible to those to whom they belonged; and they kept them along with the statues and the ashes. All were kept in the oratories of their houses beside their idols, and were greatly reverenced and assiduously cared for. On all their festivals they offered them food." ... In other cases they "made for their fathers wooden statues," left "the occiput hollow," put in ashes of the burnt body, and attached "the skin of the occiput off the corpse."

The Mexicans had a different method of joining some of the deceased's substance with an effigy of him. When a dead lord had been burned, says Camargo, "they carefully collected the ashes, and, after having kneaded them with human blood, they made of them an image of the deceased, which was kept in memory of him." And from Camargo we also learn that images of the dead were worshiped.

A transitional combination partially unlike in kind occurs: sometimes the ashes are contained in a man-shaped receptacle of clay. Of the Yucatanese the writer above quoted states that—

"The bodies of lords and people of high position were burned. The ashes were put in large urns and temples erected over them. . . . In the case of great lords the ashes were placed in hollow clay statues.."

And in yet other cases there is worship of the relics joined with the representative figure, not by inclusion but only by proximity. Thus the Mexicans, according to Gomara—

"closed the box [in which some hair and the teeth of the deceased king were present] and placed above it a wooden figure shaped and adorned like the deceased." Then they "made great offerings, and placed them where he was burnt, and before the box and figure."

Lastly may be named the practice of the Egyptians, who, as their frescoes show, often worshiped the mummy, not as exposed to view, but as inclosed in a case shaped and painted to represent the dead man.

From these examples of transition we may turn to those in which the funeral propitiations are made to a substituted image.

The Mexicans practised cremation: and, when men killed in battle were missing, they made figures of them, and after honoring these burned them and buried the ashes. Here are extracts from Clavigero and Torquemada:

"When any of the merchants died on their journey, . . . his relations . . , formed an imperfect statue of wood to represent the deceased, to which they paid all the funeral honors which they would have done to the real dead body."

"When some one died drowned or in any other way which excluded con-cremation and required burial, they made a likeness of him and put it on the altar of idols, together with a large offering of wine and bread."

In Africa kindred observances occur. While a deceased King of Congo is being embalmed, says Bastian, a wooden figure is set up in the palace to represent him, and is daily furnished with food and drink, Parkyns tells us that among the Abyssinians mourning takes place on the third day; and, the deceased having been buried on the day of his death, a representation of the corpse does duty instead. Of some Papuan-Islanders Earl states that, when the grave is filled with earth, they collect round an idol and offer provisions to it. Concerning certain Javans we learn from Raffles that after a death a feast is held, in which a man-shaped figure, supported round the body by the clothes of the deceased, plays an important part.

These practices look strange to us; but a stranger thing is that we have so soon forgotten the like practices of civilized nations. In Monstrelet's "Chronicles," book i., the burial of Charles VI. of France is described thus:

"Over the coffin was an image of the late king, bearing a rich crown of gold and diamonds, and holding two shields, one of gold, the other of silver; the hands had white gloves on, and the fingers were adorned with very precious rings. This image was dressed with cloth of gold," etc. . . . "In this state was he solemnly carried to the church of Notre-Dame."

This usage was observed in the case of princes also. Speaking of the father of the great Condé, Madame de Motteville says, "The effigy of this prince was attended (servit) for three days, as was customary:" forty days having been the original time during which food was supplied to such an effigy at the usual hours. Monstrelet describes a like figure used at the burial of Henry V. of England; and the effigies of many English monarchs, thus honored at their funerals, are said to have been preserved in Westminster Abbey till they decayed.

With these reminders before us, we ought to have no difficulty in understanding the primitive ideas respecting such representations. When we read that the Coast negroes in some districts "place certain earthen images on the graves;" that the Araucanians fixed over a tomb an upright log, "rudely carved to represent the human frame;" that, after the deaths of New Zealand chiefs, wooden images, twenty to forty feet high, were erected as monuments—we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that the figure of the dead man is an incipient idol. Could we doubt, our doubt would end on finding the figure persistently worshiped. J. d'Acosta tells us of the Peruvians that—

"each king had, while living, . . . a stone figure representing himself, called Guanqui [huanque]—i. e., brother. This figure was to be worshiped like the Ynca himself, during his life as well as after his death."

So, too, according to Andagoya—

"When a chief died, his house and wives and servants remained as in his lifetime, and a statue of gold was made in the likeness of the chief, which was served as if it had been alive, and certain villages were set apart to provide it with clothing, and all other necessaries."

And, similarly, Cogolludo testifies that the Yucatanese "worshiped the idol of one who is said to have been one of their great captains."

That we may understand better the feelings with which a savage looks at a representative figure, let us recall the kindred feelings produced by representations among ourselves.

When a lover kisses the miniature of his mistress, he is obviously influenced by an association between the appearance and the reality. Even more strongly do such associations sometimes act. A young lady known to me confesses that she cannot bear to sleep in a room having portraits on the walls; and this repugnance is not unparalleled. In such cases, the knowledge that portraits consist of paint and canvas only, fails to expel the suggestion of something more. The vivid representation so strongly arouses the thought of a living personality, that this cannot be kept out of consciousness.

Now, suppose culture absent—suppose there exist no ideas of attributes, law, cause—no distinctions between natural and unnatural, possible and impossible. This associated consciousness of a living presence will then persist. No conflict with established knowledge arising, the unresisted suggestion will become a belief.

Beliefs thus produced in savages have been incidentally referred to. Here are some further examples of them. Kane states that the Chinooks think portraits supernatural, and look at them with the same ceremony as at a dead person. According to Bancroft, the Okanagans "have the same aversion that has been noted on the coast "to having their portraits taken. We learn from Catlin that the Mandans thought the life put into a picture was so much life taken from the original. He also says:

"They pronounced me the greatest medicine-man in the world; for they said I had made living beings—they said they could see their chiefs alive in two places those that I had made were a little alive—they could see their eyes move."

Nor do more advanced races fail to supply kindred facts. Concerning the Malagasy, Ellis testifies that friends of the prince, on seeing a photograph of him, took off their hats to it and verbally saluted it.

That which holds of a pictorial representation holds of a carved or sculptured one—holds even more naturally; since the carved representation, being solid, approaches closer to the reality. Where the image is painted and has eyes inserted, this notion of participation in the vitality of the person imitated becomes, in the uncritical mind of the savage, very strong. Any one who remembers the horror a child shows on seeing an adult put on an ugly mask, even when the mask has been previously shown to it, may conceive the awe which a rude effigy excites in the primitive mind. The sculptured figure of the dead man arouses the thought of the actual dead man, which passes into a conviction that he is present.

And why should it not? If the other-self can leave the living body and reenter it; if the ghost can come back and animate afresh the dead body; if the embalmed Peruvian, presently to be resuscitated by his wandering double, was then to need his carefully-preserved hair and nails; if the soul of the Egyptian, after its transmigrations, occupying some thousands of years, was expected to infuse itself once more into his mummy—why should not a spirit go into an image? A living body differs more from a mummy in texture than a mummy does from wood.

That a savage does think an effigy is inhabited we have abundant proofs. Lander, describing the Yorubans, says a mother carries for some time a wooden figure of her lost child, and, when she eats, puts part of her food to its lips. The Samoiedes, according to Bastian, "feed the wooden images of the dead." The relatives of an Ostyak

"make a rude wooden image, representing, and in honor of, the deceased, which is set up in the yurt, and receives divine honors for a greater or less time, as the priest directs. . . . At every meal they set an offering of food before the image; and, should this represent a deceased husband, the widow embraces it from time to time. . . . This kind of worship of the dead lasts about three years, at the end of which time the image is buried."

Erman, who states this, adds the significant fact that the descendants of deceased priests preserve the images of their ancestors from generation to generation—

"and, by well-contrived oracles and other arts, they manage to procure offerings for these their family penates, as abundant as those laid on the altars of the universally-acknowledged gods. But that these latter also have an historical origin, that they were originally monuments of distinguished men, to which prescription and the interests of the Shamans gave by degrees an arbitrary meaning and importance, seems to me not liable to doubt."

These Ostyaks, indeed, show us unmistakably how worship of the dead man's effigy passes into worship of the divine idol; for the two are identical. At each meal, placing the dishes before the household god, they wait (i. e., fast) till "the idol, who eats invisibly, has had enough." Moreover, we are told by Bastian, that when a Samoiede goes on a journey, "his relatives direct the idol toward the place to which he has gone, in order that it may look after him." How among the more advanced peoples of these regions there persists the idea that the idol of the god, developed, as we have seen, from the effigy of the dead man, is the residence of a conscious being, is implied by the following statement of Erman respecting the Russians of Irkutsk:

"Whatever familiarities may be permitted between the sexes, the only scruple by which the young women are infallibly controlled is a superstitious dread of being alone with their lovers in the presence of the holy images. Conscientious difficulties of this kind, however, are frequently obviated by putting these witnesses behind a curtain."

Like beliefs are displayed by other races wholly unallied. Of the Sandwich-Islanders, Ellis tells us that, after a death in the family, the survivors worship "an image with which they imagine the spirit is in some way connected;" and also that "Oro, the great national idol, was generally supposed to give the responses to the priests." Concerning the Yucatanese, Fancourt, quoting Cogolludo, says that "when the Itzaex performed any feat of valor, their idols, whom they consulted, were wont to make a reply to them;" and, quoting Villagutierre, he describes the beating of an idol said to have predicted the arrival of the Spaniards, but who had deceived them respecting the result. Even more strikingly shown is this implication in the Quiche legend. Here is an extract from Bancroft:

"And they worshiped the gods that had become stone—Tohil, Avihx, and Hacavitz; and they offered them the blood of beasts, and of birds, and pierced their own ears and shoulders iu honor of these gods, and collected the blood with a sponge, and pressed it out into a cup before them. . . . And these three gods, petrified, as we have told, could nevertheless resume a movable shape when they pleased; which, indeed, they often did."

Nor is it among inferior races only that conceptions of this kind are found. In his "Histoire des Musulmans d'Espagne," Dozy, describing the ideas and practices of the idolatrous Arabians, says:

"When Amrolcais set out to revenge the death of his father on the Beni-Asad, he stopped at the temple of the idol Dhou-'l Kholosa to make a consultation by means of the three arrows called command, prohibition, expectation. Having drawn prohibition, he recommenced drawing. But three times he drew prohibition. Thereupon he broke the arrows, and, throwing them into the idol's face, he shouted, 'Wretch, if the killed man had been thy father, thou wouldst not forbid revenging him!'"
  1. From advance-sheets of the "Principles of Sociology."