Littell's Living Age/Volume 133/Issue 1712/The Origin of Rank

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From The Saturday Review.


What is the origin of the divinity which "doth hedge a king"? Why is it that in some countries kings and chiefs are fabled to be descendants of the gods, or to have power to hold converse with the gods, or to be able to control the weather, or, even in recent history, to heal with their touch certain diseases? No one answer will suffice to settle all these questions. The sacredness of royalty, and of other ranks lower than that of royalty, has been an affair of slow growth. Among different peoples different causes have contributed to the belief. The transcendent attributes ascribed to the king of England were partly derived from ecclesiastical ideas and ceremonies, partly from an adoption of the notions of Roman imperialism. But these notions, again, had grown out of instincts still further back in the development of the human mind, and we may perhaps trace the divinity of Divus Julius and the rest to the superstitions which serve savages for physics and metaphysics.

Mr. Herbert Spencer's last volume has some matter bearing on this topic; but an important worker in the field is almost forgotten. Towards the end of the last century a learned and ingenious writer, Professor Millar of Glasgow, composed, at the suggestion of his friend Adam Smith, a treatise on the origin of rank. Millar adopted the comparative method now so fashionable, though he was of course guiltless of the word sociology. "By real experiments," he wrote, "not by abstracted metaphysical theories, human nature is unfolded." For his real experiments he went to a collection of the reports of travellers: "When illiterate men, ignorant of the writings of each other, and who, unless upon religious subjects, have no speculative systems to warp their opinions, have in different ages and countries described the manners of people in similar circumstances, the reader has an opportunity of comparing their several descriptions, and, from their agreement or disagreement, is enabled to ascertain the credit that is due to them "Reasoning on data thus obtained, Millar concluded that the earliest form of authority in human society, if not that of mothers in groups where marriage was not yet introduced, was that of the father in the family circle. As the family grew into the village, precedence and honor were allotted to old age and experience; and, still later, when rival villages become hostile, courage and strength marked the chief. Now that his authority was increased and established by the institution of property, his power was at once displayed and strengthened by the share he took in distributing tribal land. His good services, too, in dealing out justice were acknowledged, and next "the dispositions which gave rise to hero-worship led mankind to regard their princes, while still alive, as sprung from a heavenly original."

Without following Millar's account of later monarchy in Europe, it must be noticed that the divinity ascribed to chiefs, which he notices at so late a stage of the evolution of the idea of rank, was probably present much earlier. At the same time, though he allows too little influence to superstition in building up the fabric of society, he allots just importance to the factor of property. Property and divine rank seem to have been essential to each other in the making of social order; and where one is absent among contemporary savages, there we do not find the other. As an example, of this we might take the case of two people who, like the Homeric Ethiopians, are the outermost of men and dwell far apart at the ends of the world. The Eskimo and the Fuegians, at the extreme north and south of the American continent, agree in having no private property and no chiefs. The bleak plains of ice and rock are, like Attica, "the mother of men without master or lord." Among the "house-mates" of the smaller settlements there is no head-man, and in the larger gatherings Dr. Rink says that "still less than among the house-mates was any one belonging to such a place to be considered a chief." The songs and stories of the Eskimo contain the praises of men who have risen up and killed any usurper who tried to be a ruler over his "place-mates." No one could possibly establish any authority on the basis of property, because "superfluous property in implements, etc., rarely existed." If there are three boats in one household, one of the boats is "borrowed" by the community, and reverts to the general fund. If we look at the account of the Fuegians, described in Admiral Fitzroy's cruise, we find a similar absence of rank produced by similar causes. "The perfect equality among the individuals composing the tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. . . . At present even a piece of cloth is torn in shreds and distributed, and no one individual becomes richer than another. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a chief can arise till there is property of some sort by which he might manifest and still increase his authority." In the same book, however, we get a glimpse of one means by which authority can be exercised; "the doctor-wizard of each party has much influence over his companions." Among the Eskimo this element in the growth of authority also exists. A class of wizards called angakuts have power to cause fine weather, and by the gift of second sight and magical practices, can detect crimes, so that they necessarily become a kind of civil magistrates. The angakuts use a peculiar official language chiefly made up of allegorical expressions. Here, then, we have no chiefship, nor sacred rank, for the excellent reason that, though superstitious respect for certain people is felt, yet these people lack a material basis for their power in the shape of wealth. How important this basis is may be gathered from Sir Henry Maine's remark about ancient Irish nobility, — "Personal wealth was the principal condition of the chief's maintaining his position and authority." The same remark holds true of Homeric Greece and early societies in general."

It is now necessary to pass from examples of tribes who have superstitious respect for certain individuals, but who have no property and no chiefs, to peoples who exhibit the phenomenon of superstitious reverence attached to wealthy rulers or to judges. To take the example of Ireland, as described in the "Senchus Mor" we learn that the chiefs, just like the Angakuts of the Eskimo, had "power to make fair or foul weather" in the literal sense of the words. At the same time, there was no country in which the power to pass out of the common run of men and rise to chief's estate by mere increase of wealth, and after a due number of generations, was more fully recognized than in Ireland. "While the Brehon laws suggest that the possession of personal wealth is a condition of the maintenance of chieftainship, they show with much distinctness that, through the acquisition of such wealth, the road was always open to chieftainship.' ("Early History of Institutions," p. 135.) In Africa, in the same way, as Bosnian, the old traveller, says, "As to what difference there is between one negro and another, the richest man is the most honored," yet the most honored man has the same magical power as the poor angatuks of the Eskimo. The king of Loango, according to Abbe Proyart, "has credit to make rain fall on earth." Among the Zulus, the chief is lord of the air, and has power to make fair or foul weather, as in early Ireland. "It happens among black men," according to one of Canon Callaway's converts, "that when the chief has called out an army, and has collected all his bands, he addresses them, and then they sing a song which excites their passions, that their hearts burn with the desire of seeing the enemy; and though the heaven is clear it becomes clouded by the great wind which arises. . . . Therefore it was affirmed among the great chiefs that the heaven is the chief's." No doubt these examples might be largely increased. In New Zealand, for example, private property almost looks like an extension of the superstitious respect paid to certain men of the privileged class. Whatever the chief has touched is tapu, and no one else may lay hands on it without running serious risk of supernatural punishment. All rangatiras, or men of noble birth, possess this power of securing their goods, and few natives, according to the lively author of "Old New Zealand," "can resist the shadowy terror of the tapu." Thus it is just possible that the sacred element in rank was not only prior to, but even produced, or helped to produce, the element of wealth, which later became the more powerful and the really essential element in aristocracy. It only needs a moment's reflection to show that the right of property in a superfluous stick or a handy sharp stone is not a very simple idea, especially before the invention of pockets. The moment the owner lays down his chattel the community absorbs it. Even if the proprietor is a strong man, he cannot protect his fishing-rod when it is out of his sight; and the extension of his own personal sacredness to his goods and chattels was thus an extremely important step in the history of society, and a step, if we may judge by the Fuegians and the Eskimo, which was resisted by the democratic instincts of the community.

It would not be difficult to multiply instances of the connection between personal powers of divination or magic and right over property. Mr. E. W. Robertson has noticed how, in early Scotland and in Sweden, divination and property in land went together; and Schoolcraft remarks that in some of the American tribes "priests and jugglers are the persons that make war and have a voice in the sale of land." It would also be possible, perhaps, to show how the original influence gained by magical pretensions was differentiated as the influence obtained by property and by distinction in war increased. Thus we have seen that the diviner in Eskimo tribes becomes a kind of civil magistrate, with an unintelligible jargon of his own, and with the knowledge of certain magical devices by which he contrives to detect the guilty. It. appears from a passage in "Senchus Mor" that the Irish Brehons at a very early date used magical modes of discovering guilt — afterwards condemned as heathen — and employed a hopeless sort of slang in the delivery of their judgments. The chiefs, who had advanced on the secular line of accumulating wealth, although still credited with power over the weather, ceased to comprehend the members of the sacred caste who had confined themselves to the development of their more ancient divining functions. "The Brehons," said the chiefs, "have their judgment and their knowledge to themselves. We do not in the first place understand what they say." ("Sen. Mor." iii. xxxi.) The chiefs then demanded a reform in legal terminology, which was reluctantly granted by the more conservative Brehons.

Supposing the kings of northern European nations to have sprung from the successful chiefs of earlier tribal associations, it is easy to see that they would inherit the powers of their distant predecessors. Their divinity is drawn, among other sources, from the ancient beliefs in divination and human power over the weather, and other attributes of the medicine-man. This religious sentiment, in a less high degree, had attached to the person of inferior chiefs. At the same time the divine descent of the Greek heroes, and of the northern rulers who trace their line to Woden, has been perhaps too hastily explained by Mr. Spencer, and by the author of the pedigrees of Æthelwulf in the "Chronicles." It would need a very large amount of evidence to convince us that Odin was a man, or "manifestly a medicine-man." There is far more in the greater myths of the race than can be accounted for by facts selected from the lowest conditions of human belief. But, just as many aristocracies have been founded by conquering races, so no doubt the peculiar sacredness of δίος Μενέλαος and the rest may be partly derived from the confusion which leads the inferior races to regard victorious foreigners as distinct and divine. That stream of tendency has mingled with others of more native origin to make up the transcendent attributes of kings. In advanced civilizations, the flattery of courtiers and theologians has fallen back on the naïve exaggerations of savages. From the early Greek adventurer who, landing on the coast that was to be Hellas, found, like Mr. Wallace in the Aru Islands, that he was believed by the simple folk to be able to control the weather, or from the diviner, with his magical drum and jar and sacred person, to the deified emperors of Rome or to the divine right of the Stuarts, is a long step in human history. Through it all the little germ of a childish delusion must have been working to ends of the utmost value in the construction of society — to ends of extraordinary importance when contrasted with the slightness of the means. The science which busies itself with these matters is not so new as we are apt to suppose. Professor Millar, in Adam Smith's time, worked by its method, as we have seen, and anticipated a great deal of what has since been advanced as original. But his investigation of the origin of rank omitted what, by the light of later researches, looks like a most Important factor, the factor which now exists as superstition, but in an immeasurably distant age was part of as rational a scheme of the universe as was within reach of our ancestors.