Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/November 1883/Influence of the Environment on Religion
By Professor JAMES T. BIXBY.
WHILE religious phenomena are in some respects singularly constant, they are, nevertheless, as noted for their diversity. While certain essential elements are common to almost all faiths, on the other hand, every individual faith has something peculiar to itself. It not only differs in some respects from other religions, but, as we trace down its history, we find it varying from itself.
The Hindoos, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Kelts, Teutons, and Slavs, are shown by philological research to have come originally from a single stock—the primitive Aryan. Their ancestors originally dwelt together in a common home in the neighborhood of the Caspian Sea; and in this ancient time their religion was, probably, one and the same faith, i. e., in substance. Yet how widely diverse have the faiths of these nations come to be, in the four to five thousand years since that ancient home was little by little deserted! How has this diversity come about? What are the forces or influences that differentiate religions? We may divide them roughly into two kinds: 1. The external variables. 2. The internal variables. In this paper I shall try to sketch the first; i. e., those environing influences about man, about a special race or nation, that tend to produce variation in the course of the development of religion.
1. I would mention the varied influences of outward nature. The diverse phenomena of the world naturally diversify the direction and character of faith. The religious capacities common to all men evolve a stock of religious feeling which lies latent and fluent, as it were, in the soul—like an electric charge in the battery—until some experience of the man occurs to elicit its discharge and give it direction. The form and path of faith are determined, in much, by the kind of natural objects with which the spiritual faculty is most closely or impressively brought in contact. Where the spirit of man is frequently confronted with Nature in its power, beauty, or wrath—where sky, sun, mountain, or river, is an important factor in the daily experience and fortune—there arise naturally the corresponding forms of religion—Nature-worship, fetichism, and pantheism. Where, ever, it is dreaded and mysterious animate things—the gloomy, awe-inspiring forest, the venomous serpent, the terrible lion—that most agitate man's heart, there we see, as in Africa, e. g., and among the American aborigines, tree-worship and beast-worship abounding.
There are certain great natural phenomena that are common to all countries, familiar with all tribes and nations, such as sun, moon, stars, earth, rain, wind, etc. These are, therefore, the objects universally divinized. In some countries, where the scenery is very slightly diversified, these few objects, personified over and over again, in varied aspects and under various symbols, seem to constitute the whole pantheon, the whole mythology. It was thus in Egypt, e. g., whose numberless gods represent, after all, but about half a dozen great natural objects. But when we pass out of the level plains of such countries as Egypt and Babylon, to countries where the mountains rise to stupendous and frowning heights, and bowlders and cliffs abound, we have a new class of divinities added to the objects that man worships. The mountaineer, gazing aloft to the white peak, saw, far up, the shining morn strike the cheek of virgin snow, and in his guileless faith it became an abode of the gods; or a deity itself, holding aloft the heavenly dome. If on the soft sandstone of a hill, before petrifaction, bird or beast had left its tracks, then the place, like the Enchanted Mountain of Georgia, was deemed haunted. If the mount, like Kineo, in the north of Maine, happens to have the shape of a moose, then it is reputed to be the queen and progenitor of the moose-tribe turned to stone.
When the barbarian cries out in joy or pain beneath the rocky wall, he hears a mysterious voice answering him back—a voice that belongs to no material creature, and that must, therefore, belong to some divinity or departed spirit. So the sounds that come from caverns, or the roar of the billows on the sea-shore, are thought to be produced by the spirits that have their haunt there; and the kobolds and water-nixies are accordingly added to the lists of the gods popularly believed in. The strange phenomena of volcanoes, or the explosion of confined gases in certain rocks, in their ebullition through springs, would suggest the idea of mighty superhuman beings who lived beneath the earth, and to whose activity the volcano's eruptions were due. The Koniagas think that, when the craters of Alaska send forth fire and smoke, the gods are cooking their food and heating their sweat-houses. So among the Australians, the volcanic rocks found in various places suggest the belief that sulky demons, the igna, have made great fires and thrown out red-hot stones; and the Nicaraguans offered vessels of food and even human victims to Popogatipec, i. e., smoking mountain, to appease her when there was a storm or an earthquake.
Wave and frost are great sculptors of rude images, bearing near enough likeness to man or beast to impress profoundly the imagination of the uncultivated. All along our Northern coasts and in our Western mountains are to be found such figures—like the Stone-face, at the White Mountains; the Bishop Rock, at Campobello, on the Maine coast; and the Master of Life, at the entrance to Lake Superior. So in the North and West of our country there are many erratic bowlders, some oval, or glistening with native copper or mica scales, or balanced on convex prominences so that they readily oscillate. In unenlightened but pious minds, such curious figures naturally inspire veneration and worship as the abodes of spirits, as was the case with the Ojibways, Ottawas, and Dakotas; or they give rise to wild myths of transformation, such as the Indian legends abound in. So, where the rocky and mountainous aspect of nature produces cataracts or dangerous rapids, and the waters roar and toss their white manes in the air, these places—as, e. g., Niagara, the mouth of the Wabash, or the Brear Beaux Falls on the Wisconsin—became to the savage the haunt of spirits or demons, who must be propitiated with offerings of tobacco and meat.
And this mention of tobacco may serve to turn our thoughts to remembrance of the influence of trees and plants in drawing forth religious veneration. Wherever plants are found, like tobacco, or the Peruvian coca, the snake-root, the Indian hemp, the wine of Bacchanal worship, that had a special effect; whether stimulating, narcotic, poisonous, or curative, they were held to possess supernatural power, and were used for various magic rites and became sacred. The soma of the ancient Aryans even became exalted to a place among the gods, and to drink it was the means of gaining immortality. So, likewise, the mysterious whisperings of the wind in ancient forests, or the inexplicable movements of some half-blown-down tree, as the heat of the sun contracted or lengthened its twisted roots, and caused it alternately to rise and fall, have more than once attracted the superstitious awe of the barbarian, and supplied new objects for his adoration.
Thus do the peculiarities of natural objects supply molds in which the metal of religious faith, already lying latent, readily sets. And not only directly, but indirectly, do they shape the forms of faith. The rushing river, e. g., not merely attracts the reverence of the primitive man to itself, but by its swift and treacherous motion, its sinuous course, and snake-like hiss and gleam, it is personified as a mighty divine serpent, and next makes sacred by association the serpents of the country about. The sky, personified by the ancient Egyptian as a heavenly goose, enveloping and hatching the cosmic egg, made sacred henceforth all geese to the pious dwellers by the Nile. In climes like Egypt, where the skies are rainless and the whole aspect of nature equable, almost unchanging, there the gods are marked by calmness of bearing and serenity of nature. We must go to the slopes of the Himalayas or the ridges of the Apennines to find the howling Rudra, with his attendant Maruts, the pounders, rushing wildly through the glens, or to see the bullocks slain in honor of Jupiter Tonans, the Thunderer. In cold and temperate climes it is the enlivening and warming sun that is loved and adored; but, in the sultry air of the tropics, the sun and the sky of day become evil and destructive deities, and affection is transferred to the refreshing sky of night.
So, also, in their ideas of heaven and hell, there is a natural contrast between the faith of the man of the tropics and the man of the Arctic zone. To the first, the future home of the good is some abode of coolness, some garden of the Hesperides, or a breezy Olympian height, and the place of punishment a place of fire. To the Icelander, hell is the place of cold, worse far to him than fire, and heaven, some comfortable hall surrounded by a hedge of flame. Again, in hot climes, where the soil of the river-bottoms is deep and rich, and nature teems with productiveness, there the gods are credited with the same sensuous nature; religious ideas are apt to revolve about the mysteries of procreation, and the worship of the people is apt to include not a few impure rites and symbols.
The numerous gods of fertility among the agricultural Egyptians—Chem, Min, Chnam, Osiris—the sexual rites of Babylonia, and the numerous objectional symbols in Hindoo worship, illustrate this. On the contrary, under the clear skies and bright moon and the pure streamlets of Greece, it is the virgin goddesses of the most exacting purity, Dianas and Pallas Athenes, rather than loose-zoned and wanton mistresses, that are suggested. Aphrodite and Cybele, and Dionysos indeed, were, later, members of the Olympian court; but they came from regions farther east, where they were tinged with an earthly and sensuous dye, such as we do not find in the native worship of Hellas.
The tribes of Northern Asia, wandering amid the bleak wastes of Mongolia or the gloomy forests of the Ural, their frail shelter shaken by the riotous winds, whose mysterious sighs and howlings often make them quake with terror, come naturally to be believers in dim, mysterious, supernatural powers, with which their own lot is bound up, and readily devote themselves to whatever occult and magic rites the shaman may produce. The Shemite, on the broad plains of Chaldea or the sandy wastes of Arabia, found nothing to arrest his eyes till they rested on the glistening skies, brilliant, in that clear air, with a brilliancy beyond anything that we know: and he became thus, most naturally, a devout star-worshiper; invested the chief celestial objects with the most exalted attributes, and raised them, in his fervid adoration, to more and more absolute majesty and incomparable power, till at length the idea of the divine was exalted into monotheism.
The Aryan, on the contrary, grew up among the mountain pastures of Bactria, where the clouds are often about his feet, and the heavens are not so far away. The earliest Vedic hymns are marked by a sense of the nearness of the gods, and men are seen mingling with them, familiarly, as friends. Nature did not oppress man with dreadful earthquake or hurricane, vast and fatal desert, or frowning mountain; but by its pleasing diversity it stimulated, without overwhelming, his soul. That portion of the Aryans that, upon their migration from the old Bactrian home, reached the shores of the Ægean, found there a land that fostered still more these traits. Here nature was picturesque and diversified, without the stupendous magnitudes that overawe the soul. Above him, the sky was bluest of the blue. The marble hills formed continual pictures. The streams rippled cheerily down their songful beds. The wavelets chased each other playfully in the light zephyrs. All the aspects of earth and sea and sky were bright and gladsome, and conspired to stimulate the imagination of the Greek.
Hellenic religion came thus, by right, to be a happy and luxuriant faith, full of pretty fancies, putting man at ease with the divine, and personifying the gods under the most familiar and graceful shapes:
Sunbeams upon distant hill
Gliding apace with shadows in their tram,
The wind was fancied a divine harper, who makes music in the tree-tops, and drives the flocks of the sun—the fleecy clouds—where he wills. The murmuring spring was imaged as a gentle nymph; and within each fine tree was an imprisoned dryad. In short, the diversified and charming scenery supplied an unequaled wealth of religious and mythic lore. And, as man, in this climate, exempt from the debilitating heats of the tropics and the stunting of too severe cold, reached the ideal of bodily perfection, the human form became, not unnaturally, to the Greek, the noblest type under which he could represent the divine. The gods were humanized—stronger and more beautiful beings, to be sure, than ordinary men, but possessed of the same forms, members, and passions.
The course which the Norsemen took when they, in their turn, went forth from the common Aryan home, was less propitious. It led them to a land where the summer was short and the sun soon had to wage a bitter and losing war for long months with frost and snow; a land where the fiords were heavily sealed with ice, and man had a bitter task to keep the wolf of starvation and death from his door. The sternness and gloom of the land were reflected in the Northman's thought and faith. Woden, the stormful, Thor, the thunderer, and Loki, the vengeful and cunning destroyer, become the chief figures in his myths. The interest centers in the struggles of the Aesir, the deities of light and beneficence, against the frost-giants and their allies or servants—the midgard-serpent, the fenris-wolf, and the dreaded Hel—varied personifications of darkness, cold, and death.
Delighting himself, as the Norseman did, in the vigorous exercise and the hearty feasting, to which the frosty air stimulated, his gods likewise were boisterous and stalwart beings, riding on the tempest, amusing themselves by feats of strength, reveling in the crash of battle, and gathering the fallen heroes into the bright Valhalla, there to reward them for their courage with foaming cups of mead, and the barbaric delights of ceaseless combats, in indestructible bodies. Thus, instead of the Graces and the beautiful Apollo of Greece, we find in Scandinavia deities as blustering and uncouth as the Northland itself, but manly and good-hearted. While in Greece the primitive Aryan faith takes on a more aesthetic and refined aspect, in Germany and Scandinavia it becomes more tragic and intense.
Let us follow next the steps of that part of the Aryans who turned their steps southward into the languorous plains of India, and we shall see a different change. The first thing we notice is, that Dyans—the shining one, the bright sky of day—loses his ancient pre-eminence. His supremacy in the thoughts of the Aryan emigrants is first taken by Varuna—the night-sky. In the hot clime of India, the bright sky of day was no longer so pleasant to them, and Varuna seemed a kinder deity, and therefore became more popular. But soon he also is superseded by Indra, the rain-god, who, with his glittering lance—the lightning—pierces and releases the imprisoned waters. For in India, then, as to-day, the coming of the rainy season after the long drought is by far the most important of all nature's changes. It was not long before Indra, therefore, by his terrible might and his beneficent prowess in slaying the drought-serpent, became, with his coadjutors, the Maruts, the beating winds, the chief object of Vedic adoration. And soon we notice an equally significant change. The vigorous Aryan, in the debilitating heats of the Indian plains, became a victim of lassitude. He lost his healthful delight in the good things of sense and earth. The languid air lulled him in dreamy reveries. Meditation takes the place of service in the commandments of religion; and asceticism, instead of the divine blessings, becomes the pious practice. So great and so rapid is the change that comes over their faith that, before many centuries have passed, pessimistic views of life become so seated in the race that the illusiveness of the world and the essential wretchedness of life become cardinal doctrines of faith; and the great desire of men's heart's is not for renewed lease of life, but for the means of obtaining exemption from the misery of rebirth. And so it has been with other nations and races. The physical characteristics of the countries they have dwelt in have powerfully modified the aspect of their religion. The races inhabiting the most barren and unfavorable quarters of the globe—such as the Patagonians, Hottentots, Kamschatkans—have suffered correspondingly in their possibility of religious progress. Conversely, it is that intermediate zone between the tropical and the temperate—the land of the olive, the fig, and the orange—where the mean temperature is not lower than 60° Fahr. nor more than 75° Fahr., that has been the home of the great founders of religions—Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, and Christ. Moreover, we may notice, as Peschel has pointed out, the suggestive fact that it is in the wide expanses and awe-inspiring solitudes of the desert, where the imagination, while vividly excited, is yet not distracted and divided among the manifold wonders of nature—shimmering leaf and gnarled trunks, writhing mists and rattling thunder, and the weird sounds of forest or sea-beach—that suggest and develop the polytheistic gods, but can give itself up entirely to the impressions of a single Majesty and Infinity—it is, I say, amid these noble yet simple aspects of nature, that the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Mohammedanism, and Christianity, have been originated. It was at Sinai that Moses promulgated his stern prohibitions of idolatry and polytheism. It was by a Bedouin foster-mother that Mohammed was reared, and as a shepherd and caravan-merchant, traveling across the Arabian deserts, that he passed his early life. And it was in the desert that Christ listened to the preaching of John the Baptist, and passed the forty days in which he prepared himself for his great career.
2. In the second place, we must notice, as of equal if not greater influence in giving diversity to religious faith, man's experiences with himself and with his fellows. It is an old maxim that it is "in the experiences of life that each individual finds or loses his god." Starting on the lowest range of the soul's experience, we notice the effect of the dreams, trances, swoons, ecstasies, and other abnormal phenomena of human nature, in giving direction and variety to religious conceptions. While I regard it as a grave error to derive religion solely from these morbid phenomena, nevertheless they have undoubtedly done much in awakening the spiritual powers of man, and in giving shape to his religious instincts. Life, in its most familiar and natural phases, is a mysterious thing—a wonder which doubtless filled the primitive man with ill-understood awe, as it has made even the pride of modern science stand abashed before it. And its more eccentric and exceptional aspects would especially set men to marveling, and suggest explanations which we may to-day laugh at, but without really having penetrated into the heart of the mystery any more than our remotest ancestors. Thus, among almost all peoples the shadow has been looked upon as a second self, and as one of the causes if not the cause of life. The breath, likewise, with whose cessation life ends, has been especially identified with the soul, the principle of life, as is shown by the same or similar words employed in most languages, as their names—atman in Sanskrit; nephesh and ruach among the Hebrews; wang among the Australians; anemos and anima in Greek and Latin—indicate. As in dreams the savage seems to see his distant kinsmen, to visit remote localities, to behold again the long-dead parent or grandparent; so he comes to believe that the soul, an impalpable form within the fleshly organism, is capable of leaving the body when it pleases, of taking long journeys and flashing with incredible swiftness from place to place, of possessing its will and consciousness independently of the body, and continuing to exist and appear after the death of the body.
This conception of the soul once formed, the abnormal facts of disease, insanity, epilepsy, and hysteria, come readily to be explained by the invasion into these bodies of other spirits than their own—celestial or demoniac, superhuman or infra-human, according to the phenomena observed. These notions, once diffused, give rise, in their turn, to a whole cycle of kindred animistic theories and religious practices—such as divination by dreams, exorcisms of demons, dervish-dancings, and other artificially produced swoons and ecstasies, and fetichistic magic of all sorts. Sneezing, hiccough, and all painful diseases, are to the savage the work of some spirit that has crept into his body. Fasting, as occasioning vivid visions, becomes a method of seeing one's tutelar deity, as among our Indians, or as the proper rite to fit the priest for initiation into his sacred office, as generally in savage tribes.
When it is evil spirits that do their work in man, they must be cast out by invoking some beneficent and more powerful god. Hence exorcism, witchcraft, medicine-men. When it is good spirits that do their work in man, we have inspired seers and priestesses—divine oracles, like those of Delphi and Dodona. Out of a belief that the spirits of the dead still maintain an interest in those they have left, and are causers of good and evil to them, come propitiation of them by gifts and prayers, and ancestor-worship—so prevalent in ancient China, Egypt, and Rome, as among many African and Polynesian tribes still—is developed.
Next, perhaps (as happens in many cases), the departed chieftain or patriarch, still looked upon as protecting his descendants and tribesmen, becomes the guardian deity of the tribe, or the ruler of the hidden land to which the ghosts of the dead must journey. As still further evolutions from this root, we find the belief in the resurrection of the body and the transmigration of souls, the custom of embalming, and the varied ideas of the nature of the future life found in different nations.
3. Next, we must notice the great influence of man's intercourse with his fellows. Under this third head I would call attention to the action of the political condition or environment, as a differentiating factor. In ancient times, the connection between religion and government was far closer than we see almost anywhere to-day. That separation between church and state, that independence of politics and faith so prevalent everywhere to-day, was unknown to antiquity. The state and the church were one. The king was high-priest by virtue of his office, and the priest as much a state or civic official as judge or warrior-chief. Not infrequently, the same individual held both what we now distinguish as secular and sacred offices. Among the ancient Aryans—as with the early Hindoos, Greeks, and Romans—religion was a domestic rite. Each home had its altar and its sacred fire, whose flame must never be allowed to go out. And so the word hestia or vesta—the fixed place for the family hearth-fire—came to represent the divine mother, the guardian of the family, who, if duly honored, would preserve it in honor and prosperity. It was the office of the father or grandfather, the living head of the family, to pour on the sacred flame the offerings of meal and butter, to offer the incense and pour out the libations, and to salute with prayer and praise the beneficent god of light, at his morning rising; or when, by neglect properly to feed the deity of the hearth, the god had left them, it was the duty of the father to bring him back, by the friction of the sacred sticks.
As families increased to tribes, and tribes were consolidated, the chief of the tribe, the patriarch of the community became, of course, the proper officer to perform the religions rites for the greater social body; as was the case in ancient Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and Rome, and is still the case in China to-day. The gods were conceived of as belonging to and concerned only with the tribe or nation that worshiped them; often, indeed, were imagined inseparable from a particular land; and he who went away from it was beyond the protection of his accustomed gods.
Thus David, in his well-known appeal (1 Samuel, xxvi, 19), says to Saul, If men have stirred thee up against me, they are cursed, for they have driven me out this day from dwelling in Jehovah's heritage, saying to me, Go, serve other gods. The idea that all lands might be under the care of one god, and the people of different nations might be of one religion, was a conception slow in arising. Whoever belonged to a tribe or nation was bound to worship the gods of that nation. When a man was adopted into a nation, or a woman married into another gens or tribe, such a person was held to adopt the divinities and tutelar deities of their new companions also. The promise of Ruth to Naomi, "Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God," was not an exceptional but a necessary conjunction. To disown or ignore the gods of one's fathers was to disown one's nationality.
Conversely, the god of a special people must protect and favor his own. In the historical books of the Old Testament, e. g., we see many times appearing the idea that Jehovah's honor is so bound up with that of his people that he could not neglect to protect and bless them, no matter how great his wrath against their trespasses. The existence of foreign gods was not at all disbelieved, nor their power denied. But they were looked upon as naturally confining their favors to their own land and people. It was proper that their own people should worship them, but to foreigners they would be indifferent or hostile. To introduce strange gods into the state was therefore a dangerous experiment, entailing the risk of alienating their rightful divine protectors.
Similarly, the idea of seeking proselytes to one's own religion was, at first, quite antagonistic to the instincts of faith. The favor of Brahma, the blessings of Jehovah, were privileges of the chosen people of these gods; especial boons, which were not to be rashly cheapened by admitting foreigners to them. The sudra, however, desirous of knowing and worshiping the Brahmanic deities, was never allowed to read the Yeda, or join in the most holy ceremonies.
Now, from this local character of ancient divinities it is evident what greater influence political conditions would have on religion than is possible in our day, when state and church are so independent of each other. In races, like the Aryan, where the early organization was into small communities with a patriarchal or quasi-republican government, where both the diversified face of the land and their own free spirit kept a host of small cities and states in independent existence, there the loose coalescence which comes through commerce, and identity of speech and civilization into a national life and religion, does nothing to destroy the various local gods, and we have, as in India, Greece, and Germany, a bewildering pantheon of divinities, many most similar to one another, because originally representative of aspects of the same natural objects or phenomena. Their religion was as full of variety and as lacking in centralization as their political system.
The first result on religion of advance toward national unity is, therefore, a great multiplication of deities. But soon other forces are called into play. Wherever, by conquest, intermarriage of princes, or treaties of alliance, two or more small states are thoroughly merged into a larger, there a coalescence of their gods and diminution of the number of the divinities are apt to take place. While their fetich-gods—divinities of merely local origin, mountain, earth, tree, cavern, river—would be different, the elemental gods—deities of sun, moon, sky, wind, and storm—would be common to both, and have more or less common features. They would, therefore, be readily identified, and their worship, under a name and ritual compounded, very likely, from the traditions of both tribes, would gain in popularity, while the more local gods, worshiped only by parts of the new nation, would fall into oblivion.
Again, when an ancient nation was subjugated, it was not believed to be due merely to the weakness of the people, or their inferior courage or military skill; but the people's tutelar deities were supposed to have withdrawn their protection, or to have been shown inferior in their guardian power to the gods of the victorious people. The people often, therefore, voluntarily abandoned their own deities, to secure the more effective protectorship of the victorious gods. In the wake of the great armies of Assyria and Rome, faith after faith of antiquity was left a wreck of its former self, its sacred prestige ruined, and its gods degraded into subordinates of the triumphant foreign deities. The conquerors sometimes relentlessly stamped out the worship of the conquered. Often, out of policy or pity, they gave it a quasi-recognition; and then came about an amalgamation of beliefs.
These international religions tended to subdue the ethnic distinctions and local worships, and to give prominence to the higher and more universal deities. Thus, the great monarchies of antiquity, through their very tyranny and the absoluteness of the royal power in them, broke the path for the universal religions. The Roman Empire was the forerunner that made straight the way for Christianity. Sargon of Assyria is no more famous for his conquests than for his systematization of the Mesopotamian religion. And in Egypt we find its religion unified step by step with the government. The rival cycles of gods and goddesses, the varied triads of its different epochs, the confusing medley of divinities, great and small, of whom, now one, now another, is said to be the supreme, can never be comprehended until we recognize that the political unity of Egypt was not original or constant, but a growth, through the consolidation of the forty-two distinct nomes or districts which occupied the length of the valley.
Each of these little kingdoms, or duchies, as we may call them (resembling, in their relations to one another, the little duchies of Germany before Prussia swallowed them up so effectually), had its capital, its hereditary duke, its special deity or deities, and its shrine or great temple. We find the names of the Egyptian gods followed by the name of their special home, as Neith of Sais; Aman-Ra, chief in Aptu, i. e., Thebes. When gods of the same name or origin were worshiped in different places, they were regarded as more or less different deities, and often had different characteristics or symbols.
Thus we find four Sets mentioned in one inscription and six Anubises in another. Though originating from the same natural object, different aspects of the divine power were deified in each. When at length these independent districts were united in a single empire and a close social unity, the deities were naturally consolidated more or less.
Out of political comity and national sympathy, the people of each nome would admit the deities of other sections as also venerable and worshipful; but, in their own grading of the comparative dignity of the various gods, each would put its own local deities in the chief seats, and make the deities of other districts subordinate to them. Hence would arise distinctions among the gods, as, some of the first order, others of the second, others of the third. Those that in one nome, say, that of Thebes, were placed at the head, in another, such as that of Memphis, always jealous of its rival for the dignity of the metropolitanship of Egypt, would be likely to be put down into the second or third class, to make room for the ancient hereditary favorites of the worshipers of that locality.
As, in the political struggles of the country, one nome after another became the seat of the central government—now This, now Thebes, now Memphis, now Tanais—or as the royal house (through some dynastic change, or intermarriage with princesses from a distance) favored one or another local group of gods or particular deity, so the hierarchical order and the very character of the deities shifted. Thus, when the Hyksos came into power, a Semitic dynasty, they favored especially the god Set, whom they fancied identical with their own Sedeq or El-Shaddai. They took him for their providential leader, and discouraged the worship of the other gods. But when, by their oppressions, they had stirred up the Egyptians, at length, to revolt, and were driven out of the country, Set, though before an honored deity, was now associated with all that was evil, and was credited with entire malevolence, and made, instead of Apap, the serpent of darkness, the great antagonist of the beneficent Osiris. The hatred of the Egyptians for the very name of Set was carried so far that it was chiseled out of the monuments; the day that had been dedicated to him became the Black Friday of the Egyptians; and the animals chosen to symbolize him were the most hateful monsters known to them, the crocodile and the hippopotamus: he became, in short, the almighty destroyer and blighter—the great devil of their pantheon.
This is no isolated instance. Repeatedly do we find wars between nations, arraying their gods, in the popular belief, in hostility; and the only historical record we have of the military conflict is the myth of the wars between the supernatural guardians of the different peoples. Such a myth is that of the wars between the Hellenic gods and the Titans and giants, and the celestial usurpation by which Zeus and Apollo drive Saturn from his throne, banishing the sons of earth to the regions of night and death, burying Enceladus under Etna, and fastening Prometheus by eternal fetters to his rock of punishment. The historical fact beneath this is the struggle between the celestial deities of the Aryan invaders and the rude, burly peasant gods of the peasant aborigines.
Similarly, out of the conflicts of the Iranians with their brother-people, the Brahmans—whom they seem at first to have accompanied in their migration from Bactria—we have a religious change of a notable character. One part of the immigrants, the Iranians, seemed to desire to cease their wanderings and adopt a settled agricultural life; the other were unwilling to do so, and would not respect the inclosed fields of the Iranians. Hence an hereditary feud, that antagonized them religiously as well as politically. Originally, both the words devas, i. e., the bright ones, and asuras, the living ones, were used as names of the Aryan gods, both terms being terms of respect and love. But gradually the term deva came to be the favorite with the Brahmans, and the term asura or ahura the favorite with the Iranians. But, after the feud broke out, we find the asuras of the Iranians becoming such an object of dislike to the Brahmans that gradually the word ceased to be used for the good gods, to whom the term devas was appropriated. And to the Iranians, the devas of their foes became so hateful that the word became synonymous with evil spirit—a meaning still retained in our word devil. Out of the throes of this bitter early contest of the Parsees came that trumpet-call to intensest and unceasing struggle against all sin and impurity and wickedness that put the religion of Zarathushtra on such an astonishingly lofty moral plane.
Thus, when two nations stand for a length of time in hostility, neither prevailing, the result is usually to intensify the special peculiarities in the faith of each and widen their diversity. But, when one conquers the other, the result is generally to amalgamate the religions of the two peoples, in more or less degree. It is natural, of course, that the faith of the subjected people should be shaped over in the mold of the victor's faith. But the reverse of this is almost equally common, and we repeatedly see, as we follow down the course of history, the race conquered in battle gradually reasserting itself under the new régime, and subduing the conquerors, socially and religiously, by infusing among them the customs and faith they had sought at first to trample under foot. Thus, we find the Turanian peoples whom the Iranians subdued in Persia retaliating upon the victors, by unconsciously, as the years went by, introducing into the higher Zarathushtran faith the doctrine of the fravashis, or ancestral tutelary spirits, the magical practices and excessive adoration of fire, and the soma, or drink of immortality—none of which seemed native to the Aryan religion.
So in the Brahman religion, the idea of the transmigration of souls, quite absent from the early Vedic hymns, becomes, when we reach the time of the collection called the laws of Manu, one of the most prominent features of the religion. Unknown as it is in all other branches of the Aryan family, its rise and prominence among the Brahmans are to be referred to the pre-Aryan occupants of the Ganges Valley, whom the Aryans conquered and absorbed, and from whose belief in it the Brahmans derived it, when, at length, the conquerors and conquered had been fused together into one people. So with the animal-worship of Egypt, so opposite in character to the worship of Osiris and Ra. It is best explainable as a remnant of the religion of the inferior people who inhabited the land of the Nile in far remote ages, and who were subdued by the emigrants from Asia, who brought higher knowledge and a more spiritual faith with them and founded the wonderful civilization that in ancient times distinguished that land. The new faith, unfortunately, could not wean the common people altogether from their grosser faith, but was forced to receive much of it into itself.
Again, we may notice the influence of political considerations, in establishing some of the peculiar institutions of religion, such as that of caste, which has played such a great rôle in Hindoo society. In the oldest hymns of the Vedas, we find no mention of it. It arose out of the bitter struggles against the non-Aryan people—the dark race, whom, at last, they succeeded in conquering. The word for caste-varna means kind or color, and indicated at first the difference between the whiter conquering race and the darker-tinted race whom they subdued, and with whom they would brook no slightest intercourse nor mixture, no relation but that of a slave to his masters.
This strong antipathy of race and bitter contempt for all who could not fight, nor recite the sacred hymn, petrified into impassable barriers. Pride of birth and intolerance of spirit united to increase these hereditary disabilities, and the priestly class did not fail to fan the fire of superstition that gave them such privileges. But, much as the Brahmans, at first and probably since, have congratulated themselves on the advantages of the institution, the student of history beholds, as its product, the most bitter fruit—an intolerable rigidity, a cumbrous ceremonialism, and the alienation and degradation of the common people. It was no wonder that ere long Buddhism should arise, and in the strength of the popular disaffection sweep over all India, and if, in another century, it lost this conquest, yet should go on in triumphant march over Eastern Asia, till it came to number more souls in its ranks than any other faith.
4. We must notice the great influence of man's varied social conditions in differentiating religious belief. The level of religion with any people corresponds to the general level of social organization and refinement. "Thou art fellow with the spirit that thy mind can grasp," is the pregnant monition of Mephistopheles in Goethe's "Faust." The coarse, imbruted, petty-minded man can not entertain any high or pure notions of God. The negroes of the West Coast represent their deities as black and mischievous, delighting to torment men in various ways. The god of the Polynesian cannibals is believed by them to feed on the souls of the men sacrificed to him, as they themselves do on the bodies. When the negro's fetich does not bring him good fortune, the stock or stone gets a drubbing.
Among tribes that still remain in the predatory state, subsisting by hunting, and continually resorting to plunder and war, we find religion in its crudest forms. Animal-worship, great regard for omens and use of magic, and shamanistic practices of all sorts, swarm in their religions. Their rites are apt to be cruel and their sacrifices bloody, often demanding human victims. The religions of the warlike negroes of the Gold Coast, the Feejee-Islanders, and the hunting tribes of America, illustrate this.
Even where nations have risen to a high level of civilization, but have retained their military habits, as the Assyrians and the Aztecs, e. g., there the sanguinary and revolting character of their religion shows the same influence. On the other hand, where pastoral life prevails, there, as among the Hottentots and Caffres, religion has a milder aspect; while, among those tribes which, besides cattle-breeding and agriculture, have engaged also in industry and commerce, a still more humane spirit characterizes their worship.
A similar difference, though on a less pronounced scale, is seen in the two elements that united to form the Greek nation. The older stock, whose blood ran in the peasantry, were a half-savage people and their gods consequently rude—half-bestial satyrs and centaurs, black Demeters, images of the unsown earth; mountain Titans, uncouth Pan; thievish, tricksy Hermes; the mighty but reckless, wanton Heracles, type of the red and angry sun, gods but half-focused in the minds of their own worshipers, and represented often by rude blocks of wood and stone. But these could not content the spiritual demands of the later comers, the more polished Iranians, finer of temperament, and imbued by their contact with the civilization of Asia Minor with higher tastes. So we find among them more graceful and elevated gods—stately Hera and chaste Artemis, heaven-born Pallas and the beauteous Apollo—noble ideals of the highest manhood and womanhood that they could conceive.
And as civilization still further progresses, as peace and law become the rule in the community, as arts and knowledge increase, the conceptions of the divine and the worship suitable for him rise proportionately. With the exacter study of nature, sorcery and omens become less credible. The gods themselves are seen to be subject to an unchangeable order. Indications of intelligence, of goodness, and of rectitude in the world, point irresistibly to a divine with the high attributes from which alone these effects can proceed. As the reason grows, the crude polytheism in which man at first rested is found environed with perplexities and inconsistencies. Reason pushes steadily toward the universal and the single. If the thunder-cloud was a divine being, why not every drop of rain that fell? If the lion or bull was a god, why not every fly and midge? In revolt against such cheapening of the idea of divinity, there would arise, with the development of intelligence, a tendency to absorb the host of gods in fewer and more potent gods. Next, the interaction of nature's processes would be noted. The fire that warms the house is recognized as essentially one and the same force with that which flushes the sky at dawn, flashes from the solar orb, or gleams in the lightning's quick illumination: “Thou Agni,” as the Vedic poet at length cried—“thou Agni art Indra, art Vishnu, art Brahman-aspati. Thou Agni art born Varuna, becomest Mitra when kindled. In thee, son of strength, art all the gods.”—(“Rig-Veda,” vii, 30, 31, vii, 1-3.)
As observation widens, then, the diverse parts of nature are more and more woven into one web. The various deities are recognized as but aliases under which a single power hides. The unity of the world forbids us to think of it as the prey of numberless capricious and independent personalities. Thus the early scientific investigators, as Anaxagoras and Parmenides, necessarily broke with polytheism, and proclaimed the essential oneness of that power from which all came. Men of philosophic spirit everywhere, whether in India, Egypt, China, or Rome, have pressed behind the confusing throng of pagan pantheons, to reach some elder, more eternal, more majestic, and absolute power behind them all. Nutar the power; Tao the eternal principle; Akevana Zarvana boundless time; Brahma the supernatural essence of all. The questions, “Whence has all come? What is the source of all?” have become more and more urgent. One after another, the idols of ancient belief have been broken by the iconoclastic hammer of fuller knowledge, and the yearning arms of faith, that must embrace some adored object, have reached up to purer conceptions of the divine, more worthy of worship.
Or when, on the contrary, civilization is decaying, and the incursions and conquests of barbarians are, from century to century, making society coarser and rougher, as happened in Europe from the fifth to the tenth century, then we see a corresponding degeneration in religion.
How lofty and pure the spiritual truths that Jesus taught! And, in the simple, ingenuous narratives of the gospel, what an anchor to the Christian Church to keep it, one would think, from ever drifting far away from its original place! And yet, what melancholy degradation, what gross perversions, did Christianity lapse into among the dissolute Greeks and Romans, the rude Franks and Vandals! As we study mediæval Christianity, with its belief in witchcraft and all sorts of pious and impious magic; its melancholy asceticism; the gross worship of saints, relics, and images, and deifications of Virgin and eucharistic bread and wine; with its martial, steel-clad bishops, ready to fight in public as in private; with its exaltation of ceremony above morality, and investment of priest and pope with supernatural power and authority—it seems almost incredible that the glad-tidings of the gospel, the simple faith that started as a message of peace on earth and goodwill to men, could ever have been transformed into this. It is only by the irresistible influence of a corrupt society in the first place, and, secondly, of a barbarous society, that it is at all explainable.
The first forms of religion have well been called a kind of primitive philosophy. So, full-fledged philosophy has been the constant pioneer of a purer theology, and the diverse speculations of the intellect, from the days of Ptah-hotep and Lao-Tsee down to those of Hegel and Cousin, have been prominent forces in giving pious hearts their special directions in the religious field. According as the metaphysics of a people varies—following the empiric or the intuitive, the positive or the idealistic type—so will its religion vary. See, e. g., what a different thing Buddhism developed into among the nation of positivists, the Chinese, from the form it took among the idealistic Brahmans. The student of history, as he looks back at the great religious movements of the world, can discern how each great wave of spiritual feeling was preceded, prepared for, and received its direction from, some philosophic current. Aristotle, e. g., did more to determine the special phase of mediæval Christendom than any of its popes. These four philosophers, Kant, Hegel, Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer, surpass in their influence on the religious situation any forty theologians who can be mentioned. Religion at certain epochs, such as that of the Hindoo Upanishads, the Neoplatonism of the second and third centuries, or the mediæval scholasticism, is but philosophy in priestly robe.
As religions develop, the work of conscious thought and reasoning becomes greater and greater. It is these that mold the warm and impressible wax of pious feeling into such different theologic types. It is these that draw up creeds, and that define doctrines with ever-increasing detail; that subtilize over the pre-existent state of great prophets, that invent theories of incarnation and transubstantiation, and that multiply dogmatic distinctions and schemes of salvation, until the sects become multitudinous. And, if this may be said to the discredit of metaphysic speculation, to its credit, on the other side of the account, we may put the fact that it is only through the influence of the philosophic reason that religion is exalted above dull naturalism or sensuous anthropomorphism. It is impossible, by mere observation and induction, to ascend from the imperfect creation to the perfect divine. The finite universe may suggest a being of vast power and astonishing wisdom, but it demonstrates no infinitude. All that we draw from nature and the human is of the relative and transient order, and supplies no warrant to us of any absolute and eternal. Rude and uneducated minds are always found investing Deity with physical characteristics and human imperfections. “God is a good man,” said Dogberry, and, to the sensuous thought, he is to-day but little more than the magnified image of our own humanity. It is by philosophic training alone that we learn to analyze and carry out to their rational conclusions those principles of reason which demand of us to recognize as most characteristic of God's attributes, beyond anything that either nature or the human body presents, those attributes of infinity, perfection, and absolute existence, which constitute true divinity.
5. Similarly the moral condition of a people is a most important variable in its development. Ideas of heaven and hell correspond to the moral elevation of the community. The warlike Maori imagined life after death a constant series of battles, in which the gods are always victorious. The Moslem's paradise excites our disgust by its sensualities; the Greek's, by its trivialities. It is only where the moral nature is elevated that heaven is ennobled to a place worthy the longings of a manly man.
God-fearing armies, as Carlyle tells us, are the best armies. So, as Bagehot has pointed out, those kinds of morals and that kind of religion which tend to make the firmest and most effectual character are sure to prevail, all else being the same; and creeds or systems that conduce to a soft, limp mind tend to perish. Strong beliefs win strong men, and then make them stronger. Such is, no doubt, another cause why monotheism tends to prevail over polytheism. It at once attracts and produces steadier character. It is not confused by competing rites nor distracted by miscellaneous duties.
As in man, at the outset, the moral and spiritual faculties lie mostly latent, overshadowed by his animal wants and passions, so the gods, in whose image he fashions at first the dimly discerned divine, are beings of physical power and sensuous nature, personifications of giant strength, imperative will, terrible passions, dangerous to arouse—a wanton Mylitta, a thievish Hermes, an implacable Pluto, the Moloch only to be propitiated by giving him the best-beloved child to devour in his sacred flame; or a burly Thor, whose hammer-blows rive huge valleys in the ground, to whom any deceit by which he may overcome his foes is entirely allowable.
From this low nature range, where morality is not yet known, the conceptions of the gods move up to the philosophic level, and from that to the ethical range. The Hindoo Rita, at first simply the fixed path of the sun or other heavenly bodies, became, as the next step, generalized in law or order in the abstract; and then was exalted into the celestial path of rectitude and peace, the eternal power making for righteousness. Osiris, at first the setting sun, becomes next the mysterious principle of life and harmony; then, the great judge of men's conduct, the source of good.
All nature-religions, derived as they are from the physical world and its processes, and originating in the infancy of civilization, are ethically imperfect. They are not immoral, so much as innocent of those distinctions, modesties, and virtues, to which so much regard is later given. But, just because of this, many incidents of their sacred histories come in time to seem impure and revolting. While Zeus was clearly recognized as the sky that fertilizes the earth and quickens nature, the myths of his manifold amours—how, in swan-garb of feathery cirrhus, he approaches and overshadows Leda; how in a shower of golden, sunlight rain he impregnates Danaë, the imprisoned earth of frosty spring—all these would be intelligible and inoffensive. But when Zeus became the supreme ruler of earth and heaven, the all-holy law-giver, then men could not but soon find these narratives shocking to their moral sense. We do not easily bear the thought that the objects of our worship should be inferior in any respect to ourselves. When this is felt, then the worship must be radically reformed, or it falls before some faith of purer type.
All the great universal religions—Buddhism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism—are distinguished for their high moral quality, and by this won their glorious victories; and their crystallization in the heart of a noble-minded prophet and reformer was in each case preceded by a great social and moral quickening throughout the community in which they arose. When the depths of the human heart are moved and the imperative claims of justice, truth, and purity once perceived, then the death-knell of mere nature-worship has. been rung in that land. As the pagan god, Wäinamöinen, in the Finnish epic of the Kalevala, when he hears of the birth of Christ, enters his canoe and paddles away to the northern wastes of snow and silence, so must the worship of force give way to the more majestic divinity of conscience. The varied influences of man's environment conspire with the aspiring instincts of his in most soul to conduct him constantly out of the imperfect toward the perfect. Whether or not he reach it, it is that that must be the goal of his striving.