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Andrew Lang

Anthropology and Religion

The Making of Religion: Chapter III (1900)

Published on: Saturday 21 October 2006

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Andrew Lang, ’Anthropology and Religion’, The Making of Religion, (Chapter III), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 39-64.


Among the various forms of science which are reaching and affecting the new popular tradition, we have reckoned Anthropology. Pleasantly enough, Anthropology has herself but recently emerged from that limbo of the unrecognised in which Psychical Research is pining. The British Association used to reject anthropological papers as ’vain dreams based on travellers’ tales.’ No doubt the British Association would reject a paper on clairvoyance as a vain dream based on old wives’ fables, or on hysterical imposture. Undeniably the study of such themes is hampered by fable and fraud, just as anthropology has to be ceaselessly on its guard against ’travellers’ tales,’ against European misunderstandings of savage ideas, and against civilised notions and scientific theories unconsciously read into barbaric customs, rites, traditions, and usages. Man, ondoyant et divers, is the subject alike of anthropology and of psychical research. Man (especially savage man) cannot be secluded from disturbing influences, and watched, like the materials of a chemical experiment in a laboratory. Nor can man be caught in a ’primitive’ state: his intellectual beginnings lie very far behind the stage of culture in which we find the lowest known races. Consequently the matter on which anthropology works is fluctuating; the evidence on which it rests needs the most sceptical criticism, and many of its conclusions, in the necessary absence of historical testimony as to times far behind the lowest known savages, must be hypothetical.

For these sound reasons official science long looked askance on Anthropology. Her followers were not regarded as genuine scholars, and, perhaps as a result of this contempt, they were often ’broken men,’ intellectual outlaws, people of one wild idea. To the scientific mind, anthropologists or ethnologists were a horde who darkly muttered of serpent worship, phallus worship, Arkite doctrines, and the Ten Lost Tribes that kept turning up in the most unexpected places. Anthropologists were said to gloat over dirty rites of dirty savages, and to seek reason where there was none. The exiled, the outcast, the pariah of Science, is, indeed, apt to find himself in odd company. Round the camp-fire of Psychical Research too, in the unofficial, unstaked waste of Science, hover odd, menacing figures of Esoteric Buddhists, Satanistes, Occultists, Christian Scientists, Spiritualists, and Astrologers, as the Arkites and Lost Tribesmen haunted the cradle of anthropology.

But there was found at last to be reason in the thing, and method in the madness. Evolution was in it. The acceptance, after long ridicule, of palaeolithic weapons as relics of human culture, probably helped to bring Anthropology within the sacred circle of permitted knowledge. Her topic was full of illustrations of the doctrine of Mr. Darwin. Modern writers on the theme had been anticipated by the less systematic students of the eighteenth century—Goguet, de Brosses, Millar, Fontenelle, Lafitau, Boulanger, or even Hume and Voltaire. As pioneers these writers answer to the early mesmerists and magnetists, PuysÈgur, Amoretti, Ritter, Elliotson, Mayo, Gregory, in the history of Psychical Research. They were on the same track, in each case, as Lubbock, Tylor, Spencer, Bastian, and Frazer, or as Gurney, Richet, Myers, Janet, Dessoir, and Von Schrenck-Notzing. But the earlier students were less careful of method and evidence.

Evidence! that was the stumbling block of anthropology. We still hear, in the later works of Mr. Max Müller, the echo of the old complaints. Anything you please, Mr. Max Müller says, you may find among your useful savages, and (in regard to some anthropologists) his criticism is just. You have but to skim a few books of travel, pencil in hand, and pick out what suits your case. Suppose, as regards our present theme, your theory is that savages possess broken lights of the belief in a Supreme Being. You can find evidence for that. Or suppose you want to show that they have no religious ideas at all; you can find evidence for that also. Your testimony is often derived from observers ignorant of the language of the people whom they talk about, or who are themselves prejudiced by one or other theory or bias. How can you pretend to raise a science on such foundations, especially as the savage informants wish to please or to mystify inquirers, or they answer at random, or deliberately conceal their most sacred institutions, or have never paid any attention to the subject?

To all these perfectly natural objections Mr. Tylor has replied. [1] Evidence must be collected, sifted, tested, as in any other branch of inquiry. A writer, ’of course, is bound to use his best judgment as to the trustworthiness of all authors he quotes, and, if possible, to obtain several accounts to certify each point in each locality.’ Mr. Tylor then adduces ’the test of recurrence,’ of undesigned coincidence in testimony, as Millar had already argued in the last century. [2] If a mediaeval Mahommedan in Tartary, a Jesuit in Brazil, a Wesleyan in Fiji, one may add a police magistrate in Australia, a Presbyterian in Central Africa, a trapper in Canada, agree in describing some analogous rite or myth in these diverse lands and ages, we cannot set down the coincidence to chance or fraud. ’Now, the most important facts of ethnography are vouched for in this way.’

We may add that even when the ideas of savages are obscure, we can often detect them by analysis of the institutions in which they are expressed. [3]

Thus anthropological, like psychical or any other evidence, must be submitted to conscientious processes of testing and sifting. Contradictory instances must be hunted for sedulously. Nothing can be less scientific than to snatch up any traveller’s tale which makes for our theory, and to ignore evidence, perhaps earlier, or later, or better observed, which makes against it. Yet this, unfortunately, in certain instances (which will be adduced) has been the occasional error of Mr. Huxley and Mr. Spencer. [4] Mr. Spencer opens his ’Ecclesiastical Institutions’ by the remark that ’the implication [from the reported absence of the ideas of belief in persons born deaf and dumb] is that the religious ideas of civilised men are not innate’ (who says they are?), and this implication Mr. Spencer supports by ’proofs that among various savages religious ideas do not exist.’ ’Sir John Lubbock has given many of these.’ But it would be well to advise the reader to consult Roskoff’s confutation of Sir John Lubbock, and Mr. Tylor’s masterly statement. [5] Mr. Spencer cited Sir Samuel Baker for savages without even ’a ray of superstition’ or a trace of worship. Mr. Tylor, twelve years before Mr. Spencer wrote, had demolished Sir Samuel Baker’s assertion, [6] as regards many tribes, and so shaken it as regards the Latukas, quoted by Mr. Spencer. The godless Dinkas have ’a good deity and heaven-dwelling creator,’ carefully recorded years before Sir Samuel’s ’rash denial.’ We show later that Mr. Spencer, relying on a single isolated sentence in Brough Smyth, omits all his essential information about the Australian Supreme Being; while Mr. Huxley—overlooking the copious and conclusive evidence as to their ethical religion—charges the Australians with having merely a non-moral belief in casual spirits. We have also to show that Mr. Huxley, under the dominance of his theory, and inadvertently, quotes a good authority as saying the precise reverse of what he really does say.

If the facts not fitting their theories are little observed by authorities so popular as Mr. Huxley and Mr. Spencer; if instantiae contradictoriae are ignored by them, or left vague; if these things are done in the green tree, we may easily imagine what shall be done in the dry. But we need not war with hasty vulgarisateurs and headlong theorists.

Enough has been said to show the position of anthropology as regards evidence, and to prove that, if he confines his observations to certain anthropologists, the censures of Mr. Max M¸ller are justified. It is mainly for this reason that the arguments presently to follow are strung on the thread of Mr. Tylor’s truly learned and accurate book, ’Primitive Culture.’

Though but recently crept forth, vix aut ne vix quidem, from the chill shade of scientific disdain, Anthropology adopts the airs of her elder sisters among the sciences, and is as severe as they to the Cinderella of the family, Psychical Research. She must murmur of her fairies among the cinders of the hearth, while they go forth to the ball, and dance with provincial mayors at the festivities of the British Association. This is ungenerous, and unfortunate, as the records of anthropology are rich in unexamined materials of psychical research. I am unacquainted with any work devoted by an anthropologist of renown to the hypnotic and kindred practices of the lower races, except Herr Bastian’s very meagre tract, ’Über psychische Beobachtungen bei Naturvölkern.’ [7] We possess, none the less, a mass of scattered information on this topic, the savage side of psychical phenomena, in works of travel, and in Mr. Tylor’s monumental ’Primitive Culture.’ Mr. Tylor, however, as we shall see, regards it as a matter of indifference, or, at least, as a matter beyond the scope of his essay, to decide whether the parallel supernormal phenomena believed in by savages, and said to recur in civilisation, are facts of actual experience, or not.

Now, this question is not otiose. Mr. Tylor, like other anthropologists, Mr. Huxley, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and their followers and popularisers, constructs on anthropological grounds, a theory of the Origin of Religion.

That origin anthropology explains as the result of early and fallacious reasonings on a number of biological and psychological phenomena, both normal and (as is alleged by savages) supernormal. These reasonings led to the belief in souls and spirits. Now, first, anthropology has taken for granted that the Supreme Deities of savages are envisaged by them as ’spirits.’ This, paradoxical as the statement may appear, is just what does not seem to be proved, as we shall show. Next, if the supernormal phenomena (clairvoyance, thought-transference, phantasms of the dead, phantasms of the dying, and others) be real matters of experience, the inferences drawn from them by early savage philosophy may be, in some degree, erroneous. But the inferences drawn by materialists who reject the supernormal phenomena will also, perhaps, be, let us say, incomplete. Religion will have been, in part, developed out of facts, perhaps inconsistent with materialism in its present dogmatic form. To put it less trenchantly, and perhaps more accurately, the alleged facts ’are not merely dramatically strange, they are not merely extraordinary and striking, but they are "odd" in the sense that they will not easily fit in with the views which physicists and men of science generally give us of the universe in which we live’ (Mr. A.J. Balfour, President’s Address, ’Proceedings,’ S.P.R. vol. x. p. 8, 1894).

As this is the case, it might seem to be the business of Anthropology, the Science of Man, to examine, among other things, the evidence for the actual existence of those alleged unusual and supernormal phenomena, belief in which is given as one of the origins of religion.

To make this examination, in the ethnographic field, is almost a new labour. As we shall see, anthropologists have not hitherto investigated such things as the ’Fire-walk’ of savages, uninjured in the flames, like the Three Holy Children. The world-wide savage practice of divining by hallucinations induced through gazing into a smooth deep (crystal-gazing) has been studied, I think, by no anthropologist. The veracity of ’messages’ uttered by savage seers when (as they suppose) ’possessed’ or ’inspired’ has not been criticised, and probably cannot be, for lack of detailed information. The ’physical phenomena’ which answer among savages to the use of the ’divining rod,’ and to ’spiritist’ marvels in modern times, have only been glanced at. In short, all the savage parallels to the so-called ’psychical phenomena’ now under discussion in England, America, Germany, Italy, and France, have escaped critical analysis and comparison with their civilised counterparts.

An exception among anthropologists is Mr. Tylor. He has not suppressed the existence of these barbaric parallels to our modern problems of this kind. But his interest in them practically ends when he has shown that the phenomena helped to originate the savage belief in ’spirits,’ and when he has displayed the ’survival’ of that belief in later culture. He does not ask ’Are the phenomena real?’ he is concerned only with the savage philosophy of the phenomena and with its relics in modern spiritism and religion. My purpose is to do, by way only of ébauche, what neither anthropology nor psychical research nor psychology has done: to put the savage and modern phenomena side by side. Such evidence as we can give for the actuality of the modern experiences will, so far as it goes, raise a presumption that the savage beliefs, however erroneous, however darkened by fraud and fancy, repose on a basis of real observation of actual phenomena.

Anthropology is concerned with man and what is in man—humani nihil a se alienum putat. These researches, therefore, are within the anthropological province, especially as they bear on the prevalent anthropological theory of the Origin of Religion. By ’religion’ we mean, for the purpose of this argument, the belief in the existence of an Intelligence, or Intelligences not human, and not dependent on a material mechanism of brain and nerves, which may, or may not, powerfully control men’s fortunes and the nature of things. We also mean the additional belief that there is, in man, an element so far kindred to these Intelligences that it can transcend the knowledge obtained through the known bodily senses, and may possibly survive the death of the body. These two beliefs at present (though not necessarily in their origin) appear chiefly as the faith in God and in the Immortality of the Soul.

It is important, then, to trace, if possible, the origin of these two beliefs. If they arose in actual communion with Deity (as the first at least did, in the theory of the Hebrew Scriptures), or if they could be proved to arise in an unanalysable sensus numinis, or even in ’a perception of the Infinite’ (Max Müller), religion would have a divine, or at least a necessary source. To the Theist, what is inevitable cannot but be divinely ordained, therefore religion is divinely preordained, therefore, in essentials, though not in accidental details, religion is true. The atheist, or non-theist, of course draws no such inferences.

But if religion, as now understood among men, be the latest evolutionary form of a series of mistakes, fallacies, and illusions, if its germ be a blunder, and its present form only the result of progressive but unessential refinements on that blunder, the inference that religion is untrue—that nothing actual corresponds to its hypothesis—is very easily drawn. The inference is not, perhaps, logical, for all our science itself is the result of progressive refinements upon hypotheses originally erroneous, fashioned to explain facts misconceived. Yet our science is true, within its limits, though very far from being exhaustive of the truth. In the same way, it might be argued, our religion, even granting that it arose out of primitive fallacies and false hypotheses, may yet have been refined, as science has been, through a multitude of causes, into an approximate truth.

Frequently as I am compelled to differ from Mr. Spencer both as to facts and their interpretation, I am happy to find that he has anticipated me here. Opponents will urge, he says, that ’if the primitive belief’ (in ghosts) ’was absolutely false, all derived beliefs from it must be absolutely false?’ Mr. Spencer replies: ’A germ of truth was contained in the primitive conception—the truth, namely, that the power which manifests itself in consciousness is but a differently conditioned form of the power which manifests itself beyond consciousness.’ In fact, we find Mr. Spencer, like Faust as described by Marguerite, saying much the same thing as the priests, but not quite in the same way. Of course, I allow for a much larger ’germ of truth’ in the origin of the ghost theory than Mr. Spencer does. But we can both say ’the ultimate form of the religious consciousness is’ (will be?) ’the final development of a consciousness which at the outset contained a germ of truth obscured by multitudinous errors.’ [8]

’One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.’

Coming at last to Mr. Tylor, we find that he begins by dismissing the idea that any known race of men is devoid of religious conceptions. He disproves, out of their own mouths, the allegations of several writers who have made this exploded assertion about ’godless tribes.’ He says: ’The thoughts and principles of modern Christianity are attached to intellectual clues which run back through far pre-Christian ages to the very origin of human civilisation, perhaps even of human existence.’ [9] So far we abound in Mr. Tylor’s sense. ’As a minimum definition of religion’ he gives ’the belief in spiritual beings,’ which appears ’among all low races with whom we have attained to thoroughly intimate relations.’ The existence of this belief at present does not prove that no races were ever, at any time, destitute of all belief. But it prevents us from positing the existence of such creedless races, in any age, as a demonstrated fact. We have thus, in short, no opportunity of observing, historically, man’s development from blank unbelief into even the minimum or most rudimentary form of belief. We can only theorise and make more or less plausible conjectures as to the first rudiments of human faith in God and in spiritual beings. We find no race whose mind, as to faith, is a tabula rasa.

To the earliest faith Mr. Tylor gives the name of Animism, a term not wholly free from objection, though ’Spiritualism’ is still less desirable, having been usurped by a form of modern superstitiousness. This Animism, ’in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in controlling deities and subordinate spirits.’ In Mr. Tylor’s opinion, as in Mr. Huxley’s, Animism, in its lower (and earlier) forms, has scarcely any connection with ethics. Its ’spirits’ do not ’make for righteousness.’ This is a side issue to be examined later, but we may provisionally observe, in passing, that the ethical ideas, such as they are, even of Australian blacks are reported to be inculcated at the religious mysteries (Bora) of the tribes, which were instituted by and are performed in honour of the gods of their native belief. But this topic must be reserved for our closing chapters.

Mr. Tylor, however, is chiefly concerned with Animism as ’an ancient and world-wide philosophy, of which belief is the theory, and worship is the practice.’ Given Animism, then, or the belief in spiritual beings, as the earliest form and minimum of religious faith, what is the origin of Animism? It will be seen that, by Animism, Mr. Tylor does not mean the alleged early theory, implicitly if not explicitly and consciously held, that all things whatsoever are animated and are personalities. [10] Judging from the behaviour of little children, and from the myths of savages, early man may have half-consciously extended his own sense of personal and potent and animated existence to the whole of nature as known to him. Not only animals, but vegetables and inorganic objects, may have been looked on by him as persons, like what he felt himself to be. The child (perhaps merely because taught to do so) beats the naughty chair, and all objects are persons in early mythology. But this feeling, rather than theory, may conceivably have existed among early men, before they developed the hypothesis of ’spirits,’ ’ghosts,’ or souls. It is the origin of that hypothesis, ’Animism,’ which Mr. Tylor investigates.

What, then, is the origin of Animism? It arose in the earliest traceable speculations on ’two groups of biological problems:

(1) ’What is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one; what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, and death?’

(2) ’What are those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions?’ [11]

Here it should be noted that Mr. Tylor most properly takes a distinction between sleeping ’dreams’ and waking ’visions,’ or ’clear vision.’ The distinction is made even by the blacks of Australia. Thus one of the Kurnai announced that his Yambo, or soul, could ’go out’ during sleep, and see the distant and the dead. But ’while any one might be able to communicate with the ghosts, during sleep, it was only the wizards who were able to do so in waking hours.’ A wizard, in fact, is a person susceptible (or feigning to be susceptible) when awake to hallucinatory perceptions of phantasms of the dead. ’Among the Kulin of Wimmera River a man became a wizard who, as a boy, had seen his mother’s ghost sitting at her grave.’ [12] These facts prove that a race of savages at the bottom of the scale of culture do take a formal distinction between normal dreams in sleep and waking hallucinations—a thing apt to be denied.

Thus Mr. Herbert Spencer offers the massive generalisation that savages do not possess a language enabling a man to say ’I dreamed that I saw,’ instead of ’I saw’ (’Principles of Sociology,’ p. 150). This could only be proved by giving examples of such highly deficient languages, which Mr. Spencer does not do. [13] In many savage speculations there occur ideas as subtly metaphysical as those of Hegel. Moreover, even the Australian languages have the verb ’to see,’ and the substantive ’sleep.’ Nothing, then, prevents a man from saying ’I saw in sleep’ (insomnium, [*]).

We have shown too, that the Australians take an essential distinction between waking hallucinations (ghosts seen by a man when awake) and the common hallucinations of slumber. Anybody can have these; the man who sees ghosts when awake is marked out for a wizard.

At the same time the vividness of dreams among certain savages, as recorded in Mr. Im Thurn’s ’Indians of Guiana,’ and the consequent confusion of dreaming and waking experiences, are certain facts. Wilson says the same of some negroes, and Mr. Spencer illustrates from the confusion of mind in dreamy children. They, we know, are much more addicted to somnambulism than grown-up people. I am unaware that spontaneous somnambulism among savages has been studied as it ought to be. I have demonstrated, however, that very low savages can and do draw an essential distinction between sleeping and waking hallucinations.

Again, the crystal-gazer, whose apparently telepathic crystal pictures are discussed later (chap. v.), was introduced to a crystal just because she had previously been known to be susceptible to waking and occasionally veracious hallucinations.

It was not only on the dreams of sleep, so easily forgotten as they are, that the savage pondered, in his early speculations about the life and the soul. He included in his materials the much more striking and memorable experiences of waking hours, as we and Mr. Tylor agree in holding.

Reflecting on these things, the earliest savage reasoners would decide: (1) that man has a ’life’ (which leaves him temporarily in sleep, finally in death); (2) that man also possesses a ’phantom’ (which appears to other people in their visions and dreams). The savage philosopher would then ’combine his information,’ like a celebrated writer on Chinese metaphysics. He would merely ’combine the life and the phantom,’ as ’manifestations of one and the same soul.’ The result would be ’an apparitional soul,’ or ’ghost-soul.’

This ghost-soul would be a highly accomplished creature, ’a vapour, film, or shadow,’ yet conscious, capable of leaving the body, mostly invisible and impalpable, ’yet also manifesting physical power,’ existing and appearing after the death of the body, able to act on the bodies of other men, beasts, and things. [14]

When the earliest reasoners, in an age and in mental conditions of which we know nothing historically, had evolved the hypothesis of this conscious, powerful, separable soul, capable of surviving the death of the body, it was not difficult for them to develop the rest of Religion, as Mr. Tylor thinks. A powerful ghost of a dead man might thrive till, its original owner being long forgotten, it became a God. Again (souls once given) it would not be a very difficult logical leap, perhaps, to conceive of souls, or spirits, that had never been human at all. It is, we may say, only le premier pas qui coûte, the step to the belief in a surviving separable soul. Nevertheless, when we remember that Mr. Tylor is theorising about savages in the dim background of human evolution, savages
whom we know nothing of by experience, savages far behind Australians and Bushmen (who possess Gods), we must admit that he credits them with great ingenuity, and strong powers of abstract reasoning. He may be right in his opinion. In the same way, just as primitive men were keen reasoners, so early bees, more clever than modern bees, may have evolved the system of hexagonal cells, and only an early fish of genius could first have hit on the plan, now hereditary of killing a fly by blowing water at it.

To this theory of metaphysical genius in very low savages I have no objection to offer. We shall find, later, astonishing examples of savage abstract speculation, certainly not derived from missionary sources, because wholly out of the missionary’s line of duty and reflection.

As early beasts had genius, so the earliest reasoners appear to have been as logically gifted as the lowest savages now known to us, or even as some Biblical critics. By Mr. Tylor’s hypothesis, they first conceived the extremely abstract idea of Life, ’that which makes the difference between a living body and a dead one.’ [15] This highly abstract conception must have been, however, the more difficult to early man, as, to him, all things, universally, are ’animated.’ [16] Mr. Tylor illustrates this theory of early man by the little child’s idea that ’chairs, sticks, and wooden horses are actuated by the same sort of personal will as nurses and children and kittens… In such matters the savage mind well represents the childish stage.’ [17]

Now, nothing can be more certain than that, if children think sticks are animated, they don’t think so because they have heard, or discovered, that they possess souls, and then transfer souls to sticks. We may doubt, then, if primitive man came, in this way, by reasoning on souls, to suppose that all things, universally, were animated. But if he did think all things animated—a corpse, to his mind, was just as much animated as anything else. Did he reason: ’All things are animated. A corpse is not animated. Therefore a corpse is not a thing (within the meaning of my General Law)’?

How, again, did early man conceive of Life, before he identified Life (1) with ’that which makes the difference between a living body and a dead one’ (a difference which, ex hypothesi, he did not draw, all things being animated to his mind) and (2) with ’those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions’? ’The ancient savage philosophers probably reached the obvious inference that every man had two things belonging to him, a life and a phantom.’ But everything was supposed to have ’a life,’ as far as one makes out, before the idea of separable soul was developed, at least if savages arrived at the theory of universal animation as children are said to do.

We are dealing here quite conjecturally with facts beyond our experience.

In any case, early man excogitated (by the hypothesis) the abstract idea of Life, before he first ’envisaged’ it in material terms as ’breath,’ or ’shadow.’ He next decided that mere breath or shadow was not only identical with the more abstract conception of Life, but could also take on forms as real and full-bodied as, to him, are the hallucinations of dream or waking vision. His reasoning appears to have proceeded from the more abstract (the idea of Life) to the more concrete, to the life first shadowy and vaporous, then clothed in the very aspect of the real man.

Mr. Tylor has thus (whether we follow his logic or not) provided man with a theory of active, intelligent, separable souls, which can survive the death of the body. At this theory early man arrived by speculations on the nature of life, and on the causes of phantasms of the dead or living beheld in ’dreams and visions.’ But our author by no means leaves out of sight the effects of alleged supernormal phenomena believed in by savages, with their parallels in modern civilisation. These supernormal phenomena, whether real or illusory, are, he conceives, facts in that mass of experiences from which savages constructed their belief in separable, enduring, intelligent souls or ghosts, the foundation of religion.

While we are, perhaps owing to our own want of capacity, puzzled by what seem to be two kinds of early philosophy—(1) a sort of instinctive or unreasoned belief in universal animation, which Mr. Spencer calls ’Animism’ and does not believe in, (2) the reasoned belief in separable and surviving souls of men (and in things), which Mr. Spencer believes in, and Mr. Tylor calls ’Animism’—we must also note another difficulty. Mr. Tylor may seem to be taking it for granted that the earliest, remote, unknown thinkers on life and the soul were existing on the same psychical plane as we ourselves, or, at least, as modern savages. Between modern savages and ourselves, in this regard, he takes certain differences, but takes none between modern savages and the remote founders of religion.

Thus Mr. Tylor observes:

’The condition of the modern ghost-seer, whose imagination passes on such slight excitement into positive hallucination, is rather the rule than the exception among uncultured and intensely imaginative tribes, whose minds may be thrown off their balance by a touch, a word, a gesture, an unaccustomed noise.’ [18]

I find evidence that low contemporary savages are not great ghost-seers, and, again, I cannot quite accept Mr. Tylor’s psychology of the ’modern ghost-seer.’ Most such favoured persons whom I have known were steady, unimaginative, unexcitable people, with just one odd experience. Lord Tennyson, too, after sleeping in the bed of his recently lost father on purpose to see his ghost, decided that ghosts ’are not seen by imaginative people.’

We now examine, at greater length, the psychical conditions in which, according to Mr. Tylor, contemporary savages differ from civilised men. Later we shall ask what may be said as to possible or presumable psychical differences between modern savages and the datelessly distant founders of the belief in souls. Mr. Tylor attributes to the lower races, and even to races high above their level, ’morbid ecstasy, brought on by meditation, fasting, narcotics, excitement, or disease.’ Now, we may still ’meditate’—and how far the result is ’morbid’ is a matter for psychologists and pathologists to determine. Fasting we do not practise voluntarily, nor would we easily accept evidence from an Englishman as to the veracity of voluntary fasting visions, like those of Cotton Mather. The visions of disease we should set aside, as a rule, with those of ’excitement,’ produced, for instance, by ’devil-dances.’ Narcotic and alcoholic visions are not in question. [19] For our purpose the induced trances of savages (in whatever way voluntarily brought on) are analogous to the modern induced hypnotic trance. Any supernormal acquisitions of knowledge in these induced conditions, among savages, would be on a par with similar alleged experiences of persons under hypnotism.

We do not differ from known savages in being able to bring on non-normal psychological conditions, but we produce these, as a rule, by other methods than theirs, and such experiments are not made on all of us, as they were on all Red Indian boys and girls in the ’medicine-fast,’ at the age of puberty.

Further, in their normal state, known savages, or some of them, are more ’suggestible’ than educated Europeans at least. [20] They can be more easily hallucinated in their normal waking state by suggestion. Once more, their intervals of hunger, followed by gorges of food, and their lack of artificial light, combine to make savages more apt to see what is not there than are comfortable educated white men. But Mr. Tylor goes too far when he says ’where the savage could see phantasms, the civilised man has come to amuse himself with fancies.’ [21] The civilised man, beyond all doubt, is capable of being enfantosmé.

In all that he says on this point, the point of psychical condition, Mr. Tylor is writing about known savages as they differ from ourselves. But the savages who ex hypothesi evolved the doctrine of souls lie beyond our ken, far behind the modern savages, among whom we find belief not only in souls and ghosts, but in moral gods. About the psychical condition of the savages who worked out the theory of souls and founded religion we necessarily know nothing. If there be such experiences as clairvoyance, telepathy, and so on, these unknown ancestors of ours may (for all that we can tell) have been peculiarly open to them, and therefore peculiarly apt to believe in separable souls. In fact, when we write about these far-off founders of religion, we guess in the dark, or by the flickering light of analogy. The lower animals have faculties (as in their power of finding their way home through new unknown regions, and in the ants’ modes of acquiring and communicating knowledge to each other) which are mysteries to us. The terror of dogs in ’haunted houses’ and of horses in passing ’haunted’ scenes has often been reported, and is alluded to briefly by Mr. Tylor. Balaam’s ass, and the dogs which crouched and whined before Athene, whom Eumaeus could not see, are ’classical’ instances.

The weakness of the anthropological argument here is, we must repeat, that we know little more about the mental condition and experiences of the early thinkers who developed the doctrine of Souls than we know about the mental condition and experiences of the lower animals. And the more firmly a philosopher believes in the Darwinian hypothesis, the less, he must admit, can he suppose himself to know about the twilight ages, between the lower animal and the fully evolved man. What kind of creature was man when he first conceived the germs, or received the light, of Religion? All is guess-work here! We may just allude to Hegel’s theory that clairvoyance and hypnotic phenomena are produced in a kind of temporary atavism, or ’throwing hack’ to a remotely ancient condition of the ’sensitive soul’ (fühlende Seele). The ’sensitive’ [unconditioned, clairvoyant] faculty or ’soul’ is ’a disease when it becomes a state of the self-conscious, educated, self-possessed human being of civilisation.’ [22] ’Second sight,’ Hegel thinks, was a product of an earlier day and earlier mental condition than ours.

Approaching this almost untouched subject—the early psychical condition of man—not from the side of metaphysical speculations like Hegel, but with the instruments of modern psychology and physiology, Dr. Max Dessoir, of Berlin, following, indeed, M. Taine, has arrived, as we saw, at somewhat similar conclusions. ’This fully conscious life of the spirit,’ in which we moderns now live, ’seems to rest upon a substratum of reflex action of a hallucinatory type.’ Our actual modern condition is not ’fundamental,’ and ’hallucination represents, at least in its nascent condition, the main trunk of our psychical existence.’ [23]

Now, suppose that the remote and unknown ancestors of ours who first developed the doctrine of souls had not yet spread far from ’the main trunk of our psychical existence,’ far from constant hallucination. In that case (at least, according to Dr. Dessoir’s theory) their psychical experiences would be such as we cannot estimate, yet cannot leave, as a possibility influencing religion, out of our calculations.

If early men were ever in a condition in which telepathy and clairvoyance (granting their possibility) were prevalent, one might expect that faculties so useful would be developed in the struggle for existence. That they are deliberately cultivated by modern savages we know. The Indian foster-mother of John Tanner used, when food was needed, to suggest herself into an hypnotic condition, so that she became clairvoyante as to the whereabouts of game. Tanner, an English boy, caught early by the Indians, was sceptical, but came to practise the same art, not unsuccessfully, himself. [24] His reminiscences, which he dictated on his return to civilisation, were certainly not feigned in the interests of any theories. But the most telepathic human stocks, it may be said, ought, ceteris paribus, to have been the most successful in the struggle for existence. We may infer that the cetera were not paria, the clairvoyant state not being precisely the best for the practical business of life. But really we know nothing of the psychical state of the earliest men. They may have had experiences tending towards a belief in ’spirits,’ of which we can tell nothing. We are obliged to guess, in considerable ignorance of the actual conditions, and this historical ignorance inevitably besets all anthropological speculation about the origin of religion.

The knowledge of our nescience as to the psychical condition of our first thinking ancestors may suggest hesitation as to taking it for granted that early man was on our own or on the modern savage level in ’psychical’ experience. Even savage races, as Mr. Tylor justly says, attribute superior psychical knowledge to neighbouring tribes on a yet lower level of culture than themselves. The Finn esteems the Lapp sorcerers above his own; the Lapp yields to the superior pretensions of the Samoyeds. There may be more ways than one of explaining this relative humility: there is Hegel’s way and there is Mr. Tylor’s way. We cannot be certain, a priori, that the earliest man knew no more of supernormal or apparently supernormal experiences than we commonly do, or that these did not influence his thoughts on animism.

It is an example of the chameleon-like changes of science (even of ’science falsely so called’ if you please) that when he wrote his book, in 1871, Mr. Tylor could not possibly have anticipated this line of argument.

’Psychical planes’ had not been invented; hypnotism, with its problems, had not been much noticed in England. But ’Spiritualism’ was flourishing. Mr. Tylor did not ignore this revival of savage philosophy. He saw very well that the end of the century was beholding the partial rehabilitation of beliefs which were scouted from 1660 to 1850. Seventy years ago, as Mr. Tylor says, Dr. Macculloch, in his ’Description of the Western Islands of Scotland,’ wrote of ’the famous Highland second sight’ that ’ceasing to be believed it has ceased to exist.’ [25]

Dr. Macculloch was mistaken in his facts. ’Second sight’ has never ceased to exist (or to be believed to exist), and it has recently been investigated in the ’Journal’ of the Caledonian Medical Society. Mr. Tylor himself says that it has been ’reinstated in a far larger range of society, and under far better circumstances of learning and prosperity.’ This fact he ascribes generally to ’a direct revival from the regions of savage philosophy and peasant folklore,’ a revival brought about in great part by the writings of Swedenborg. To-day things have altered. The students now interested in this whole class of alleged supernormal phenomena are seldom believers in the philosophy of Spiritualism in the American sense of the word. [26]

Mr. Tylor, as we have seen, attributes the revival of interest in this obscure class of subjects to the influence of Swedenborg. It is true, as has been shown, that Swedenborg attracted the attention of Kant. But modern interest has chiefly been aroused and kept alive by the phenomena of hypnotism. The interest is now, among educated students, really scientific.

Thus Mr. William James, Professor of Psychology in the University of Harvard, writes:

’I was attracted to this subject (Psychical Research) some years ago by my love of fair play in Science.’ [27]

Mr. Tylor is not incapable of appreciating this attitude. Even the so-called ’spirit manifestations,’ he says, ’should be discussed on their merits,’ and the investigation ’would seem apt to throw light on some most interesting psychological questions.’ Nothing can be more remote from the logic of Hume.

The ideas of Mr. Tylor on the causes of the origin of religion are now criticised, not from the point of view of spiritualism, but of experimental psychology. We hold that very probably there exist human faculties of unknown scope; that these conceivably were more powerful and prevalent among our very remote ancestors who founded religion; that they may still exist in savage as in civilised races, and that they may have confirmed, if they did not originate, the doctrine of separable souls. If they do exist, the circumstance is important, in view of the fact that modern ideas rest on a denial of their existence.

Mr. Tylor next examines the savage and other names for the ghost-soul, such as shadow (umbra), breath (spiritus), and he gives cases in which the shadow of a man is regarded as equivalent to his life. Of course, the shadow in the sunlight does not resemble the phantasm in a dream. The two, however, were combined and identified by early thinkers, while breath and heart were used as symbols of ’that in men which makes them live,’ a phrase found among the natives of Nicaragua in 1528. The confessedly symbolical character of the phrase, ’it is not precisely the heart, but that in them which makes them live,’ proves that to the speaker life was not ’heart’ or ’breath,’ but that these terms were known to be material word-counters for the conception of life. [28] Whether the earliest thinkers identified heart, breath, shadow, with life, or whether they consciously used words of material origin to denote an immaterial conception, of course we do not know. But the word in the latter case would react on the thought, till the Roman inhaled (as his life?) the last breath of his dying kinsman, he well knowing that the Manes of the said kinsman were elsewhere, and not to be inhaled.

Subdivisions and distinctions were then recognised, as of the Egyptian Ka, the ’double,’ the Karen kelah, or ’personal life-phantom’ (wraith), on one side, and the Karen thah, ’the responsible moral soul,’ on the other. The Roman umbra hovers about the grave, the manes go to Orcus, the spiritus seeks the stars.

We are next presented with a crowd of cases in which sickness or lethargy is ascribed by savages to the absence of the patient’s spirit, or of one of his spirits. This idea of migratory spirit is next used by savages to explain certain proceedings of the sorcerer, priest, or seer. His soul, or one of his souls is thought to go forth to distant places in quest of information, while the seer, perhaps, remains lethargic. Probably, in the struggle for existence, he lost more by being lethargic than he gained by being clairvoyant!

Now, here we touch the first point in Mr. Tylor’s theory, where a critic may ask, Was this belief in the wandering abroad of the seer’s spirit a theory not only false in its form (as probably it is), but also wholly unbased on experiences which might raise a presumption in favour of the existence of phenomena really supernormal? By ’supernormal’ experiences I here mean such as the acquisition by a human mind of knowledge which could not be obtained by it through the recognised channels of sensation. Say, for the sake of argument, that a person, savage or civilised, obtains in trance information about distant places or events, to him unknown, and, through channels of sense, unknowable. The savage will explain this by saying that the seer’s soul, shadow, or spirit, wandered out of the body to the distant scene. This is, at present, an unverified theory. But still, for the sake of argument, suppose that the seer did honestly obtain this information in trance, lethargy, or hypnotic sleep, or any other condition. If so, the modern savage (or his more gifted ancestors) would have other grounds for his theory of the wandering soul than any ground presented by normal occurrences, ordinary dreams, shadows, and so forth. Again, in human nature there would be (if such things occur) a potentiality of experiences other and stranger than materialism will admit as possible. It will (granting the facts) be impossible to aver that there is nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu. The soul will be not ce qu’un vain peuple pense under the new popular tradition, and the savage’s theory of the spirit will be, at least in part, based on other than normal and every-day facts. That condition in which the seer acquires information, not otherwise accessible, about events remote in space, is what the mesmerists of the mid-century called ’travelling clairvoyance.’

If such an experience be in rerum natura, it will not, of course, justify the savage’s theory that the soul is a separable entity, capable of voyaging, and also capable of existing after the death of the body. But it will give the savage a better excuse for his theory than normal experiences provide; and will even raise a presumption that reflection on mere ordinary experiences—death, shadow, trance—is not the sole origin of his theory. For a savage so acute as Mr. Tylor’s hypothetical early reasoner might decline to believe that his own or a friend’s soul had been absent on an expedition, unless it brought back information not normally to be acquired. However, we cannot reason, a priori, as to how far the logic of a savage might or might not go on occasion.

In any case, a scientific reasoner might be expected to ask: ’Is this alleged acquisition of knowledge, not through the ordinary channels of sense, a thing in rerum natura?’ Because, if it is, we must obviously increase our list of the savage’s reasons for believing in a soul: we must make his reasons include ’psychical’ experiences, and there must be an X region to investigate.

These considerations did not fail to present themselves to Mr. Tylor. But his manner of dealing with them is peculiar. With his unequalled knowledge of the lower races, it was easy for him to examine travellers’ tales about savage seers who beheld distant events in vision, and to allow them what weight he thought proper, after discounting possibilities of falsehood and collusion. He might then have examined modern narratives of similar performances among the civilised, which are abundant. It is obvious and undeniable that if the supernormal acquisition of knowledge in trance is a vera causa, a real process, however rare, Mr. Tylor’s theory needs modifications; while the character of the savage’s reasoning becomes more creditable to the savage, and appears as better bottomed than we had been asked to suppose. But Mr. Tylor does not examine this large body of evidence at all, or, at least, does not offer us the details of his examination. He merely writes in this place:

’A typical spiritualistic instance may be quoted from Jung-Stilling, who says that examples have come to his knowledge of sick persons who, longing to see absent friends, have fallen into a swoon, during which they have appeared to the distant objects of their affection.’ [29]

Jung-Stilling (though he wrote before modern ’Spiritualism’ came in) is not a very valid authority; there is plenty of better evidence than his, but Mr. Tylor passes it by, merely remarking that ’modern Europe has kept closely enough to the lines of early philosophy.’ Modern Europe has indeed done so, if it explains the supernormal acquisition of knowledge, or the hallucinatory appearance of a distant person to his friend by a theory of wandering ’spirits.’ But facts do not cease to be facts because wrong interpretations have been put upon them by savages, by Jung-Stilling, or by anyone else. The real question is, Do such events occur among lower and higher races, beyond explanation by fraud and fortuitous coincidence? We gladly grant that the belief in Animism, when it takes the form of a theory of ’wandering spirits,’ is probably untenable, as it is assuredly of savage origin. But we are not absolutely so sure that in this aspect the theory is not based on actual experiences, not of a normal and ordinary kind. If so, the savage philosophy and its supposed survivals in belief will appear in a new light. And we are inclined to hold that an examination of the mass of evidence to which Mr. Tylor offers here so slight an allusion will at least make it wise to suspend our judgment, not only as to the origins of the savage theory of spirits, but as to the materialistic hypothesis of the absence of a psychical element in man.

I may seem to have outrun already the limits of permissible hypothesis. It may appear absurd to surmise that there can exist in man, savage or civilised, a faculty for acquiring information not accessible by the known channels of sense, a faculty attributed by savage philosophers to the wandering soul. But one may be permitted to quote the opinion of M. Charles Richet, Professor of Physiology in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. It is not cited because M. Richet is a professor of physiology, but because he reached his conclusion after six years of minute experiment. He says: ’There exists in certain persons, at certain moments, a faculty of acquiring knowledge which has no rapport with our normal faculties of that kind.’ [30]

Instances tending to raise a presumption in favour of M. Richet’s idea may now be sought in savage and civilised life.

View online : ’Opening the Gates of Distance’ (The Making of Religion: Chapter IV)


[1Primitive Culture, i. 9, 10.

[2Origin of Ranks.

[3I may be permitted to refer to ’Reply to Objections’ in the appendix to my Myth, Ritual, and Religion, vol. ii.

[4Spencer, Ecclesiastical Institutions, pp. 672, 673.

[5Primitive Culture, i. 417-425. Cf. however Princip. Of Sociol., p. 304.

[6Op. cit. i. 423, 424.

[7Published for the Berlin Society of Experimental Psychology, Günther, Leipzig, 1890.

[8Ecclesiastical Institutions, 837-839.

[9Primitive Culture, i. 421, chapter xi.

[10This theory is what Mr. Spencer calls ’Animism,’ and does not believe in. What Mr. Tylor calls ’Animism’ Mr. Spencer believes in, but he calls it the ’Ghost Theory.’

[11Primitive Culture, i. 428.

[12Howitt, Journal of Anthropological Institute, xiii. 191-195.

[13The curious may consult, for savage words for ’dreams,’ Mr. Scott’s Dictionary of the Mang’anja Language, s.v. ’Lots,’ or any glossary of any savage language.

[*Greek: enupnion

[14Prim. Cult. i. 429.

[15Prim. Cult. i. 428.

[16Ibid. i. 285.

[17Ibid. i. 285, 286.

[18Primitive Culture, i. 446.

[19See, however, Dr. Von Schrenck-Notzing, Die Beobachtung narcolischer Mittel für den Hypnotismus, and S.P.R. Proceedings, x. 292-899.

[20Primitive Culture, i. 306-316.

[21i. 315.

[22Phil. des Geistes, pp. 406, 408.

[23See also Mr. A.J. Balfour’s Presidential Address to the Society for Psychical Research, Proceedings, vol. x. See, too, Taine, De l’Intelligence, i. 78, 106, 139.

[24Tanner’s Narrative, New York, 1830.

[25Primitive Culture, i. 143.

[26As ’spiritualism’ is often used in opposition to ’materialism,’ and with no reference to rapping ’spirits,’ the modern belief in that class of intelligences may here be called spiritism.

[27The Will to Believe, preface, p. xiv.

[28Primitive Culture, i. 432,433. Citing Oviedo, Hist. De Nicaragua, pp. 21-51.

[29Primitive Culture, i. 440. Citing Stilling after Dale Owen, and quoting Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace’s Scientific Aspect of the Supernatural, p. 43. Mr. Tylor also adds folk-lore practices of ghost-seeing, as on St. John’s Eve. St. Mark’s Eve, too, is in point, as far as folk-lore goes.

[30Proceedings, S.P.R. v. 167.

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