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Andrew Lang

High Gods of Low Races

The Making of Religion: Chapter X (1900)

Published on: Saturday 2 December 2006

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Andrew Lang, ’High Gods of Low Races’, The Making of Religion, (Chapter X), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 173-184.


To avoid misconception we must repeat the necessary cautions about accepting evidence as to high gods of low races. The missionary who does not see in every alien god a devil is apt to welcome traces of an original supernatural revelation, darkened by all peoples but the Jews. We shall not, however, rely much on missionary evidence, and, when we do, we must now be equally on our guard against the anthropological bias in the missionary himself. Having read Mr. Spencer and Mr. Tylor, and finding himself among ancestor-worshippers (as he sometimes does), he is apt to think that ancestor-worship explains any traces of a belief in the Supreme Being. Against each and every bias of observers we must be watchful.

It may be needful, too, to point out once again another weak point in all reasoning about savage religion, namely that we cannot always tell what may have been borrowed from Europeans. Thus, the Fuegians, in 1830-1840, were far out of the way, but one tribe, near Magellan’s Straits, worshipped an image called Cristo. Fitzroy attributes this obvious trace of Catholicism to a Captain Pelippa, who visited the district some time before his own expedition. It is less probable that Spaniards established a belief in a moral Deity in regions where they left no material traces of their faith. The Fuegians are not easily proselytised. ’When discovered by strangers, the instant impulse of a Fuegian family is to run off into the woods.’ Occasionally they will emerge to barter, but ’sometimes nothing will induce a single individual of the family to appear.’ Fitzroy thought they had no idea of a future state, because, among other reasons not given, ’the evil spirit torments them in this world, if they do wrong, by storms, hail, snow, &c.’ Why the evil spirit should punish evil deeds is not evident. ’A great black man is supposed to be always wandering about the woods and mountains, who is certain of knowing every word and every action, who cannot be escaped and who influences the weather according to men’s conduct.’ [1]

There are no traces of propitiation by food, or sacrifice, or anything but conduct. To regard the Deity as ’a magnified non-natural man’ is not peculiar to Fuegian theologians, and does not imply Animism, but the reverse. But the point is that this ethical judge of perhaps the lowest savages ’makes for righteousness’ and searches the heart. His morality is so much above the ordinary savage standard that he regards the slaying of a stranger and an enemy, caught redhanded in robbery, as a sin. York’s brother (York was a Fuegian brought to England by Fitzroy) killed a ’wild man’ who was stealing his birds. ’Rain come down, snow come down, hail come down, wind blow, blow, very much blow. Very bad to kill man. Big man in woods no like it, he very angry.’ Here be ethics in savage religion. The Sixth Commandment is in force. The Being also prohibits the slaying of flappers before they can fly. ’Very bad to shoot little duck, come wind, come rain, blow, very much blow.’ [2]

Now this big man is not a deified chief, for the Fuegians ’have no superiority of one over another… but the doctor-wizard of each party has much influence.’ Mr. Spencer disposes of this moral ’big man’ of the Fuegians as ’evidently a deceased weather-doctor.’ [3] But, first, there is no evidence that the being is regarded as ever having died. Again, it is not shown that Fuegians are ancestor-worshippers. Next, Fitzroy did not think that the Fuegians believed in a future life. Lastly, when were medicine-men such notable moralists? The worst spirits among the neighbouring Patagonians are those of dead medicine-men. As a rule everywhere the ghost of a ’doctor-wizard,’ shaman, or whatever he may be called, is the worst and wickedest of all ghosts. How, then, the Fuegians, who are not proved to be ancestor-worshippers, evolved out of the malignant ghost of an ancestor a being whose strong point is morality, one does not easily conceive. The adjacent Chonos ’have great faith in a good spirit, whom they call Yerri Yuppon, and consider to be the author of all good; him they invoke in distress or danger.’ However starved they do not touch food till a short prayer has been muttered over each portion, ’the praying man looking upward.’ [4] They have magicians, but no details are given as to spirits or ghosts. If Fuegian and Chono religion is on this level, and if this be the earliest, then the theology of many other higher savages (as of the Zulus) is decidedly degenerate. ’The Bantu gives one accustomed to the negro the impression that he once had the same set of ideas, but has forgotten half of them,’ says Miss Kingsley. [5]

Of all races now extant, the Australians are probably lowest in culture, and, like the fauna of the continent, are nearest to the primitive model. They have neither metals, bows, pottery, agriculture, nor fixed habitations; and no traces of higher culture have anywhere been found above or in the soil of the continent. This is important, for in some respects their religious conceptions are so lofty that it would be natural to explain them as the result either of European influence, or as relics of a higher civilisation in the past. The former notion is discredited by the fact that their best religious ideas are imparted in connection with their ancient and secret mysteries, while for the second idea, that they are degenerate from a loftier civilisation, there is absolutely no evidence.

It has been suggested, indeed, by Mr. Spencer that the singularly complex marriage customs of the Australian blacks point to a more polite condition in their past history. Of this stage, as we said, no material traces have ever been discovered, nor can degeneration be recent. Our earliest account of the Australians is that of Dampier, who visited New Holland in the unhappy year 1688. He found the natives ’the miserablest people in the world. The Hodmadods, of Mononamatapa, though a nasty people, yet for wealth are gentlemen to these: who have no houses, sheep, poultry, and fruits of the earth… They have no houses, but lie in the open air.’ Curiously enough, Dampier attests their unselfishness: the main ethical feature in their religious teaching. ’Be it little or be it much they get, every one has his part, as well the young and tender as the old and feeble, who are not able to go abroad, as the strong and lusty.’ Dampier saw no metals used, nor any bows, merely boomerangs (’wooden cutlasses’), and lances with points hardened in the fire. ’Their place of dwelling was only a fire with a few boughs before it’ (the gunyeh).

This description remains accurate for most of the unsophisticated Australian tribes, but Dampier appears only to have seen ichthyophagous coast blacks.

There is one more important point. In the Bora, or Australian mysteries, at which knowledge of ’The Maker’ and of his commandments is imparted, the front teeth of the initiated are still knocked out. Now, Dampier observed ’the two fore-teeth of their upper jaw are wanting in all of them, men and women, old and young.’ If this is to be taken quite literally, the Bora rite, in 1688, must have included the women, at least locally. Dampier was on the north-west coast in latitude 16 degrees, longitude 122-1/4 degrees east (Dampier Land, West Australia). The natives had neither boats, canoes, nor bark logs; but it seems that they had their religious mysteries and their unselfishness, two hundred years ago. [6]

The Australians have been very carefully studied by many observers, and the results entirely overthrow Mr. Huxley’s bold statement that ’in its simplest condition, such as may be met with among the Australian savages, theology is a mere belief in the existence, powers, and dispositions (usually malignant) of ghost-like entities who may be propitiated or scared away; but no cult can properly be said to exist. And in this stage theology is wholly independent of ethics.’

Remarks more crudely in defiance of known facts could not be made. The Australians, assuredly, believe in ’spirits,’ often malicious, and probably in most cases regarded as ghosts of men. These aid the wizard, and occasionally inspire him. That these ghosts are worshipped does not appear, and is denied by Waitz. Again, in the matter of cult, ’there is none’ in the way of sacrifice to higher gods, as there should be if these gods were hungry ghosts. The cult among the Australians is the keeping of certain ’laws,’ expressed in moral teaching, supposed to be in conformity with the institutes of their God. Worship takes the form, as at Eleusis, of tribal mysteries, originally instituted, as at Eleusis, by the God. The young men are initiated with many ceremonies, some of which are cruel and farcical, but the initiation includes ethical instruction, in conformity with the supposed commands of a God who watches over conduct. As among ourselves, the ethical ideal, with its theological sanction, is probably rather above the moral standard of ordinary practice. What conclusion we should draw from these facts is uncertain, but the facts, at least, cannot be disputed, and precisely contradict the statement of Mr. Huxley. He was wholly in the wrong when he said: ’The moral code, such as is implied by public opinion, derives no sanction from theological dogmas,’ [7] It reposes, for its origin and sanction, on such dogmas.

The evidence as to Australian religion is abundant, and is being added to yearly. I shall here content myself with Mr. Howitt’s accounts. [8]

As regards the possible evolution of the Australian God from ancestor-worship, it must be noted that Mr. Howitt credits the groups with possessing ’headmen,’ a kind of chiefs, whereas some inquirers, in Brough Smyth’s collection, disbelieve in regular chiefs. Mr. Howitt writes:—

’The Supreme Spirit, who is believed in by all the tribes I refer to here [in South-Eastern Australia], either as a benevolent, or more frequently as a malevolent being, it seems to me represents the defunct headman.’

Now, the traces of ’headmanship’ among the tribes are extremely faint; no such headman rules large areas of country, none is known to be worshipped after death, and the malevolence of the Supreme Spirit is not illustrated by the details of Mr. Howitt’s own statement, but the reverse. Indeed, he goes on at once to remark that ’Darumulun was not, it seems to me, everywhere thought a malevolent being, but he was dreaded as one who could severely punish the trespasses committed against these tribal ordinances and customs whose first institution is ascribed to him.’

To punish transgressions of his law is not the essence of a malevolent being. Darumulun ’watched the youths from the sky, prompt to punish, by disease or death, the breach of his ordinances,’ moral or ritual. His name is too sacred to be spoken except in whispers, and the anthropologist will observe that the names of the human dead are also often tabooed. But the divine name is not thus tabooed and sacred when the mere folklore about him is narrated. The informants of Mr. Howitt instinctively distinguished between the mythology and the religion of Darumulun. [9] This distinction—the secrecy about the religion, the candour about the mythology—is essential, and accounts for our ignorance about the inner religious beliefs of early races. Mr. Howitt himself knew little till he was initiated. The grandfather of Mr. Howitt’s friend, before the white men came to Melbourne, took him out at night, and, pointing to a star, said: ’You will soon be a man; you see Bunjil [Supreme Being of certain tribes] up there, and he can see you, and all you do down here.’ Mr. Palmer, speaking of the Mysteries of Northern Australians (mysteries under divine sanction), mentions the nature of the moral instruction. Each lad is given, ’by one of the elders, advice so kindly, fatherly, and impressive, as often to soften the heart, and draw tears from the youth.’ He is to avoid adultery, not to take advantage of a woman if he finds her alone, he is not to be quarrelsome. [10]

At the Mysteries Darumulun’s real name may be uttered, at other times he is ’Master’ (Biamban) or ’Father’ (Papang), exactly as we say ’Lord’ and ’Father.’

It is known that all these things are not due to missionaries, whose instructions would certainly not be conveyed in the Bora, or tribal mysteries, which, again, are partly described by Collins as early as 1798, and must have been practised in 1688. Mr. Howitt mentions, among moral lessons divinely sanctioned, respect for old age, abstinence from lawless love, and avoidance of the sins so popular, poetic, and sanctioned by the example of Gods, in classical Greece. [11] A representation is made of the Master, Biamban; and to make such idols, except at the Mysteries, is forbidden ’under pain of death.’ Those which are made are destroyed as soon as the rites are ended. [12] The future life (apparently) is then illustrated by the burial of a living elder, who rises from a grave. This may, however, symbolise the ’new life’ of the Mystae, ’Worse have I fled; better have I found,’ as was sung in an Athenian rite. The whole result is, by what Mr. Howitt calls ’a quasi-religious element,’ to ’impress upon the mind of the youth, in an indelible manner, those rules of conduct which form the moral law of the tribe.’ [13]

Many other authorities could be adduced for the religious sanction of morals in Australia. A watchful being observes and rewards the conduct or men; he is named with reverence, if named at all; his abode is the heavens; he is the Master and Lord of things; his lessons ’soften the heart,’ [14]

’What wants this Knave
That a God should have?’

I shall now demonstrate that the religion patronised by the Australian Supreme Being, and inculcated in his Mysteries, is actually used to counteract the immoral character which natives acquire by associating with Anglo-Saxon Christians. [15]

Mr. Howitt [16] gives an account of the Jeraeil, or Mysteries of the Kurnai. The old men deemed that through intercourse with whites ’the lads had become selfish and no longer inclined to share that which they obtained by their own exertions, or had given them, with their friends.’ One need not say that selflessness is the very essence of goodness, and the central moral doctrine of Christianity. So it is in the religious Mysteries of the African Yao; a selfish man, we shall see, is spoken of as ’uninitiated.’ So it is with the Australian Kurnai, whose mysteries and ethical teaching are under the sanction of their Supreme Being. So much for the anthropological dogma that early theology has no ethics.

The Kurnai began by kneading the stomachs of the lads about to be initiated (that is, if they have been associating with Christians), to expel selfishness and greed. The chief rite, later, is to blindfold every lad, with a blanket closely drawn over his head, to make whirring sounds with the tundun, or Greek rhombos, then to pluck off the blankets, and bid the initiate raise their faces to the sky. The initiator points to it, calling out, ’Look there, look there, look there!’ They have seen in this solemn way the home of the Supreme Being, ’Our Father,’ Mungan-ngaur (Mungan = ’Father,’ ngaur = ’our’), whose doctrine is then unfolded by the old initiator (’headman’) ’in an impressive manner.’ [17] ’Long ago there was a great Being, Mungan-ngaur, who lived on the earth.’ His son Tundun is direct ancestor of the Kurnai. Mungan initiated the rites, and destroyed earth by water when they were impiously revealed. ’Mungan left the earth, and ascended to the sky, where he still remains.’

Here Mungan-ngaur, a Being not defined as spirit, but immortal, and dwelling in heaven, is Father, or rather grandfather, not maker, of the Kurnai. This may be interpreted as ancestor-worship, but the opposite myth, of making or creating, is of frequent occurrence in many widely-severed Australian districts, and co-exists with evolutionary myths. Mungan-ngaur’s precepts are:

1. To listen to and obey the old men.
2. To share everything they have with their friends.
3. To live peaceably with their friends.
4. Not to interfere with girls or married women.
5. To obey the food restrictions until they are released from them by the old men.

Mr. Howitt concludes: ’I venture to assert that it can no longer be maintained that the Australians have no belief which can be called religious, that is, in the sense of beliefs which govern tribal and individual morality under a supernatural sanction.’ On this topic Mr. Hewitt’s opinion became more affirmative the more deeply he was initiated. [18]

The Australians are the lowest, most primitive savages, yet no propitiation by food is made to their moral Ruler, in heaven, as if he were a ghost.

The laws of these Australian divine beings apply to ritual as well as to ethics, as might naturally be expected. But the moral element is conspicuous, the reverence is conspicuous: we have here no mere ghost, propitiated by food or sacrifice, or by purely magical rites. His very image (modelled on a large scale in earth) is no vulgar idol: to make such a thing, except on the rare sacred occasions, is a capital offence. Meanwhile the mythology of the God has often, in or out of the rites, nothing rational about it.

On the whole it is evident that Mr. Herbert Spencer, for example, underrates the nature of Australian religion. He cites a case of addressing the ghost of a man recently dead, which is asked not to bring sickness, ’or make loud noises in the night,’ and says: ’Here we may recognise the essential elements of a cult.’ But Mr. Spencer does not allude to the much more essentially religious elements which he might have found in the very authority whom he cites, Mr. Brough Smyth. [19] This appears, as far as my scrutiny goes, to be Mr. Spencer’s solitary reference to Australia in the work on ’Ecclesiastical Institutions.’ Yet the facts which he and Mr. Huxley ignore throw a light very different from theirs on what they consider ’the simplest condition of theology.’

Among the causes of confusion in thought upon religion, Mr. Tylor mentions ’the partial and one-sided application of the historical method of inquiry into theological doctrines.’ [20] Here, perhaps, we have examples. In its highest aspect that ’simplest theology’ of Australia is free from the faults of popular theology in Greece. The God discourages sin, though, in myth, he is far from impeccable. He is almost too revered to be named (except in mythology) and is not to be represented by idols. He is not moved by sacrifice; he has not the chance; like Death in Greece, ’he only, of all Gods, loves not gifts.’ Thus the status of theology does not correspond to what we look for in very low culture. It would scarcely be a paradox to say that the popular Zeus, or Ares, is degenerate from Mungan-ngaur, or the Fuegian being who forbids the slaying of an enemy, and almost literally ’marks the sparrow’s fall.’

If we knew all the mythology of Darumulun, we should probably find it (like much of the myth of Pundjel or Bunjil) on a very different level from the theology. There are two currents, the religious and the mythical, flowing together through religion. The former current, religious, even among very low savages, is pure from the magical ghost-propitiating habit. The latter current, mythological, is full of magic, mummery, and scandalous legend. Sometimes the latter stream quite pollutes the former, sometimes they flow side by side, perfectly distinguishable, as in Aztec ethical piety, compared with the bloody Aztec ritualism. Anthropology has mainly kept her eyes fixed on the impure stream, the lusts, mummeries, conjurings, and frauds of priesthoods, while relatively, or altogether, neglecting (as we have shown) what is honest and of good report.

The worse side of religion is the less sacred, and therefore the more conspicuous. Both elements are found co-existing, in almost all races, and nobody, in our total lack of historical information about the beginnings, can say which, if either, element is the earlier, or which, if either, is derived from the other. To suppose that propitiation of corpses and then of ghosts came first is agreeable, and seems logical, to some writers who are not without a bias against all religion as an unscientific superstition. But we know so little! The first missionaries in Greenland supposed that there was not, there, a trace of belief in a Divine Being. ’But when they came to understand their language better, they found quite the reverse to be true… and not only so, but they could plainly gather from a free dialogue they had with some perfectly wild Greenlanders (at that time avoiding any direct application to their hearts) that their ancestors must have believed in a Supreme Being, and did render him some service, which their posterity neglected little by little…’ [21] Mr. Tylor does not refer to this as a trace of Christian Scandinavian influence on the Eskimo. [22]

That line, of course, may be taken. But an Eskimo said to a missionary, ’Thou must not imagine that no Greenlander thinks about these things’ (theology). He then stated the argument from design. ’Certainly there must be some Being who made all these things. He must be very good too… Ah, did I but know him, how I would love and honour him.’ As St. Paul writes: ’That which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath showed it unto them … being understood by the things which are made … but they became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.’ [23] In fact, mythology submerged religion. St. Paul’s theory of the origin of religion is not that of an ’innate idea,’ nor of a direct revelation. People, he says, reached the belief in a God from the Argument for Design. Science conceives herself to have annihilated teleological ideas. But they are among the probable origins of religion, and would lead to the belief in a Creator, whom the Greenlander thought beneficent, and after whom he yearned. This is a very different initial step in religious development, if initial it was, from the feeding of a corpse, or a ghost.

From all this evidence it does not appear how non-polytheistic, non-monarchical, non-Manes-worshipping savages evolved the idea of a relatively supreme, moral, and benevolent Creator, unborn, undying, watching men’s lives. ’He can go everywhere, and do everything.’ [24]

View online : Supreme Gods not necessarily developped out of ’Spirit’ (The Making of Religion: Chapter XI)


[1Fitzroy, ii. 180. Darwin. Descent of Man, p. 67.

[2Ibid. We seem to have little information about Fuegian religion either before or after the cruise of the Beagle.

[3Principles of Sociology, i. 422.

[4Fitzroy, ii. 190, 191

[5Travels in West Africa, p. 442.

[6Early Voyages to Australia, 102-111 (Hakluyt Society).

[7Science and Hebrew Tradition, p. 846.

[8Journal of the Anthrop. Institute, 1884. See, for less dignified accounts, op. cit. xxiv. xxv.

[9Journal, xiii. 193.

[10Journal, xiii. 296.

[11Op. cit. p. 450.

[12P. 453.

[13P. 457.

[14See Brough Smyth, Aborigines, i. 426; Taplin, Native Races of Australia. According to Taplin, Nurrumdere was a deified black fellow, who died on earth. This is not the case of Baiame, but is said, rather vaguely, to be true of Daramulun. J.A.I., xiii. 194, xxv. 297.

[15From a brief account of the Fire Ceremony, or Engwurra of certain tribes in Central Australia, it seems that religious ceremonies connected with Totems are the most notable performances. Also ’certain mythical ancestors,’ of the ’alcheringa, or dream-times,’ were celebrated; these real or ideal human beings appear to ’sink their identity in that of the object with which they are associated, and from which they are supposed to have originated.’ There appear also to be places haunted by ’spirit individuals,’ in some way mixed up with Totems, but nothing is said of sacrifice to these Manes. The brief account is by Professor Baldwin Spencer and Mr. F.J. Gillen, Proc. Royal Soc. Victoria, July 1897. This Fire Ceremony is not for lads—not a kind of confirmation in the savage church—but is intended for adults.

[16J. Anthrop. Inst. 1886, p. 310.

[17J. Anthrop. Inst. 1885, p. 313.

[18J. Anthrop. Inst. xiii. p. 459.

[19Ecclesiastical Institutions, p. 674.

[20Prim. Cult. ii. 450.

[21Cranz, pp. 198, 199.

[22Journal Anthrop. Inst. xiii. 348-356.

[23Rom. i. 19. Cranz, i. 199.

[24In Mr. Carr’s work, The Australian Race, reports of ’godless’ natives are given, for instance, in the Mary River country and in Gippsland. These reports are usually the result of the ignorance or contempt of white observers, cf. Tylor, i. 419. The reader is referred to the Introduction for additional information about Australian beliefs, and for replies to objections.

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