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Andrew Lang

The Old Degeneration Theory

The Making of Religion: Chapter XV (1900)

Published on: Saturday 13 January 2007

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Andrew Lang, ’The Old Degeneration Theory’, The Making of Religion, (Chapter XV), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 254-267.


If any partisan of the anthropological theory has read so far into this argument, he will often have murmured to himself, ’The old degeneration theory!’ On this Dr. Brinton remarked in 1868:

’The supposition that in ancient times and in very unenlightened conditions, before mythology had grown, a monotheism prevailed which afterwards, at various times, was revived by reformers, is a belief that should have passed away when the delights of savage life and the praises of a state of nature ceased to be the theme of philosophers [1].’

’The old degeneration theory’ practically, and fallaciously, resolved itself, as Mr. Tylor says, into two assumptions—’first, that the history of culture began with the appearance on earth of a semi-civilised race of men; and second, that from this stage culture has proceeded in two ways—backward to produce savages, and forward to produce civilised men [2].’ That hypothesis is false to all our knowledge of evolution.

The hypothesis here provisionally advocated makes no assumptions at all. It is a positive fact that among some of the lowest savages there exists, not a doctrinal and abstract Monotheism, but a belief in a moral, powerful, kindly, creative Being, while this faith is found in juxtaposition with belief in unworshipped ghosts, totems, fetishes, and so on. The powerful creative Being of savage belief sanctions truth, unselfishness, loyalty, chastity, and other virtues. I have set forth the difficulties involved in the attempt to derive this Being from ghosts and other lower forms of belief.

Now, it is mere matter of fact, and not of assumption, that the Supreme Being of many rather higher savages differs from the Supreme Being of certain lower savages by the neglect in which he is left, by the epicurean repose with which he is credited, and by his comparative lack of moral control over human conduct. In his place a mob of ghosts and spirits, supposed to be potent and helpful in everyday life, attract men’s regard and adoration, and get paid by sacrifice—even by human sacrifice.

Turning to races yet higher in material culture, we find a crowd of hungry and cruel gods.

On this point Mr. Jevons remarks, in accordance with my own observation, that ’human sacrifice appears at a much earlier period in the rites for the dead than it does in the ritual of the gods.’ [3] The dead chief needs servants and wives in Hades, who are offered to him. The Australians have some elements of cannibalism, but do not, as a general rule, offer any human victims. So far, then, ancestor-worship introduced a sadly ’degenerate’ rite, compared with the moral faith in unfed gods.

To gods the human sacrifice was probably extended (in some cases) either by a cannibal civilised race, like the Aztecs, or by way of piacula, the god being conciliated for man’s sin by the offering of what man most prized, the ’jealousy’ of the god being appeased in a similar way. But these are relatively advanced conceptions, not to be found, to my knowledge, among the lowest and most backward races. Therefore, advance to the idea of spirit at one point, meant degeneration at another point, to the extent of human sacrifice.

Thus, on looking at relatively advanced races, we find them worshipping polytheistic deities and ghosts of the kings just dead, who are often propitiated by terrible massacres of human victims, while, as in the case of Taa-roa, the blood spurts back even on the uncreated Creator, who was before earth was, or sea, sun, or sky.

Undeniably the hungry, cruel gods are degenerate from the Australian Father in Heaven, who receives no sacrifice but that of men’s lusts and selfishness; who desires obedience, not the fat of kangaroos; who needs nothing of ours; is unfed and unbribed. Thus, in this particular respect the degeneration of religion from the Australian or Andamanese to the Dinka standard—and infinitely more to the Polynesian, or Aztec, or popular Greek standard—is as undeniable as any fact in human history.

Anthropology has only escaped the knowledge of this circumstance by laying down the rule, demonstrably unbased on facts, that ’the divine sanction of ethical laws … belongs almost or wholly to religions above the savage level, not to the earlier and lower creeds;’ that ’savage Animism is almost devoid of that ethical element which to the educated modern mind is the very mainspring of practical religion.’ [4]

I have argued, indeed, that the God of low savages who imparts the divine sanction of ethical laws is not of animistic origin. But even where Mr. Im Thurn finds, in Guiana, nothing but Animism of the lowest conceivable type, he also finds in that Animism the only or most potent moral restraint on the conduct of men.

While Anthropology holds the certainly erroneous idea that the religion of the most backward races is always non-moral, of course she cannot know that there has, in fact, been great degeneration in religion (if religion began on the Australian and Andamanese level, or even higher) wherever religion is non-moral or immoral.

Again, Anthropology, while fixing her gaze on totems, on worshipped mummies, adored ghosts, and treasured fetishes, has not, to my knowledge, made a comparative study of the higher and purer religious ideas of savages. These have been passed by, with a word about credulous missionaries and Christian influences, except in the brief summary for which Mr. Tylor found room. In this work I only take a handful of cases of the higher religious opinions of savages, and set them side by side for purposes of comparison. Much more remains to be done in this field. But the area covered is wide, the evidence is the best attainable, and it seems proved beyond doubt that savages have ’felt after’ a conception of a Creator much higher than that for which they commonly get credit. Now, if that conception is original, or is very early (and nothing in it suggests lateness of development), then the other elements of their faith and practice are degenerate.

’How,’ it has been asked, ’could all mankind forget a pure religion?’ [5] That is what I now try to explain. That degeneration I would account for by the attractions which animism, when once developed, possessed for the naughty natural man, ’the old Adam.’ A moral creator in need of no gifts, and opposed to lust and mischief, will not help a man with love-spells, or with malevolent ’sendings’ of disease by witchcraft; will not favour one man above his neighbour, or one tribe above its rivals, as a reward for sacrifice which he does not accept, or as constrained by charms which do not touch his omnipotence. Ghosts and ghost-gods, on the other hand, in need of food and blood, afraid of spells and binding charms, [6] are a corrupt, but, to man, a useful constituency. Man being what he is, man was certain to ’go a-whoring’ after practically useful ghosts, ghost-gods, and fetishes which he could keep in his wallet or medicine bag. For these he was sure, in the long run, first to neglect his idea of his Creator; next, perhaps, to reckon Him as only one, if the highest, of the venal rabble of spirits or deities, and to sacrifice to Him, as to them. And this is exactly what happened! If we are not to call it ’degeneration,’ what are we to call it? It may be an old theory, but facts ’winna ding,’ and are on the side of an old theory. Meanwhile, on the material plane, culture kept advancing, the crafts and arts arose; departments arose, each needing a god; thought grew clearer; such admirable ethics as those of the Aztecs were developed, and while bleeding human hearts smoked on every altar, Nezahuatl conceived and erected a bloodless fane to ’The Unknown God, Cause of Causes,’ without altar or idol; and the Inca, Yupanqui, or another, declared that ’Our Father and Master, the Sun, must have a Lord.’ [7]

But, at this stage of culture, the luck of the state, and the interests of a rich and powerful clergy, were involved in the maintenance of the old, animistic, relatively non-moral system, as in Cuzco, Greece, and Rome. That popular and political regard for the luck of the state, that priestly self-interest (quite natural), could only be swept away by the moral monotheism of Christianity or of Islam. Nothing else could do it. In the case of Christianity, the central and most potent of many combined influences, apart from the Life and Death of Our Lord, was the moral Monotheism of the Hebrew religion of Jehovah.

Now, it is undeniable that Jehovah, at a certain period of Hebrew history, had become degraded and anthropomorphized, far below Darumulun, and Puluga, and Pachacamac, and Ahone, as conceived of in their purest form, and in the high mood of savage mysteries which yet contain so much that is grotesque. Even the Big Black Man of the Fuegians is on a higher level (as we reckon morals), when he forbids the slaying of a robber enemy, than certain examples of early Hebrew conduct. But our knowledge of the Fuegians is lamentably scanty.

Again, traces of human sacrifice appear in the ritual of Israel, and it is only relatively late that the great prophets, justly declaring Jehovah to be indifferent to the blood of bulls and rams, try to bring back his service to that of the unpropitiated, unbought Dendid, or Ahone, or Pundjel. Here is degeneration, even in Israel. How the conception of Jehovah arose in Israel, whether it was a revival of a half-obliterated idea, such as we find among low savages; or whether it was borrowed from some foreign creed; or was the result of meditation on the philosophical Supreme Being of high Egyptian theology, is another question. The Biblical statement leans to the first alternative. Jehovah, not by that name, had been the God of Israel’s fathers. The question will be discussed later; but, unless new facts are discovered, we must accept the version of the Pentateuch, or take refuge in conjecture.

Not only is there degeneration from the Australian conception of Mungan-gnaur, at its best, to the conception of the Semitic gods in general, but, ’humanly speaking,’ if religion began in a pure form among low savages, degeneration was inevitable. Advancing social conditions compelled men into degeneration. Mungan-ngaur is, so far, in line with our own ideas of divinity because he is not localised. He dwelleth not in temples made with hands; it is not likely that he should, when his worshippers have neither house, tent, nor tabernacle. As Mr. Robertson Smith says, ’where the God had a house or a temple, we recognise the work of men who were no longer pure nomads, but had begun to form fixed homes.’ By the nature of Australian society, a deity could not be tied to a temple, and temple-ritual, and consequent myths to explain that ritual, could not arise. Nor could Darumulun be attached to a district, just as ’the nomad Arabs could not assimilate the conception of a god as a land-owner, and apply it to their own tribal deities, for the simple reason that in the desert private property in land was unknown.’ [8]

Darumulun is thus not capable of degenerating into ’a local god, as Baal, or lord of the land,’ because this ’involves a series of ideas unknown to the primitive life of the savage huntsman,’ like the widely spread Murring tribes. [9]

Nor could Darumulun be tied down to a place in Semitic fashion, first by manifesting himself there, therefore by receiving an altar of sacrifice there, and in the end a sanctuary, for Darumulun receives no sacrifice at all.

Again, the scene of the Bora could not become a permanent home of Darumulun, because, when the rites are over, the effigy of the god is scrupulously destroyed. Thus Darumulun, in his own abode ’beyond the sky,’ can ’go everywhere and do everything’ (is omnipresent and omnipotent), dwells in no earthly places, has no temple, nor tabernacle, nor sacred mount, nor, like Jehovah, any limit of land. [10]

The early Hebrew conception of Jehovah, then, is infinitely more conditioned, practically, by space, than the Supreme Being, ’The Master,’ in the conception of some Australian blacks.

’By a prophet like Isaiah the residence of Jehovah in Zion is almost wholly dematerialised.... Conceiving Jehovah as the King of Israel, he necessarily conceives His kingly activity as going forth from the capital of the nation.’ [11]

But nomad hunter tribes, with no ancestor-worship, no king and no capital, cannot lower their deity by the conditions, or limit him by the limitations, of an earthly monarchy.

In precisely the same way, Major Ellis proves the degeneration of deity in Africa, so far as being localised in place of being the Universal God, implies degeneration, as it certainly does to our minds. By being attached to a given hill or river ’the gods, instead of being regarded as being interested in the whole of mankind, would eventually come to be regarded as being interested in separate tribes or nations alone.’

To us Milton seems nobly Chauvinistic when he talks of what God has done by ’His English.’ But this localised and essentially degenerate conception was inevitable, as soon as, in advancing civilisation, the god who had been ’interested in the whole of [known] mankind’ was settled on a hill, river, or lagoon, amidst a nation of worshippers.

In the course of the education of mankind, this form of degeneration (abstractly so considered) was to work, as nothing else could have worked, towards the lofty conception of universal Deity. For that conception was only brought into practical religion (as apart from philosophic speculation) by the union between Israel and the God of Sinai and Zion. The Prophets, recognising in the God of Sinai, their nation’s God—One to whom righteousness was infinitely dearer than even his Chosen People—freed the conception of God from local ties, and made it overspread the world.

Mr. Robertson Smith has pointed out, again, the manner in which the different political development of East and West affected the religion of Greece and of the Semites. In Greece, monarchy fell, at an early period, before the aristocratic houses. The result was ’a divine aristocracy of many gods, only modified by a weak reminiscence of the old kingship in the not very effective sovereignty’ (or prytany) ’of Zeus. In the East the national god tended to acquire a really monarchic sway.’ [12] Australia escaped polytheistic degeneracy by having no aristocracy, as in Polynesia, where aristocracy, as in early Greece, had developed polytheism. Ghosts and spirits the Australians knew, but not polytheistic gods, nor departmental deities, as of war, agriculture, art. The savage had no agriculture, and his social condition was not departmental. In yet another way, political advance produces religious degeneration, if polytheism be degeneration from the conception of one relatively supreme moral being. To make a nation, several tribes must unite. Each has its god, and the nation is apt to receive them all, equally, into its Pantheon. Thus, if worshippers of Baiame, Pundjel, and Darumulun coalesced into a nation, we might find all three gods living together in a new polytheism. In fact, granting a relatively pure starting-point, degeneration from it must accompany every step of civilisation, to a certain distance.

Unlike Semitic gods, Darumulun receives no sacrifice. As we have said, he has no kin with ghosts, and their sacrifices could not be carried on into his cult, if Waitz-Gerland (vi. 811) are right in saying that the Australians have no ancestor-worship. The Kurnai ghosts ’were believed to live upon plants,’ [13] which are not offered to them. Chill ghosts, unfed by men, would come to waning camp-fires and batten on the broken meats. The Ngarego and Wolgal held, more handsomely, that Tharamulun (Darumulun) met the just departed spirit ’and conducted it to its future home beyond the sky.’ [14] Ghosts might also accompany relics of the body, such as the dead hand, carried about by the family, who would wave the black fragment at the dreaded Aurora Borealis, crying, ’Send it away!’ I am unacquainted with any sacrifices to ancestral ghosts among this people who cannot long remember their ancestors, consequently the practice has not been refracted on their supreme Master’s cult. In the cult of Darumulun, and of other highest gods of lowest savages, nothing answers to the Hebrew technical priestly word for sacrifice, ’food of the deity.’ [15] Nobody feeds Puluga, nobody fed Ahone. We hear of no Fuegian sacrifices. Mr. Robertson Smith says: ’In all religions in which the gods have been developed out of totems [worshipped animals and other things regarded as akin to human stocks] the ritual act of laying food before the deity is perfectly intelligible.’ Pundjel, an Australian Supreme Being, is mixed up with animals in some myths, but it is not easy to see how such Supreme Beings as he could be ’developed out of totems’! I am not aware, again, that any
Australian tribe feeds the animals who are its totems, so Darumulun could not, and did not inherit sacrifice through them. Mr. Robertson Smith had a celebrated theory that cereal sacrifice is a tribute to a god, while sacrifice of a beast or man is an act of communion with the god. [16] Men and gods dined together. [17] ’The god himself was conceived of as a being of the same stock as his comrades.’ Beasts were also of the same stock, one beast, say a lobster, was of the same blood as a lobster kin, and its god. [18] Occasionally the sacred beast of the kin, usually not to be slain or tasted, is ’eaten as a kind of mystic sacrament a most dubious fact.’ [19]

Now, there is, I believe, some evidence, lately collected if not published, which makes in favour of the eating of totems by Australians, at a certain very rare and solemn mystery. It would not even surprise me (’from information received’) if a very deeply initiated person were occasionally slain, as the highest degree of initiation, on certain most unusual occasions. This remains uncertain, but I have at present no evidence that, either by one road or another, either from ghost-feeding or totem-feeding, or feeding on totems, any Australian Supreme Being receives any sacrifice at all. Much less, as among Pawnees and Semitic peoples (to judge from certain traces), is the Australian Supreme Being a cause of and partaker in human sacrifice. [20] The horrible idea of the Man who is the God, and is eaten in the God’s honour, occurs among polytheistic Aztecs, on a high level of material culture, not among Australians, Andamanese, Bushmen, or Fuegians. [21]

Thus, in religion, the Darumulun, or other Supreme Being of the lowest known savages, men roaming wild, when originally met, on a continent peopled by older kinds of animals than ours, was (as we regard purity) on a higher plane by far than the gods of Greeks and Semites in their earliest known myths. Setting mythology aside and looking only at cult, the God of the Murring or the Kurnai, whose precepts soften the heart, who knows the heart’s secrets, who inculcates chastity, respect of age, unselfishness, who is not bound by conditions of space or place, who receives no blood of slaughtered man or beast, is a conception from which the ordinary polytheistic gods of infinitely more polite peoples are frankly degenerate. The animistic superstitions wildly based on the belief in the soul have not soiled him, and the social conditions of aristocracy, agriculture, architecture, have not made him one in a polytheistic crowd of rapacious gods, nor fettered him as a Baal to his estate, nor localised him in a temple built with hands. He cannot appear as a ’God of Battles;’ no Te Deum can be sung to him for victory in a cause perhaps unjust, for he is the Supreme Being of a certain group of allied local tribes. One of these tribes has no more interest with him than another, and the whole group do not, as a body, wage war on another alien group. The social conditions of his worshippers, then, preserve Darumulun from the patent blots on the escutcheon of gods among much more advanced races.

Once more, the idea of Animism admits of endless expansion. A spirit can be located anywhere, in any stone, stick, bush, person, hill, or river. A god made on the animistic model can be assigned to any department of human activity, down to sports, or lusts, or the province of Cloacina. Thus religion becomes a mere haunted and pestilential jungle of beliefs. But the theistic conception, when not yet envisaged as spiritual, cannot be subdivided and éparpillé. Thus, from every point of view, and on every side, Animism is full of the seeds of religious degeneration, which do not and cannot exist in what I take to be the earliest known form of the theistic conception: that of a Being about whose metaphysical nature—spirit or not spirit—no questions were asked, as Dr. Brinton long ago remarked.

That conception alone could neither supply the moral motive of ’a soul to be saved,’ nor satisfy the metaphysical instinct of advancing mankind. To meet these wants, to supply ’soul,’ with its moral stimulus, and to provide a phrase or idea under which the Deity could be envisaged (i.e. as a spirit) by advancing thought, Animism was necessary. The blending of the theistic and the animistic beliefs was indispensable to religion. But, in the process of animistic development under advancing social conditions, degeneration was necessarily implied. Degeneration of the theistic conception for a while, therefore, occurred. The facts are the proofs; and only contradictory facts, in sufficient quantity, can annihilate the old theory of Degeneration when it is presented in this form.

It mast be repeated that on this theory an explanation is given of what the old Degeneration hypothesis does not explain. Granting a primal religion relatively pure in its beginnings, why did it degenerate?

Mr. Max Mullet, looking on religion as the development of the sentiment of the Infinite, regards fetishism as a secondary and comparatively late form of belief. We find it, he observes, in various forms of Christianity; Christianity, therefore, is primary there, relic worship is secondary. Religion beginning, according to him, in the sense of the infinite, as awakened in man by tall trees, high hills, and so on, it advances to the infinite of space and sky, and so to the infinitely divine. This is primary: fetishism is secondary. Arguing elsewhere against this idea, I have asked: What was the modus of degeneration which produced similar results in Christianity, and in African and other religions? How did it work? I am not aware that Mr. Max M¸ller has answered this question. But how degeneration worked—namely, by Animism supplanting Theism—is conspicuously plain on our theory.

Take the early chapters of Genesis, or any savage cosmogonic myth you please. Deathless man is face to face with the Creator. He cannot degenerate in religion. He cannot offer sacrifice, for the Creator obviously needs nothing, and again, as there is no death, he cannot slay animals for the Creator. But, in one way or another, usually by breach of a taboo, Death enters the world. Then comes, by process of evolution, belief in hungry spirits, belief in spirits who may inhabit stones or sticks; again there arise priests who know how to propitiate spirits and how to tempt them into sticks and stones. These arts become lucrative and are backed by the cleverest men, and by the apparent evidence of prophecies by convulsionaries. Thus every known kind of degeneration in religion is inevitably introduced as a result of the theory of Animism. We do not need an hypothesis of Original Sin as a cause of degeneration, and, if Mr. Max M¸ller’s doctrine of the Infinite were viable, we have supplied, in Animism, under advancing social conditions, what he does not seem to provide, a cause and modus of degeneration. Fetishism would thus be really ’secondary,’ ex hypothesi, but as we nowhere find Fetishism alone, without the other elements of religion, we cannot say, historically, whether it is secondary or not. Fetishism logically needs, in some of its aspects, the doctrine of spirits, and Theism, in what we take to be its earliest known form, does not logically need the doctrine of spirits as given matter. So far we can go, but not farther, as to the fact of priority in evolution. Nevertheless we meet, among the most backward peoples known to us, among men just emerged from the palaeolithic stage of culture, men who are involved in dread of ghosts, a religious Idea which certainly is not born of ghost-worship, for by these men, ancestral ghosts are not worshipped.

In their hearts, on their lips, in their moral training we find (however blended with barbarous absurdities, and obscured by rites of another origin) the faith in a Being who created or constructed the world; who was from time beyond memory or conjecture; who is primal, who makes for righteousness, and who loves mankind. This Being has not the notes of degeneration; his home is ’among the stars,’ not in a hill or in a house. To him no altar smokes, and for him no blood is shed.

’God, that made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though He needed any thing … and hath made of one blood all nations of men … that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us: for in Him we live, and move, and have our being.’

That the words of St. Paul are literally true, as to the feeling after a God who needs not anything at man’s hands, the study of anthropology seems to us to demonstrate. That in this God ’we have our being,’ in so far as somewhat of ours may escape, at moments, from the bonds of Time and the manacles of Space, the earlier part of this treatise is intended to suggest, as a thing by no means necessarily beyond a reasonable man’s power to conceive. That these two beliefs, however attained (a point on which we possess no positive evidence), have commonly been subject to degeneration in the religions of the world, is only too obvious.

So far, then, the nature of things and of the reasoning faculty does not seem to give the lie to the old Degeneration theory.

To these conclusions, as far as they are matters of scientific opinion, we have been led by nothing but the study of anthropology.


[1Myths of the New World, p. 44.

[2Prim. Cult. i. 35.

[3Introduction, p. 199; also p. 161.

[4Prim. Cult. ii. 360,361.

[5Prof. Menzies, History of Religion, p. 23.

[6(Greek: legomenai theion anagchai.) Porphyry.

[7Ixtlilochitl. Balboa, Hist. du Pérou, p. 62.

[8Robertson Smith, Religion of the Semites, pp. 104, 105.

[9Op. cit. p. 106.

[10On the Glenelg some caves and mountain tops are haunted or holy. Waitz, vi. 804, No authority cited.

[11Religion of Semites, p. 110.

[12Rel. Sem. p. 71.

[13Howitt, J.A.T. 1884, p. 187.

[14Op. cit. p. 188.

[15Rel. Sem. p. 207.

[16Rel. Sem. p. 225.

[17Op. cit. p. 247.

[18Op. cit. p. 269.

[19Op. cit. p. 277.

[20Op. cit. p. 343. Citing Gen. xxii 2 Kings xxi. 6, Micah vi. 7, 2 Kings iii. 27.

[21I mean, does not occur to my knowledge. New evidence is always upsetting anthropological theories.

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