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11.6 Complex Origins of Religion

With the beginnings of agriculture a fresh set of ideas arose in men’s minds. We have already indicated how easily and naturally men may have come to associate the idea of sowing with a burial. Sir J. G. Frazer has pursued the development of this association in the human mind, linking up with it the conception of special sacrificial persons who are killed at seedtime, the conception of a specially purified class of people to kill these sacrifices, the first priests, and the conception of a sacrament, a ceremonial feast in which the tribe eats portions of the body of the victim in order to share in the sacrificial benefits.

Figure 101

Figure 101: Bronze Age Implements

Out of all these factors, out of the Old Man tradition, out of the emotions that surround Women for men and Men for women, out of the desire to escape infection and uncleanness, out of the desire for power and success through magic, out of the sacrificial tradition of seedtime, and out of a number of like beliefs and mental experiments and misconceptions, a complex something was growing up in the lives of men which was beginning to bind them together mentally and emotionally in a common life and action.

This something we may call religion (Lat. religare, to bind[1]). It was not a simple, or logical some thing, it was as a tangle of ideas about commanding beings and spirits, about gods, about all sorts of ?musts? and “must-nots”. Like all other human matters, religion has grown. It must be clear from what has gone before that primitive man — much less his ancestral apes and his ancestral Mesozoic mammals — could have had no idea of God or Religion; only very slowly did his brain and his powers of comprehension become capable of such general conceptions. Religion is something that has grown up with and through human association, and God has been and is still being discovered by man.

This book is not a theological book, and it is not for us to embark upon theological discussion; but it is a part, a necessary and central part, of the history of man to describe the dawn and development of his religious ideas and their influence upon his activities. All these factors we have noted must have contributed to this development, and various writers have laid most stress upon one or other of them. Sir J. G. Frazer has been the leading student of the derivation of sacraments from magic sacrifices. Grant Allen, following Herbert Spencer, in his Evolution of the Idea of God, laid stress chiefly on the posthumous worship of the “Old Man”. Sir E. B. Tutor (Primitive Culture) gave his attention mainly to the disposition of primitive man to ascribe a soul to every object animate and inanimate. Mr. A. E. Crawley, in The Tree of Life, has called attention to other centres of impulse and emotion, and particularly to sex as a source of deep excitement. The thing we have to bear in mind is that Neolithic man was still mentally undeveloped, he could be confused and illogical to a degree quite impossible to an educated modern person. Conflicting and contradictory ideas could lie in his mind without challenging one another; now one thing ruled his thoughts intensely and vividly and now another; his fears, his acts, were still disconnected as children’s are.

Figure 103

Figure 103: Diagram showing the Duration of the Neolithic Period

Time diagram showing the general duration of the neolithic period in which early thought developed. By this scale, the diagram in Figure 47: Time Diagram Of The Glacial Ages, of the period since the earliest subhuman traces, would be 12 feet long, and the diagram of geological time (Figure 11: Time Chart from earliest life to present age) somewhere between 1,500 feet and three miles.

Confusedly under the stimulus of the need and possibility of co-operation and a combined life, Neolithic mankind was feeling out for guidance and knowledge. Men were becoming aware that personally they needed protection and direction, cleansing from impurity, power beyond their own strength.

Confusedly in response to that demand, bold men, wise men, shrewd and cunning men were arising to become magicians, priests, chiefs, and Kings.

They are not to be thought of as cheats or usurpers of power, nor the rest of mankind as their dupes. All men seek ascendancy over other men, but not all such motives are base or bad. The magicians usually believed more or less in their own magic, the priests in their ceremonies, the chiefs in their right. The history of mankind henceforth is a history of more or less blind endeavours to conceive a common purpose in relation to which all men may live happily, and to create and develop a common consciousness and a common stock of knowledge which may serve and illuminate that purpose. In a vast variety of forms this is appearance of kings and priests and magic men was happening all over the world under Neolithic conditions. Everywhere mankind was seeking where knowledge and mastery and magic power might reside; everywhere individual men were willing, honestly or dishonestly, to rule, to direct, or to be the magic beings who would reconcile the confusions of the community. Another queer development of the later Paleolithic and Neolithic ages was the development of self-mutilation. Men began to cut themselves about, to excise noses, ears, fingers, teeth and the like, and to attach all sorts of superstitious ideas to these acts. Many children today pass through a similar phase in their mental development. There is a phase in the life of most little girls when they are not to be left alone with a pair of scissors for fear that they will cut off their hair. No animal does anything of this sort.

In many ways the simplicity, directness, and, detachment of a later Paleolithic rock-painter appeal more to modern sympathies than does the state of mind of these Neolithic men, full of the fear of some ancient Old Man who had developed into a tribal God obsessed by ideas of sacrificial propitiations, mutilations, and magic murder. No doubt the reindeer hunter was a ruthless hunter and a combative and passionate creature, but he killed for reasons we can still understand; Neolithic man, under the sway of talk and a confused thought process, killed on theory, he killed for monstrous and now incredible ideas, he killed those he loved through fear and under direction. Those Neolithic men not only made human sacrifices at seedtime there is every reason to suppose they sacrificed wives and slaves at the burial of their chieftains; they killed men, women, and children whenever they were under adversity and thought the gods were athirst. They practised infanticide. All these things passed on into the Bronze Age.

Hitherto a social consciousness had been asleep and not even dreaming in human history. Before it awakened it produced nightmares.

Away beyond the dawn of history, 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, one thinks of the Wiltshire uplands in the twilight of a midsummer day’s morning. The torches pale in the growing light. One has a dim apprehension of a procession through the avenue of stone, of priests, perhaps fantastically dressed with skins and horns and horrible painted masks — not the robed and bearded dignitaries our artists represent the Druids to have been — of chiefs in skins adorned with necklaces of teeth and bearing spears and axes, their great heads of hair held up with pins of bone, of women in skins or flaxen robes, of a great peering crowd of shock-headed men and naked children. They have assembled from many distant places; the ground between the avenues and Silbury Hill is dotted with their encampments. A certain festive cheerfulness prevails. And amidst the throng march the appointed human victims, submissive, helpless, staring towards the distant smoking altar at which they are to die that the harvests may be good and the tribe increase…. To that had life progressed 3,000 or 4,000 years ago from its starting-place in the slime of the tidal beaches.

[1]But Cicero says relegere, “to read over,” and the binding of those who accept religare is often written of as being merely the binding of a vow.

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