The Idea of God in Early Religions
by F. B. Jevons
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Professor of Philosophy in the University of Durham

Cambridge: at the University Press 1913

First Edition, 1910 Reprinted 1911, 1913

With the exception of the coat of arms at the foot, the design on the title page is a reproduction of one used by the earliest known Cambridge printer, John Siberch, 1521


In The Varieties of Religious Experience the late Professor William James has said (p. 465): 'The religious phenomenon, studied as an inner fact, and apart from ecclesiastical or theological complications, has shown itself to consist everywhere, and at all its stages, in the consciousness which individuals have of an intercourse between themselves and higher powers with which they feel themselves to be related. This intercourse is realised at the time as being both active and mutual.' The book now before the reader deals with the religious phenomenon, studied as an inner fact, in the earlier stages of religion. By 'the Idea of God' may be meant either the consciousness which individuals have of higher powers, with which they feel themselves to be related, or the words in which they, or others, seek to express that consciousness. Those words may be an expression, that is to say an interpretation or a misinterpretation, of that consciousness. But the words are not the consciousness: the feeling, without which the consciousness does not exist, may be absent when the words are spoken or heard. It is however through the words that we have to approach the feeling and the consciousness of others, and to determine whether and how far the feeling and the consciousness so approached are similar in all individuals everywhere and at all stages.













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Every child that is born is born of a community and into a community, which existed before his birth and will continue to exist after his death. He learns to speak the language which the community spoke before he was born, and which the community will continue to speak after he has gone. In learning the language he acquires not only words but ideas; and the words and ideas he acquires, the thoughts he thinks and the words in which he utters them, are those of the community from which he learnt them, which taught them before he was born and will go on teaching them after he is dead. He not only learns to speak the words and think the ideas, to reproduce the mode of thought, as he does the form of speech, of the circumambient community: he is taught and learns to act as those around him do—as the community has done and will tend to do. The community—the narrower community of the family, first, and, afterwards, the wider community to which the family belongs—teaches him how he ought to speak, what he ought to think, and how he ought to act. The consciousness of the child reproduces the consciousness of the community to which he belongs—the common consciousness, which existed before him and will continue to exist after him.

The common consciousness is not only the source from which the individual gets his mode of speech, thought and action, but the court of appeal which decides what is fact. If a question is raised whether the result of a scientific experiment is what it is alleged by the original maker of the experiment to be, the appeal is to the common consciousness: any one who chooses to make the experiment in the way described will find the result to be of the kind alleged; if everyone else, on experiment, finds it to be so, it is established as a fact of common consciousness; if no one else finds it to be so, the alleged discovery is not a fact but an erroneous inference.

Now, it is not merely with regard to external facts or facts apprehended through the senses, that the common consciousness is accepted as the court of appeal. The allegation may be that an emotion, of a specified kind—alarm or fear, wonder or awe—is, in specified circumstances, experienced as a fact of the common consciousness. Or a body of men may have a common purpose, or a common idea, as well as an emotion of, say, common alarm. If the purpose, idea or emotion, be common to them and experienced by all of them, it is a fact of their common consciousness. In this case, as in the case of any alleged but disputed discovery in science, the common consciousness is the court of appeal which decides the facts, and determines whether what an individual thinks he has discovered in his consciousness is really a fact of the common consciousness. The idea of powers superior to man, the emotion of awe or reverence, which goes with the idea, and the purpose of communicating with the power in question are facts, not peculiar to this or that individual consciousness, but facts of the common consciousness of all mankind.

The child up to a certain age has no consciousness of self: the absence of self-consciousness is one of the charms of children. The child imitates its elders, who speak of him and to him by his name. He speaks of himself in the third person and not in the first person singular, and designates himself by his proper name and not by means of the personal pronoun 'I'; eventually the child acquires the use and to some extent learns the meaning of the first personal pronoun; that is, if the language of the community to which he belongs has developed so far as to have produced such a pronoun. For there was a period in the evolution of speech when, as yet, a first personal pronoun had not been evolved; and that, probably, for the simple reason that the idea which it denotes was as unknown to the community as it is to the child whose absence of self-consciousness is so pleasing. For a period, the length of which may have been millions of years, the common consciousness, the consciousness of the community, did not discover or discriminate, in language or in thought, the existence of the individual self.

The importance of this consideration lies in its bearing upon the question, in what form the idea of powers superior to man disclosed itself in the common consciousness at that period. It is held by many students of the science of religion that fetishism preceded polytheism in the history of religion; and it is undoubted that polytheism flourished at the expense of fetishism. But what is exactly the difference between fetishism and polytheism? No one now any longer holds that a fetish is regarded, by believers in fetish, as a material object and nothing more: everyone recognises that the material object to which the term is applied is regarded as the habitation of a spiritual being. The material object in question is to the fetish what the idol of a god is to a god. If the material object, through which, or in which, the fetish-spirit manifests itself, bears no resemblance to human form, neither do the earliest stocks or blocks in which gods manifest themselves bear any resemblance to human form. Such unshaped stocks do not of themselves tell us whether they are fetishes or gods to their worshippers. The test by which the student of the science of religion determines the question is a very simple one: it is, who worships the object in question? If the object is the private property of some individual, it is fetish; if it is worshipped by the community as a whole, it, or rather the spirit which manifests itself therein, is a god of the community. The functions of the two beings differ accordingly: the god receives the prayers of the community and has power to grant them; the fetish has power to grant the wishes of the individual who owns it. The consequence of this difference in function is that as the wishes of the individual may be inconsistent with the welfare of other members of the community; as the fetish may be, and actually is, used to procure injury and death to other members of the community; a fetish is anti-social and a danger to the community, whereas a god of the community is there expressly as a refuge and a help for the community. The fetish fulfils the desires of the individual, the self; the god listens to the prayers of the community.

Let us now return to that stage in the evolution of the community when, as yet, neither the language nor the thought of the community had discovered or discriminated the existence of the individual self. If at that stage there was in the common consciousness any idea, however dim or confused, of powers superior to man; if that idea was accompanied or coloured by any emotion, whether of fear or awe or reverence; if that emotion prompted action of any kind; then, such powers were not conceived to be fetishes, for the function of a fetish is to fulfil the desires of an individual self; and until the existence of the individual self is realised, there is no function for a fetish to perform.

It may well be that the gradual development of self-consciousness, and the slow steps by which language helped to bring forth the idea of self, were from the first, and throughout, accompanied by the gradual development of the idea of fetishism. But the very development of the idea of a power which could fulfil the desires of self, as distinguished from, and often opposed to, the interests of the community, would stimulate the growth of the idea of a power whose special and particular function was to tend the interests of the community as a whole. Thus the idea of a fetish and the idea of a god could only persist on condition of becoming more and more inconsistent with, and contradictory of, one another. If the lines followed by the two ideas started from the same point, it was only to diverge the more, the further they were pursued. And the tendency of fetishism to disappear from the later and higher stages of religion is sufficient to show that it did not afford an adequate or satisfactory expression of the idea contained in the common consciousness of some power or being greater than man. That idea is constantly striving, throughout the history of religion, to find or give expression to itself; it is constantly discovering that such expressions as it has found for itself do it wrong; and it is constantly throwing, or in the process of throwing, such expressions aside. Fetishism was thrown aside sooner than polytheism: for it was an expression not only inadequate but contradictory to the idea that gave it birth. The emotions of fear and suspicion, with which the community regarded fetishes, were emotions different from the awe or reverence with which the community approached its gods.

What practically provokes and stimulates the individual's dawning consciousness of himself, or the community's consciousness of the individual as in a way distinct from itself, is the dash between the desires, wishes, interests of the one, and the desires, wishes and interests of the other. But though the interests of the one are sometimes at variance with those of the other, still in some cases, also, the interests of the individual—even though they be purely individual interests—are not inconsistent with those of the community; and in most cases they are identical with them—the individual promotes his own interests by serving those of the community, and promotes those of the community by serving his own. In a word, the interests of the one are not so clearly and plainly cut off from those of the other, that the individual can always be condemned for seeking to gratify his self-interests or his own personal desires. That is presumably one reason why fetishism is so wide-spread and so long-lived in Western Africa, for instance: though fetishes may be used for anti-social purposes, they may be and are also used for purposes which if selfish are not, or are not felt to be, anti-social. The individual owner of a fetish does not feel that his ownership does or ought to cut him off from membership of the community. And so long as such feeling is common, so long an indecisive struggle between gods and fetishes continues.

Now this same cause—the impossibility of condemning the individual for seeking to promote his own interests—will be found on examination to be operative elsewhere, viz. in magic. The relation of magic to religion is as much a matter of doubt and dispute as is that of fetishism to religion. And I propose to treat magic in much the same way as I have treated fetishism. The justification which I offer for so doing is to be found in the parallel or analogy that may be drawn between them. The distinction which comes to be drawn within the common consciousness between the self and the community manifests itself obviously in the fact that the interests and desires of the individual are felt to be different, and yet not to be different, from those of the community; and so they are felt to be, yet not to be, condemnable from the point of view of the common consciousness. Now, this is precisely the judgment which is passed upon magic, wherever it is cultivated. It is condemnable, it is viewed with suspicion, fear and condemnation; and yet it is also and at the same time viewed and practised with general approval. It may be used on behalf of the community and for the good of the community, and with public approval, as it is when it is used to make the rain which the community needs. It may be viewed with toleration, as it is when it is believed to benefit an individual without entailing injury on the community. But it is visited with condemnation, and perhaps with punishment, when it is employed for purposes, such as murder, which the common consciousness condemns. Accordingly the person who has the power to work the marvels comprehended under the name of magic is viewed with condemnation, toleration or approval, according as he uses his power for purposes which the common consciousness condemns, tolerates or approves. The power which such a person exerts is power personal to him; and yet it is in a way a power greater and other than himself, for he has it not always under his control or command: whether he uses it for the benefit of the community or for the injury of some individual, he cannot count on its always coming off. And this fact is not without its influence and consequences. If he is endeavouring to use it for the injury of some person, he will explain his failure as due to some error he has committed in the modus operandi, or to the counter-operations of some rival. But if he is endeavouring to exercise it for the benefit of the community, failure makes others doubtful whether he has the power to act on behalf of the community; while, on the contrary, a successful issue makes it clear that he has the power, and places him, in the opinion both of the community and of himself, in an exceptional position: his power is indeed in a way personal to himself, but it is also greater and other than himself. His sense of it, and the community's sense of it, is reinforced and augmented by the approval of the common consciousness, and by the feeling that a power, in harmony with the common consciousness and the community's desires, is working in him and through him. This power, thus exercised, of working marvels for the common good is obviously more closely analogous to that of a prophet working miracles, than it is to that of the witch working injury or death. And, in the same way that I have already suggested that gods and fetishes may have been evolved from a prior indeterminate concept, which was neither but might become either; so I would now suggest that miracles are not magic, nor is magic miracles, but that the two have been differentiated from a common source. And if the polytheistic gods, which are to be found where fetishism is believed in, present us with a very low stage in the development of the idea of a 'perfect personality,' so too the sort of miracles which are believed in, where the belief in magic flourishes, present us with a very low stage in the development of the idea of an almighty God. Axe-heads that float must have belonged originally to such a low stage; and rods that turn into serpents were the property of the 'magicians of Egypt' as well as of Aaron.

The common source, then, from which flows the power of working marvels for the community's good, or of working magic in the interest of one individual member and perhaps to the injury of another, is a personal power, which in itself—that is to say, apart from the intention with which it is used and apart from the consequences which ensue—is neither commendable nor condemnable from the community's point of view; and which consequently can neither be condemned nor commended by the common consciousness, until the difference between self and the community has become manifest, and the possibility of a divergence between the interests of self or alter and those of the community has been realised. Further, this power, in whichever way it comes to be exercised, marks a strong individuality; and may be the first, as it is certainly a most striking, manifestation of the fact of individuality: it marks off, at once, the individual possessing such power from the rest of the community. And the common consciousness is puzzled by the apparition. Just as it tolerates fetishes though it disapproves of them and is afraid of them, so it tolerates the magician, though it is afraid of him and does not cordially approve of him, even when he benefits an individual client without injuring the community. But though the man of power may use, and apparently most often does use, his power, in the interest of some individual and to the detriment of the community; and though it is this condemnable use which is everywhere most conspicuous, and probably earliest developed; still there is no reason why he should not use, and as a matter of fact he sometimes does use, his power on behalf of the community to promote the food-supply of the community or to produce the rain which is desired. In this case, then, the individual, having a power which others have not, is not at variance with the community but in harmony with the common consciousness, and becomes an organ by which it acts. When, then, the belief in gods, having the interests of the community at heart, presents itself or develops within the common consciousness, the individual who has the power on behalf of the community to make rain or increase the food supply is marked out by the belief of the community—or it may be by the communings of his own heart—as specially related to the gods. Hence we find, in the low stages of the evolution of religion, the proceedings, by which the man of power had made rain for the community or increased the food-supply, either incorporated into the ritual of the gods, or surviving traditionally as incidents in the life of a prophet, e.g. the rain-making of Elijah. In the same way therefore as I have suggested that the resemblances between gods and fetishes are to be explained by the theory that the two go back to a common source, and that neither is developed from the other, so I suggest that the resemblances between the conception of prophet and that of magician point not to the priority of either to the other, but to the derivation or evolution of both from a prior and less determinate concept.

Just as a fetish is a material thing, and something more, so a magician is a man and something more. Just as a god is an idol and something more, so a prophet or priest is a man and something more. The fetish is a material thing which manifests a power that other things do not exhibit; and the magician is a man possessing a power which other men have not. The difference between the magician and the prophet or priest is the same as the difference between the fetish and the god. It is the difference between that which subserves the wishes of the individual, which may be, and often are, anti-social, and that which furthers the interests of the community. Of this difference each child who is born into the community learns from his elders: it is part of the common consciousness of the community. And it could not become a fact of the common consciousness until the existence of self became recognised in thought and expressed in language. With that recognition of difference, or possible difference, between the individual and the community, between the desires of the one and the welfare of the other, came the recognition of a difference between fetish and god, between magician and priest. The power exercised by either was greater than that of man; but the power manifested in the one was exercised with a view to the good of the community; in the case of the other, not. Thus, from the beginning, gods were not merely beings exercising power greater than that of man, but beings exercising their power for the good of man. It is as such that, from the beginning to the end, they have figured both in the common consciousness of the community, and in the consciousness of every member born into the community. They have figured in both; and, because they have figured both in the individual consciousness and the common consciousness, they have, from the beginning, been something present to both, something at once within the individual and without. But as the child recognises objects long before he becomes aware of the existence of himself, so man, in his infancy, sought this power or being in the external world long before he looked for it within himself.

It is because man looked for this being or power in the external world that he found, or thought he found, it there. He looked for it and found it, in the same way as to this day the African negro finds a fetish. A negro found a stone and took it for his fetish, as Professor Tylor relates, as follows:—'He was once going out on important business, but crossing the threshold he trod on this stone and hurt himself. Ha! ha! thought he, art thou there? So he took the stone, and it helped him through his undertaking for days.' So too when the community's attention is arrested by something in the external world, some natural phenomenon which is marvellous in their eyes, their attitude of mind, the attitude of the common consciousness, translated into words is: 'Ha! ha! art thou there?' This attitude of mind is one of expectancy: man finds a being, possessed of greater power than man's, because he is ready to find it and expecting it.

So strong is this expectancy, so ready is man to find this being, superior to man, that he finds it wherever he goes, wherever he looks. There is probably no natural phenomenon whatever that has not somewhere, at some time, provoked the question or the reflection 'Art thou there?' And it is because man has taken upon himself to answer the question, and to say: 'Thou art there, in the great and strong wind which rends the mountains; or, in the earthquake; or, in the fire' that polytheism has arisen. Perhaps, however, we should rather use the word 'polydaemonism' than 'polytheism.' By a god is usually meant a being who has come to possess a proper name; and, probably, a spirit is worshipped for some considerable time, before the appellative, by which he is addressed, loses its original meaning, and comes to be the proper name by which he, and he alone, is addressed. Certainly, the stage in which spirits without proper names are worshipped seems to be more primitive than that in which the being worshipped is a god, having a proper name of his own. And the difference between the two stages of polydaemonism and polytheism is not merely limited to the fact that the beings worshipped have proper names in the later stage, and had none in the earlier. A development or a difference in language implies a development or difference in thought. If the being or spirit worshipped has come to be designated by a proper name, he has lost much of the vagueness that characterises a nameless spirit, and he has come to be much more definite and much more personal. Indeed, a change much more sinister, from the religious point of view, is wrought, when the transition from polydaemonism to polytheism is accomplished.

In the stage of human evolution known as animism, everything which acts—or is supposed to act—is supposed to be, like man himself, a person. But though, in the animistic stage, all powers are conceived by man as being persons, they are not all conceived as having human form: they may be animals, and have animal forms; or birds, and have bird-form; they may be trees, clouds, streams, the wind, the earthquake or the fire. In some, or rather in all, of these, man has at some time found the being or the power, greater than man, of whom he has at all times been in quest, with the enquiry, addressed to each in turn, 'Art thou there?' The form of the question, the use of the personal pronoun, shows that he is seeking for a person. And students of the science of religion are generally agreed that man, throughout the history of religion, has been seeking for a power or being superior to man and greater than he. It is therefore a personal power and a personal being that man has been in search of, throughout his religious history. He has pushed his search in many directions—often simultaneously in different directions; and, he has abandoned one line of enquiry after another, because he has found that it did not lead him whither he would be. Thus, as we have seen, he pushed forward, at the same time, in the direction of fetishism and of polytheism, or rather of polydaemonism; but fetishism failed to bring him satisfaction, or rather failed to satisfy the common consciousness, the consciousness of the community, because it proved on trial to subserve the wishes—the anti-social wishes—of the individual, and not the interests of the community. The beings or powers that man looked to find and which he supposed he found, whether as fetishes in this or that object, or as daemons in the sky, the fire or the wind, in beast or bird or tree, were taken to be personal beings and personal powers, bearing the same relation to that in which, or through which, they manifested themselves, as man bears to his body. They do not seem to have been conceived as being men, or the souls of men which manifested themselves in animals or trees. At the time when polydaemonism has, as yet, not become polytheism, the personal beings, worshipped in this or that external form, have not as yet been anthropomorphised. Indeed, the process which constitutes the change from polydaemonism to polytheism consists in the process, or rather is the process, by which the spirits, the personal beings, worshipped in tree, or sky, or cloud, or wind, or fire came gradually to be anthropomorphised—to be invested with human parts and passions and to be addressed like human beings with proper names. But when anthropomorphic polytheism is thus pushed to its extreme logical conclusions, its tendency is to collapse in the same way, and for the same reasons, as fetishism, before it, had collapsed. What man had been in search of, from the beginning, and was still in search of, was some personal being or power, higher than and superior to man. What anthropomorphic polytheism presented him with, in the upshot, was with beings, not superior, but, in some or many cases, undeniably inferior to man. As such they could not thenceforth be worshipped. In Europe their worship was overthrown by Christianity. But, on reflection, it seems clear not only that, as such, they could not thenceforth be worshipped; but that, as such, they never had been worshipped. In the consciousness of the community, the object of worship had always been, from the beginning, some personal being superior to man. The apostle of Christianity might justifiably speak to polytheists of the God 'whom ye ignorantly worship.' It is true, and it is important to notice, that the sacrifices and the rites and ceremonies, which together made up the service of worship, had been consciously and intentionally rendered to deities represented in human form; and, in this sense, anthropomorphic deities had been worshipped. But, if worship is something other than sacrifice and rite and ceremony, then the object of worship—the personal being, greater than man—presented to the common consciousness, is something other than the anthropomorphic being, inferior in much to man, of whom poets speak in mythology and whom artists represent in bodily shape.

Just as fetishism developed and persisted, because it did contain, though it perverted, one element of religious truth—the accessibility of the power worshipped to the worshipper—so too anthropomorphism, notwithstanding the consequences to which, in mythology, it led, did contain, or rather, was based on, one element of truth, viz. that the divine is personal, as well as the human. Its error was to set up, as divine personalities, a number of reproductions or reflections of human personality. It leads to the conclusion, as a necessary consequence, that the divine personality is but a shadow of the human personality, enlarged and projected, so to speak, upon the clouds, but always betraying, in some way or other, the fact that it is but the shadow, magnified or distorted, of man. It excludes the possibility that the divine personality, present to the common consciousness as the object of worship, may be no reproduction of the human personality, but a reality to which the human personality has the power of approximating. Be this as it may, we are justified in saying, indeed we are compelled to recognise, that in mythology, all the world over, we see a process of reflection at work, by which the beings, originally apprehended as superior to man, come first to be anthropomorphised, that is to be apprehended as having the parts and passions of men, and then, consequently, to be seen to be no better than men. This discovery it is which in the long run proves fatal to anthropomorphism.

We have seen, above, the reason why fetishism becomes eventually distasteful to the common consciousness: the beings, superior to man, which are worshipped by the community, are worshipped as having the interests of the community in their charge, and as having the good of the community at heart; whereas a fetish is sought and found by the individual, to advance his private interests, even to the cost and loss of other individuals and of the community at large. Thus, from the earliest period at which beings, superior to man, are differentiated into gods and fetishes, gods are accepted by the common consciousness as beings who maintain the good of the community and punish those who infringe it; while fetishes become beings who assist individual members to infringe the customary morality of the tribe. Thus, from the first, the beings, of whom the community is conscious as superior to man, are beings, having in charge, first, the customary morality of the tribe; and, afterwards, the conscious morality of the community.

This conception, it was, of the gods, as guardians of morality and of the common good, that condemned fetishism; and this conception it was, which was to prove eventually the condemnation of polytheism. A multitude of beings—even though they be divine beings—means a multitude, that is a diversity, of ideas. Diversity of ideas, difference of opinion, is what is implied by every mythology which tells of disputes and wars between the gods. Every god, who thus disputed and fought with other gods, must have felt that he had right on his side, or else have fought for the sake of fighting. Consequently the gods of polytheism are either destitute of morality, or divided in opinion as to what is right. In neither case, therefore, are the gods, of whom mythology tells, the beings, superior to man, who, from the beginning, were present in the common consciousness to be worshipped. From the outset, the object of the community's worship had been conceived as a moral power. If, then, the many gods of polytheism were either destitute or disregardful of morality, they could not be the moral power of which the common consciousness had been dimly aware: that moral power, that moral personality, must be other than they. As the moral consciousness of the community discriminated fetishes from gods and tended to rule out fetishes from the sphere of religion; so too, eventually, the moral consciousness of the community came to be offended by the incompatibility between the moral ideal and the conception of a multitude of gods at variance with each other. If the common consciousness was slow in coming to recognise the unity of the Godhead—and it was slower in some people than in others—the unity was logically implied, from the beginning, in the conception of a personal power, greater and higher than man, and having the good of the community at heart. The history of religion is, in effect, from one point of view, the story of the process by which this conception, however dim, blurred or vague, at first, tends to become clarified and self-consistent.

That, however, is not the only point of view from which the history of religion can, or ought to be, regarded. So long as we look at it from that point of view, we shall be in danger of seeing nothing in the history of religion but an intellectual process, and nothing in religion itself but a mental conception. There is, however, another element in religion, as is generally recognised; and that an emotional element, as is usually admitted. What however is the nature of that emotion, is a question on which there has always been diversity of opinion. The beings, who figured in the common consciousness as gods, were apprehended by the common consciousness as powers superior to man; and certainly as powers capable of inflicting suffering on the community. As such, then, they must have been approached with an emotion of the nature of reverence, awe or fear. The important, the determining, fact, however, is that they were approached. The emotion, therefore, which prompted the community to approach them, is at any rate distinguishable from the mere fright which would have kept the community as far away from these powers as possible. The emotion which prompted approach could not have been fear, pure and simple. It must have been more in the nature of awe or reverence; both of which feelings are clearly distinguishable from fear. Thus, we may fear disease or disgrace; but the fear we feel carries with it neither awe nor reverence. Again, awe is an inhibitive feeling, it is a feeling which—as in the case of the awe-struck person—rather prevents than promotes action or movement. And the determining fact about the religious emotion is that it was the emotion with which the community approached its gods. That emotion is now, and probably always was, reverential in character. The occasion, on which a community approaches its gods, often is, and doubtless often was, a time when misfortune had befallen the community. The misfortune was viewed as a visitation of the god's wrath upon his community; and fear—that 'fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom'—doubtless played a large part in the complex emotion which stirred the community, not to run away but to approach the god for the purpose of appeasing his wrath. In the complexity of an emotion which led to action of this kind, we must recognise not merely fear but some trust and confidence—so much, at least, as prevented the person who experienced it from running away simply. The emotion is not too complex for man, in however primitive a stage of development: it is not more complex than that which brings a dog to his master, though it knows it is going to be thrashed.

That some trust and confidence is indispensable in the complex feeling with which a community approaches its gods, for the purpose of appeasing their wrath—still more, for beseeching favours from them—seems indisputable. But we must not exaggerate it. Wherever there are gods at all, they are regarded by the community as beings who can be approached: so much confidence, at least, is placed in them by the community that believes in them. Even if they are offended and wrathful, the community is confident that they can be appeased: the community places so much trust in them. Indeed its trust goes even further: it is sure that they do not take offence without reasonable grounds. If they display wrath against the community and send calamity upon it, it is, and in the opinion of the community, can only be, because some member of the community has done that which he should not have done. The gods may be, on occasion, wrathful; but they are just. They are from the beginning moral beings—according to such standard of morality as the community possesses—and it is breaches of the tribe's customary morality that their wrath is directed against. They are, from the beginning, and for long afterwards in the history of religion, strict to mark what is amiss, and, in that sense, they are jealous gods. And this aspect of the Godhead it is which fills the larger part of the field of religious consciousness, not only in the case of peoples who have failed to recognise the unity of the Godhead, but even in the case of a people like the Jews, who did recognise it. The other aspect of the Godhead, as the God, not merely of mercy and forgiveness, but of love, was an aspect fully revealed in Christianity alone, of all the religions in the world.

But the love God displays to all his children, to the prodigal son as well as to others, is not a mere attribute assigned to Him. It is not a mere quality with which one religion may invest Him, and of which another religion, with equal right, may divest Him. The idea of God does not consist merely of attributes and qualities, so that, if you strip off all the attributes and qualities, nothing is left, and the idea is shown to be without content, meaning or reality.

The Godhead has been, in the common consciousness, from the beginning, a being, a personal being, greater than man; and it is as such that He has manifested Himself in the common consciousness, from the beginning until the present day. To this personality, as to others, attributes and qualities may be falsely ascribed, which are inconsistent with one another and are none of His. Some of the attributes thus falsely ascribed may be discovered, in the course of the history of religion, to have been falsely ascribed; and they will then be set aside. Thus, fetishism ascribed, or sought to ascribe, to the Godhead, the quality of willingness to promote even the anti-social desires of the owner of the fetish. And fetishism exfoliated, or peeled off from the religious organism. Anthropomorphism, which ascribed to the divine personality the parts and passions of man, along with a power greater than man's to violate morality, is gradually dropped, as its inconsistency with the idea of God comes gradually to be recognised and loathed. So too with polytheism: a pantheon which is divided against itself cannot stand. Thus, fetishism, anthropomorphism and polytheism ascribe qualities to the Godhead, which are shown to be attributes assigned to the Godhead and imposed upon it from without, for eventually they are found by experience to be incompatible with the idea of God as it is revealed in the common consciousness.

On the other hand, the process of the history of religion, the process of the manifestation or revelation of the Godhead, does not proceed solely by this negative method, or method of exclusion. If an attribute, such as that of human form, or of complicity in anti-social purposes, is ascribed, by anthropomorphism or fetishism, to the divine personality, and is eventually felt by the common consciousness to be incompatible with the idea of God, the result is not merely that the attribute in question drops off, and leaves the idea of the divine personality exactly where it was, and what it was, before the attribute had been foisted on it. The incompatibility of the quality, falsely ascribed or assigned, becomes—if, and when, it does become—manifest and intolerable, just in proportion as the idea of God, which has always been present, however vaguely and ill-defined, in the common consciousness, comes to manifest itself more definitely. The attribution, to the divine personality, of qualities, which are eventually found incompatible with it, may prove the occasion of the more precise and definite manifestation; we may say that action implies reaction, and so false ideas provoke true ones, but the false ideas do not create the new ones. The false ideas may stimulate closer attention to the actual facts of the common consciousness and thus may stimulate the formation of truer ideas about them, by leading to a concentration of attention upon the actual facts. But it is from this closer attention, this concentration of attention, that the newer and truer knowledge comes, and not from the false ideas. What we speak of, from one point of view, as closer attention to the facts of the common consciousness, may, from another point of view, be spoken of as an increasing manifestation, or a clearer revelation, of the divine personality, revealed or manifested to the common consciousness. Those are two views, or two points of view, of one and the same process. But whichever view we take of it, the process does not proceed solely by the negative method of exclusion: it is a process which results in the unfolding and disclosure, not merely of what is in the common consciousness, at any given moment, but of what is implied in the divine personality revealed to the common consciousness. If we choose to speak of this unfolding or disclosure as evolution, the process, which the history of religion undertakes to set forth, will be the evolution of the idea of God. But, in that case, the process which we designate by the name of evolution, will be a process of disclosure and revelation. Disclosure implies that there is something to disclose; revelation, that there is something to be revealed to the common consciousness—the presence of the Godhead, of divine personality.



The idea of God is to be found, it will be generally admitted, not only in monotheistic religions, but in polytheistic religions also; and, as polytheisms have developed out of polydaemonism, that is to say, as the personal beings or powers of polydaemonism have, in course of time, come to possess proper names and a personal history, some idea of divine personality must be admitted to be present in polydaemonism as well as in polytheism; and, in the same way, some idea of a personality greater than human may be taken to lie at the back of both polydaemonism and fetishism.

If we wish to understand what ideas are in a man's mind, we may infer them from the words that he speaks and from the way in which he acts. The most natural and the most obvious course is to start from what he says. And that is the course which was followed by students of the history of religion, when they desired to ascertain what idea exactly man has had of his gods. They had recourse, for the information they wanted, to mythology. Later on, indeed, they proceeded to enquire into what man did, into the ritual which he observed in approaching his gods; and, in the next chapter, we will follow them in that enquiry. But in this chapter we have to ask what light mythology throws upon the idea man has had of his gods.

Before doing so, however, we cannot but notice that mythology and polytheism go together. Fetishism does not produce any mythology. Doubtless, the owner of a fetish which acts knows and can tell of the wonderful things it has done. But those anecdotes do not get taken up into the common stock of knowledge; nor are they handed down by the common consciousness to all succeeding generations of the community. Mythology, like language, is the work, and is a possession, of the common consciousness.

Polydaemonism, like fetishism, does not produce mythology; but, for a different reason. The beings worshipped in the period of polydaemonism are beings who have not yet come to possess personal names, and consequently cannot well have a personal history attached to them. The difficulty is not indeed an absolute impossibility. Tales can be told, and at a certain stage in the history of fiction, especially in the pre-historic stage, tales are told, in which the hero has no proper name: the period is 'once upon a time,' and the hero is 'a man' simpliciter. But myths are not told about 'a god' simpliciter. In mythology the hero of the myth is not 'a god,' in the sense of any god you like, but this particular, specified god. And the reason is clear. In fiction the artist creates the hero as well as the tale; and the primitive teller of tales did not find it always necessary to invent a name for the hero he created. The hero could, and did, get along for some time without any proper name. But with mythology the case is different. The personal being, superior to man, of whom the myth is told, is not the creation of the teller of the tale: he is a being known by the community to exist. He cannot therefore, when he is the hero of a myth, be described as 'a god—any god you like.' Nor is the myth a tale which could be told of any god whatever: if a myth is a tale, at any rate it is a tale which can be told of none other god but this. Indeed, a myth is not a tale: it is an incident—or string of incidents—in the personal history of a particular person, or being, superior to man.

It is then as polydaemonism passes into polytheism, as the beings of the one come to acquire personal names and personal history, and so to become the gods of the other, that mythology arises. It is under polytheism that mythology reaches its most luxuriant growth; and when polytheism disappears, mythology tends to disappear with it. Thus, the light which mythology may be expected to throw on the idea of God is one, which, however it may illumine the polytheistic idea of God, will not be found to shine far beyond the area of polytheism.

Myths then are narratives, in which the doings of some god or gods are related. And those gods existed in the belief of the community, before tales were told, or could be told, about them. Myths therefore are the outcome of reflection—of reflection about the gods and their relations to one another, or to men, or to the world. Mythology is not the source of man's belief of the gods. Man did not begin by telling tales about beings whom he knew to be the creations of his own imagination, and then gradually fall into the error of supposing them to be, after all, not creatures of his own imagination but real beings. Mythology is not even the source of man's belief in a plurality of gods: man found gods everywhere, in every external object or phenomenon, because he was looking for God everywhere, and to every object, in turn, he addressed the question, 'Art thou there?' Mythology was not the source of polytheism. Polytheism was the source of mythology. Myths preserve to us the reflections which men have made about their gods; and reflection, on any subject, cannot take place until the thing is there to be reflected upon. The result of prolonged reflection may be, indeed must be, to modify the ideas from which we started, for the better—or, it may be, for the worse. But, even so, the result of reflection is not to create the ideas from which it started.

From this point of view, it becomes impossible to accept the theory, put forward by Max Mueller, that mythology is due to 'disease of language.' According to his theory, simple statements were made of such ordinary, natural processes as those of the rising, or the setting, of the sun. Then, by disease of language, the meaning of the words or epithets, by which the sun or the dawn were, at the beginning, designated or described, passed out of mind. The epithets then came to be regarded as proper names; and so the people, amongst which these simple statements were originally made, found itself eventually in possession of a number of tales told of persons possessing proper names and doing marvellous things. Thus, Max Mueller's theory not only accounted for the origin of tales told about the gods: it also explained the origin of the gods, about whom the tales were told. It is a theory of the origin, not merely of mythology, but also of polytheism.

Thus, even on Max Mueller's theory, mythology is the outcome of reflection—of reflection upon the doings and behaviour of the sun, the clouds, wind, fire etc. But, on his theory, the sun, moon etc., were not, at first, regarded as persons, at all: it was merely owing to 'disease of language' that they came to be so regarded. Only if we make this original assumption, can we accept the conclusions deduced from it; and no student now accepts the assumption: it is one which is forbidden by the well-established facts of animism. Sun, moon, wind and fire, everything that acts, or is supposed to act, is regarded by early man as animated by personal power. If, therefore, the external objects, to which man turned with his question, 'Art thou there?' were regarded by him, from the beginning, as animated by personal power, the theory that they were not so regarded falls to the ground; and, consequently, we cannot accept it as accounting for the origin of polytheism.

Doubtless, during the time of its vogue, Max Mueller's theory was accepted precisely because it did profess to account for the origin of polytheism, and because it denied polytheism any religious value or meaning whatever. On the theory, polytheism did not originate from any religious sentiment whatever, but from a disease of language. And this was a view which naturally commended itself to those who were ready to say and believe that polytheism is not religion at all. But the consequences of saying this are such as to make any science of religion, or indeed any history of religion, impossible. Where the idea of God is to be found, there some religion exists; and to say that, in polytheism, no idea of God can be found, is out of the question. If then polytheism is a stage in the history of religious belief, we have to consider it in relation to the other stages of religious belief, which preceded or followed it. We have to relate the idea of God, as it appeared in polytheism, with the idea as it appeared in other stages of belief. In order to do this, we must first discover what the polytheistic idea of God is; and for that purpose we must turn, at any rate at first, to the myths which embody the reflections of polytheists upon the attributes and actions of the Godhead, or of those beings, superior to man, whose existence was accepted by the common consciousness. It may be that the reflections upon the idea of God, which are embodied in mythology, have so tended to degrade the idea of God, that religious advance upon the lines of polytheism became impossible, just as the conception of God as a being who would promote the anti-social wishes of an individual, rendered religious advance upon the lines of fetishism impossible. In that case, religion would forsake the line of polytheism, as it had previously abandoned that of fetishism.

A certain presumption that myths tend to the degradation of religion is created by the mere use of the term 'mythology.' It has come to be a dyslogistic term, partly because all myths are lies, but still more because some of them are ignoble lies. It becomes necessary, therefore, to remind ourselves that, though we see them to be untrue, they were not regarded as untrue by those who believed in them; and that many of them were not ignoble. Aeschylus and Sophocles are witnesses, not to be disbelieved, on these points. In their writings we have the reflections of polytheists upon the actions and attributes of the gods. But the reflections made by Aeschylus and Sophocles, and their treatment of the myths, must be distinguished from the myths, which they found to hand, just as the very different treatment and reflection, which the myths received from Euripides, must be distinguished from them. In both cases, the treatment, which the myths met with from the tragedians, is to be distinguished from the myths, as they were current among the community before and after the plays were performed. The writings of the tragedians show what might be made of the myths by great poets. They do not show what the myths were in the common consciousness that made them. And the history of mythology after the time of the three great tragedians makes it clear enough that even so noble a writer as Aeschylus could not impart to mythology any direction other than that determined for it by the conditions under which it originated, developed and ran its course.

Mythology is the work and the product of the common consciousness. The generation existing at any time receives it from preceding generations; civilised generations from barbarous, and barbarous generations from their savage predecessors. If it grows in the process of transmission, and so reflects to some extent the changes which take place in the common consciousness, it changes but little in character. The common consciousness itself changes with exceeding slowness; it retains what it has received with a conservatism like that of children's minds; and, what it adds must, from the nature of the case, be modelled on that which it has received, and be of a piece with it. But, though the common consciousness changes but slowly, it does change: with the change from savagery to civilisation there goes moral development. Some of the myths, which are re-told from one generation to another, may be capable of becoming civilised and moralised in proportion as do those who tell them; but some are not. These latter are incidents in the personal history of the gods, which, if told at all, can only be told, as they had been told from the beginning, in all their repulsiveness. They survive, in virtue of the tenacity and conservatism of the common consciousness; and, as survivals, they testify to the moral development which has taken place in the very community which conserves them. By them the eye of modern science measures the development and the difference between the stage of society which originally produced them and the stage which begins to be troubled by them. They are valuable for the purposes of modern science because they are evidence of the continuity with which the later stages have developed from the earlier; and, also, because they are the first outward indications of the discovery which was eventually to be made, of the difference between mythology and religion—a difference which existed from the beginning of mythology, and all through its growth, though it existed in the sphere of feeling long before it found expression for itself in words.

The course of history has shown, as a matter of fact, that these repulsive and disgusting myths could not be rooted out without uprooting the whole system of mythology. But the course of history has also shown that religion could continue to exist after the destruction of mythology, as it had done before its birth. But, of this the generations to whom myths had been transmitted and for whom mythology was the accepted belief, could not be aware. In their eyes the attempt to discredit some myths appeared to involve—as it did really involve—the overthrow of the whole system of mythology. If they thought—as they undoubtedly did think—that the destruction of mythology was the same thing as the destruction of religion, their error was one of a class of errors into which the human mind is at no time exempt from falling. And they had this further excuse, that the destruction of mythology did logically and necessarily imply the destruction of polytheism. Polytheism and mythology were complementary parts of their idea of the Godhead. Demonstrations therefore of the inconsistency and immorality involved in their idea were purely negative and destructive; and they were, accordingly, unavailing until a higher idea of the unity of the Godhead was forthcoming.

Until that time, polytheism and mythology struggled on. They were burdened, and, as time went on, they were overburdened, with the weight of the repulsive myths which could not be denied and disowned, but could only be thrust out of sight as far, and as long, as possible. These myths, however offensive they became in the long run to the conscience of the community, were, in their origin, narratives which were not offensive to the common consciousness, for the simple reason that they were the work of the common consciousness, approved by it and transmitted for ages under the seal of its approval. If they were not offensive to the common consciousness at the time when they originated, and only became so later, the reason is that the morality of the community was less developed at the time of their origin than it came to be subsequently. If they became offensive, it was because the morality of the community tended to advance, while they remained what they had always been.

It may, perhaps, be asked, why the morality of the community should tend to change, and the myths of the community should not? The reason seems to be that myths are learned by the child in the nursery, and morality is learned by the man in the world. The family is a smaller community than the village community, the city, or the state; and the smaller the community, the more tenacious it is of its customs and traditions. The toys of Athenian children, which have been discovered, are, all, the toys which children continue to use to this day. In the Iliad children built sand-castles on the sea-shore as they do now; and the little child tugged at its mother's dress then as now. Children then as now would insist that the tales told to them should always be told exactly as they were first told. Of the discrepancy between the morality exhibited by the heroes of nursery-tales and that practised by the grown-up world the child has no knowledge, for the sufficient reason that he is not as yet one of the grown-up world. When he enters the grown-up world, he may learn the difference; but he can only enter the grown-up world, if there is one for him to enter; and, in the childhood of man, there is none which he can enter, for the adults themselves, though of larger growth, are children still in mind. Custom and tradition rule the adult community then as absolutely as they rule the child community. In course of time, the adult community may break the bonds of custom and tradition; but the community which consists of children treasures them and hands them on. Within the tribe, thenceforth, there are two communities, that of the adults and that of the children. The one community is as continuous with itself as the other; but the children's community is highly conservative of what it has received and of what it hands on—and that for the simple reason that children will be children still. It is this homogeneity of the children's community which enables it to preserve its customs, traditions and beliefs. And as long as the community of adults is homogeneous, it also departs but little from the customs, traditions and beliefs, which it has inherited from the same source as the children's community has inherited them. The two communities, the children's and the adults', originate and develop within the larger community of the tribe. They differentiate, at first, with exceeding slowness; the children's community changes more slowly even than the adults'—its weapons continue to be the bow and arrow, long after adults have discarded them; and the bull-roarer continues sacred in its eyes to a period when the adult community has not only discarded its use but forgotten its meaning. In its tales and myths it may preserve the memory of a stage of morality which the adult community has outgrown, and has left behind as far it has left behind the bull-roarer or the bow and arrow. And the stage of morality, of which it preserves the memory, is one from which the adult community in past time emerged. Having emerged, indeed, it found itself, eventually, when made to look back, compelled to condemn that which it looked back upon.

What, then, were these myths, with which the moralised community might find itself confronted? They were tales which originated in the mind of the community when it was yet immature. They preserve to us the reflections of the immature mind about the gods and what they did. And it is because the minds, which made these reflections, were immature, that the myths which embodied or expressed these reflections, were such as might be accepted by immature minds, but were eventually found intolerable by more mature minds. It may, perhaps, be said—and it may be said with justice—that the reflections even of the immature mind are not all, of necessity, erroneous, for it is from them that the whole of modern knowledge has been evolved or developed, just as the steam-plough may be traced back to the primitive digging-stick: reflection upon anything may lead to better knowledge of the thing, as well as to false notions about it. But the nations, which have outgrown mythology, have cast it aside because in the long run they became convinced that the notions it embodied were false notions. And they reached that conclusion on this point in the same way and for the same reason as they reached the same conclusion in other matters; for there is only one way. There is only one way and one test by which it is possible to determine whether the inferences we have drawn about a thing are true or false, and that is the test of experience. That alone can settle the question whether the thing actually does or does not act in the way, or display the qualities alleged. If it proves in our experience to act in the way, or to display the qualities, which our reflection led us to surmise, then our conception of the thing is both corrected and enlarged, that is to say, the thing proves to be both more and other than it was at first supposed to be. If experience shows that it is not what we surmised, does not act in the way or display the qualities our reflection led us to expect, then, as the conclusions we reached are wrong, our reflections were on a wrong line, and must have started from a false conception or an imperfect idea of the thing.

It is collision of this kind between the conclusions of mythology and the idea of the gods, as the guardians of morality, that rouses suspicion in a community, still polytheistic, first that the conclusions embodied in mythology are on a wrong line, and next that they must have started from a false conception or imperfect idea of the Godhead. By its fruits is the error found to be error—by the immorality which it ascribes to the very gods whose function it is to guard morality. Mythology is the process of reflection which leads to conclusions eventually discarded as false, demonstrably false to anyone who compared them with the idea of the Godhead which he had in his own soul. Mythology worked out the consequences of the assumption that it is to the external world we must look for the divine personality of whose presence in the common consciousness, the community has at all times, been, even though dimly, aware. Doubts as to the truth of myths were first aroused by the inconsistency between the myths told and the justice and morality which had been from the beginning the very essence of divine personality. The doubts arose in the minds and hearts of individual thinkers; and, if those individuals had been the only members of the community who conceived justice and morality to be essential qualities of the divine personality, then it would have been necessary for such thinkers first to convert the community to that view. Now, one of the consequences of the prevalence of mythology is that the community, amongst whom it flourishes, comes to be, if not doubtful, then at times forgetful, of the fact that the gods of the community are moral beings and the guardians of morality. That fact had to be dismissed from attention, for the time being, whenever certain myths were related. And, the more frequently a fact is dismissed from attention, the less likely it is to reappear on the surface of consciousness. Thus, the larger the part played by mythology in the field of the common consciousness, the greater its tendency to drive out from attention those moral qualities which were of the essence of divine personality. But, however large the part played by mythology, and however great its tendency to obliterate the moral qualities of the gods, it rarely, if indeed ever, entirely obliterates them from the field of the common consciousness. Consequently, the individual thinkers, who become painfully aware of the contrast and opposition between the morality, which is essential to a divine personality, and the immorality ascribed to the gods in some myths, have not to deal with a community which denies that the gods have any morality whatever, but with a community which is ready to admit the morality of the gods, whenever its attention is called thereto. Thus, though it may be that it is in this or that individual that the inconsistency between the moral qualities, which belong to the gods, and the immoral actions which mythology ascribes to the gods, first manifests itself, to his distress and disturbance, still what has happened in his case happens in the case of some, and may happen in the case of all, other members of the community. The inconsistency then comes to exist not merely for the individual but for the common consciousness.

It was the immorality of mythology which first drew the attention of believers in polytheism to the inconsistency between the goodness, which was felt to be of the essence of the divine nature, and the vileness, which was imputed to them in some myths; but it is the irrationality and absurdity of mythology that seems, to the modern mind, to be its most uniform characteristic. So long as the only mythology that was studied was the mythology of Indo-European peoples, it was assumed, without question, that the myths could not really be, or originally have been, irrational and absurd: they must conceal, under their seeming absurdity and outwardly irrational appearance, some truth. They must have had, originally, some esoteric meaning. They must have conveyed—allegorically, indeed—some profound truths, known or revealed to sages of old, which it was the business of modern students to re-discover in mythology. And accordingly profound truths—scientific, cosmographic, astronomical, geographical, philosophic or religious—were discovered. There was no knowledge which the early ancestors of the human race were not supposed to have possessed, and their descendants to have forgotten.

But, when it came to be discovered, and accepted, that the ancestors of the Indo-European peoples had once been savages, and that savages, all the world over, possessed myths, it became impossible to maintain that such savages possessed in their mythologies treasures of truth either scientific or religious. Myths have no esoteric meaning. Obviously we must take them to be what we find them to be amongst present-day savages, that is, absurd and irrational stories, with no secret meaning behind them. Yet it is difficult, indeed impossible, to accept this as the last word on the subject. The stories are rejected by us, because they are patently absurd and irrational. But the savage does not reject them: he accepts them. And he could not accept and believe them, if he, as well as we, found them irrational and absurd. In a word, it is the same with the irrationality as it is with the immorality of mythology: myths are the work and the product of the common consciousness. As such, myths cannot be viewed as irrational by the common consciousness in which they originated, and by which they were accepted and transmitted, any more than they were regarded as immoral.

Obviously, the common consciousness which produces mythology cannot pronounce the myths, when it produces them, and accepts them, absurd. On the contrary, they are rational, in its eyes, and according to its level of understanding, however absurd the growth of knowledge may eventually show them to be. Myths, then, in their origin, are told and heard, narrated and accepted, as rational and intelligible. As narrated, they are narratives: can we say that they are anything more? or are they tales told simply for the pleasure of telling? Tales of this latter kind, pure fiction, are to be found wherever man is. But, we have already seen some points in which myths differ from tales of this kind: in fiction the artist creates his hero, but in myths the being superior to man, of whom the story is told is not the creation of the teller of the tale; he is a being known to the community to exist. Another point of difference is that a myth belongs to the god of whom it is told and cannot properly be told of any other god. These are two respects in which the imagination is limited, two points on which, in the case of myths, the creative imagination is, so to speak, nailed down. Is it subject to any further restriction in the case of myths? Granted that an adventure, when once it has been set down to one god, may not be set down to another, is the creative imagination free, in the case of mythology, as it is in the case of pure fiction, to invent the incidents and adventures, which eventually—in a lexicon of mythology—go to make up the biography of the god? The freedom, it appears, is of a strictly limited character.

It is an induction, as wide as the world—being based on mythologies from all parts of the world—that myths are aetiological, that their purpose is to give the reason of things, to explain the origin of fire, agriculture, civilisation, the world—of anything, in fact, that to the savage seems to require explanation. In the animistic period, man found gods everywhere because everywhere he was looking for gods. To every object that arrested his attention, in the external world, he put, or might put, the question, 'Art thou there?' Every happening that arrested the attention of a whole community, and provoked from the common consciousness the affirmation, 'Thou art there,' was, by that affirmation, accepted as the doing of a god. But neither at this stage, nor for long after, is there any myth. The being, whose presence is thus affirmed, has at first no name: his personality is of the faintest, his individuality, the vaguest. Mythology does not begin until the question is put, 'Why has the god done this thing?' A myth consists, or originally consisted, of the reason which was found and adopted by the common consciousness as the reason why the god did what he did do. It is in this sense that myths are aetiological. The imagination which produces them is, in a sense, a 'scientific imagination.' It works within limits. The data on which it works are that this thing was done, or is done, by this god; and the problem set to the mythological imagination is, 'Why did he, or does he, do it?' The stories which were invented to answer this question constituted mythology; and the fact that myths were invented for the purpose of answering this question distinguishes them from stories in the invention of which the imagination was not subject to restriction, was not tied down to this god and to this action of his, and was not limited to the sole task of imagining an answer to the question, 'Why did he do it?' All myths are narratives, but not all narratives are myths. Some narratives have men alone for their heroes. They are imaginative but not mythological. Some narratives are about gods and what they did. Their purpose is to explain why the gods did what they did do, and those narratives are mythological.

It may, perhaps, seem that the imagination of early man would from the first be set to work to invent myths in answer to the question, 'Why did the god do this thing?' But, as a matter of fact, man can get on for a long time without mythology. A striking instance of this is afforded by the di indigites of Italy. Over everything man did, or suffered, from his birth to his death, one of these gods or goddesses presided. The Deus Vagitanus opened the lips of the new-born infant when it uttered its first cry; the Dea Ossipago made the growing child's bones stout and strong; the Deus Locutius made it speak clearly; the goddess Viriplaca restored harmony between husband and wife who had quarrelled; the Dea Orbona closed a man's eyes at death. These di indigites had shrines and received sacrifices. They were distinguished into gods and goddesses. Their names were proper names, though they are but words descriptive of the function which the deity performed or presided over. Yet though these di indigites are gods, personal gods, to whom prayer and sacrifice are offered, they have no mythology attached to them; no myths are told about them.

The fact thus forced on our notice by the di indigites of Rome should be enough to warn us that mythology does not of necessity spring up, as an immediate consequence of the worship of the gods. It may even suggest a reason why mythology must be a secondary, rather than a primary consequence of worship. The Romans were practical, and so are savages: if they asked the question, 'Why did this god do this thing?' they asked it in no spirit of speculation but for a practical, common-sense reason: because they did not want this thing done again. And they offered sacrifices to the god or goddess, with that end in view. The things with regard to which the savage community first asks the question, 'Why did the god do it?' are things disastrous to the community—plague or famine. The answer to the question is really implied by the terms in which the question is stated: the community, or some member of the community has transgressed; he must be discovered and punished. So long and so far as the question is thus put and thus answered, there is little room for mythology to grow in. And it did not grow round the di indigites in Italy, or round corresponding deities in other countries.

But the question, 'Why did the god do it?' is susceptible, on reflection, of another kind of answer. And from minds of a more reflective cast than the Roman, it received answer in the form of mythology, of aetiological myths. Mythology is the work of reflection: it is when the community has time and inclination to reflect upon its gods and their doings that mythology arises in the common consciousness. For everything which happens to him, early man has one explanation, if the thing is such as seems to him to require explanation, and the explanation is that this thing is the doing of some god. If the thing that arrests attention is some disaster, which calls for remedy, the community approaches the god with prayer and sacrifice; its object is practical, not speculative; and no myth arises. But if the thing that arrests attention is not one which calls for action, on the part of the community, but one which stimulates curiosity and provokes reflection, then the reflective answer to the question, why has this thing been done by whatever god that did it, is a myth.

Thus the mood, or state of mind, in which mythology originates is clearly different from that in which the community approaches its offended gods for the purpose of appeasing them. The purpose in the latter case is atonement and reconciliation. The state of mind in the former case is one of enquiry. The emotion, of mingled fear and hope, which constitutes the one state of mind, is clearly different from the spirit of enquiry which characterises and constitutes the other state of mind. The one mood is undeniably religious; the other, not so. In the one mood, the community feels itself to be in the presence of its gods; in the other it is reflecting and enquiring about them. In the one case the community appears before its god; in the other it is reflectively using its idea of god, for the purpose of explaining things that call for explanation. But the idea of God, when used in this way, for the purpose of explaining things by means of myths, is modified by the use it is put to. It is not merely that everything which happens is explained, if it requires explanation, as the doing of some god; but the motives which early man ascribed, in his mythological moments, to the gods—motives which only undeveloped man could have ascribed to them—became part of the idea of God on which mythology worked and with which myths had to do. The idea of god thus gradually developed in polytheistic myths, the accumulated reflections of savage, barbarous and semi-barbarous ancestors, tends eventually to provoke reaction. But why? Not merely because the myths are immoral and irrational. But because of the essential impiety of imputing immoral and irrational acts to the divine personality. Plainly, then, those thinkers and writers who were painfully impressed by such impiety, who were acutely conscious that divine personality was irreconcilable with immorality and irrationality, had some other idea of God than the mythological. We may go further: we may safely say that the average man would not have been perturbed, as he was, by Socrates, for instance, had he, also, not found within him some other idea of God than the mythological. And we can understand, to some extent, how this should be, if we call to mind that, though mythology grows and luxuriates, still the worship of the gods goes on. That is to say, the community, through it all, continues to approach its gods, for the purpose, and with the emotion of mingled fear and hope, with which it had always come into the presence of its gods. It is the irreconcilability of the mood of emotion, which is essentially religious, with the mythological mode of reflective thought, which is not, that tends to bring about the religious reaction against mythology. It is not however until the divergence between religion and mythology has become considerable that the irreconcilability becomes manifest. And it is in the experience of some individual, and not in the common consciousness, that this irreconcilability is first discovered. That discovery it is which makes the discoverer realise that it is not merely when he comes before the presence of his gods in their temples, but that, whenever his heart rises on the tide of mingled fear, hope and thanksgiving, he comes into the presence of his God. Having sought for the divine personality in all the external objects of the world around him in the end he learns, what was the truth from the beginning,—that it is in his heart he has access to his God.

The belief in gods does not of necessity result in a mythology. The instance of the di indigites of Italy is there to show that it is no inevitable result. But mythology, wherever it is found, is of itself sufficient proof that gods are, or have been, believed in; it is the outcome of reflection and enquiry about the gods, whom the community approaches, with mingled feelings of hope and fear, and worships with sacrifice and prayer. Now, a mythology, or perhaps we should rather say fragments of a mythology, may continue to exist as survivals, long after belief in the gods, of whom the myths were originally told, has changed, or even passed away entirely. Such traces of gods dethroned are to be found in the folk-lore of most Christian peoples. Indeed, not only are traces of bygone mythology to be found in Christendom; but rites and customs, which once formed part of the worship of now forgotten gods; or it may be that only the names of the gods survive unrecognised, as in the names of the days of the week. The existence of such survivals in Europe is known; their history has been traced; their origin is undoubted. When, then, in other quarters of the globe than Europe, amongst peoples which are as old as any European people, though they have no recorded history, we find fragments of mythology, or of ritual, or mere names of gods, without the myths and the ritual which attach elsewhere to gods, the presumption is that here too we have to deal with survivals of a system of worship and mythology, which once existed, and has now gone to pieces, leaving but these pieces of wreckage behind. Thus, amongst the Australian black-fellows we find myths about gods who now receive no worship. But they never could have become gods unless they had been worshipped at some time; they could not have acquired the proper, personal names by which they are designated in these surviving myths, if they had not been worshipped long enough for the words which designate them to become proper names, i.e. names denoting no other person than the one designated by them. Amongst other backward peoples of the earth we find the names of gods surviving, not only with no worship but no myths attached to them; and the inference plainly is that, as they are still remembered to be gods, they once were objects of worship certainly, and probably once were subjects of mythology. And if, of a bygone religious system all that remains is in one place some fragments of mythology, and in another nothing but the mere names of the gods, then it is nothing astonishing if elsewhere all that we find is some fragment of worship, some rite, which continues to be practised, for its own sake, even though all memory of the gods in whose worship it originated has disappeared from the common consciousness—a disappearance which would be the easier if the gods worshipped had acquired no names, or names as little personal as those of the di indigites. Ritual of this kind, not associated with the names of any gods, is found amongst the Australian tribes, and may be the wreckage of a system gone to pieces.

Here, too, there is opportunity again, for the same error as that into which students of mythology once fell before, when they found, or thought they found, in mythology, profound truths, known or revealed to sages of old. The survivals mentioned in the last paragraph may be interpreted as survivals of a prior monotheism or a primitive revelation. But if they are survivals, at all, then they are survivals from a period when the ancestors of the present-day Africans or Australian black-fellows were in an earlier stage of social development—in an earlier stage even of linguistic development and of the thought which develops with language—than their descendants are now. Even in that earlier stage of development, however, man sought for God. If he thought, mistakenly, to find Him in this or that external object, he was not wrong in the conviction that underlay his search—the conviction that God is at no time afar off from any one of us.



We have found mythology of but little use in our search after the idea of God; and the reason, as we have suggested, is that myth-making is a reflective process, a process in which the mind reflects upon the idea, and therefore a process which cannot be set up unless the idea is already present, or, rather we should say, has already been presented. When it has been presented, it can become food for reflection, but not until then. If then we wish to discover where and when it is thus immediately presented, let us look for it in worship. If it is given primarily in the moment of worship, it may be reproduced in a secondary stage as a matter for reflection. Now, in worship—provided that it be experienced as a reality, and not performed as a conventionality—the community's purpose is to approach its God: let us come before the Lord and enter His courts with praise, are words which represent fairly the thought and feeling which, on ordinary occasions, the man who goes to worship—really—experiences, whether he be polytheist or monotheist. I have spoken of 'the moment of worship,' but worship is, of course, a habit: if it is not a habit, it ceases to be at all, in any effective sense. And it is a habit of the community, of the common consciousness, which is continuous through the ages, even though it slowly changes; and which, as continuous, is conservative and tenacious. Even when it has become monotheistic, it may continue to speak of the one God as 'a great god above all other gods,' in terms which are survivals of an earlier stage of belief. Such expressions are like the clouds which, though they are lifting, still linger round the mountain top: they are part of the vapour which had previously obscured from view the reality which was there, and cannot be shaken at any time.

Worship may include words spoken, hymns of praise and prayer; but it includes also things done, acts performed, ritual. It is these acts that are the facts from which we have now to start, in order to infer what we can from them as to the idea of God which prompted them. There is an infinite diversity in these facts of ritual, just as the gods of polytheism are infinite in number and kind. But if there is diversity, there is also unity. Greatly as the gods of polytheism differ from one another, they are at least beings worshipped—and worshipped by the community. Greatly as rituals vary in their detail, they are all ritual: all are worship, and, all, the worship rendered by the community to its gods. And there can be no doubt as to their object or the purpose with which the community practises them: that purpose is, at least, to bring the community into the presence of its Lord. We may safely say that there can be no worship unless there is a community worshipping and a being which is worshipped. Nor can there be any doubt as to the relation existing between the two. The community bow down and worship: that is the attitude of the congregation. Nor can there be any doubt as to the relation which the god bears, in the common consciousness, to his worshippers: he is bound to them by special ties—from him they expect the help which they have received in ages past. They have faith in him—else they would not worship him—faith that he will be what he has been in the past, a very help in time of trouble. The mere fact that they seek to come before him is a confession of the faith that is in them, the faith that they are in the presence of their God and have access to Him. However primitive, that is rudimentary, the worship may be; however low in the scale of development the worshippers may be; however dim their idea of God and however confused and contradictory the reflections they may make about Him, it is in that faith that they worship. So much is implied by worship—by the mere fact that the worshippers are gathered together for worship. If we are to find any clue which may give us uniform guidance through the infinite variety in the details of the innumerable rituals that are, or have been, followed in the world, we must look to find it in the purpose for which the worshippers gather together. But, if we wish to be guided by objective facts rather than by hasty, a priori assumptions, we must begin by consulting the facts: we must enquire whether the details of the different rituals present nothing but diversity, or whether there is any respect in which they show likeness or uniformity. There is one point in which they resemble one another; and, what is more, that point is the leading feature in all of them; they all centre round sacrifice. It is with sacrifice, or by means of sacrifice, that their gods are approached by all men, beginning even with the jungle-dwellers of Chota Nagpur, who sacrifice fowls and offer victims, for the purpose of conciliating the powers that send jungle-fever and murrain. The sacrificial rite is the occasion on which, and a means by which, the worshipper is brought into that closer relation with his god, which he would not seek, if he did not—for whatever reason—desire it. As bearing on the idea of God, the spiritual import, and the practical importance, of the sacrificial rite is that he who partakes in it can only partake of it so far as he recognises that God is no private idea of his own, existing only in his notion, but is objectively real. The jungle-dweller of Chota Nagpur may have no name for the being to whom, at the appointed season and in the appointed place, he sacrifices fowls; but, as we have seen, the gods only come to have proper, personal names in slow course of time. He may be incapable of giving any account, comprehensible to the civilised enquirer, of the idea which he has of the being to whom he offers sacrifice: more accomplished theologians than he have failed to define God. But of the reality of the being whom he seeks to approach he has no doubt. It is not the case that the reality of that being, by whomsoever worshipped, is an assumption which must be made, or a hypothesis that must be postulated, for the sake of providing a logical justification of worship. The simple fact is that the religious consciousness is the consciousness of God as real, just as the common consciousness is the consciousness of things as real. To represent the reality of either as something that is not experienced but inferred is to say that we have no experience of reality, and therefore have no real grounds for inference. We find it preferable to hold that we have immediate consciousness of the real, to some extent, and that by inference we may be brought, to a larger extent, into immediate consciousness of the real.

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