Their Origin and Meaning
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 6 - MAGICIANS KINGS AND GODS | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Chapter 7 - Rites of Expiation and Redemption

It is perhaps necessary, at the commencement of this chapter, to say a few more words about the nature and origin of the belief in Magic. Magic represented on one side, and clearly enough, the beginnings of Religion--i.e. the instinctive sense of Man's inner continuity with the world around him, taking shape: a fanciful shape it is true, but with very real reaction on his practical life and feelings. (Footnote 1) On the other side it represented the beginnings of Science. It was his first attempt not merely to feel but to understand the mystery of things.

Inevitably these first efforts to understand were very puerile, very superficial. As E. B. Tylor says (Footnote 2) of primitive folk in general, "they mistook an imaginary for a real connection." And he instances the case of the inhabitants of the City of Ephesus, who laid down a rope, seven furlongs in length, from the City to the temple of Artemis, in order to place the former under the protection of the latter! we should lay down a telephone wire, and consider that we established a much more efficient connection; but in the beginning, and quite naturally, men, like children, rely on surface associations. Among the Dyaks of Borneo (Footnote 3) when the men are away fighting, the women must use a sort of telepathic magic in order to safeguard them - that is, they must themselves rise early and keep awake all day (lest darkness and sleep should give advantage to the enemy); they must not oil their hair (lest their husbands should make any slips); they must eat sparingly and put aside rice at every meal (so that the men may not want for food). And so on. Similar superstitions are common. But they gradually lead to a little thought, and then to a little more, and so to the discovery of actual and provable influences. Perhaps one day the cord connecting the temple with Ephesus was drawn tight and it was found that messages could be, by tapping, transmitted along it. That way lay the discovery of a fact. In an age which worshiped fertility, whether in mankind or animals, Twins were ever counted especially blest, and were credited with a magic power. (The Constellation of the Twins was thought peculiarly lucky.) Perhaps after a time it was discovered that twins sometimes run in families, and in such cases really do bring fertility with them. In cattle it is known nowadays that there are more twins of the female sex than of the male sex. (Footnote 4)

Observations of this kind were naturally made by the ablest members of the tribe - who were in all probability the medicine-men and wizards - and brought in consequence power into their hands. The road to power in fact - and especially was this the case in societies which had not yet developed wealth and property - lay through Magic. As far as magic represented early superstition land religion it laid hold of the hearts of men - their hopes and fears; as far as it represented science and the beginnings of actual knowledge, it inspired their minds with a sense of power, and gave form to their lives and customs. We have no reason to suppose that the early magicians and medicine-men were peculiarly wicked or bent on mere self-aggrandizement - any more than we have to think the same of the average country vicar or country doctor of to-day. They were merely men a trifle wiser or more instructed than their flocks. But though probably in most cases their original intentions were decent enough, they were not proof against the temptations which the possession of power always brings, and as time went on they became liable to trade more and more upon this power for their own advancement. In the matter of Religion the history of the Christian priesthood through the centuries shows sufficiently to what misuse such power can be put; and in the matter of Science it is a warning to us of the dangers attending the formation of a scientific priesthood, such as we see growing up around us to-day. In both cases - whether Science or Religion - vanity, personal ambition, lust of domination and a hundred other vices, unless corrected by a real devotion to the public good, may easily bring as many evils in their train as those they profess to cure.

The Medicine-man, or Wizard, or Magician, or Priest, slowly but necessarily gathered power into his hands, and there is much evidence to show that in the case of many tribes at any rate, it was he who became ultimate chief and leader and laid the foundations of Kingship. The Basileus was always a sacred personality, and often united in himself as head of the clan the offices of chief in warfare and leader in priestly rites - like Agamemnon in Homer, or Saul or David in the Bible. As a magician he had influence over the fertility of the earth and, like the blameless king in the Odyssey, under his sway

"the dark earth beareth in season
Barley and wheat, and the trees are laden with fruitage, and alway
Yean unfailing the flocks, and the sea gives fish in abundance." (Footnote 5)

As a magician too he was trusted for success in warfare; and Schoolcraft, in a passage quoted by Andrew Lang, (Footnote 6) says of the Dacotah Indians "the war-chief who leads the party to war is always one of these medicine-men." This connection, however, by which the magician is transformed into the king has been abundantly studied, and need not be further dwelt upon here. And what of the transformation of the king into a god - or of the Magician or Priest directly into the same? Perhaps in order to appreciate this, one must make a further digression. For the early peoples there were, as it would appear, two main objects in life: (1) to promote fertility in cattle and crops, for food; and (2) to placate or ward off Death; and it seemed very obvious - even before any distinct figures of gods, or any idea of prayer, had arisen - to attain these objects by magic ritual. The rites of Baptism, of Initiation (or Confirmation) and the many ceremonies of a Second Birth, which we associate with fully-formed religions, did belong also to the age of Magic; and they all implied a belief in some kind of re-incarnation - in a life going forward continually and being renewed in birth again and again. It is curious that we find such a belief among the lowest savages even to-day. Dr. Frazer, speaking of the Central Australian tribes, says the belief is firmly rooted among them

"that the human soul undergoes an endless series of re-incarnations - the living men and women of one generation being nothing but the spirits of their ancestors come to life again, and destined themselves to be reborn in the persons of their descendants. During the interval between two re-incarnations the souls live in their nanja spots, or local totem-centres, which are always natural objects such as trees or rocks. Each totem-clan has a number of such totem-centres scattered over the country. There the souls of the dead men and women of the totem, but no others, congregate, and are born again in human form when a favorable opportunity presents itself." (Footnote 7)

And what the early people believed of the human spirit, they believed of the corn-spirits and the tree and vegetation spirits also. At the great Spring-ritual among the primitive Greeks

"the tribe and the growing earth were renovated together: the earth arises afresh from her dead seeds, the tribe from its dead ancestors."

And the whole process projects itself in the idea of a spirit of the year, who

"in the first stage is living, then dies with each year, and thirdly rises again from the dead, raising the whole dead world with him. The Greeks called him in this stage 'The Third One' [Tritos Soter] or 'the Saviour'; and the renovation ceremonies were accompanied by a casting-off of the old year, the old garments, and everything that is polluted by the infection of death."(Footnote 8)

Thus the multiplication of the crops and the renovation of the tribe, and at the same time the evasion and placation of death, were all assured by similar rites and befitting ceremonial magic.(Footnote 9)

In all these cases, and many others that I have not mentioned - of the magical worship of Bulls and Bears and Rams and Cats and Emus and Kangaroos, of Trees and Snakes, of Sun and Moon and Stars, and the spirit of the Corn in its yearly and miraculous resurrection out of the ground - there is still the same idea or moving inspiration, the sense mentioned in the foregoing chapter, the feeling (hardly yet conscious of its own meaning) of intimate relationship and unity with all this outer world, the instinctive conviction that the world can be swayed by the spirit of Man, if the man can only find the right ritual, the right word, the right spell, wherewith to move it. An aura of emotion surrounded everything - of terror, of tabu, of fascination, of desire. The world, to these people, was transparent with presences related to themselves; and though hunger and sex may have been the dominant and overwhelmingly practical needs of their life, yet their outlook on the world was essentially poetic and imaginative.

Moreover it will be seen that in this age of magic and the belief in spirits, though there was an intense sense of every thing being alive, the gods, in the more modern sense of the world, hardly existed (Footnote 10) - that is, there was no very clear vision, to these people, of supra-mundane beings, sitting apart and ordaining the affairs of earth, as it were from a distance. Doubtless this conception was slowly evolving, but it was only incipient. For the time being - though there might be orders and degrees of spirits (and of gods) - every such being was only conceived of, and could only be conceived of, as actually a part of Nature, dwelling in and interlaced with some phenomenon of Earth and Sky, and having no separate existence.

How was it then, it will be asked, that the belief in separate and separable gods and goddesses - each with his or her well-marked outline and character and function, like the divinities of Greece, or of India, or of the Egyptian or Christian religions, ultimately arose? To this question Jane Harrison (in her Themis and other books) gives an ingenious answer, which as it chimes in with my own speculations (in the Art of Creation and elsewhere) I am inclined to adopt. It is that the figures of the supranatural gods arose from a process in the human mind similar to that which the photographer adopts when by photographing a number of faces on the same plate, and so superposing their images on one another, he produces a so-called "composite" photograph or image. Thus, in the photographic sphere, the portraits of a lot of members of the same family superposed upon one another may produce a composite image or ideal of that family type, or the portraits of a number of Aztecs or of a number of Apache Indians the ideals respectively of the Aztec or of the Apache types. And so in the mental sphere of each member of a tribe the many images of the well-known Warriors or Priests or wise and gracious Women of that tribe did inevitably combine at last to composite figures of gods and goddesses - on whom the enthusiasm and adoration of the tribe was concentrated. (Footnote 11) Miss Harrison has ingeniously suggested how the leading figures in the magic rituals of the past - being the figures on which all eyes would be concentrated; and whose importance would be imprinted on every mind - lent themselves to this process. The suffering Victim, bound and scourged and crucified, recurring year after year as the centre-figure of a thousand ritual processions, would at last be dramatized and idealized in the great race-consciousness into the form of a Suffering God - a Jesus Christ or a Dionysus or Osiris - dismembered or crucified for the salvation of mankind. The Priest or Medicine-Man - or rather the succession of Priests or Medicine-Men - whose figures would recur again and again as leaders and ordainers of the ceremonies, would be glorified at last into the composite-image of a God in whom were concentrated all magic powers. "Recent researches," says Gilbert Murray, "have shown us in abundance the early Greek medicine-chiefs making thunder and lightning and rain." Here is the germ of a Zeus or a Jupiter. The particular medicine-man may fail; that does not so much matter; he is only the individual representative of the glorified and composite being who exists in the mind of the tribe (just as a present-day King may be unworthy, but is surrounded all the same by the agelong glamour of Royalty).

"The real qeos, tremendous, infallible, is somewhere far away, hidden in clouds perhaps, on the summit of some inaccessible mountain. If the mountain is once climbed the god will move to the upper sky. The medicine-chief meanwhile stays on earth, still influential. He has some connection with the great god more intimate than that of other men . . . he knows the rules for approaching him and making prayers to him."(Footnote 12)

Thus did the Medicine-man, or Priest, or Magician (for these are but three names for one figure) represent one step in the evolution of the god.

And farther back still in the evolutionary process we may trace (as in chapter iv above) the divinization or deification of four-footed animals and birds and snakes and trees and the like, from the personification of the collective emotion of the tribe towards these creatures. For people whose chief food was bear-meat, for instance, whose totem was a bear, and who believed themselves descended from an ursine ancestor, there would grow up in the tribal mind an image surrounded by a halo of emotions - emotions of hungry desire, of reverence, fear, gratitude and so forth - an image of a divine Bear in whom they lived and moved and had their being. For another tribe or group in whose yearly ritual a Bull or a Lamb or a Kangaroo played a leading part there would in the same way spring tip the image of a holy bull, a divine lamb, or a sacred kangaroo. Another group again might come to worship a Serpent as its presiding genius, or a particular kind of Tree, simply because these objects were and had been for centuries prominent factors in its yearly and seasonal Magic. As Reinach and others suggest, it was the Taboo (bred by Fear) which by first forbidding contact with the totem-animal or priest or magician-chief gradually invested him with Awe and Divinity.

According to this theory the god - the full-grown god in human shape, dwelling apart and beyond the earth - did not come first, but was a late and more finished product of evolution. He grew up by degrees and out of the preceding animal-worships and totem-systems. And this theory is much supported and corroborated by the fact that in a vast number of early cults the gods are represented by human figures with animal heads. The Egyptian religion was full of such divinities - the jackal-headed Anubis, the ram-headed Ammon, the bull-fronted Osiris, or Muth, queen of darkness, clad in a vulture's skin; Minos and the Minotaur in Crete; in Greece, Athena with an owl's head, or Herakles masked in the hide and jaws of a monstrous lion. What could be more obvious than that, following on the tribal worship of any totem-animal, the priest or medicine-man or actual king in leading the magic ritual should don the skin and head of that animal, and wear the same as a kind of mask - this partly in order to appear to the people as the true representative of the totem, and partly also in order to obtain from the skin the magic virtues and mana of the beast, which he could then duly impart to the crowd? Zeus, it must be remembered, wears the aegis, or goat-skin - said to be the hide of the goat Amaltheia who suckled him in his infancy; there are a number of legends which connected the Arcadian Artemis with the worship of the bear, Apollo with the wolf, and so forth. And, most curious as showing similarity of rites between the Old and New Worlds, there are found plenty of examples of the wearing of beast-masks in religious processions among the native tribes of both North and South America. In the Atlas of Spix and Martius (who travelled together in the Amazonian forests about 1820) there is an interesting and characteristic picture of the men (and some women) of the tribe of the Tecunas moving in procession through the woods mostly naked, except for wearing animal heads and masks - the masks representing Cranes of various kinds, Ducks, the Opossum, the Jaguar, the Parrot, etc., probably symbolic of their respective clans.

By some such process as this, it may fairly be supposed, the forms of the Gods were slowly exhaled from the actual figures of men and women, of youths and girls, who year after year took part in the ancient rituals. Just as the Queen of the May or Father Christmas with us are idealized forms derived from the many happy maidens or white-bearded old men who took leading parts in the May or December mummings and thus gained their apotheosis in our literature and tradition - so doubtless Zeus with his thunderbolts and arrows of lightning is the idealization into Heaven of the Priestly rain-maker and storm-controller; Ares the god of War, the similar idealization of the leading warrior in the ritual war-dance preceding an attack on a neighboring tribe; and Mercury of the foot-running Messenger whose swiftness in those days (devoid of steam or electricity) was so precious a tribal possession.

And here it must be remembered that this explanation of the genesis of the gods only applies to the shapes and figures of the various deities. It does not apply to the genesis of the widespread belief in spirits or a Great Spirit generally; that, as I think will become clear, has quite another source. Some people have jeered at the 'animistic' or 'anthropomorphic' tendency of primitive man in his contemplation of the forces of Nature or his imaginations of religion and the gods. With a kind of superior pity they speak of "the poor Indian whose untutored mind sees God in clouds and hears him in the wind." But I must confess that to me the "poor Indian" seems on the whole to show more good sense than his critics, and to have aimed his rude arrows at the philosophic mark more successfully than a vast number of his learned and scientific successors. A consideration of what we have said above would show that early people felt their unity with Nature so deeply and intimately that - like the animals themselves - they did not think consciously or theorize about it. It was just their life to be - like the beasts of the field and the trees of the forest - a part of the whole flux of things, non-differentiated so to speak. What more natural or indeed more logically correct than for them to assume (when they first began to think or differentiate themselves) that these other creatures, these birds, beasts and plants, and even the sun and moon, were of the same blood as themselves, their first cousins, so to speak, and having the same interior nature? What more reasonable (if indeed they credited themselves with having some kind of soul or spirit) than to credit these other creatures with a similar soul or spirit? Im Thurn, speaking of the Guiana Indians, says that for them "the whole world swarms with beings." Surely this could not be taken to indicate an untutored mind - unless indeed a mind untutored in the nonsense of the Schools - but rather a very directly perceptive mind. And again what more reasonable (seeing that these people themselves were in the animal stage of evolution) than that they should pay great reverence to some ideal animal - first cousin or ancestor - who played an important part in their tribal existence, and make of this animal a totem emblem and a symbol of their common life?

And, further still, what more natural than that when the tribe passed to some degree beyond the animal stage and began to realize a life more intelligent and emotional - more specially human in fact - than that of the beasts of the field, that it should then in its rituals and ceremonies throw off the beast-mask and pay reverence to the interior and more human spirit. Rising to a more enlightened consciousness of its own intimate quality, and still deeply penetrated with the sense of its kinship to external nature, it would inevitably and perfectly logically credit the latter with an inner life and intelligence, more distinctly human than before. Its religion in fact would become more 'anthropomorphic' instead of less so; and one sees that this is a process that is inevitable; and inevitable notwithstanding a certain parenthesis in the process, due to obvious elements in our 'Civilization' and to the temporary and fallacious domination of a leaden-eyed so-called 'Science.' According to this view the true evolution of Religion and Man's outlook on the world has proceeded not by the denial by man of his unity with the world, but by his seeing and understanding that unity more deeply. And the more deeply he understands himself the more certainly he will recognize in the external world a Being or beings resembling himself.

W. H. Hudson - whose mind is certainly not of a quality to be jeered at - speaks of Animism as

"the projection of ourselves into nature: the sense and apprehension of an intelligence like our own, but more powerful, in all visible things". . . . . . "old as I am this same primitive faculty which manifested itself in my early boyhood, still persists, and in those early years was so powerful that I am almost afraid to say how deeply I was moved by it." (Footnote 13)

Nor will it be quite forgotten that Shelley once said:-

The moveless pillar of a mountain's weight
Is active living spirit. Every grain
Is sentient both in unity and part,
And the minutest atom comprehends A world of loves and hatreds.

The tendency to animism and later to anthropomorphism is I say inevitable, and perfectly logical. But the great value of the work done by some of those investigators whom I have quoted has been to show that among quite primitive people (whose interior life and 'soul-sense' was only very feeble) their projections of intelligence into Nature were correspondingly feeble. The reflections of themselves projected into the world beyond could not reach the stature of eternal 'gods,' but were rather of the quality of ephemeral phantoms and ghosts; and the ceremonials and creeds of that period are consequently more properly described as, Magic than as Religion. There have indeed been great controversies as to whether there has or has not been, in the course of religious evolution, a pre-animistic stage. Probably of course human evolution in this matter must have been perfectly continuous from stages presenting the very feeblest or an absolutely deficient animistic sense to the very highest manifestations of anthropomorphism; but as there is a good deal of evidence to show that animals (notably dogs and horses) see ghosts, the inquiry ought certainly to be enlarged so far as to include the pre-human species. Anyhow it must be remembered that the question is one of consciousness - that is, of how far and to what degree consciousness of self has been developed in the animal or the primitive man or the civilized man, and therefore how far and to what degree the animal or human creature has credited the outside world with a similar consciousness. It is not a question of whether there is an inner life and sub-consciousness common to all these creatures of the earth and sky, because that, I take it, is a fact beyond question; they all emerge or have emerged from the same matrix, and are rooted in identity; but it is a question of how far they are aware of this, and how far by separation (which is the genius of evolution) each individual creature has become conscious of the interior nature both of itself and of the other creatures of the great whole which includes them all.

Finally, and to avoid misunderstanding, let me say that Anthropomorphism, in man's conception of the gods, is itself of course only a stage and destined to pass away. In so far, that is, as the term indicates a belief in divine beings corresponding to our present conception of ourselves - that is as separate personalities having each a separate and limited character and function, and animated by the separatist motives of ambition, possession, power, vainglory, superiority, patronage, self-greed, self-satisfaction, etc. - in so far as anthropomorphism is the expression of that kind of belief it is of course destined, with the illusion from which it springs, to pass away. When man arrives at the final consciousness in which the idea of such a self, superior or inferior or in any way antagonistic to others, ceases to operate, then he will return to his first and primal condition, and will cease to need any special religion or gods, knowing himself and all his fellows to be divine and the origin and perfect fruition of all.


  1. For an excellent account of the relation of Magic to Religion see W. McDougall, Social Psychology (1908), pp. 317-320. Return
  2. Primitive Culture, vol. i, p. 106. Return
  3. See The Golden Bough, i, 127. Return
  4. See Evolution of Sex, by Geddes and Thomson (1901), p. 41, note. Return
  5. Odyssey xix, 109 sq. Translation by H. B. Cotterill. Return
  6. Myth, Ritual and Religion, vol. i, p. 113. Return
  7. The Golden Bough, vol. i, p. 96. Return
  8. Gilbert Murray, Four Stages, p. 46. Return
  9. It is interesting to find, with regard to the renovation of the tribe, that among the Central Australians the foreskins or male members of those who died were deposited in the above-mentioned nanja spots - the idea evidently being that like the seeds of the corn the seeds of the human crop must be carefully and ceremonially preserved for their re-incarnation. Return
  10. For a discussion of the evolution of religion out of magic, see Westermarck's Origin of Moral Ideas, ch. 47. Return
  11. See The Art of Creation, ch. viii, "The Gods as Apparitions of the Race-Life." Return
  12. The Four Stages, p. 140. Return
  13. Far Away and Long Ago, ch. xiii, p. 225. Return

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