Page images
PDF
EPUB

The appearance of idolatry at a grade above the lowest of known human culture, and its development in extent and elaborateness under higher conditions of civilization, are well displayed among the native races of America. “ Conspicuous by its absence" among many of the lower tribes, image-worship comes plainly into view toward the upper levels of savagery, as where, for instance, Brazilian native tribes set up in their huts, or in the recesses of the forest, their pigmy heaven-descended figures of wax or wood;' or where the Mandans, howling and whining, made their prayers before puppets of grass and skins; or where the spiritual beings of the Algonquins (“manitu ” or “oki ") were represented by, and in language identified with, the carved wooden heads or more complete images to which worship and sacrifice were offered. Among the Virginians and other of the more cultured Southern tribes, these idols even had temples to dwell in. The discoverers of the New World found idolatry an accepted institution among the islanders of the West Indies. These strong animists are recorded to have carved their little images in the shapes in which they believed the spirits themselves to have appeared to them; and some human figures bore the names of ancestors in memory of them. The images of such “cemi” or spirits, some animal, but most of human type, were found by thousands; and it is even declared that an island near Hayti had a population of idol-makers, who especially made images of nocturnal spectres. The spirit could be conveyed with the image, both were called “ cemi," and in the local accounts of sacrifices, oracles, and miracles, the deity and the idol are mixed together in a way which at least shows the extreme closeness of their connexion in the native

[ocr errors]

mind. If we pass to the far higher culture of Peru, we find idols in full reverence, some of them complete figures, but the great deities of Sun and Moon figured by discs with human countenances, like those which to this day represent them in symbol among ourselves. As for the conquered neighbouring tribes brought under the dominion of the Incas, their idols were carried, half trophies and half hostages, to Cuzco, to rank among the inferior deities of the Peruvian Pantheon.” In Mexico, idolatry had attained to its full barbaric development. As in the Aztec mind the world swarmed with spiritual deities, so their material representatives the idols stood in the houses, at the corners of the streets, on every hill and rock, to receive from passers-by some little offering—a nosegay, a whiff of incense, a drop or two of blood; while in the temples more huge and elaborate images enjoyed the dances and processions in their honour, were fed by the bloody sacrifice of men and beasts, and received the tribute and reverence paid to the great national gods.3 Up to a certain point, such evidence bears upon the present question. We learn that the native races of the New World had idols, that those idols in some sort represented ancestral souls and other deities, and for them received adoration and sacrifice. But whether the native ideas of the connexion of spirit and image were obscure, or whether the foreign observers did not get at these ideas, or partly for both reasons, there is a general want of express statement how far the idols of America remained mere symbols or portraits, or how far they had come to be considered the animated bodies of the gods.

It is not always thus, however. In the island regions of

[ocr errors]

the Southern Hemisphere, while image-worship scarcely appears among the Andaman islanders, Tasmanians, or Australians, and is absent or rare in various Papuan and Polynesian districts, it prevails among the majority of the island tribes who have attained to middle and high savage levels. In Polynesian islands, where the meaning of the native idolatry has been carefully examined, it is found to rest on the most absolute theory of spirit-embodiment. Thus, New Zealanders set up memorial idols of deceased persons near the burial-place, talking affectionately to them as if still alive, and casting garments to them when they passed by, and preserve in their houses small carved wooden images, each dedicated to the spirit of an ancestor. It is distinctly held that such an atua or ancestral deity enters into the substance of an image in order to hold converse with the living. A priest can by repeating charms cause the spirit to enter into the idol, which he will even jerk by a string round its neck to arrest its attention ; it is the same atua or spirit which will at times enter not the image but the priest himself, throw him into convulsions, and deliver oracles through him; while it is quite understood that the images themselves are not objects of worship, nor do they possess in themselves any virtue, but derive their sacredness from being the temporary abodes of spirits. In the Society Islands, it was noticed in Captain Cook's exploration that the carved wooden images at burial-places were not considered mere memorials, but abodes into which the souls of the departed retired. In Mr. Ellis's account of the Polynesian idolatry, relating as it seems especially to this group, the sacred objects might be either mere stocks and stones, or carved wooden images, from six to eight feet long down to as many inches. Some of these were to represent "tii," divine manes or spirits of the dead, while others were to represent “ tu,” or deities of higher rank and power. At certain seasons, or in answer to the prayers of the priests, these spiritual beings entered into the idols,

Shortland, “Trads. of N. Z.' etc. p. 83 ; Taylor, pp. 171, 183, 212.

which then became very powerful, but when the spirit departed, the idol remained only a sacred object. A god often came to and passed from an image in the body of a bird, and spiritual influence could be transmitted from an idol by imparting it by contact to certain valued kinds of feathers, which could be carried away in this “inhabited” state, and thus exert power elsewhere, and transfer it to new idols. Here then we have the similarity of souls to other spirits shown by the similar way in which both become embodied in images, just as these same people consider both to enter into human bodies. And we have the pure fetish, which here is a feather or a log or stone, brought together with the more elaborate carved idol, all under one common principle of spirit embodiment. In Borneo, notwithstanding the Moslem prohibition of idolatry, not only do images remain in use, but the doctrine of spirit-embodiment is distinctly applied to them. Among the tribes of Western Sarawak the priestesses have made for them rude figures of birds, which none but they may touch. These are supposed to become inhabited by spirits, and at the great harvest feasts are hung up in bunches of ten or twenty in the long common room, carefully veiled with coloured handkerchiefs. Again, among some Dayak tribes, they will make rude figures of a naked man and woman, and place these opposite to one another on the path to the farms. On their heads are head-dresses of bark, by their sides is the betel-nut basket, and in their hands a short wooden spear. These figures are said to be inhabited each by a spirit who prevents inimical influences from passing on to the farms, and likewise from the farms to the village, and evil betide the profane wretch who lifts his hand against them—violent fever and sickness would be sure to follow.?

West Africa naturally applies its familiar fetish-doctrine

[ocr errors]

of spirit-embodiment to images or idols. How an image may be considered a receptacle for a spirit, is well shown here by the straw and rag figures of men and beasts made in Calabar at the great triennial purification, for the expelled spirits to take refuge in, whereupon they are got rid of over the border. As to positive idols, nothing could be more explicit than the Gold-Coast account of certain wooden figures called “ amagai,” which are specially treated by a "wong-man” or priest, and have a “wong" or deity in connexion with them; so close is the connexion conceived between spirit and image, that the idol is itself called “wong."'2 So in the Ewe district, the same "edro" or deity who inspires the priest is also present in the idol, and “edro " signifies both god and idol. Waitz sums up the principles of West African idolatry in a distinct theory of embodiment, as follows : “The god himself is invisible, but the devotional feeling and especially the lively fancy of the negro demands a visible object to which worship may be directed. He wishes really and sensibly to behold the god, and seeks to shape in wood or clay the conception he has formed of him. Now if the priest, whom the god himself at times inspires and takes possession of, consecrates this figure to him, the idea has only to follow that the god may in consequence be pleased to take up his abode in the figure, to which he may be specially invited by the consecration, and thus image-worship is seen to be comprehensible enough. Denham found that even to take a man's portrait was dangerous and caused mistrust, from the fear that a part of the living man's soul might be conveyed by magic into the artificial figure. The idols are not, as Bosman thinks, deputies of the gods, but merely objects in which the god loves to place himself, and which at the same time display him in sensible presence to his adorers. The

1 Hutchinson in ‘Tr. Eth. Soc.' vol. i. p. 336; see Bastian, ‘Psychologie,

p. 172.

2 Steinhauser, in ‘Magaz. der Evang. Missionen,' Basel, 1856, No. 2, p.

3 Schlegel, Ewe-Sprache, p. xvi.

« PreviousContinue »