Table of Contents
Part II: Primitive Monotheism and
the Origin of Polytheism
In Sophisticated Society
SOME YEARS ago Prebendary Rowe observed
that it is more sensible to start with the known and reason upon
it towards the unknown than to start with the unknown in the
hopes of being able to explain the known. We now have a body
of "knowns" which is substantial, and in some ways
the most assured data are to be found in that quite vast literature
which has been preserved from the Cradle of Civilization, Mesopotamia.
the cuneiform literature first began to reveal its message, scholars
of cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics soon found themselves
dealing with a tremendous number of gods and goddesses, and demons
and other spiritual powers of a lesser sort, which seemed to
be always at war with one another and much of the time highly
destructive. As earlier and earlier tablets, however, began to
be excavated and brought to light, and skill in deciphering them
increased, the first picture of gross polytheism began to be
replaced by something more nearly approaching a hierarchy of
spiritual beings organized into a kind of court with one Supreme
Being over all. One of the first cuneiform scholars to acknowledge
the significance of this trend was Stephen Langdon of Oxford,
and when he reported his conclusions he did so with a consciousness
of the fact that he would scarcely be believed. Thus he wrote
in 1931: (2)
fail to carry conviction in concluding that both in Sumerian
and Semitic religions, monotheism preceded polytheism. . . .
The evidence and reasons for this conclusion, so contrary to
accepted and current views, have been set down with care and
with the perception of adverse criticism. It is, I trust, the
conclusion of knowledge and not of audacious preconception.
Since Langdon took the view that the
Sumerians represent the oldest historic civilization, he added:
2. Langdon, Stephen H., Semitic
Mythology, Mythology of All Races, vol. 5, Archaeologicl
Institute of America, 1931, p.xviii.
1 of 19
my opinion the history of the oldest civilization of man is a
rapid decline from monotheism to extreme polytheism and widespread
belief in evil spirits. It is in a very true sense the history
of the fall of man.
Five years later in an article which
appeared in The Scotsman, he wrote: (3)
of Sumerian religion, which was the most powerful cultural influence
in the ancient world, could be traced by means of pictographic
inscriptions almost to the earliest religious concepts of man.
The evidence points unmistakeably to an original monotheism,
the inscriptions and literary remains of the oldest Semitic peoples
also indicate a primitive monotheism, and the totemistic origin
of Hebrew and other Semitic religions is now entirely discredited.
To my knowledge only one person has
seriously challenged Langdon's conclusion since. And this was
an old professor of mine, T. J. Meek. (4) The argument
that Langdon used was based on the following circumstances: The
Sumerian religion in its latest development before the people
disappeared as an entity swallowed up by the later Babylonians,
seemed to have involved about 5000 gods. The inscriptions of
circa 3000 B.C. or perhaps a millennium earlier show only 750.
The 300 tablets or so known from Jamdet Nasr in 1928 when Langdon
published these texts, contained only. three gods; the sky god
Enlil, the earth god Enki, and the sun god Babbar. The 575 tablets
from Uruk translated in 1936, which Langdon dated about 4000
B.C. but are now believed to be more accurately dated 3500 B.C.,
contain the names of only two deities: the sky god An and the
mother goddess Innina. Meek's criticism of Langdon's essay was
that the number of gods he mentions for the earlier tablets is
in error. In the Jamdet Nasr text there may have been as many
as six, not three. On this account Meek felt that he could accuse
Langdon of gross inaccuracy and thus undermine the force of his
argument. At the same time he admitted that at least one of these
six is doubtful. Moreover, it is not always possible to be sure
that a name which appears as someone to whom prayers are made
is necessarily thought of as a deity. Praying to saints has been
known even in modern days! In any case, when the forward view
of history takes us from two deities to a small number ‹
whether three or six 500 years later, to 750 a thousand years
later, and to 5,000 before the picture becomes indistinct ‹
the argument against Langdon's interpretation of the data based
upon an error in counting of such small
3. Langdon, Stephen H., The
Scotsman, November 18, 1936.
4. Meek, T. J., Primitive Monotheism and the Religion of Moses,
University of Toronto Quarterly, vol.8, January, 1939,
proportions surely carries
no weight at all. It does not seriously challenge his basic argument.
In any case, subsequent excavations
at Tell Asmar from the period of the third millennium B.C. have
fully corroborated his findings. Thus Henry Frankfort wrote in
his official report: (5)
to their more tangible results, our excavations have established
a novel fact, which the student of Babylonian religions will
have henceforth to take into account. We have obtained, to the
best of our knowledge for the first time, religious material
complete in its social setting.
a coherent mass of evidence, derived in almost equal quantity
from a temple and from the houses inhabited by those who worshiped
in that temple. We are thus able to draw conclusions, which the
finds studied by themselves would not have made possible.
we discover that the representations on cylinder seals, which
are usually connected with various gods, can all be fitted into
a consistent picture in which a single god worshiped in this
temple forms the central figure. It seems, therefore, that at
this early period his various aspects were not considered separate
deities in the Sumero-Accadian pantheon.
This raises an important point; namely,
the possibility that polytheism never did arise by the evolution
of polydemonism, but because the attributes of a single God were
differently emphasized by different people until those people
in later years came to forget that they were speaking of the
same Person. Thus attributes of a single deity became a plurality
of deities. It is not merely that single individuals laid emphasis
upon different aspects of God's nature but whole families and
tribes seemed to have developed certain shared views about what
was important in life and what was not, and therefore, not unnaturally,
came to attribute to their god and to put special emphasis upon
those characteristics which seemed to them of greatest significance.
For example, a warlike people are not too likely to emphasize
the gentleness of God nor a legalistic people the forgiveness
of God. They will rather emphasize His power in the one case
and His justice in the other. In three other Doorway Papers (6)
we have explored the possibility that the sons of Noah (Shem,
Ham, and Japheth) each developed a bent towards life which led
them to different emphases: Shem on the spiritual quality of
life, Ham on the practical concerns of life, and Japheth on the
philosophical aspects of life. It is not surprising, therefore,
that the God of the Semites is a
5. Frankfort, H ., Third
Preliminary Report on Excavations at Tell Asmar (Eshnunna):
quoted by P. J. Wiseman in New Discoveries in Babylonia about
Genesis, Marshall, Morgan and Scott, London, 1936,
6. See on this Arthur Custance, "The Part Played by Shem,
Ham, and Japheth in Subsequent World History", Part I; Part
IV, "The Technology of Hamitic People", Part IV; and
"A Christian World View: The Framework of History,"
Part V; in Noah's Three Sons, vol.1 in The Doorway
Papers Series, Zondervan Publishing Co.
pure spirit. The gods of the Hamites, on the other hand, were
gods of power. And the gods of the Japhethites or Indo-Europeans
were gods of light, in the sense of being gods of "understanding."
I think Matthew's Gospel was written for the descendants of Shem
and is slanted towards their way of thinking about God. Mark's
Gospel was written for the descendants of Ham and is full of
action, of doings, of service, of authority ‹ where the characteristic
phrase is "immediately," "straightway," and
similar terms. Luke's Gospel was undoubtedly written for the
descendants of Japheth; and it may be merely coincidence, though
I doubt it very much, that the writer's name means "light."
before Langdon had made his translations, Friedrich Delitzsch
had made a rather similar proposal regarding the continuing tendency
towards the multiplication of deities. (7) He refers
to a tablet reported upon by T. G. Pinches which, though only
fragmentarily preserved, tells us that all, or at any rate, the
highest of the deities in the Babylonian pantheon are designated
as one with and one in the god Marduk.
god Marduk is set forth under the name "Ninib," as
"the Possessor of Power"; under the name of "Nergal"
or "Zamama," as "Lord of Battle"; under the
name "Bel," as "Possessor of Lordship"; under
the name "Nebo," as "The Lord the Prophet";
under the name "Sin," as "Illuminator of the Night";
under the name "Shamash," as "Lord of all that
is Just"; under the name "Addu," as "God
of Rain." Marduk therefore was Ninib as well as Nergal,
Moon-god as well as Sun-god, the names being simply different
ways of describing his attributes, powers, or duties.
same historical process can be traced in Egypt. Renouf in his
Hibbert Lectures for 1879 quotes M. de Rouge as having said that
from, or rather before, the beginning of the historical period,
the pure monotheistic religion of Egypt passed through the phase
of Sabeism; the sun instead of being considered as the symbol
of life, was taken as the manifestation of God Himself. Rouge
incontestably true that the sublimer portions of the Egyptian
religion are not the comparatively late result of a process of
development or elimination from the grosser. The sublimer portions
are demonstrably ancient; and the last stage of the Egyptian
religion, that known to the Greek and Latin writers, heathen
or Christian, was by far the grossest and the most corrupt.
7. Delitzsch, Friedrich, Babel
and Bible, Williams and Norgate, London, 1903, pp.144f.
8. Renouf, P. Le Page, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of
Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of Ancient Egypt,
Williams and Norgate, London, 1897, p.90.
Rouge is no doubt correct in his assertion that in the several
local (centres of) worship, one and the same deity re-appears
under different names and symbols. . . .
from the course of history that since polytheism was constantly
on the increase, the monotheistic doctrines must have preceded
A very sound argument indeed.
as in Sumeria and Babylonia, so also in the course of time the
Egyptians multiplied and broke up into factions with tribal loyalties
and somewhat provincial religious preferences the purer concept
of one God which they had all shared at the beginning and which
involved some considerable knowledge of His attributes. This
led to a confusion of attributes with different individuals,
and descriptive terms became names of deities. Rawlinson wrote
many years ago concerning this:
once divided, there was no limit to the number of His attributes
of various kinds and of different grades; and in Egypt everything
that partook of the divine essence became a god. Emblems were
added to the catalogue; and though not really deities, they called
forth feelings of respect which the ignorant could not distinguish
from actual worship.
It was not perhaps unnatural that in order to symbolize
God's various powers it would have been taught that His vision
was as sharp as a hawk's, or He was strong as a bull, or that
He watched unseen like the crocodiles whose eyes alone are to
be seen. In time these symbols were mistaken by the common people
as being gods in themselves; so was fulfilled that which Paul
had written in Romans 1:18-23, that men turned from the worship
of God Himself to the worship of His creatures and in due course
became vain in their imaginings, and their understanding was
darkened. In the second part of this Paper we shall return to
this subject again, because it is important to see why these
grosser aspects of religious belief should have so completely
swamped those loftier aspects which ancient Egyptian texts show
clearly to have once been remarkably pure.
It might be thought that the picture
has changed radically since the days of Renouf and his Hibbert
Lectures. This is not the case. Sir Flinders Petrie, in an excellent
little book on the subject of Egyptian religion, wrote as follows:
are in ancient religions and theologies very different classes
of gods. Some races, as the modern Hindu, revel in a profusion
of gods and
9. Rawlinson, George, editor,
Herodotus, appendix to Book 2, p.250.
10. Petrie, Sir Flinders, The Religion of Ancient Egypt, Constable,
London, 1908, pp.3, 4.
continually increase. Others . . . do not attempt to worship
great gods, but deal with a host of animistic spirits, devils,
or whatever we may call them. . . . But all our knowledge of
the early positions and nature of the great gods shows them to
stand on an entirely different footing to these varied spirits.
conception of a god only an evolution from such spirit worship
we should find the worship of many gods preceding the worship
of one god. . . . What we actually find is the contrary of this,
monotheism is the first stage traceable in theology. . . .
we can trace back polytheism to its earliest stages, we find
that it results from combinations of monotheism. In Egypt even
Osiris, Isis, and Horus, so familiar as a triad, are found at
first as separate units in different places: Isis as a virgin
goddess, and Horus as a self-existent God.
appears to have had but one god belonging to it, to whom others
were in time added. Similarly Babylonian cities each had their
supreme god, and the combinations of these and their transformations
in order to form them into groups when their homes were politically
united show how essentially they were solitary deities at first.
Everywhere the pattern seems to have
been much the same, wherever we have sufficient records to establish
the historical sequence. It is not strange that a conquering
people should set their own deity at the head of the pantheon,
but it is also not strange either that for the sake of peace
and harmony they should pay lip service to the deities of the
conquered, though allotting to them inferior positions. This
kind of broad-mindedness we would tend to commend today under
the general heading of religious freedom. But the penalty of
this broad-mindedness is that the truth is very quickly blurred.
The solution is not simple: the Jesuits, as an example, have
traditionally taken the stand that only the truth should be given
complete freedom of expression and therefore religious tolerance
is equated with lack of conviction. Any man who agrees that people
may worship whatever they will is really confessing, so they
argue, that he himself is not absolutely certain that he has
the truth and therefore is willing to be broad-minded. They have
a point. The monarchs of antiquity, like Cyrus for example, allowed
complete freedom to conquered peoples to build their temples
and establish their priesthoods as suited them individually.
The consequence was that such men by their "enlightened"
policy contributed to the tremendous proliferation of deities.
As I have said, the problem is a difficult one: but ecumenism
may be a worse menace in the opposite direction by insisting
that everybody must agree to worship the same "God"
who may be no God at all.
we pass from these ancient civilizations toward the East we come
to India. And although the literature from this land is very
ancient, tracing the history of the origin of its religious beliefs
Nevertheless, there is a measure of agreement that here, too,
there has been a steady multiplication of deities through the
centuries, until they are now like the stars in the sky for number.
One of the best-known authorities in this area was Max Muller,
who although he did not have the Christian convictions that many
contemporary scholars had, nevertheless, reached certain conclusions
that should be mentioned. Max Muller, born in Germany in 1823,
studied in Paris and subsequently taught in London. He wrote
many volumes among which Chips from a German Workshop is
perhaps his best known. He also wrote Lectures on the
Origin and Growth of Religion, as Illustrated by the Religions
of India. Finally, he edited his great monumental and life
work, a series entitled The Sacred Books of the East. He
did not believe that early India was monotheistic in its faith,
but neither did he believe it was polytheistic ‹ polytheism
being a later stage which involved a process of degeneration.
In his The Science of Language he wrote: (11)
which was the bane of the ancient world, is in truth a disease
of language. A myth means a word, but a word which, from being
a name or an attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantial
existence. Most of the Greek, the Roman, the Indian, and other
heathen gods are nothing but poetical names, which were gradually
allowed to assume divine personality never contemplated by their
original inventors. Eos was the name of dawn before she became
a goddess, the wife of Tithonos, or the dying day. Fatum, or
Fate, meant originally what had been spoken; and before Fate
became a power, even greater than Jupiter, it meant that which
had once been spoken by Jupiter, and could never be changed ‹
not even by Jupiter himself. Zeus originally meant the bright
heaven, in Sanskrit Dyaus; and many of the stories told of him
as the supreme god, had a meaning only as told originally of
the bright heaven, whose rays, like golden rain, descend on the
lap of earth, the Danae of old, kept by her father in the dark
prison of winter. No one doubts that Luna was simply the name
of the moon; but so likewise Lucina, both derived from lucere,
to shine. Hecate, too, was an old name of the moon, the feminine
of Hekatos and Hekatebolos, the far-darting sun; and Pyrrha,
the Eve of the Greeks was nothing but a name of the red earth,
and in particular of Thessaly. This mythological disease, though
less virulent in modern languages, is by no means extinct.
once more we see how polytheism develops subsequently. Reverting
once more to Rowe's observation about arguing from the known
to the unknown, it may safely be said without the slightest hesitation
that monotheism never evolved out of polytheism in any
part of the world's earliest history for which we have documentary
evidence. As we shall see, this was true also in China.
11. Muller, Max, Lectures
on the Science of Language, 1st series, Scribner's, Armstrong,
New York, 1875, pp 21, 22.
Many of his contemporaries disagreed with Muller's
interpretation of the evidence, Andrew Lang being one of them.
And since his time there has been wide acceptance of the idea
that the history of religious beliefs in India has been characterized
by the personification, often in gross physical forms and in
increasing multiplicity, of a few concepts of the nature of God
which at first saw Him as invisible and made Him so remote that
He became virtually impersonal. Such lofty concepts do not appeal
to ordinary men and what happened in the Middle East appears
to have been repeated in India, except that the process proceeded
much further because of the cultural continuity that circumstances
allowed in that country. In the course of this, they reached
the point where their gods were numbered not by the thousands
as in Sumeria but by the tens of thousands. No doubt if Egypt
had retained its original culture likewise it, too, might have
ended up worshiping 50,000 deities where once they worshiped
perhaps only one. Edward McCrady, writing about Indian religious
beliefs observed that even the Rig Veda (Book 1, p.l64) shows
us that in the early days the gods were regarded simply as diverse
manifestations of a single Divine Being. He quoted: (12)
him Indra, Mythra, Varunna, Agni ‹ that which is One, the
Wise name by different terms.
Scholars in the West incline to the
opinion that the earliest of the hymns in the Rig Veda date from
between 1500 to 1200 B.C. (13) Indian tradition, on the other hand,
claims for them a much earlier antiquity. Whatever its date and
however little Muller shared the Christian view of man's spiritual
history, he nevertheless admitted freely: (14)
is a monotheism that precedes the polytheism of the Veda; and
even in the invocation of the innumerable gods the remembrance
of a God one and infinite, breaks through the mist of idolatrous
phraseology like the blue sky that is hidden by passing clouds.
When we come to China, the situation
is even more confused, for the Chinese seem to have had a peculiar
aversion to the worship of personal deities. Some of the older
writers, nevertheless, were confident that they could discern
evidence of a once pure monotheistic faith, which however was
early lost sight of because of the extreme
12. McCrady, Edward, "Genesis
and Pagan Cosmogonies," Transactions of the Victoria
Institute, vol.72, 1940, p.55.
13. MacNicol, Nicol, editor, The Hindu Scriptures, Everyman's
Library, Dent, London, 1938, p.xiv.
l4. Muller, Max, History of Sanskrit Literature: quoted
by Samuel Zwemer as in ref.1., p.87.
of the Chinese mind. Such a pure faith, as we have already seen,
is not "useful," because one cannot hope to bribe,
cajole, or in any way persuade to one's own advantage a Supreme
Being who is absolutely pure and above bribery or cajoling. And
therefore from a practical point of view one seeks the ear of
lesser powers and forgets the Higher One. A notable work in this
respect was written by John Ross of the United Free Church of
Scotland entitled The Original Religion of China (15)
(published in New York, no date), in which the author examined
the underlying concepts of early Chinese religion as judged by
their names or words for God by special reference to the hyphenated
title, Shang-Ti. He interpreted these two words to mean "above"
or "superior to" and "ruler," i.e., "Supreme
Ruler." He said that the name "bursts suddenly upon
us without a note of warning . . . with the completeness of a
Minerva." More recently a flood of fresh light on early
Chinese faith has resulted from the discovery of the so-called
"Oracle Bones." Chinese scholars have divided their
ancient times into three separate periods: first, the primal-ancient;
second, the mid-ancient; and third, the near-ancient. The first
period stretches roughly from the 21st to the 12th century B.C.
According to Ron Williams, who could read Chinese fluently, each
of these periods possessed its own distinctive religious characteristics.
The first was purely monotheistic. The second was dualistic with
a tendency towards materialism but still retaining a flavour
of the ancient monotheism. The third was completely materialistic.
Professor Williams observed: (16)
would perhaps be desirable at this point to examine the terms
used for God. Chinese writing, like the hieroglyphics of Egyptian
or Cuneiform syllabaries of Mesopotamia, was originally pictographic.
That is to say, each character was a picture or diagram describing
the object or idea to be conveyed.
are two terms to be found at this early period. One is Ti'en,
or "heaven," occurring with great frequency in the Classics.
It consists of two radicals, jen,
shang, "above." That is to say, the sign for heaven,
which is now an abstract idea, originated out of two signs meaning "The
man above." In later times the Emperor was referred to as the
Ti'en Tzu, or "The Son of Heaven." This reflects views generally
held in the ancient world regarding the divine origin of kings. The
other name, which is the current one in use today in China, is (as mentioned
by Dr. Ross),
Shang Ti. In the oldest inscriptions which we
possess (this was written in 1938), these two characters are combined
into a single pictograph,
which is composed of three elements. The first
which is the original
15. Ross, John, The Original
Religion of China: p.25: quoted by Samuel Zwemer, ref.1,
16 Williams, R., "Early Chinese Monotheism," a paper
presented before the Kelvin Institute, Toronto, 1938.
form of , mu,
meaning "wood" and is a picture of three sticks or
a faggot. The second, , is the earlier representation of , shu,
meaning "to bind." Above this bound faggot is placed
which is the ancient , shang, meaning "above." The
is the archaic form of meaning "to burn a faggot of wood."
We therefore find the sign to mean "the burning faggot of a wood
offering to the One Above," but also the "One Above
to whom the burning faggot of wood is offered."
is in China today an ancient custom at the new year of first
binding a bundle of sesame stalks or cedar branches with a red
cord and then standing them up on end in the centre of the open
courtyard and burning them as an act of worship. This was the
sacrifice of the burning faggot to God Above, although now they
often call it a sacrifice merely to heaven.
Ti'en and Shang Ti might be compared respectively to the words
God and Jehovah in the Old Testament. In the words
of Professor Gile, "Shang Ti would be the God who walked
in the garden in the cool of the day; the God who smelled the
sweet savour of Noah's sacrifice, and the God who allowed Moses
to see His back. Ti'en would be the God of Gods of the Psalms,
whose mercy endureth forever."
Williams pointed out in his paper
that the Book of History in its opening sentence states
that the ruler, Shun, on his accession in 2255 B.C. "offered
the customary sacrifice to God." This statement, made without
introduction or explanation, implies an unknown series of antecedent
events running back into the remoteness of antiquity. Habitual
practice had made them so familiar that they needed no details
of the ceremonies involved. Their authority was so unquestioned
that there was no place for a preface. Williams continued:
period of Chinese history, God the Supreme Ruler was one and
indivisible, incapable of change, having no equal, ruling absolutely
and alone over all in heaven above and in earth beneath. He did
what He willed and no power was able to hinder Him, and His will
was always right. Yet He not infrequently permitted the wicked
to flourish and in the Odes we frequently hear the voice
of that complaining spirit which gave occasion to the book of
Subsequently Williams noted that neither in the
Book of History nor in the Odes can any reference
to idols be traced. No representation to anything in the heavens
above or in the earth beneath has ever been made in China to
typify God. And He may be worshipped anywhere at any time, being
So far, our information has been
gleaned solely from the pages of the Chinese Classics. There
remains yet another source of information to which reference
has already been made, the so-called Oracle Bones. As Williams
observed, bones inscribed in ancient Chinese characters were
found by J. M. Menzies of Cheeloo University in Tsinan, considered
by sinologists to be the greatest living authority on the Archaic
Chinese script. Over 20,000 fragments of these bones were found
near An-yant in North Honan, the site of the early capital
of the Shang dynasty.
The bones are inscribed with questions asked by the king of his
priest on the one hand and the answer which the priest received
by divination on the other. They contain the name of God, Shang
Ti, and in spite of their number no reference is made to any
other deities whatsoever.
Let us examine a few of these inscriptions,
the oldest Chinese writings which we possess. For clarification,
the symbol for deity has been boxed in with a fine line.
about God ordering rain; there will not be full harvest."
orders rain: a full harvest."
in this, the third moon, about God ordering much rain."
about the king building the city; God consents."
The form thus
appears in these earliest of records as the only symbol for God,
and it is completely free of all anthropomorphism.
In due time, this pure faith begins
to be eclipsed as later documents of a similar nature reveal
that prayers are now being made first of all through ancestors
to God who is not addressed directly, and then in time to the
ancestors themselves. Later still petitions to a personal God
are replaced by petitions to heaven, and in due course to earth
also. In the mid-ancient period the great philosopher Chu, the
famous annotator of the Classics, defined heaven as "the
blue vault above," or alternatively by some process of mental
evolution as "the abstract right."
Very recently, a volume in the
series The Great Ages of Man was published dealing with
ancient China. The author was Edward H. Schafer. He traced this
devolution as follows: (17)
17 Schafer, Edward H., Ancient
China, in the series, The Great Ages of Man, Time-Life
Inc., New York, 1967, p.58.
One of the oldest and certainly the greatest
of the deities was the Sky God Ti'en. In the very early days
Ti'en was thought of as a great king in the sky, more magnificent
than any earth bound king, more brilliant and more terrible.
Later, many viewed him as an impersonal dynamo, the source of
energy that animated the world.
So once again, therefore, where we
can work from written records, we have evidence of the degeneration
of religious faith, not its evolution upwards.
we move from the Middle East into Europe, the story repeats itself
once again. Thus Axel W. Persson, in his work The Religious
Beliefs of Prehistoric Greece, remarked: (18)
two deities, the great Goddess and the Boy God, there later developed
a larger number of more or less significant figures which we
meet with in Greek religious myths.
In my opinion,
their multiplying variety depends to a very considerable degree
on the different invocating names of originally one and the same
The same basic process is apparent
in early Italy. Rosenzweig, (19) writing about the Iguvine Tablets,
the date of which is not certain but probably belonging within
early Etruscan times, remarked upon "the curious flexibility"
of the pantheon revealed in these tablets, in which "deities
are distinguished by adjectives, which in their turn emerge as
independent divine powers. . . ." The author considers this
to be perhaps the most striking feature of these tablets.
seems to me that from all that has come to light over the past
hundred years from the study of ancient documents, that is to
say, from the written records of ancient civilizations, the picture
of man's spiritual history, in so far as his formalized beliefs
are concerned, allows us only to conclude that he began with
a pure faith in a God of justice and compassion, who was omnipresent,
omnipotent, and omniscient, who could be worshiped in spirit
without the necessity of images or other such paraphernalia.
This concept, in fact, was too high to survive among ordinary
men whose knowledge was not either being miraculously reinforced
or continually added to by revelation. The gross polytheism of
paganism in the classical world of Rome and Greece can be accounted
for not as man striving to purify his faith but rapidly losing
the truth he once had. The extent to which this classical world
was indebted to the Middle East for its degenerate faith is amply
borne out in Hislop's justly renowned study, The Two Babylons.
18. Persson, Axel, The
Religion of Greece in Prehistoric Times, University of
California Press, 1942, p.124.
19. Book review, American Journal of Archaeology, vol.43,
20. Hislop, A., The Two Babylons, Partridge, London, 1903.
We have no written records to cover
the original beliefs of primitive people, but a tremendous number
of detailed and sympathetic studies of their beliefs have been
made during the past hundred years and collected, notably by
Wilhelm Schmidt. The evidence by inference allows us to say with
confidence that the course of their religious history was precisely
the same as that of the higher civilizations of antiquity with
this difference, that whereas in the civilized countries a pure
faith was corrupted by faulty reasoning due to the sinfulness
of human nature, among primitive people a pure faith was corrupted
through ignorance and superstition, again reinforced by the sinfulness
of human nature. If we are to follow Lyell's principle of interpreting
the past in the light only of things happening within historic
times, then we have no right whatever to make the assumption
that man started by groping in the dark and has only now begun
to approach the Light. The evidence shows that he began with
the true Light and now has his understanding increasingly darkened.
The evidence for this among primitive people is to be found in
every corner of the world where such people now exist or have
existed within recent times. And paradoxically, the more primitive
they are, the simpler and the purer is their faith often found
to be. We shall look very briefly at a few pieces of evidence,
which are merely representative of a vast compendium of information
now available in such volumes as are listed in the bibliography
of this Paper.
a doubt the most informative work on the monotheism of primitive
people is that by Wilhelm Schmidt, which, though originally a
many-volumed work in German, was published in 1930 in a condensed
English translation as a single volume. (21) This is
an excellent study, written with authority and fluency, having
none of the stuffiness about it that one might expect with such
an erudite author, and most informing.
first traced the history of thinking on the subject of the origin
of religion as it developed during the last century. He pointed
out, briefly, that Spencer was largely responsible for the first
evolutionary interpretation of "religion," noting that
he anticipated Darwin by seven years as is shown by his article,
"The Development Hypothesis," which appeared in The
Leader for March 20, 1852. It
21. Schmidt, Wilhelm, The
Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, translated
by H. J. Rose, Methuen, London, 1931, xvi and 302 pp.
be worth noting also, in passing, that Tennyson wrote In Memoriam,
with its erroneous description of Nature as "red in tooth
and claw," ten years before Darwin's Origin appeared.
Schmidt observed that Spencer made no effort whatever to employ
genuinely historical methods to establish his thesis. (22)
On the basis of present evidence it is now apparent that Spencer
was completely wrong. Spencer held that primitive people began
by worshipping ancestors, and that as civilization developed,
ancestors "naturally" were formed into hierarchies,
and hierarchies in turn led to rank, the highest ranks becoming
Schmidt was able to prove conclusively was that if primitive
cultures are grouped on the basis of their cultural level and
these groups are then placed in an ascending order, it is found
that the lowest groups have the purest concept of God and that
as one progresses from mere hunters, to food gatherers and storers,
to food growers as pastoral nomads maintaining flocks, to food
growers who have settled land use, and on up the scale to semi-urban
communities, one finds at first a simple faith in a Supreme Being
who has neither wife nor family. Under Him and created by Him
are the primal pair from whom the tribe is descended. According
to Schmidt we find this form of belief among the Pygmies of Central
Africa, the Southeastern Australians, the inhabitants of North-Central
California, the primitive Algonkins, and to a certain extent
the Koryaks and Ainu.
soon as we come to the next order of primitive cultures, to use
Schmidt's words, "conditions are entirely changed."
It is no longer only the primal pair or the first father who
received worship but a greater or smaller number of other dead
ancestors. Moving on up the scale of cultural complexity, the
worship of ancestors and other deceased persons supplants the
worship of the Supreme Being entirely, and the anthropomorphization
of the gods resulting from this equation gives rise to the making
of "images" of various kinds. The pure spirit of the
Supreme Being is reduced to a gross caricature of a dead man.
The progress of man's spiritual understanding was really a degression,
the first step sometimes being the transfer of worship from the
Creator of the first man to the man himself first created as
the head of the human race. This progenitor of the race then
appears as an intermediary between God and men, but being more
easily conceived in the mind's eye, he soon displaces God altogether.
Thus, quoting Schmidt: (23)
22. Ibid., p.63.
23. Ibid., p.71 .
The falsity of Spencer's theory is shown by
the mere fact that ancestor worship is very feebly developed
in the oldest cultures while a monotheistic religion is already
clearly and unmistakeably to be found there. . . .
It is also
unfortunate for Spencer's theory that the highest development
of ancestor-worship does not come till the most recent times.
. . .
Schmidt then treated of a second alternative
view of the origin of religion, the animistic concept proposed
by E. B. Tylor. Tylor's view assumed that primitive man used
his own existence as a measure of all other existences and came
to think of everything, beasts and plants at first but even inanimate
things in the end, as consisting of body and soul like himself.
It was assumed that primitive man would soon discern by introspection
that he had a soul, some kind of spiritual inner reality which
could, for example, travel in dreams, or in ecstasy, or in hallucinations.
He attributed to all forces of nature a soul life similar to
his own, which could not be seen, but was assumed. From this
animistic concept he moved "naturally" to the view
that this spirit world was personal. Thus arose polydemonism.
In due time as society became stratified socially, so did the
"demon" world, until we arrive at a stage of polytheism
in which many of the demons have been elevated into deities.
The final stage was the acknowledgment of one spiritual being
who became Chief, i.e., God, and to whom all other demons and
lesser deities were subservient and in a lower category. Even
after this rationalization had supposedly given rise to a monotheistic
faith, Tylor maintained that such a Being would be too high,
too exalted, too remote, to need human worship, "too indifferent
to concern himself with the petty race of men." (24)
So He was simply ignored. Thus a monotheistic faith which resulted
from a process of rationalization became by a further process
of rationalization a faith so removed from the exigencies of
life that it came to be irrelevant.
massive work is concerned with showing that in spite of the reasonableness
of Tylor's reconstruction which, incidentally, swept the learned
world as persuasively as did Darwin's Origin, it is totally
unsupported by the evidence, as he put it: (25)
theory, like Spencer's, was produced during the heyday of Evolutionism,
and has all the marks of its origin, especially its a priori
assumption of an upward development of mankind along a single
line, and the absence of any proof that the single stages of
the process have any historical connection with one another.
For indeed, no such proof is to be found for any step of Tylor's
long evolutionary path. The order of the steps and their connection
one with another is founded purely and simply on the psychological
24. Ibid., p.77.
25. Ibid., p.81.
this connection; and the plausibility depends on the assumption
that the simple always precedes the complex.
Schmidt considered one further view,
that of Max Muller, who developed a complex theory which argues
that the attempt to rationalize the natural forces at work in
the world, the sun, moon, rain, thunder, earth, sky, fire, water,
led to stories attempting to explain these forces which took
the form of nature myths. The terms which were paramount in these
myths, the word for fire for example or the sky, came to be viewed
by the less intelligent as the names of deities and these gave
rise to the pantheons of classical antiquity. As Schmidt pointed
out, however, in spite of his fame and his great learning Max
Muller lived too long, long enough in fact to see his ideas gradually
Schmidt's closing chapter there are several eloquent passages
in which he summed up what is known about the origin of the idea
of the Supreme Being in primitive cultures. He said that man
has social, moral, and emotional needs. The first or social needs
were met by his early belief in a Supreme Being who is also the
Father of mankind. The second, or moral needs, find their support
in belief in a Supreme Being who is Judge of the good and the
bad and is Himself free from all moral taint. The third group
of needs, the emotional, were satisfied by his belief in a benevolent
Supreme Being from whom comes nothing but good. Man has other
needs, too. He seeks a rational cause and this is satisfied by
the concept of a Supreme Being who created the world and who
orders it in a way that makes sense, in a way that is dependable.
Man also needs a protector and finds it in this Being who is
omnipotent. And thus in all these attributes this exalted figure
furnished primitive man with the ability and the power to live
and to love, to trust and to work, and to sacrifice unworthy
objectives for more worthy goals beyond. Schmidt said, "We
thus find, among a whole series of primitive races, a notable
religion, many-branched and thoroughly effective." (26)
the intervening nearly 300 pages he showed that the more primitive
the culture, the more clearly do these attributes of the Supreme
Being show forth, being taken so much for granted that they are
often scarcely expressed, a circumstance which led many investigators
to assume that they didn't even exist. To sum up his findings
very briefly, then, in his own words: (27)
26. Ibid., p.284.
27. Ibid., p.191.
Going back to the most primitive people, the
Pygmies of Africa or the central Australians or the central Californian
Indians ‹ all have one Supreme Sky God to Whom they make
offerings of their blood and their first fruits taken in the
hunt or from the soil. All these peoples also have short prayers
with, here and there, ceremonies, to the Supreme Creator God
before Whom nothing existed.
writers on this subject have singled out these particular primitive
tribes for a good reason. They are all people who have been in
a sense isolated either by reason of island residence (such as
the Andamanese or Madagascans), inhospitable forests (such as
the Tierra del Fuegians), desert regions (such as the Australian
aborigines or the Bushmen), inhospitable climate (such as the
Eskimo or other Arctic people), or because of their frank hostility
toward the white man (such as the Zulu in Africa or many American
Lang, after pointing out that the Australian aborigines have
probably the simplest culture of any people known to us, states
that they have religious conceptions which are "so lofty
that it would be natural to explain them as the result of European
influence." (28) Yet at the time of writing he felt
this explanation was quite unjustified. God is all-knowing, lives
in the heavens, is the Maker and Lord of all things, rewards
the good conduct of men and by His "lessons" softens
the heart. Such was their belief.
same author, speaking of the Andamanese whom he considered to
be living at approximately the same cultural level though in
somewhat more pleasant circumstances, states that their God is
invisible, immortal, the Creator of all things except the powers
of evil, knows the thoughts of the heart, is angered by falsehood
and wrongdoing of all kinds, is pitiful to those in distress
or pain and sometimes personally affords them relief. He is the
Judge of souls and at some future time will preside over a great
assize. The information supplied to Lang came from older members
of the community who were not acquainted with other races at
that time. As Lang says, foreign influence seems to have been
more than usually excluded. (29)
Zwemer spoke of the truly monolithic character of the Supreme
Being of the Pygmies of Africa, the Tierra del Fuegians, the
Indians of North America, the Central Australian tribes, and
the primitive Bushmen, as well as many peoples of the Arctic
28. Lang, Andrew, The Making
of Religion, Longmans Green, London, 1909, pp.175-182, 196.
29. Ibid., p.196.
he maintained is "clear even to a cursory examination."
(30) In his paper, he was not merely reiterating what
others have observed, namely, that all these primitive peoples
have knowledge of a Supreme Deity, but rather that the Supreme
Deity they recognize is everywhere essentially the same figure
with the same attributes.
Titcomb, (3l) speaking of the warlike Zulus who
established such a reputation for themselves when British troops
were battling with them, quoted a former Bishop of Natal who
had a firsthand acquaintance with them while they were still
culturally intact, as stating that they had no idols (a rather
exceptional observation in Africa), but acknowledged a Supreme
Being who was known either as the Great-Great One ‹ equivalent
to "The Almighty" ‹ or as the First Outcomer ‹
equivalent to "The First Essence." The bishop said
that in spite of their reputation as being without even a concept
of God, the Zulus repeatedly spoke of Him, and quite of their
own accord, as the Maker of all things and all men.
same author made an interesting statement about the Madagascan
native beliefs, which he said are often found expressed in proverbial
form. (32) They had such sayings as the following:
"Do not consider the secret valley, for God is overhead"
‹ in which the truth of divine omnipresence is clearly recognized.
Another was, "The willfulness of man can be borne by the
Creator, for God alone bears rule" ‹ which clearly recognizes
the omnipotence of God. A third such proverb says, "Better
be guilty with man than guilty before God," which clearly
implies a belief both in divine holiness and justice.
of the American Indians, Paul Radin wrote: (33)
us have been brought up in the tenets of orthodox ethnology,
and this is largely an enthusiastic and quite uncritical attempt
to apply the Darwinian Theory of Evolution to the facts of social
experience. Many ethnologists, sociologists, and psychologists
still persist in the endeavour. No progress will be achieved,
however, until scholars rid themselves once for all of the curious
notion that everything possesses an evolutionary history.
The same writer some years later,
speaking of Lang's view that polytheism did not precede and lead
to monotheism, remarked, "his intuitive insight has been
abundantly corroborated." (34)
conclusion we may note that the Journal of the Royal
30. Zwemer, Samuel, "The
Origin of Religion: By Evolution or by Revelation," Transactions
of the Victoria Institute, vol.67, 1935, p.189.
31. Titcomb, J. H., "Prehistoric Monotheism," Transactions
of the Victoria Institute, vol.8, 1873, p.145.
32. Ibid., p.144.
33. Radin, Paul, Monotheism Among Primitive Peoples, no
publisher, London, 1924, pp.65ff.
34. Radin, Paul, Primitive Men as Philosophers, Dover,
New York, revised edition, 1956, p.346.
Institute by 1950
was prepared to publish a paper by E. O. James in which the writer
spoke as follows: (35)
it is impossible to maintain a unilateral evolution in religious
thought and practice in the manner suggested by the rationalistic
classifications of Tylor and Frazer following along the line
of the "Law of the Three Stages" enunciated by Comte.
Nevertheless, neither the Euhemeran speculation that the idea
of God arose in ancestor worship, revived by Herbert Spencer,
nor the Frazerian evolution of monotheism from polytheism and
animism as a result of a process of the unification of ideas,
can be reconciled with the shadowy figure of a tribal Supreme
Being now known to have been a recurrent feature of the primitive
conception of Deity.
From high cultures and low cultures
the same picture emerges. It is a picture of a remarkably pure
concept of the nature of God and His relation to man being gradually
corrupted on the one hand by rationalizations which resulted
from the gradual substitution of man's own thinking in place
of revelation and on the other hand by superstition which stemmed
from ignorance and forgetfulness of the original revelation.
As we shall see, briefly, in the following part of this Paper,
there is little to choose between rationalization and superstition.
The end result in both cases is the same ‹ man's foolish
heart is darkened.
35. James, E. O., "Religion
and Reality," Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute,
vol.70, 1950, p.28.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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