THOUGHT CURRENTS OF PRIMITIVE PEOPLES,
GEORGE WILLIAM GILMORE
BOSTON MARSHALL JONES COMPANY
Scanned at www.sacred-texts.com, September, 2000. Reformatted August 2003. J.B. Hare, redactor. This text is in the public domain. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice of attribution is left intact.
THE result of recent historical studies, whether on anthropological, sociological, archeological, or religious lines, has brought into ever clearer vision as the substratum of all civilizations that stage of culture from which this book takes its title. One consequence is: general recognition of animism as a life factor, the power of which is not yet exhausted, the study of which fascinates because of its almost infinite variety and its persistent force. The words "animism," "animistic," have come to fall ever so lightly from tongue and pen and meet us at every turn. Yet what animism is few who use the term adequately realize. Though Sir E. B. Tylor in his imperishable monograph on Primitive Culture exhibited many of its phenomena and blocked out the main lines of investigation over forty years ago, comparatively few understand its significance or are acquainted with its manifestations even yet. Fewer still comprehend the doings and beliefs as actual or realize the state of mind--operations of perception and reason--of those whose acts and beliefs we call animistic.
There seemed to be room, then, for a small volume which should exhibit the phenomena and the related and inferred beliefs of this complex stage in a simple manner, with sufficiently numerous citations to illustrate clearly, yet without the overlay of too abundant references. The references here given have been drawn almost entirely from very recent and authoritative sources gathered in the writer's own reading, easily accessible in the current of books on travel now pouring from the press. Most of the volumes to which reference has been made in this discussion belong to the twentieth century. Moreover these sources are primary. Recourse has seldom been had even to so valuable a collection of facts as Fraser's quite exhaustive Golden Bough in its third edition. The facts there adduced were employed by the talented author for quite another end than the present writer's, and this might easily have led to confusion.
What value a knowledge of the features of this agglomerate of facts and beliefs has becomes evident when it is remembered that over half the population of the globe is animistic in its main features of faith and action, that a large part of humanity entertains beliefs only one remove away from this and regards as fundamental a philosophy of life grounded in animistic thought, and that at least three basal tenets of Christianity itself are common to Christians and animists. Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, the larger part of the population of India, the North Asiatic tribes, Oceanicans, Africans, and American Indians are, or were recently, animists. No stage of culture, no great religion, has ever been able to disown some of the commonest heirlooms left by primitive modes of thinking. From the standpoints both of culture and of religion animism may be described (not defined) as the taproot which sinks deepest in racial human experience and continues its cellular and fibrous structure in the tree trunk of modern conviction. It is not less important than the surface roots of accrued beliefs that branch out on all sides, drawing a wide-sourced sustenance, while the taproot penetrates the subsoil of man's most intimate soul-substance.
Hardly less interesting is the fact that in some fundamentals--religious and social--the advanced thought of the day is returning to some convictions essential to animistic culture. One would not be drawing the long bow were he to affirm that in that stage every act in life had a religious aspect. Nothing a man could do but might be regarded as either pleasing to spirits or the reverse. One might say that animists went far beyond Matthew Arnold's dictum that conduct is three-fourths of life--for them it embraced the whole of life. That is precisely what advanced thinkers are maintaining today, and in that tenet is the best promise for improvement in modern conditions among all classes.
In another aspect, too, the social, we are returning to early conceptions. Under totemism, the foundation of which is an animistic view of things non-human, the individualism that became so marked a feature in some philosophies of the last centuries and gave impetus even to revolutions was unknown. The characteristic of totemic and derived society was much nearer that slogan which has now advanced beyond the circle of purely socialistic propaganda: "Each for all and all for each."
Theologically also we find ourselves returning to old, old views of man's relation to the supernatural. The comparatively recent doctrine of sin is being discarded. The implacability of Deity, the notion of that Deity's infinity as the measure of offence, making of sin an enormity that clouds eternally the face of God and requires an infinite and exactly equivalent penalty, no longer holds the entire field. On the other hand, the act itself, its effect on the doer and his kind, its indelibility of effect on the one side, and the propitiability of the offended Spirit, his desire to have man reinstate himself in divine favor--the willingness to come more than half way (to state the matter in the language of every-day life)--are now standing out in relief.
It seems hardly necessary to remark that, of course, in all these cases the effect is not that of the return of a circle's circumference into itself. There has been marked, if spiral, progress, progress comparable to that of the earth in the solar system toward its distant goal in the constellation of Hercules. The one encouraging result of this study is that from the beginning the heart of man was essentially sound, though his vagaries were many during the centuries in which he was feeling his way. To use a significant term, man has ever been essentially theotropic, though he was not always conscious of the direction of his tropism.
In studying this subject, then, we are engaged in discovering the paths our own ancestors have trodden, and our gratitude is due them for leading us with increasing certitude to a nobler way of thought, so that we see in the heavens not deities, but the work of One; and in the earth the effects of that same One's immanence, his gift to his sons and daughters.
The author takes this opportunity to acknowledge with gratitude the kindness of Mr. Francis Medhurst who has read all the proofs and offered many valuable suggestions.
I. THE ANIMISTIC STAGE OF CULTURE--THE CASE STATED
II. THE DISCOVERY OF THE SOUL
III. THE SOUL'S NATURE
IV. THE EXTERNAL OR SEPARABLE SOUL
V. PARITY OF BEING
VI. BELIEF IN "FREE SPIRITS"
VII. "FREE SPIRITS"--THEIR CONSTRUCTION AND ACTIVITIES
VIII. LOGICAL CONSEQUENCES OF PARITY OF BEING
IX. DEATH NOT ALWAYS REGARDED AS INEVITABLE
X. THE CONTINUED EXISTENCE OF THE SOUL
XI. MODIFICATIONS OF THE IDEA OF CONTINUANCE
XII. CONDITION OF THE DISCARNATE SOUL
XIII. THE HOME OF THE SOUL
XIV. DESCENSUS AVERNI
XVI. RESIDUA OF ANIMISM
XVII. LITERATURE TO WHICH REFERENCE IS MADE IN THIS VOLUME
THE ANIMISTIC STAGE OF CULTURE--THE CASE STATED
THE following narrative, taken from The Japan Weekly for March 16, 1916, recounts the story of an event occurring in that land of "advanced civilization" in the winter Of 1915-16, and some of the sequels.
DEATH OF THE SUMA SNAKE
"The huge snake that had been leading a precarious existence at the Suma Garden during the last three years--a captive in a different clime from that in which it was born--recently died, unable to bear the rigours of the winter. Although the reptile was a magnificent specimen of its species, as it measured 25 feet in length and 28 inches round the thickest part, it never made itself unpleasantly obtrusive and most of its time at Suma was spent in lethargic retirement. When the demise of the snake was made known in the neighbourhood much sympathy was manifested among its many acquaintances, who asked the management of the Garden to bury the snake in the vicinity with due ceremony. It was accordingly interred in the pine groves at the rear of the Kagetsu restaurant.
"Someone made the discovery on looking at an almanac that the day on which the reptile died was a Day of the Snake, and remembered an old superstition that toothache may be cured by worshipping a snake. The grave of the Suma snake consequently began to be visited by the superstitious, who proclaimed to the world the supernatural means of healing toothache by worshipping there. The report has since travelled far and wide, and scores of people are visiting the grave every day, bringing much gain to the Hyogo tramway, who need no faith to be assured of the benefits accruing from the virtues of the departed snake. Some of the people whose toothache has been cured by the spirit of the snake have decided to build a shrine on the ground where the reptile was buried. The place has already been fenced in and a sign erected preparatory to the commencement of work."
The exhibit is therefore that of belief in the continued existence and exercise of benevolent activity on behalf of man of a snake which had according to our notions passed completely out of life and beyond any possible potency to affect human existence. It shows one of the characteristic phenomena of the stage of culture we are to examine, a stage which, as we shall discover, is a present fact over a large part of the globe.
In Gen. 28:10-22 occurs the interesting account of a night in Jacob's life, his interpretation of it, and the ensuing course of action. The two noteworthy events, from the present point of view, are (1) the dream, with Jacob's conclusion that it revealed to him the fact that the place where he lay was an abiding place of deity; (2) the deity was evidently in the stone, or was the stone, as is shown by the anointing of it. This story could be paralleled in its essentials from many sources. Again, in Josh. 24: 27, Joshua is represented declaring of a certain stone: "it hath heard all the words, . . it shall be therefore a witness against you." And, once more, Acts 19:35 makes mention of an object of worship which "fell from Jupiter," i.e., evidently a meteorite.
These three facts taken together, viz., the importance of a dream and the performance of worshipful ads upon or attribution of sentience to a stone, bring into notice a cultural condition, a method of thinking, which is by common consent called animistic. Animism is by many regarded as the earliest form which religion took, and as the root from which was derived all religious beliefs which the world has known, and was also the earliest basis of all that is dignified by the name of culture. Moreover, we may trace its effects and its action into the present. Others, however, regard it as not the primary, but as a secondary, stage in mental and religious development, seeking the primary in a vaguer series of beliefs to which they give the name "naturism" or "dynamism." Our present concern is with Animism.
[1. McDougall, Body and Mind. A History and Defence of Animism.
2. Cf. Clodd, Animism; and Leuba, A Psychological Study of Religion.]
And what is this? Menzies defines it as "the worship of spirits as opposed to that of Gods." To this E. B. Tylor, whose work  is facile princeps among the expositions of animism, might object that it supposes a sharp dividing line between spirits and gods which has no existence in fact and is therefore arbitrarily drawn. It is, perhaps, impossible to state where the worship of spirits stops and that of gods begins, to decide exactly where the spirit shades into the deity. Who can say exactly the moment when the conception of a being which has been but one of a host of spirits has passed into that of a state of divinity? Such transitions have been made. Accordingly, Tylor would define animism as "the doctrine of spirits or of spiritual beings." He furthermore proposes as a minimum definition of religion "belief in spiritual beings ." While one may criticize this last as leaving out the objective result of "belief in spiritual beings" in worship or cult, Tylor
[3. History of Religion, p. 39.
4. Primitive Culture, new ed., London, 1903.
5. E.g., Enlil of Babylonia; cf. A. Sayce, Hibbert Lectures, 1887, p. 103.
6. Primitive Culture, i. 425.
7. Ib., i. 324.]
is altogether right in asserting that, whatever the original condition of mankind, such belief is found among all races, even the lowest, concerning whom exact knowledge is possessed.
Just criticism may be passed, however, upon Tylor's definition of animism as so vague that it gives no grip upon the actual conditions which attend an animistic stage of thought or upon that thought itself. It is necessary, therefore, to point out that the word represents a stage in the psychological development of man, in his cultural unfolding, in which his conceptions (i) of himself and (2) of the world about him differ essentially from those of "civilized" man. From the point of view of modern psychology, he may be said to possess as yet only an unintegrated consciousness. He does not distinguish himself in kind from objects that are about him. As one writer declares:
"A Central Australian pointing to a photograph of himself will say, 'That one is just the same as me, so is a kangaroo (his totem).' We say the Central Australian 'belongs to the kangaroo tribe'; he knows better, he is kangaroo. Now it is this persistent affirmation of primitive man in the totemistic stage that he is an animal or a plant, that he is a kangaroo or an opossum . . . that instantly arrests our attention," etc.
To man in the advanced stage of thinking to which civilized peoples have attained such a condition as this appears almost unbelievable. And yet expert testimony to this effect is abundantly available. Thus Professor Hobhouse says of the thinking of men in this stage:
"One conception melts readily into another, just as in primitive fancy a sorcerer turns into a dragon, a mouse, a stone, and a butterfly without the smallest difficulty. Hence similarity is treated as if it were physical identity. The physical individuality of things is not observed. The fact that a thing was mine makes it appear as though there were something of me in it, so that by burning it you make me smart. The borders or limits of things are not marked out, but their influence and their capacity to be influenced extends, as it were, in a misty halo over everything connected with them in any fashion. If the attributes of things are made too solid and material in primitive thought, things themselves are too fluid and undefined, passing
[8. Miss Harrison, Themis, p. 121.]
into each other by loose and easy identifications which prevent all clear and crisp distinctions of thought. In a word, primitive thought has not yet evolved those distinctions of substance and attribute, quality and relation, cause and effect, identity and difference, which are the common property of civilized thought. These categories which among us every child soon comes to distinguish in practice are for primitive thought interwoven in wild confusion, and this confusion is the intellectual basis of animism and of magic." 
The idea is expressed similarly by Aston:
"I would describe (primitive man's) mental attitude as a piecemeal conception of the universe as alive, just as he looks upon his fellow man as alive without analyzing him into the two distinct entities of body and soul."
The "piecemeal conception of the universe" contains the idea that animistic man regards other objects in the world about him as being on a parity of existence with himself in that they are conceived as having sentient and volitional life. He interprets all things in terms of his own consciousness. On the
[9. Hobhouse, Morals in Evolution, ii. 20-21.
10. Shinto, p. 26.]
other hand, practically all the data In our possession which bear upon the subject indicate that as far back as we can trace man, he had already analyzed his kind into body and soul. Even Neolithic man, and with great probability also Palæolithic man, had the conception of a possessing or obsessing spirit. The trepanning done by Neolithic man during life is most easily explicable on the theory that disease was caused by a spirit which had obsessed the sick, and was to be conjured forth only after an incision had been made in the skull. The fact that Kabyles have been known within the memory of man to perform this operation for this reason, and that the modus operandi is in accord with other methods among primitive races, can lead at once to this conclusion. Up to 1888 there had been discovered in France in the valley of the Torn over two hundred trepanned skulls, in many cases among these the trepanning was ante mortem, with evident signs of healing. And in the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in London there is a case of flint instruments some of which almost equal in sharpness of edge and point surgical instruments of our own day, used, it is believed for this purpose. We shall find other reasons for believing in the early discovery by man of his own soul. Meanwhile to prove that is not our purpose here. What we are concerned with is man's outlook on the universe, his estimate of what we call nature.
"Man in that stage (i.e., the animistic) may hold that a stone, a tree, a mountain, a stream, a wild animal, a heavenly body, a wind, an instrument of the hunt or of labor or of domestic utility--indeed, any object within the range of real or fancied existence (and fancy looms large in this domain)--possesses just such a soul as he conceives himself to have, and that it is animated by desires, moved by emotions, and empowered by abilities parallel to those he perceives in himself."
Testimonies to this fact might be adduced from many quarters and illustrated in many ways. Thus: "The African does not believe in anything soulless, he even regards matter Itself as a form of soul, low because not lively." 
[11. Cf. New York Medical Journal, Oct. 16, 1909, p. 751; British Congregationalist, May 28, 1914; New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, iii. 193-194.
12. New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, iii. 194; cf. Bros, La Religion des peuples non-civilisés, chap. II.
13. Miss Kingsley, West African Studies, p. 199.]
Père Lejeune says that the savages of New France "se persuadent que non seulement les hommes et les autres animaux, mais que les autres choses sont ammées." E. S. Hartland puts it this way: "Starting from his personal consciousness, the savage attributes the like consciousness to everything he sees or feels around him." And Reinach is equally emphatic:
"Animism gives a soul and a will to mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, stones, the heavenly bodies, the earth and sky. A tree, a post, a pillar, the hollow of a rock, are the seat or throne of invisible spirits. These spirits are conceived and figured at a later stage under animal form, and then under human form. A spring was . . . Pegasus, Apollo's horse. A river is a bull with a human face.... The laurel was Daphne, whom Apollo had pursued; the oak was Zeus himself, before being the tree of Zeus, and Dionysos was supposed to live in the tree, after he had ceased to be himself the tree. The earth was Gaea, emerging from the soil in the shape of a woman who implores the sky to water her."
[14. Relations de la Nouvelle France, p. 199.
15. Legend of Perseus, ii. 441.
16 Orpheus, p. 79.]
Thus, to give one final testimony, Im Thurn says of the Indians of Guiana:
"It is absolutely necessary to premise here that all tangible objects, animate . . . and inanimate alike, consist each of two separable parts--a body and a spirit; and that these are not only always readily separable involuntarily, as in death, and daily in sleep, but are also, in certain individuals, always voluntarily separable."
The preceding, then, affords a prima facie basis for a tentative definition of animism, the justification or demonstration of which must wait for a later chapter. We assume that "animism" stands for a stage of culture in which man may regard any object, real or imaginary, as possessing emotional, volitional, and actional potency like that he himself possesses. Things, of whatsoever sort, he may consider the subjects of feelings--likes and dislikes, appetites or disinclinations, affections or antipathies, desires and longings; of will--to help or injure, to act or refrain from acting; and of the power to act according to the promptings of these feelings and the determinations of will.
[17. Im Thurn, Indians of Guiana, p. 329.]
But--animism is thought. The enormous significance of these three words must not be overlooked. They mark the difference between man and the whole creation beneath him. The whole chain of acts implied in the word under discussion involves mental processes passing over into action with well defined intention having their issue in the future and being immeasurably removed from instinct. It is true that we shall find this thought at times pitifully infantile, paralleled by the conceptions in some cases of four-year-olds of the present; but it is still thought. And we shall show that reason is on the throne. The outcome of this discussion will, it is believed, show the general logicality of primitive man's mental processes, once the basis from which he starts is granted. The beliefs in ghosts, spirits, gods, in transmigration and metempsychosis, are not the chance hit or miss conclusions of early man, but flow rationally from the premise we have assumed. That
[18. The Chicago Tribune reports that "during a sudden thunderstorm a little four-year-old came running into the Kindergarten, crying as if her heart would break. When the Kindergartner asked the cause of her trouble, she said, 'O Miss E., the sky barked at me.'"]
this reason is often aberrant in its premises, that it is not seldom fitfully inconsequent, may indeed appear. But what we find is reason, thought at least of a kind, and in many cases frightfully logical.
Much more here: