Original text by Andrew Lang, edited and revised by William Mackis © 2004.
Among the many hypotheses as to the origin of religion, that which we may call the evolutionary, or anthropological, is most congenial to modern habits of thought. The old belief in a sudden, miraculous revelation is commonly rejected, though, in one sense, religion was none the less 'revealed,' even if man was obliged to work his way to the conception of deity by degrees. To attain that conception was the necessary result of man's reflection on the sum of his relations to the universe. The attainment, however, of the monotheistic idea is not now generally regarded as immediate and instinctive. A slow advance, a prolonged evolution was required, whether we accept Mr. Max Müller's theory of 'the sense of the Infinite,' or whether we prefer the anthropological hypothesis. The latter scheme, with various modifications, is the scheme of Epicurus, Lucretius, Hume, Mr. Tylor, and Mr. Herbert Spencer. Man half consciously transferred his implicit sense that he was a living and rational being to nature in general, and recognized that earth, sky, wind, clouds, trees, the lower animals, and so on, were persons like himself, persons perhaps more powerful and awful than himself. This transference of personality can scarcely be called the result of a conscious process of reasoning. Man might recognize personality everywhere, without much more thought or argument than a kitten exerts when it takes a cork or a ball for a living playmate. But consciousness must have reached a more explicit stage, when man began to ask himself what a person is, what life is, and when he arrived at the conclusion that life is a spirit. To advance from that conclusion; to explain all life as the manifestation of indwelling spirits; then to withdraw the conception of life and personality from inanimate things, to select from among spirits One more powerful than the rest, to recognize that One as disembodied, as superior, then as supreme, then as unique, and so to attain the monotheistic conception, has been, according to the evolutionary hypothesis, the tendency of human thought.
Unluckily we cannot study the process in its course of action. Perhaps there is no savage race so lowly endowed, that it does not possess, in addition to a world of 'spirits,' something that answers to the conception of God. Whether that is so, or not, is a question of evidence. We have often been told that this or the other people 'has no religious ideas at all'. But later we hear that they do possess a belief in spirits, and very often better information proves that, in one stage or other of advance or degradation, the theistic conception of a Maker and Judge of the world is also present. Meanwhile even civilized and monotheistic peoples also admit the existence of a world of spirits of the dead, of 'demons' (as in Platonism), of saints (as in Catholicism), of devils, of angels, or of subordinate deities. Thus the elements of religion are universally distributed in all degrees of culture, though one element is more conspicuous in one place or mood, another more conspicuous in another. In one mood the savage, or the civilized man, may be called monotheistic, in another mood atheistic, in a third, practically polytheistic. Only a few men anywhere, and they only when consciously engaged in speculation, assume a really definite and exclusive mental attitude on the subject. The orthodox monotheistic Muslim has his afreets, and djinns; the Jew, or the Christian, has his angels, the Catholic has his saints; the Platonist has his demons; Superstition has its ghosts. The question is whether all these spiritual beings are only ghosts raised to higher powers: or (in the case of deity), to the highest conceivable power, while, even when this last process has been accomplished, we ask whether other ghosts, on lower grades, continue to be recognized. Meanwhile the whole anthropological hypothesis, whether valid or invalid, lies behind history, behind the experience of even the most backward races at present extant. If it be urged, as by Hume, that the conception of a supreme deity is only a reflection of kingship in human society, we must observe that some monarchical races, like the Aztecs, seem to have possessed no recognized monarchical Zeus; while something very like the monotheistic conception is found among races so remote from the monarchical state of society as to have no obvious distinctions of rank, like the Australian blacks. Moreover the evidence, on such difficult points, is obscure, and fluctuating, and capable of various interpretation. Even among the most backward peoples, the traceable shadow of a monotheistic idea often seems to bear marks of degradation and disuse, rather than of nascent development. There is a God, but He is neglected, and tribal spirits receive prayer and sacrifice. Just as in art there is a point where we find it difficult to decide whether an object is decadent, or archaic, so it is in the study of religious conceptions.
These are a few among the inevitable difficulties and obscurities which haunt the anthropological or evolutionary theory of the origin of religion. Other difficulties meet us at the very beginning. The theory regards gods as merely ghosts or spirits, raised to a higher, or to the highest power. Mankind, according to the system, was inevitably led, by the action of reason upon apparent facts, to endow all things, from humanity itself to earth, sky, rain, sea, fire, with conscious personality, life, spirit; and these attributes were as gradually withdrawn again, under stress of better knowledge, till only man was left with a soul, and only the universe was left with a God. The last scientific step, then, it may be inferred, is to deprive the universe of a God, and mankind of souls.
This step may be naturally taken by those who conceive that the whole process of ghost and god-making is based on a mere set of natural and inevitable fallacies, and who decline to recognize that these progressive fallacies (if fallacies they are) may be steps on a divinely appointed road towards truth; that He led us by a way that we knew not, and a path we did not understand. Yet, of course, it is plain that a conclusion may be correct, although it was reached by erroneous processes. All scientific verities have been attained in this manner, by a gradual modification and improvement of inadequate working hypotheses, by the slow substitution of correctness for error. Thus monotheism and the doctrine of the soul may be in no worse case than the Copernican theory, or the theory of the circulation of the blood, or the Darwinian theory; itself the successor of innumerable savage guesses, conjectures of Empedocles, ideas of Cuvier, of the elder Darwin, of Lamarck, and of Chambers.
At present, of course, the theistic hypothesis, and the hypothesis of a soul, do not admit of scientific verification. The difficulty is to demonstrate that 'mind' may exist, and work, apart from 'matter'. But it may conceivably become verifiable that the relations of 'mind' and 'matter' are, at all events, less obviously and immediately interdependent, that will and judgment are less closely and exclusively attached to physical organisms than modern science has believed. Now, according to the anthropological theory of the origin of religion, it was precisely from the opposite of the scientific belief,—it was from the belief that consciousness and will may be exerted apart from, at a distance from, the physical organism,—that the savage fallacies began, which ended, ex hypothesi, in monotheism, and in the doctrine of the soul. The savage, it is said, started from normal facts, which he misinterpreted. But suppose he started, not from normal facts alone, but also from abnormal facts,—from facts which science does not yet recognize at all,—then it is possible that the conclusions of the savage, though far too sweeping, and in parts undeniably erroneous, are yet, to a certain extent, not mistaken. He may have had 'a sane spot in his mind,' and a sane impulse may have led him into the right direction. Man may have faculties which savages recognize, and which physical science does not recognize. Man may be surrounded by agencies which savages exaggerate, and which science disregards altogether, and these faculties and agencies may point to an element of truth which is often cast aside as a survival of superstition, as the 'after-image' of an illusion.
The lowest known stage, and, according to the evolutionary hypothesis, the earliest stage in religion, is the belief in the ghosts of the dead, and in no other spiritual entities. Whether this belief anywhere exists alone, and untempered by higher creeds, is another question. These ghosts are fed, propitiated, receive worship, and, to put it briefly, the fittest ghosts survive, and become gods. Meanwhile the conception of ghosts of the dead is more or less consciously extended, so that spirits who never were incarnate as men become credible beings. They may inform inanimate objects, trees, rivers, fire, clouds, earth, sky, the great natural departments, and thence polytheism results. There are political processes, the consolidation of a state, for example, which help to blend these gods of various different origins into a divine consistory. One of these gods, it may be of sky, or air becomes king, and reflection may gradually come to recognize him not only as supreme, but as, theoretically, unique, and thus Zeus, from a very limited monarchy, may rise to solitary all-fatherhood. Yet Zeus may, originally, have been only the ghost of a dead medicine-man who was called 'Sky,' or he may have been the departmental spirit who presided over the sky, or he may have been sky conceived of as a personality, or these different elements may have been mingled in Zeus. But the whole conception of spirit, in any case, was derived, it is argued, from the conception of ghosts, and that conception may be traced to erroneous savage interpretations of natural and normal facts.
If all this be valid, the idea of God is derived from a savage fallacy, though, of course, it does not follow that an idea is erroneous, because it was attained by mistaken processes and from false premises. That, however, is the inference which many minds are inclined to draw from the evolutionary hypothesis. But if the facts on which the savage reasoned are, some of them, rare, abnormal, and not scientifically accepted; if, in short, they are facts demonstrative of unrecognized human faculties, if these faculties raise a presumption that will, mind, and organism are less closely interdependent than science supposes, then the savage reasoning may contain an important element of rejected truth. It may even seem, at least, conceivable that certain factors in the conception of 'spirit' were not necessarily evolved as the anthropological hypothesis conceives them to have been.
Science had scarcely begun her secular conflict with religion, when she discovered that the battle must be fought on haunted ground, on the field of the ghosts of the dead. 'There are no gods, or only dei otiosi, careless, indolent deities. There is nothing conscious that survives death, no soul that can exist apart from the fleshly body.' Such were the doctrines of Epicurus and Lucretius, but to these human nature opposed 'facts'; we see, people said, men long dead in our dreams, or even when awake: the Homeric Achilles, beholding Patroclus in a dream, instantly infers that there verily is a shadow, an eidolon, a shadowy consciousness, shadowy presence, which outlasts the death of the body. To this Epicurus and Lucretius reply, that the belief is caused by fallacious inferences from facts, these facts, appearances beheld in sleep or vision, these spectral faces of the long dead, are caused by 'films peeled off from the surface of objects, which fly to and fro through the air, and do likewise frighten our minds when they present themselves to us awake as well as in sleep, what time we behold strange shapes, and “idols” of the light-bereaved,' Lucretius expressly advances this doctrine of 'films' (an application of the Democritean theory of perception), 'that we may not believe that souls break loose from Acheron, or that shades fly about among the living, or that any part of us is left behind after death'. Believers in ghosts must have replied that they do not see, in sleep or awake, 'films' representing a moldering corpse, as they ought to do on the Lucretian hypothesis, but the image, or idolon of a living face. Plutarch says that if philosophers may laugh, these long enduring 'films,' from a body perhaps many ages deep in dust, are laughable. However Lucretius is so wedded to his 'films' that he explains a purely fanciful being, like a centaur, by a fortuitous combination of the film of a man with the film of a horse. A 'ghost' then, is, to the mind of Lucretius, merely a casual persistent film of a dead man, composed of atoms very light which can fly at inconceivable speed, and are not arrested by material obstacles. By parity of reasoning no doubt, if Pythagoras is seen at the same moment in Thurii and Metapontum, only a film of him is beheld at one of these two places. The Democritean theory of ordinary perception thus becomes the Lucretian theory of dreams and ghosts. Not that Lucretius denies the existence of a rational soul, in living men, a portion of it may even leave the body during sleep, and only a spark may be left in the embers of the physical organism. If even that spark withdraws, death follows, and the soul, no longer warmly housed in the body, ceases to exist. For the 'film' (ghost) is not the soul, and the soul is not the film, whereas savage philosophy identifies the soul with the ghost. Even Lucretius retains the savage conception of the soul as a thing of rarer matter, a thing partly separable from the body, but that thing is resolved for ever into its elements on the death of the body. His imaginary 'film,' on the other hand, may apparently endure for ages.
The Lucretian theory had, for Lucretius, the advantages of being physical, and of dealing a blow at the hated doctrine of a future life. For the public it had the disadvantages of being incapable of proof, of not explaining the facts, as conceived to exist, and of being highly ridiculous, as Plutarch observed. Much later philosophers explained all apparitions as impressions of sense, recorded on the brain, and so actively revived that they seemed to have an objective existence. One or two stock cases (Nicolai's, and Mrs. A.'s), in which people in a morbid condition, saw hallucinations which they knew to be hallucinations, did, and do, a great deal of duty. Mr. Sully has them, as Hibbert and Brewster have them, engaged as protagonists. Collective hallucinations, and the hallucinations of the sane which coincide with the death, or other crisis in the experience of the person who seemed to be seen, were set down to imagination, 'expectant attention,' imposture, mistaken identity, and so forth.
Without dwelling on the causes, physical or psychological, which have been said by Frazer of Tiree (1707), Ferrier, Hibbert, Scott, and others, to account for the hallucinations of the sane, for 'ghosts,' Mr. Tylor has ably erected his theory of animism, or the belief in spirits. Thinking savages, he says, 'were deeply impressed by two groups of biological phenomena,' by the facts of living, dying, sleep, trance, waking and disease. They asked: 'What is the difference between a living body and a dead one?' They wanted to know the causes of sleep, trance and death. They were also concerned to explain the appearances of dead or absent human beings in dreams and waking visions. Now it was plain that 'life' could go away, as it does in death, or seems to do in dreamless sleep. Again, a phantasm of a living man can go away and appear to waking or sleeping people at a distance. The conclusion was reached by savages that the phantasm which thus appears is identical with the life which 'goes away' in sleep or trance. Sometimes it returns, when the man wakes, or escapes from his trance. Sometimes it stays away, he dies, his body corrupts, but the phantasm endures, and is occasionally seen in sleeping or waking vision. The general result of savage thought is that man's life must be conceived as a personal and rational entity, called his 'soul,' while it remains in his body, his 'wraith,' when it is beheld at a distance during his life, his 'ghost,' when it is observed after his death. Many circumstances confirmed or illustrated this savage hypothesis Breath remains with the body during life, deserts it at death. Hence the words spiritus, 'spirit,' , anima, and, when the separable nature of the shadow is noticed, hence come 'shade,' 'umbra,' , with analogues in many languages. The hypothesis was also strengthened, by the great difficulty which savages feel in discriminating between what occurs in dreams, and what occurs to men awake. Many civilized persons feel the same difficulty with regard to hallucinations beheld by them when in bed, asleep or awake they know not, on the dim border of existence. Reflection on all these experiences ended in the belief in spirits, in souls of the living, in wraiths of the living, in ghosts of the dead, and, finally, in God.
This theory is most cogently presented by Mr. Tylor, and is confirmed by examples chosen from his wide range of reading. But, among these normal and natural facts, as of sleep, dream, breath, life, dying, Mr. Tylor includes (not as facts, but as examples of applied animistic theory) cases of 'clairvoyance,' apparitions of the dying seen by the living at a distance, second sight, ghostly disturbances of knocking and rapping, movements of objects, and so forth. It is not a question for Mr. Tylor whether clairvoyance ever occurs: whether 'death-bed wraiths' have been seen to an extent not explicable by the laws of chance, whether disturbances and movements of objects not to be accounted for by human agency are matters of universal and often well-attested report. Into the question of fact, Mr. Tylor explicitly declines to enter; these things only concern him because they have been commonly explained by the 'animistic hypothesis,' that is, by the fancied action of spirits. The animistic hypothesis, again, is the result, naturally fallacious, of savage man's reasonings on life, death, sleep, dreams, trance, breath, shadow and the other kindred biological phenomena. Thus clairvoyance (on the animistic hypothesis) is the flight of the conscious 'spirit' of a living man across space or time; the 'deathbed wraith' is the visible apparition of the newly-emancipated 'spirit,' and 'spirits' cause the unexplained disturbances and movements of objects. In fact it is certain that the animistic hypothesis (though a mere fallacy) does colligate a great number of facts very neatly, and has persisted from times of low savagery to the present age of reason. So here is a case of the savage origin and persistent 'survival' of a hypothesis,—the most potent hypothesis in the history of humanity.
From Mr. Tylor's point of view, his concern with the subject ceases here, it is not his business to ascertain whether the abnormal facts are facts or fancies. Yet, to other students, this question is very important. First, if clairvoyance, wraiths, and the other alleged phenomena, really do occur, or have occurred, then savage man had much better grounds for the animistic hypothesis than if no such phenomena ever existed. For instance, if a medicine-man not only went into trances, but brought back from these expeditions knowledge otherwise inaccessible, then there were better grounds for believing in a consciousness exerted apart from the body than if there were no evidence but that of non-veridical dreams. If merely the dream-coincidences which the laws of chance permit were observed, the belief in the soul's dream-flight would win less favorable and general acceptance than it would if clairvoyance, 'the sleep of the shadow,' were a real if rare experience. The very name given by the Eskimos to the hypnotic state, 'the sleep of the shadow,' proves that savages do make distinctions between normal and abnormal conditions of slumber.
In the same way a few genuine wraiths, or ghosts, or 'veridical hallucinations,' would be enough to start the animistic hypothesis, or to confirm it notably, if it was already started. As to disturbances and movements of objects unexplained, these, in his own experience, suggested, even to De Morgan, the hypothesis of a conscious, active, and purposeful will, not that of any human being present. Now such a will is hardly to be defined otherwise than as 'spiritual'. This order of phenomena, like those of clairvoyance and wraiths, might either give rise to the savage animistic hypothesis, or, at least, might confirm it greatly. In fact, if the sets of abnormal phenomena existed, or were held to exist, savage man scarcely needed the normal phenomena for the basis of his spiritual belief. The normal phenomena lent him such terms as 'spirit,' 'shadow,' but much of his theory might have been built on the foundation of the abnormal phenomena alone. A 'veridical hallucination,' of the dying would give him a 'wraith'; a recognized hallucination of the dead would give him a ghost: the often reported and unexplained movements and disturbances would give him a vui, 'house spirit,' 'brownie,' 'domovoy,' follet, lar, or lutin. Or these occurrences might suggest to the thinking savage that some discontented influence survived from the recently dead.
Four thousand years have passed since houses were haunted in Egypt, and have left some sane, educated, and methodical men to meet the same annoyances as the ancient Egyptians did, by the same measures. We do not pretend to discover, without examination, the causes of the sounds and sights which baffle trained and not superstitious investigators. But we do say that similar occurrences, in a kraal or an Eskimo hut, in a wigwam, in a cave, or under a gunyeh, would greatly confirm the animistic hypothesis of savages. The theory of imposture (in some cases) does undeniably break down, for the people who hold it cannot even suggest a modus operandi within the reach of the human beings concerned, as in the case of the Wesleys. The theory of contagious hallucination of all the senses is the property of Coleridge alone. The hypothesis of a nervous force which sets up centers of conscious action is confined to Hartmann, and to certain Highland philosophers, cavalierly dismissed by the Rev. Robert Kirk as 'men illiterate'. Instead of making these guesses, the savage thinkers merely applied the animistic hypothesis, which they had found to work very well already, and, as De Morgan says, to colligate the phenomena better than any other theory. We cannot easily conceive men who know neither sleep nor dreams, but if the normal phenomena of sleep and dreams had not existed, the abnormal phenomena already described, if they occurred, as they are universally said to do, could have given rise, when speculated upon, to the belief in spirits.
But, it may reasonably be urged, 'the natural familiar facts of life, death, sleep, waking, dreams, breath, and shadows, are all versæ causæ, do undeniably exist, and, without the aid of any of your abnormal facts, afford basis enough for the animistic hypothesis. Moreover, after countless thousands of years, during which superstition has muttered about your abnormal facts, official science still declines to hear a word on the topic of clairvoyance or telepathy. You don't find the Royal Society investigating second sight, or attending to legends about tables which rebel against the law of gravitation.'
These are cogent remarks. Normal facts, perhaps, may have suggested the belief in spirits, the animistic hypothesis. But we do not find the hypothesis (among the backward races) where abnormal facts are not alleged to be matters of comparatively frequent experience. Consequently we do not know that the normal facts, alone, suggested the existence of spirits to early thinkers, we can only make the statement on a priori grounds. Like George Eliot's rural sage we 'think it sounds a deal likelier'. But that, after all, though a taking, is not a powerful and conclusive syllogism.
Again, we certainly do not expect to see the Royal Society inquiring into second sight, or clairvoyance, or thought transference. When the Royal Society was first founded several of its members, Pepys, F.R.S.; Mr. Robert Boyle, F.R.S.; the Rev. Joseph Glanvill, F.R.S., went into these things a good deal. But, in spite of their title, they were only amateurs. They had no professional dignity to keep up. They were well aware that they, unlike the late Mr. Faraday, did not know, by inspiration or by common-sense, the limits of the possible. They tried all things, it was such a superstitious age. Now men of science, or the majority of them, for there are some exceptions, know what is, and what is not possible. They know that germs of life may possibly come down on meteorites from somewhere else, and they produced an argument for the existence of a bathybius. But they also know that a man is not a bird to be in two places at once, like Pythagoras, and that nobody can see through a stone wall. These, and similar allegations, they reckon impossible, and, if the facts happen, so much the worse for the facts. They can only be due to imposture or mal-observation, and there is an end of the matter. This is the view of official science. Unluckily, not many years ago, official science was equally certain that the ordinary phenomena of hypnotism were based on imposture and on mal-observation. These phenomena, too, were tabooed. But so many people could testify to them, and they could be so easily explained by the suggestive force of suggestion, that they were reluctantly admitted within the sacred citadel. Many people, sane, not superstitious, healthy, and even renowned as scientific specialists, attest the existence of the still rarer phenomena which are said, in certain cases, to accompany the now more familiar incidents of hypnotism. But these phenomena have never yet been explained by any theory which science recognizes, as she does recognize that suggestion is suggestive. Therefore these rarer phenomena manifestly do not exist, and cannot be the subject of legitimate inquiry.
These are unanswerable observations, and it is only the antiquarian who can venture, in his humble way, to reply to them. His answer has a certain force ad hominem, that is, as addressed to anthropologists. They, too, have but recently been admitted within the scientific fold; time was when their facts were regarded as mere travelers' tales. Mr. Max Müller is now, perhaps, almost alone in his very low estimate of anthropological evidence, and, possibly, even that sturdy champion is beginning to yield ground. Defending the validity of the testimony on which anthropologists reason about the evolution of religion, custom, manners, mythology, law, Mr. Tylor writes:—
'It is a matter worthy of consideration that the accounts of similar phenomena of culture, recurring in different parts of the world, actually supply incidental proof of their own authenticity. . . . The test of recurrence comes in. . . . The possibility of intentional or unintentional mystification is often barred by such a state of things as that a similar statement is made in two remote lands by two witnesses, of whom A lived a century before B, and B appears never to have heard of A.'
If for 'similar phenomena of culture' here, we substitute 'similar abnormal phenomena' (such as clairvoyance, wraiths, unexplained disturbances), Mr. Tylor's argument in favor of his evidence for institutions applies equally well to our evidence for mysterious 'facts'. 'How distant are the countries,' he goes on, 'how wide apart are the dates, how different the creeds and characters in the catalogue of the facts of civilization, needs no further showing'—to the student of Mr. Tylor's erudite footnotes. In place of 'facts of civilization' read 'psychical phenomena,' and Mr. Tylor's argument applies to the evidence for these rejected and scouted beliefs.
The countries from which 'ghosts' and 'wraiths' and 'clairvoyance' are reported are 'distant'; the dates are 'wide apart'; the 'creeds and characters of the observers' 'are 'different'; yet the evidence is as uniform, and as recurrent, as it is in the case of institutions, manners, customs. Indeed the evidence for the rejected and abnormal phenomena is even more 'recurrent' than the evidence for customs and institutions. Polyandry, totemism, human sacrifice, the taboo, are only reported as existing in remote and semi-civilized countries. Clairvoyance, wraiths, ghosts, mysterious disturbances and movements of objects are reported as existing, not only in distant ages, but today; not only among savages or barbarians, but in London, Paris, Milan. No ages can be more wide apart, few countries much more distant, than ancient Egypt and modern England: no characters look more different than that of an old scribe under Pharaoh, and that of a distinguished soldier under Queen Victoria. Yet the scribe of Khemi and General Campbell suffer from the same inexplicable annoyance, attribute it to the same very abnormal agency, and attempt (not unsuccessfully) to communicate with that agency, in precisely the same way.
This, though a striking, is an isolated and perhaps a casual example of recurrence and uniformity in evidence. Mr. Tylor's Primitive Culture is itself a store-house of other examples, to which more may easily be added. For example, there is the old and savage belief in a 'sending'. The medicine-man, or medium, or witch, can despatch a conscious, visible, and intelligent agent, non-normal, to do his bidding at a distance. This belief is often illustrated in the Scandinavian sagas. Rink testifies to it among the Eskimo, Grinnell among the Pawnees: Porphyry alleges that by some such 'telepathic impact' Plotinus, from a distance, made a hostile magician named Alexander 'double up like an empty bag,' and saw and reported this agreeable circumstance. Hardly any abnormal phenomenon or faculty sounds less plausible, and the 'spectral evidence' for the presence of a witch's 'sending,' when the poor woman could establish an alibi for her visible self, appeared dubious even to Cotton Mather. But, in their Phantasms of the Living, Messrs. Gurney and Myers give cases in which a visible 'sending' was intentionally emitted by Baron Schrenck Notzing, by a stock-broker, by a young student of engineering, and by a French hospital nurse, to take no other instances. The person visited frequently by the 'sendings' in the last cases was a French physician engaged in the hospital, who reports and attests the facts. All the cases are given at first hand on the testimony of the senders and of the recipients of the sendings. Bulwer Lytton was familiar with the belief, and uses the 'shining shadow' in A Strange Story. Now here is uniform recurrent evidence from widely severed ages, from distant countries, from the Polar North, the American prairie, Neo-platonic Egypt and Greece, England and New England of the seventeenth century, and England and Germany of today. The 'creeds and characters of the observers' are as 'different' as Neo-Platonism, Shamanism, Christianity of divers sects, and probably Agnosticism or indifference. All these conditions of unvarying testimony constitute good evidence for institutions and customs; anthropologists, who eagerly accept such testimony in their own studies, may decide as to whether they deserve total neglect when adduced in another field of anthropology.
Turning from 'sendings,' or 'telepathy' voluntarily brought to bear on one living person by another, we might examine 'death-bed wraiths,' or the telepathic impact—'if that hypothesis of theirs be sound'—produced by a dying on a living human being. A savage example, in which a Fuegian native on board an English ship saw his father, who was expiring in Tierra del Fuego, has the respectable authority of Mr. Darwin's Cruise of the Beagle. Instances, on the other hand, in which Australian blacks, or Fijians, see the phantasms of dead kinsmen warning them of their decease (which follows punctually) may be found in Messrs. Fison and Howitt's Kamilaroi and Kurnai.
From New Zealand Mr. Tylor cites, with his authorities, the following example: 'A party of Maoris (one of whom told the story) were seated round a fire in the open air, when there appeared, seen only by two of them, the figure of a relative left ill at home. They exclaimed, the figure vanished, and, on the return of the party, it appeared that the sick man had died about the time of the vision.' A traveler in New Zealand illustrates the native belief in the death-wraith by an amusing anecdote. A Rangatira, or native gentleman, had gone on the war-path. One day he walked into his wife's house, but after a few moments could not be found. The military expedition did not return, so the lady, taking it for granted that her husband, the owner of the wraith, was dead, married an admirer. The hallucination, however, was not 'veridical'; the warrior came home, but he admitted that he had no remedy and no feud against his successor. The owner of a wraith which has been seen may be assumed to be dead. Such is Maori belief. The modern civilized examples of death-wraiths, attested and recorded in Phantasms of the Living, are numerous; but statistics prove that a lady who marries again on the strength of a wraith may commit an error of judgment, and become liable to the penalty of bigamy. The Maoris, no statisticians, take a more liberal and tolerant view. These are comparatively scanty examples from savage life, but then they are corroborated by the wealth of recurrent and coincident evidence from civilized races, ancient and modern.
On the point of clairvoyance, it is unnecessary to dwell. The second-sighted man, the seer of events remote in space or not yet accomplished in time, is familiar everywhere, from the Hebrides to the Coppermine River, from the Samoyed and Eskimo to the Zulu, from the Euphrates to the Hague. The noises heard in 'haunted houses,' the knocking, routing, dragging of heavy bodies, is recorded, Mr. Tylor says, by Dayaks, Singhalese, Siamese, and Esths; Dennys, in his Folklore of China, notes the occurrences in the Celestial Empire; Grimm, in his German Mythology, gives examples, starting from the communicative knocks of a spirit near Bingen, in the chronicle of Rudolf (856), and Suetonius tells a similar tale from imperial Rome. The physician of Catherine de Médicis, Ambroise Paré, describes every one of the noises heard by the Wesleys, long after his day, as familiar, and as caused by devils. Recurrence and conformity of evidence cannot be found in greater force.
The anthropological test of evidence for faith in the rejected phenomena is thus amply satisfied. Unless we say that these phenomena are 'impossible,' whereas totemism, the couvade, cannibalism, are possible, the testimony to belief in clairvoyance, and the other peculiar occurrences, is as good in its way as the evidence for the practice of wild customs and institutions. There remains a last and notable circumstance. All the abnormal phenomena, in the modern and medieval tales, occur most frequently in the presence of convulsionaries, like the so-called victims of witches, like the Hon. Master Sandilands, Lord Torphichen's son (1720), like the grandson of William Morse in New England (1680), and like Bovet's case of the demon of Spraiton.
The 'mediums' of modern spiritualism, like Francis Fey, are, or pretend to be, subject to fits, anesthesia, jerks, convulsive movements, and trance. As Mr. Tylor says about his savage jossakeeds, powwows, Birraarks, peaimen, everywhere 'these people suffer from hysterical, convulsive, and epileptic affections'. Thus the physical condition, all the world over, of persons who exhibit most freely the accepted phenomena, is identical. All the world over, too, the same persons are credited with the rejected phenomena, clairvoyance, 'discerning of spirits,' powers of voluntary 'telepathic 'and 'telekinetic' impact. Thus we find that uniform and recurrent evidence vouches for a mass of phenomena which science scouts. Science has now accepted a portion of the mass, but still rejects the stranger occurrences. Our argument is that their invariably alleged presence, in attendance on the minor occurrences, is, at least, a point worthy of examination. The undesigned coincidences of testimony represent a great deal of smoke, and proverbial wisdom suggests a presumption in favor of a few sparks of fire. Now, if there are such sparks, the animistic hypothesis may not, of course, be valid,—'spirits' may not exist,—but the universal belief in their existence may have had its origin, not in normal facts only, but in abnormal facts. And these facts, at the lowest estimate, must suggest that man may have faculties, and be surrounded by agencies, which physical science does not take into account in its theory of the universe and of human nature.
We have already argued that the doctrines of theism and of the soul need not to be false, even if they were arrived at slowly, after a succession of grosser opinions. But if the doctrines were reached by a process which started from real facts of human nature, observed by savages, but not yet recognized by physical science, then there may have been grains of truth even in the cruder and earlier ideas, and these grains of gold may have been disengaged, and fashioned, not without Divine aid, into the sacred things of spiritual religion.
The stories which we have been considering are often trivial, sometimes comic; but they are universally diffused, and as well established as universally coincident testimony can establish anything. Now, if there be but one spark of real fire to all this smoke, then the purely materialistic theories of life and of the world must be reconsidered. They seem very well established, but so have many other theories seemed, that are long gone the way of all things human.
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