by SALOMON REINACH
In the eyes of the evolutionist—and we are all evolutionists
nowadays—man springs from beast, humanity from
animality. But man, take him where and when you
will, is a religious animal ; and religiosity, as the Positivist
would say, is the most essential of his attributes. It
can no longer be maintained, with Gabriel de Mortillet
and Hovelacque, that quaternary man was ignorant of
religion. Unless, then, we admit the gratuitous and
childlike hypothesis of a primitive revelation, we must
look for the origin of religions in the psychology, not
of civilised man, but of man the farthest removed from
Of this man, anterior to all history, we have no
direct knowledge, beyond what we glean from the implements
and artistic products of the quaternary period.
True, these teach us something, as I have striven to
show on a later page ; but, equally truly, they teach
us far less than we could wish. To supplement our
information, three other sources have to be tapped :
the psychology of the present-day savage, the psychology
of children, and the psychology of the higher animals.
THE THEORY OF SACRIFICE (1)
Sacrifice is the crucial point of all cults, the essential bond between man and deity. In this respect it is comparable to prayer ; but whereas the latter is a spiritual appeal, the former entails the employment of a material substance forfeited or destroyed in the sacrificial act.
The general conception of sacrifice is that of a gift offered by man to the divinity in order to conciliate his favour ; in other words, it is a purchase of friendship by the mammon of unrighteousness. ‘ Gifts,’ says Hesiod, ‘ prevail upon gods and reverend kings.’ The abbe Bergier in the ‘ Dictionnaire de Theologie ‘ defines it as ‘ the offering up to God of an object which is destroyed in His honour, as a recognition of His sovereign dominion over all things.’ If we analyse this sentence closely, the underlying absurdity is apparent : how does the destruction of any object do honour to any person ? The abbe proceeds: ‘ It is not in the least anomalous for a poor man to make some slight present to a rich man who has done him a kindness ; he considers that, though his benefactor may not need the gift, still an expression of gratitude cannot fail to please him.’
There is, perhaps, a certain crudity in the notion, but with that we are not concerned. Here in the eyes of most critics is the root idea of sacrifice. Its principle is that man behaves towards divinity as he would towards one or more persons endowed with powers vastly superior to his own—potentates whose aid it were ill to seek with empty hands.
If it were true that the gift-sacrifice was the primitive form of sacrifice, it would also be necessary to prove that peoples on a lower plane of religious belief regard the superhuman and mysterious beings, upon whom they conceive themselves to depend, as men writ large; that is to say, as personalities subject to the same limitations and frailties as man, but gifted with higher or more active faculties. In that case, we should find them treating those beings precisely as their experience has shown it advisable to treat the grandees of this world, to wit, the priests and chiefs. Now, the etiquette observed by every non-civilised race forbids a man to approach his chief without a present. This constitutes the propitiatory sacrifice. If he has received a favour, he shows his gratitude by a fresh gift, and this may be called the sacrifice of thanksgiving. Or he thinks the chief is displeased, and to appease him, offers a sacrifice of pacification or expiation.(2)
All the above is true, but it is true only of a comparatively recent period in the history of mankind. You know what is understood by the doctrine of evolution. It is the knowledge that all things are in motion, and subject to a slow transformation governed by certain determinable laws. One of the axioms which should guide the sociologist who accepts this doctrine is that our modern ideas, because they are modern, cannot have been the ideas of primitive man, but must have been evolved from his by a gradual process of transformation.
Now the theory which considers sacrifice as a gift made to the divinity—the divinity being regarded as an immortal and therefore trebly formidable man cannot hold good for the beginning of things, for it still dominates the superstition of to-day.
Open one of the recent books—the ‘ Chinoiseries Romaines ‘ of Stheno, the ‘ Cordicoles ‘ of Tery, the ‘ Dossier des Pelerinages ‘ of Noel Parfait, or the excellent articles published in the Semaine Religieuse by the abbe Hemmer—and you will find that the essential character of present-day devotion, say the cult of Saint Anthony of Padua, lies in the idea of exchange — of gif-gaf. ‘ Good Saint, let me pass my examination, let me find my umbrella and I will give you, according to the state of my purse, a hundred francs or a hundred sous. You may even have them in advance, if that will weigh in my favour.’
Gentlemen, I do not say that this is either good or bad, childish or reasonable ; we are students, not tractarians. But, without leaving our own times, observe that, besides these sacrifices consisting of gifts or fines—privations which the believer inflicts upon himself— religion contains another and far more mysterious rite, hard for the non-elect to understand : I mean the so-called Sacrifice of the Mass. The salient features are these. The priest, impersonating the community, absorbs, under the form of bread and wine, the flesh and blood of the deity in order to impregnate himself with the divine essence. At intervals the faithful are allowed to participate in this sacrifice ; but since the Middle Ages, from motives of pure expedienc}’, only the bread is given, not the wine.
I have no sympathy with the sceptic — Voltairean he calls himself—who jests at this solemn and ancient rite ; he would be much better occupied in studying its origin and development. The question whether the godhead is or is not present in the host is not a scientific question ; the answer in the affirmative is only an opinion, and admits of no discussion. The problem we have to solve is this : Why, in the religion of to-day, are there two forms of sacrifice—one of the earth earthy, quite clear, and universally intelligible (I refer, of course, to the gift-sacrifice) ; the other obscure in the extreme, shrouded in mysticism, and so peculiar in its character that the communicant himself is none too sure what he is doing ?
If we concede the theory of evolution, it is certain that the straightforward sacrifice by gift must be a recent growth, while conversely the perplexing sacrifice of the deity himself must date from a past correspondingly remote. But it may be asked, how can the sacrifice of the Mass be older than the other, when the Mass was instituted less than two thousand years ago, whereas the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians knew and practised the gift-sacrifice three or four thousand years before the birth of Christ ?
That is precisely the fallacy. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were highly civilised nations, and therefore, like ourselves, cognizant of the gift-sacrifice. But, though distinctly reticent on the subject, they were also acquainted with the more mystic type, and aware of its extreme antiquity.
Moreover, a nation may have lived two thousand years before another and yet represent a more advanced stage of civilisation. Take an Australian savage of the present day, and compare him with one of those Greeks who, twenty-five hundred years ago, created the beautiful monuments of Athens. Which of the two is the primitive man ? Which of the two would have the more rudimentary—the more primeval—notions on religion ? The savage, obviously. The savage, then, is our principal witness ; and for the last hundred years he has been cross-examined with the utmost care. Now this is what happens. An Australian aboriginal tells you a strange tale. He says, for example, that he is absolutely forbidden to eat a certain animal, because that animal is his ancestor. This is surprising enough at first ; but, if you are a reader, you remember that the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Hebrews have all testified to similar beliefs lingering among them as vestiges of the past — survivals as the moderns have it. You conclude then that the existing savage resembles a bed of limestone cropping out in an alluvial country. If we dig to a sufficient depth under the gravel, we strike the same limestone again ; and analogously if we delve far enough into the history of civilisation, from three to five thousand years before Christ, we rediscover our savage’s articles of faith.
Thus, the twentieth-century savage enables us to catch a glimpse—or more than a glimpse—of the opinions of our far-off ancestors, members of races that ripened earlier into civilisation, but nevertheless passed through the phase in which the savage still remains.
To return to the gift-sacrifice. If it were a primitive conception, then the lowest strata of savage humanity would exhibit two phenomena : firstly, the belief in one or more gods after the pattern of men ; and, secondly, the existence of priests acting as representatives and treasurers of the god. For without the priest there is no gift-sacrifice ; a pair of visible hands is always necessary to receive the offering in lieu of the unseen God.
But the case is not so. On the contrary, the most primitive religions know neither a personal god made in the image of man, nor a priest, the deputy of that god.
The Bible might be quoted as an exception ; but if from the very beginning the Bible assumes a personal god, it knows nothing of the priest. The priest is a latecomer in the history of Israel. And as for the anthropomorphic deity of the Pentateuch, he is barely older than the year 1000 B.C., the earliest date to which the present version of Genesis can be attributed. A millennium before Christ is little more than the day before yesterday—and the proof is easy. We all know now that there was a long period in the history of man when he knew neither metals, domestic animals, nor cereals. Now the redactor of Genesis is so comparatively recent a person that he had no inkling of any such period : Adam tends the trees in the garden of Eden, and, immediately upon his expulsion, betakes himself to agriculture, as though men from the first must have been familiar with fruit trees and cereals. Therefore the writer to whom we owe the biblical Genesis is modern, and his idea of a man-like god cannot be primitive.
On the other hand, the animal—or animal-headed — deities of Egypt carry us back to a much earlier epoch, anywhere between 5000 B.C. and 6000 B.C. Thus we may plausibly conclude that long before the divinity was invested with human traits he was envisaged under the form of certain animals.
And now comes a striking coincidence. Go to the most primitive of modern savages and you find a religion to which the man-god is unknown, and the animal or plant god all in all. It is not an individual animal or plant which they adore ; it is a particular species—animal or vegetable—the members of which they imagine are bound to themselves by a mysterious and immemorial tie. These, to their minds, are the protectors, the talismans, of the tribe or clan. More than this, they are apt to persuade themselves that they are lineal descendants of the guardian animal or plant, and proceed, logically enough, to adopt its name.
For instance, certain North American Indians call themselves Beavers. They hold that their ultimate ancestor was a beaver, who miraculously brought forth a man; they will not pass a beaver without some token of respect or attachment; and they are fertile in anecdotes of beavers who saved their lives—beavers who showed them fords—beavers who did them all manner of services.
From time to time, primitive peoples, addicted to the cult of animals, indulge in a peculiar type of sacrifice. Suppose that a tribe is afflicted with famine, drought, or an epidemic ; it argues that, for some reason or other, the mascot—say, the beaver—has withdrawn its countenance and protection. To effect a reconciliation, two methods will be employed. On the one hand, the tribe will offer gifts—in other words, carry food—to its tutelar animal : this is the gift-sacrifice. At other times the remedy is more eccentric. The first step is to convene a grand synod of tribal chiefs ; then a beaver must be caught and killed; and, finally, every man present eats a portion of its flesh. The point of this ceremony is supposed to lie in the fact that it is a sort of self-deification, inasmuch as it directly increases the element of divine energy inherent in every man. In a word, it is a savage sacrament, resorted to in supreme moments of distress or peril—a communion in which the sacrifice of a divine object imparts divinity to all that eat of it.
The great discovery of Professor Robertson Smith, of Cambridge, who died there at an early age in 1884, has shown that sacrifice by communion was older and more primitive than the sacrifice by gift ; that it was, in fact, the oldest form of sacrifice ; that traces of it are found among the Greeks and Romans as well as among the Hebrews ; and, lastly, that the communion in Christian churches is only an evolution of this primitive sacrificial rite. The communion did not originate with Christianity. On the contrary, it was a time-honoured and widely prevalent institution, especially among the half-civilised communities of Asia, where it had a great vogue with the lower classes, as the more enlightened section of the population had been won over to the simpler idea of the gift-sacrifice. To-day, then, we may call it a survival—a survival from the very childhood of the world. And here we have a perfectly satisfactory solution to two problems: firstly, why this extraordinary form of sacrifice should have taken so firm a hold on the better half of mankind; and, secondly, why its primary significance should have been so obscured both in the Middle Ages and in our own generation. In the first case, it gained ready and rapid acceptance because man was predisposed in its favour by his own religious past; and in the second, its import has been easily obliterated because it corresponds to an idea as far removed from modern modes of thought as a primitive chip flint from a Lebel gun.
Even yet we meet with the notion that when two men take food together a kind of moral and physical bond is established between them. Originally this idea was still stronger ; but only sacred food could knit the sacred tie. Nothing but the flesh of the holy animal would serve, and the solemn mystery of its death was justified in the sight of the faithful by their conviction that so and not otherwise must the mystic bond between the believer and his god be created and confirmed. Thus all there was of a higher life in the primitive community was bought by the death and periodic sacrifice of a god.
And now let us try to outline the evolutionary process which fused this primitive type of sacrifice with that of sacrifice by gift. When once agriculture and the domestication of animals had dispelled the mystery surrounding the different forms of plant and animal life, familiarity began to breed contempt. Little by little the idea of a divinity hedging certain species of animals faded away, and man began to create the godhead in his own likeness.
Yet there remained a tradition of animals sacrificed and eaten by the community. Therefore both sacrifice and banquet were retained, in the belief that the godanthropomorphic now—smelt the blood and inhaled the smoke of the burnt-offering. To provide him with a representative, a priest assisted at the ceremony, until in the end he and his ritual completely dwarfed the part played by the body of the faithful, and, while the sacrifice and banquet still survived, their significance was wholly inverted.
Gentlemen, I stop here. The question is difficult enough without my proceeding to pile problem upon problem. The point which I wished to bring out is this : that in primitive sacrifice the idea of communion—however modem it may appear at the first glance—is a factor of prime importance. The English scholar, who first discerned this truth, literally revolutionised the study of religion. He built, so to speak, a solid bridge between our own day and those dim ages when man bowed down and adored the beast. And this he accomplished by throwing into its proper perspective the primitive and strangely persistent conception of the god-animal, fated to be slain and eaten by its worshippers. I venture to think the discovery involves so much and has found so little recognition that you will pardon me for having made it the subject of these remarks.
(1) Lecture given in Paris, 1902, at the Universite populaire, rue Richer.
(2) Goblet d’Alviella, Revue dc runiversitc de Bnixelles, 1897-S9,
pp. 499-500. I have more than once borrowed textually from this excellent article.