This Web site traces the evolution of Magic and Taboo from its origins in Africa to the Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian islands of Oceania. In this context, Magic and Taboo are examined in terms of their relationships with contemporary religion and earlier superstitions. In particular, this Web site addresses the issue of magic, taboo, and mana as they relate to the traditions, rituals and culture of the evolution of our Oceania people from our African origins.  


It was the renowned British anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor who first propounded what has since been called an evolutionary theory of magic and religion, claiming that both of these phenomena arose out of primitive man's ignorance of science and consequent fear of what was regarded as the supernatural. Tylor's views were subsequently elaborated and modified by many other writers, including Herbert Spencer, M. Levy-Bruhl, R.R. Marett, and Bronislaw Malinowski, until they became the basis of a branch of anthropology known as COMPARATIVE RELIGION,  which is concerned with the study of man's attitudes toward the supernatural as a part of the ideational substructure present in every culture.

Culture - the accumulation of ideas and beliefs - constitutes a vitally significant part of the human environment and plays a powerful role in determining men's choices of action, which can often be contrary to their own best survival interests. Structurally, all agrarian societies, for example, will undoubtedly tend to show resemblances, resulting from similar responses to similar economic problems, but the cultural content of societies at the same or similar levels of subsistence may differ considerably. Whatever may be the precise degree of significance that attaches to economic forces and to different patterns of subsistence, magic and religion are intimately related to the overall norms and values of a society, and are an essential part of the cultural environment that determines men's choices of action . The case of the Nuer will illustrate this point, for the Nuer steadfastly refuse to eat birds or even birds' eggs, even when near starvation, because they regard them to be totemic and hence sacred creatures. Similarly, the Hindus of India, even during great famines, refuse to eat the meat of the cow because that animal is sacred to them. How does such non-economic behavior arise? 


According to Tylor, early man thought irrationally, a view which was subsequently endorsed by the psychologist Levy-Bruhl, who devoted much of his energy and attention to anthropological questions. Levy-Bruhl claimed that logical thought is a recent innovation in human history and that in primitive societies men were introspective rather than scientific. Unable to subject their beliefs concerning the nature of the world around them to the test of methodically organized scientific experiments, primitive men could measure the validity of their ideas only by their own emotional reactions to these ideas. Believing that their own actions were deliberately conceived in order to satisfy conscious desires and that their actions were planned and directed toward the achievement of specific goals, early men assumed that all events that took place must similarly be caused deliberately and purposefully by intelligent beings, seen or unseen. In short, primitive men assumed the existence of supernatural beings, and ascribed teleogical powers to these.

Thus, the early hunter knew that an animal died because a spear was thrown at it, hit it, penetrated it, and "caused" it to die. The spear was thrown because he, the hunter, willed it to be thrown. He observed animal predators, presumably prompted by hunger as were men, carefully and deliberately stalking their prey, and he felt that animals, too, planned their actions and caused events to happen in accordance with preconceived intentions. Things happened because someone or something caused them to happen. If he or one of his family fell sick, it was certainly evident that the sick person had not desired his own ill health, so someone else, or something else, must have willed the sickness. Even today, when the traditional Azande tribesman, waling along a forest path in equatorial Africa, stubs his foot against an unseen root and breaks a toe, he knows very well that he did not intend to break his toe, and so concludes that an enemy willed the accident. A similar line of reasoning can be applied to external events which impinge less directly upon the individual. He eruption of a volcano must have been caused teleologically by some unseen and hence supernatural being. Storms and lightning must be caused by supernatural beings with deliberate, teleological wills. Even a severe winter, a thimball winter as the old Norsemen called it, was caused by supernatural beings, possibly out of malice for mankind in general. So primitive men invented the invisible, formless souls or spirits which had both the will and the power to cause unusual natural occurrences. ANIMISM was the name which Tylor gave to this belief in vital forces that lack corporate, visible, or spatial form, but which may will events to happen. He defined animism so broadly that it was virtually coextensive with religion, as "the belief in spiritual beings."

Two types of animism may be identified. In some societies these spirit beings are believed to reside in trees, and the term botanical animism has been invented for such phenomena. Botanical animism is widespread in India where the Hindu religion embraces a wide range of animistic beliefs acquired from aboriginal tribal peoples, and the members of the lower castes especially leave small offerings of ghee (butter) at the foot of pipul trees which are believed to house spirits. Among Eskimoes, by contrast, there is a belief in zoological animism, for both men and animals are believed to have souls which although nonmaterial, are believed to separate from the body at death. Zoological animism is extremely widespread, and even modern concepts of psychophysico dualism - the belief that the body and mind are separate realities - may be directly traced to the zoological animism of early Greek and Indo-European cosmology and even to beliefs which may date from Cro-Magnon man. Aware of their ability to think and feel emotions, early men regarded consciousness as evidence of the existence of a supernatural soul, which was believed to leave the body temporarily during sleep and permanently at death. Thus Plato has been credited with having invented the concept of psychophysico dualism in the fifth century B.C. when he distinguished between psyche or "soul" and physis or "body." but lato did not invent these ideas, he merely developed his philosophy around the only cultural concepts available to him - the cultural tradition of his own already ancient society. 


Animism does not exhaust the range of supernatural possibilities. It was R. R. Maren who, while studying Malayo-Polynesian culture, was impressed by the fact that the Polynesians conceived of a type of supernatural power which did not seem to have any particular will or intentions of its own. Being steeped to Western Judeo-Christian monotheism, many of his contemporaries at once assumed that a "godless" concept of the supernatural must represent a very primitive stage of religious thought, which would have preceded animism. Thus they sought to identify an evolutionary sequence commencing with ANIMATISM, the belief in a diffused, abstract supernatural power. Animatism was supposed to evolve into animatism, the belief in souls and spirits, and thence to polytheism, the belief in many gods, and finally to monotheism. This interpretation is now discarded. Many very primitive contemporary peoples, such as the Bushmen, Arunta, and Nuer, have a shadowy conception of a creator god, and if any such scale of evolving sophistication could be validated - which is debatable - the reverse might more likely be the case. Early man thought teleologically, and only at a higher level of abstraction is it possible to conceive of an unseen power field without physical form, possessed of an abstract and amoral causal ability. The concept of animatism is quite close in many ways to modern science. 

This more refined concept of an inanimate supernatural force dispensed with the anthropomorphic assumption implicit in teleology the belief that events in the universe must be willed by some lifelike being is replaced by a concept of causality which, not being comprehensible to man, must still be regarded as supernatural and treated with caution. All matter, nonliving as well as living, is regarded as being permeated by a vague, diffused nonphysical power-force, which may be more heavily concentrated in some objects than in others, that is, which takes a more kinetic form in some objects and a more passive form in others. Borrowing a name from the Melanesians, Marett called this force mana, a diffused supernatural power which has no will of its own, does not exist as a spirit, has no material or special form, and may be present in living as well as nonliving things. Mana is related to mater in much the same way as the force of gravity is related to matter, except that man has no way of identifying or measuring mana unless and until it reveals itself in action.

Mana can explain all events without need for recourse to the concept of spiritual wills. Thus, knowing nothing of ballistics, men used the idea of mana to explain why one spear always went straight to its target when thrown, while another, seemingly much the same in appearance, would seldom fellow a straight trajectory. To the prelogical mind there was clearly a difference in the mana or power resident in the spears, and even as late as the Iron Age in Europe, some swords which were better made were believed to contain a greater reservoir of natural power than those forged from baser material. Similarly, the sword which had killed a famous warrior must be imbued, by the very evidence of its deed, with more mana than the sword which failed its owner in time of battle. Mana may pervade any or all objects, living or nonliving. It has neither morality nor goal of its own, it is simply a capacity for getting things done, rather like electricity. To those who do not know how to deal with it, however, mana is always potentially dangerous, while those who possess it or understand it have less to fear.

Mana may reside in inanimate objects, thus an odd-shaped stone may be buried in a Melanesian yam plot, and prove its mana when an unusually profuse crop of yams are grown that season. But it may also reside in people, and among the Algonkin Indians of North America mana is recognized by the term manitou as a power which may diffuse impersonal objects, which may give skill to medicine men, and which may rest also in the person of the gods. Like the Algonkin Indians, the Indo-Europeans and the Polynesians also believed mana might reside in persons, especially in royalty and nobility, giving leaders of society the ability to influence others and endowing them with a distinctive personality, for which Max Weber invented the term charisma. The possession of charisma distinguished kings from lesser folk. Among the Scandinavians the concept of charisma took the form of a vague "luck" force known as hamingja, which some men possessed and others lacked. Indeed, it is still common in North Europe for people to use the expression "my luck has run out." Once again, this hamingja was generally considered to be genetically transmissible, for there seemed no other way of explaining how a single line of kings could hold power successfully through a number of generations. On the other hand, if had luck befell a nation, this was  sign that somehow the king had lost his hamingja, and a series of poor harvests could lead the people to replace the king by another member of the hamingja-carrying royal family.

All the old Teutonic nobility of Europe who claimed descent from Odin were believed to possess mana, and the touch of a king was supposed to cure the sick. Right down to the seventeenth century the king of England was expected to lay hands upon the sick and crippled in the belief that his mana would cure their afflictions. Scrofula, in particular, was known as "the king's evil" because although it was a glandular complaint, it was supposed to be readily curable by the royal touch. Similarly, the laying on of hands by a bishop when consecrating another bishop is rooted in the belief that by this ritual some of the mana or charisma of the first bishop of Rome is passed down through the generations of bishops to the newly consecrated candidate.

Exactly the same belief in transmissible mana was implied by the Viking practice of ring giving. Famed Viking princes customarily rewarded their bravest followers by presenting them with a golden ring, taken directly from their own arm, often on the scene of the battle field. The ring would be proudly worn by the recipient and never sold or traded, for its value was not in the gold, but in the hamingja or luck power which the ring had absorbed when worn on the arm of the prince-hero. The ring brought some of the famed donor's luck force with it, which would then diffuse into the body of the wearer, enhancing his own ability to succeed in whatever he undertook. In Persia it was believed that the Sassanid dynasty was so heavily endowed with familial charisma, that their mana force revealed itself in a circle of bright light that hovered constantly over the king's head. This was reputed to be so bright that Greek travelers recounted that on approaching their king, the Persian courtiers did their eyes and cried out "misuzam," or literally, "I am burning up," and could never look directly at the king for fear of being blinded. Christianity later borrowed the xvaranah or "halo" and introduced it into pictures of the Christian god and his angels and saints as a visible indication of supernatural power.


Thank you so much for visiting the above four Domains. I am very pleased to be able to share with you that further limited advertising on Oceania Magic and Taboo Home Page, along with other Web Pages within the above four Domains, are now available. Potential advertisers are cordially invited to choose from several thousand Web sites available for placement of your important advertisements.

I would like to sincerely thank everybody for visiting and for your kind support. Best wishes and God's blessings to all. For further information, please contact me at:

jane@janeresture.com or jane@pacificislandsradio.com


Since mana is both invisible and potentially dangerous, almost all societies which recognize it believe that it is foolhardy for the ignorant or the unauthorized to meddle with it. People and places known to be imbued with particularly potent mana are potentially dangerous to those unqualified to approach them. Such people and places become TABOO, a word which is like a sign that reads, "Danger! Mana at work." Cemeteries, for example, are generally protected by taboos which warn the layman either to stay away altogether or else to behave in a highly circumspect manner when in their neighborhood.

Taboo also surrounds kings and other semi-divine or semi-supernatural persons who, being highly imbued with mana, must be treated with care. To lay a hand on a king without authority was a highly dangerous act in many societies, and as we have seen, the Polynesian kings were so taboo that the ordinary citizen might not touch them, eat anything they had touched, nor even eat food from a field through which the king had walked. This extreme emphasis upon royal mana and the subsequent taboo which came to surround the royal personage resulted in the king becoming a virtual prisoner, unable to walk around the village for fear of making things and places untouchable to the common folk. Even the plates from which the king had eaten had to be thrown away, and it is a historical fact that the continued extension of the principle of royal taboo in Hawaiian society led eventually to a complete breakdown of the system. Restrictions became unbearable until the king himself, following a dispute with the priests, decided to destroy the old religion. This he did by deliberately breaking the taboo that surrounded him and by walking around the public places touching everything he could find, thus proving that no harm would come to anyone as a result.   

Nuku'alofa, Tonga
*  *  *  *  *

Nuku'alofa. Tonga's royal family was set to end their 100-night mourning period for the late king today with a gift-giving ceremony and the release of 40 undertakers who were banned from using their hands - which touched the royal body - for three months.

At the end of the royal mourning period, the South Pacific nation's 40 royal undertakers, who buried the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV in an elaborate state funeral in September 2006. That mixed tribal traditions with Christian prayers, will be allowed to return to their villages in an ancient ritual called Pongipongi Tuku.

The undertakers - known as nima tapu, meaning sacred hands - have been housed in a special dwelling where they are fed by hand and otherwise looked after, since the king's body was flown home from New Zealand on September 13. They have not been allowed to do anything with their hands other than tend to the king's body and conduct the funeral.

Until 300 years ago, the nima tapu would have been strangled or had their hands severed after taking part in such a funeral.

In a more general sense, taboo may apply to anything unusual. The death of a family member may bring taboo, and this taboo must be observed by those who survive if they wish to ensure that no harm will come to them from the supernatural powers known to be associated with death. The death of a leading member of the community is frequently the sign that powerful supernatural forces are at work, and such deaths in India and certain other Asian countries could lead to a universal genna taboo, warning all persons to cease from their normal activities and to become as inconspicuous as possible. Restriction of normal activities on ceremonial days, such as the Christian Sabbath, likewise constitute a form of genna taboo.

Magical Techniques

Yet men are not content merely to treat the supernatural with circumspection Just as men have succeeded to some extent in controlling the natural world, so sooner or later they will attempt to control the supernatural world as well. MAGIC arises, according to Frazer, when man seeks to bring the supernatural world under his control. Magic is, in a sense, pseudoscience, and although inanimate mana is perhaps more easily manipulated by primitive man than are the animistic spirits, Aladdin was able to control the animistic genie of the lamp, and experts in the occult still claim to be able to control familiar spirits. Through magical spells and ritual, primitive man believes that he can control the unseen forces of the external world. As Malinowski expressed it, magic begins where technology ends. The magical arts are based on two different principles. The first of these rests on the belief we have already mentioned, that supernatural power may be transmitted by touch or contagion. The example of the ring given by the hero-leader to a favourite follower represents an attempt to transfer mana by touch or CONTAGROUS MAGIC. The laying on of hands by bishops is rooted in the same principle as the curing of ailing subjects by the touch of the royal hand. Anything which has been in contact with a person or object endowed with unusually potent mana will acquire some of the mana. Even today we tend to treasure small personal possessions which were physically close to departed friends or relatives. The pen, watch, or ring of a departed parent seems to have some of his personality in it, and will be treasured accordingly. Thus a portion of the "true cross" was believed by medieval Christians to contain special powers, acquired by the principle of contagion, as also were the nails which were believed to have penetrated the hands and feet of god. The relics of saints contain similar mana, acquired by contagion, and Chaucer reports a flourishing trade in medieval England in pigs' bones, sold to the unwitting by itinerant "holy men" as "saintly relics" imbued with miraculous powers.

The principle of contagious magic also reveals itself in the techniques used by Bantu witchdoctors in Africa, who seek to obtain a piece of clothing, a lock of hair, the clippings from a man's nails, or even a portion of the excreta to gain supernatural influence over their intended victim. The nails and hair of dead men continue to grow for some time after death, and because of their associations with the mysteries of the afterlife, clippings from dead men's hair and nails are assumed to contain contagious magic, and may be used in magic potions. If the witchdoctor cannot secure any object which contains, by the principle of contagion, some of his intended victim's mana, he may resort to the second principle of magic: the principle of sympathetic magic.

Extract from Jane's Oceania Home Page Newsletter
July 2006

In a recent court case in Papua New Guinea, two brothers were found guilty of causing death using sorcery and were sentenced to prison for three years with hard labour.

The case was a difficult one for the prosecution who had to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that sorcery had been used to bring about the man's death.

There is no doubt that sorcery cases are very complicated particularly as sorcery involves invisible forces, the existence of which is difficult to prove. Certainly, the prosecution was able to prove that the element of sorcery existed in this case.
These comprised leaves, grass, small objects associated with sorcery, parcel and packages designed to bring illness or death, and most importantly, hair or nail clippings from the deceased.

Using Western law which calls for material evidence is certainly a big problem in countries where sorcery is still in use.

For early article on sorcery in Papua New Guinea, you are invited to visit the following Web site:

SYMPATHETIC MAGIC, sometimes called imitative or mimetic magic, arises from the belief that like causes like. A likeness of a man will in some way be associated with his supernatural nature, and will give anyone who knows how to use it the power to exert magical control over him. Many simpler people therefore resent any attempt to make a picture of them for fear that this will give strangers power over them. Witch doctors have to make only a crude effigy of their intended victim, and by crushing this, sticking pins into it, or as among the Baluba of the Congo, setting it afloat on the river in a miniature canoe, the victim will be expected to suffer pain, illness, or even death. Such is the strength in the belief in sympathetic and contagious magic that healthy men have been known to sicken and die, after learning that a spell had been fast upon them, for no reason that could be detected by physical indications.

The concepts of mimetic and contagious magic, first defined by Sir James Frazer in his classic and voluminous anthropological treatise known as The golden Bough, are not perhaps entirely inclusive. Nevertheless, almost all forms of magic seem to relate either directly or indirectly to one of these two principles. For example, the evil eye is the name given to the belief that one man may harm another by merely looking at him with evil or malice. In this case no physical object is involved, but as the name evil eye implies, the very act of looking at the victim is a form of contact and allows some of the malice felt by the ill-wisher to enter into the victim's body. In a milder and more general form, in India it is regarded as dangerous to allow a stranger to look enviously at a child, and parents speak disparagingly of their own children, for fear that some evil person, hearing the words of praise, will turn envious eyes upon them. The East Indians of Trinidad in the West Indies believe that a woman should not exposed her breasts to the public when nursing her baby, in case a stranger should look with lust upon her breasts and thus poison the purity of the family love that joins mother and child in a separate and private communion.

Fetish figures

A belief in the efficacy of sympathetic and contagious magic may also lead to the wearing of charms and talumans. These are objects which are believed to have the power of attracting beneficial supernatural forces to the aid of the wearer, in the same way that we still speak of lucky charms or lucky horseshoes. Objects which are worn with a view to warding off evil forces are known as amulets and may be used as preventatives against disease, witch's spells, and similar dangers associated with the supernatural. Idols, or religious images, are representations of supernatural beings, usually of gods, which because of their supposed resemblance to the divinity are believed to house some of the divine being's powers. Charms, talismans, amulets, and fetish figures collectively are known as FETISHES, which may be defined as inanimate objects deemed to contain elements of mana that can be used by man to subvert the supernatural to his will.

Black and White Magic

The expert in magic who knows how to manipulate supernatural powers can use his knowledge for either socially approved or socially harmful purposes. This has led many writers to distinguish between WHITE MAGIC, used in socially approved directions, such as the cure of the sick, the control of the sex of the unborn child, the rendering of barren women fertile, or the prediction of the future (as with Chinese fortune cookies), and BLACK MAGIC, used for socially condemned purposes. Black magic seeks usually to revenge supposed injuries, but may be associated with the enjoyment of vicarious and prohibited pleasures, as with the rituals of the black mass in Europe in the eighteenth century. The black mass made use of a common magical technique - the reversal of customary ritual formulae such as verses or prayers. Evil could be worked by repeating the Lord's prayer backward. At other times the reversal of a symbol meant death because the sun was regarded as being reversed during night, and night was associated with death. Either way, the reversal of any customary formula was regarded with considerable superstitious awe.

It is worth mentioning here that voodoo, or more correctly vodun, practiced among West Indian Negroes, was not originally black magic, although many cult leaders have made use of it in socially undesirable ways in recent times. Vodun arose from a combination of Dahomean ancestral rites brought from Africa with Catholic influences to which the Negroes were exposed when in slavery. Here is a clear case of customs which formerly had a valuable social purpose deteriorating into socially undesirable uses when the structure of society has been dislocated.

DIVINATION may be regarded as a form where magic, which in the ultimate analysis rests on mimetic principles. Diviners seek to judge the unknown by the examination of the symbolic signs and portents which are deemed to represent the phenomena that interest the inquirer. The fortuneteller in modern times may use a pack of cards or the leaves kin a teacup. Astrologers use the position of the planets in the heavens, and Knud Rasmussen, the ethnographer of the Eskimoes, reported that an angakik (or local expert in the manipulation of the supernatural) at Nunivak claimed to be able to answer questions by peering into the darkness of a still pool of water, contained in the open entrails of a dead animal. Not only is the similarity to crystal gazing obvious, but we are also reminded of the Etruscans who planned all the more important events in their lives according to the information divined from the entrails of sacrificed animals.


ORACLES are a rather special form of divination, in which it is believed that the diviner has communicated with supernatural beings and has been given the answer to his questions by these divinities. In essence, however, it rests upon the interpretation of symbols which are assumed to represent the data under examination. Thus, a Bantu witch doctor may feel poison to a persona accused of an offence, and judge his guilt by his fate - death or survival - believing that the answer is dictated by supernatural forces. In medieval Europe the church introduced the idea of trial by ordeal as an alternative to the old Teutonic jury trials. In this ordeal the accused was blindfolded and required to walk barefooted across a room, the floor of which had been strewn with red hot pieces of iron. Before the assembled church dignitaries, the god indicated whether the man was innocent or guilty by guiding his footsteps if he were innocent, but allowing him to torture himself on the hot metal if he were guilty. Needless to say, a man with a bad reputation might well prefer to "place his faith in God" and opt for a trial in a church court rather than face a jury in the King's courts. Indeed, the validity of the church courts was one of the major points of contention in the dispute between Archbishop Thomas a Becket and King Henry.

In Africa the Azande have refined the concept of trial by ordeal so as to be able to place the accused persons on trial in absentia. The witch doctor will murmur the name of a suspect over a chicken, while forcing poison down the bird's throat, and if the chicken dies, the suspect is considered guilty. Needless to say, each methods permit considerable manipulation by an experienced operator. The ancient Greeks of the Homeric Age made regular use of temple oracles to obtain information from their gods. In such cases a priest or priestess acted as the voice of the god, while hidden from the suppliant's view. If the suppliant were in good standing with the god and brought an offering for the oracle, then the oracle would answer his questions, usually being careful to do so with cryptic messages capable of more than one interpretation. Manipulation ma have been frequent, and when the Persian armies invaded Europe it is possible that the Delphic oracle may even have been bribed by Xerxes, for the advice the oracle gave was that Athens should surrender to the invaders. Only after "further consultations" did it advise resistance.

Shamans and Sorcerers

Experts in the manipulation and interpretation of the supernatural - magicians, witches, and witch doctors - have been generally classed together under the generic term SHAMAN. True shamans were first identified among the Paleo-Asian and Altaic-speaking peoples of Eastern Siberia, who like the Eskimoes have no developed religious system and whose concept of the supernatural is basically animistic. In Siberia and among the Eskimoes shamans may be highly unstable individuals, frequently hysterical and subject to continuous nervous twitching and possibly even epileptic fits. Cultivating the art of feigned trances or imbibing hallucinogenic drugs, they are believed to have the ability to commune with the supernatural, since this seems to be the only possible explanation of their unusual behavior, which is truly "like one possessed by a spirit."

Shamans are usually prepared to hire out their skills for a variety of services from healing the sick to wreaking vengeance upon personal enemies. Franz Boas tells us of one Eskimo shaman who was reputed to practice sorcery for hire too often for the community's peace of mind, and was consequently murdered by common consent of the survivors out of an instinct for self-preservation. But not all experts in the supernatural divide their time impartially between black and white magic. The Shoshone of North America clearly distinguish between those who practice white magic, known as pohagani, and those who practice black magic, who are known as tidjipohagant. Anthropologists generally agree in using the North American Indian term MEDICINE MAN for a shaman who normally seeks to cure the sick and serve the community with white magic and the word SORCERER for one who specializes in black magic.

Magic can obviously be very profitable for self-declared experts, especially when they are masters of the techniques of sleight of hand and ventriloquism. Boas has implied that many Eskimo shamans deliberately exploit their communities without mercy. However, it seems that in many cases the shaman may believe that his tricks work mimetic magic and are genuinely efficacious. Indeed, many sick patients they attend to get well again, and as is well known, a good "bedside manner: can be a psychological aid to genuine recovery.

Secret Societies

Although by temperament shamans are generally individualists who frequently become bitter rivals of each other, men who work magic may on occasion combine together to SECRET SOCIETIES  either for the good of the community or for their own personal advancement. Membership of such societies is not necessarily a secret matter, and anthropologists speak of the men's "secret" societies among the Arunta of central Australia when the entire band knows that all the adult males belong to such groupings. What is secret about them in their closely guarded knowledge of the supernatural and of the techniques for controlling the supernatural. Thus, the medicine men of the Iroquois Indians of North America band together in medicine lodges, which are well-respected secret societies whose members practice the magic arts mainly for the good of the community. Among the Masai of East Africa there are age sets consisting of young men of the same age, which may similarly be described as secret societies, since each has its own secret magical rituals, although everyone knows to which age set a young man belongs.

At other times, secret societies may be made up of sorcerers. The Leopard Men of the Cameroons do in fact keep their membership secret because of the viciously antisocial nature of their activities. They claim that at night they have the power to turn themselves into leopards, and when they ambush their enemies, they claw the corpses with a metal claw to make it look as though the death had been caused by a leopard. Other secret societies may practice CANNIBALISM. Cannibalism can be gastronomic, where human flesh is eaten out of necessity or for the sake of the preferred flavor, or it can be vindictive as among he Ngarigo of Australia who eat the bodies of the enemies after killing them, speaking contemptuously of them, so as to satisfy their anger. In the case of cannibal secret societies, the object is usually ritual cannibalism, and the purpose is the ingestion of the mana of the victim. The members of the cannibal societies of the Kwakiuti of Canada formerly ate human flesh as a part of their secret rituals and then rushed back into the throng of the assembled non-members, dancing and biting people as though they too were going to be eaten. Ritual cannibalism may be said to rest in the principle of contagious magic, so that when the body of an enemy warrior or chief is eaten, the mana or superior qualities of the victim are believed to be acquired by the cannibal, leaving him a better and wiser man for the experience.

Yet magic is not necessarily the peculiar prerequisite of experts. Most societies believe that ordinary men, too, can work magic. The Haida Indians of British Columbia could perform magic, if they knew the secrets, and the Azande of Africa believe that anyone can inherit the powers of a witch. Among the Azande this magical power is believed to rest in what they call a "witch soul," which they believe can be seen in the abdomen if a post-mortem operation is carried out on a suspected witch. The power of the witch soul in a child is very small, but that of a grown man may bring about the death of the victim. Witches dispatch their witch soul to harm their enemies, and on a dark evening at an Azande village, a witch soul might be seen as a luminous ball, gliding silently through the air in pursuit of its mission. Men may bewitch men, but women may bewitch both men and women. In reality, this belief does not work to the advantage of the women, for it means that men can blame women for their misfortunes, accusing them of witchcraft, but no woman can ever retaliate to accusing a man of having bewitched her.

When someone believes that they have been bewitched and may die unless the witch can be persuaded to remove the spell, the Azande will normally consult a poison oracle to determine the identity of the offending witch. Once this is done, the witch will be accused of his or her deed, and must remove the spell. Azande witches are never punished however, providing they remove the spell if they are identified. 'Witchcraft is considered very much a part of the daily routine, and every Azande witch is entitled to practise his craft if he can do so undetected. In the opinion of "Sir James Frazer, science and magic were both attempts to control the external world, and as Bronislaw Malinowski pointed out, men resort to magic only when logical methods fail them. As a result, with the advance of science there has been a decline in the role of magic in human society. But the same is not true of religion. Despite advances in scientific knowledge, religious ideas have changed their form, but religion cannot be said to have been forced from the science by science. Religion and magic are therefore clearly separate phenomena, even though at an elementary level of cultural organization they seem to be closely intertwined. Let us therefore examine the role of religion in human society in our next chapter.


Magic, Sir Edward Tylor said, represents primitive man's attempt to control the forces of the supernatural, but supernatural beings can frequently be very stubborn and may refuse to be controlled. Very often the magical expert can succeed in explaining his failure away by blaming his frustration on counter-vailing powers greater than his own, or he can claim that the laymen for whom he is working have, by their ignorance of his esoteric techniques, failed to give him adequate cooperation and have therefore neutralized his work. Whatever the excuse, the realization slowly dawns on men that the magical exerts have proved themselves unable to control all of the supernatural forces which are at work around them, and men begin to suspect that there are some spirit beings which persistently refuse to be controlled by magical science.

What do primitive men do in such circumstances" There answer is the essence of pragmatism. If you can't bet them, join them. If there are supernatural beings with a will of their own and power greater than that of man which man cannot control by magic, then it behooves man to propitiate those powers. Such superior creatures - souls, spirits, or whatever they are - must not be angered, and there is always the hope that if efficiently placated, flattered, and feasted, these divine beings may even be persuaded to use their supernatural powers on behalf of their human suppliants. Rhus, according to Tylor, RELIGION is born from the attempt to propitiate those supernatural powers which have failed to respond to magical controls and have refused to subordinate themselves to man. Religion begins when man abandons his attempt to control the forces of the supernatural and instead seeks to propitiate specific supernatural beings. Religion arises from the ruins of magic, but even so, man is slow to reject magic altogether, and early religion is an intricate and almost indistinguishable network of magical and placatory endeavours.

The concepts of mana and taboo show how closely religion is related to magic. The unusual, the mana-infested, is a subject of awe and respect, protected by taboos. As R. H. Lowie says, man discovers religion when he becomes conscious of the "religious experience" - when with feelings of awe and amazement he comprehends forces which are infinitely greater than his own and which he feels intuitively should be treated with respect. Goldenweiser called it the "religious thrill." Max Weber said that religion results from man's contact with the infinite. He concepts of mana and taboo bring man to the very threshold of the religious experience.


As we have observed, animism does not ascribe souls and spirits only to living men and animals. Spirits may occupy particular trees or even haunt special places of awesome or striking appearance. Nixies may inhabit rivers and waterfalls, ghostly beings may haunt the marshes, and mountains are frequently regarded as the abode of trolls, dragons, and other spirit beings. Hunters and food gatherers are concerned with such spirits, but they cam only temporarily in one place, then move on. Noolithic man, on the other hand, finds himself in a very special relationship to local spirits, geographically rooted in their own particular forest grove or rifer valley. The inhabitants of a Neolithic village, situated in the meadows close to the river, are more particularly concerned with the spirit that lives in the river,  as the Romans were with the spirit of the river Tiber, because they now share the same territory as a part of the same ecological community. His ill will can bring catastrophe, his goodwill may bring benefits. Permanent villagers must build up a happy relationship - a sort of goodwill and service contract - with the local spirit figures, and in their attempt to do this, they discover religion.

So the supernatural beings that men seek to propitiate become distinguished from other less important and less dangerous spirits and are elevated to the rank of GODS, supernatural beings who are to be placated instead of controlled. Those spirits which are recognized as gods may even be persuaded to assist men in warding off the lesser spirits whom man does not seek to propitiate, and when men entreat the gods for their assistance in this matter, prayer has been invented. These gods took a variety of forms. Probably themost common were nature gods, present in every river, waterfall, mountain, and forest. Forest dwellers may well place a deity in every sacred grove, as did the Teutonic tribes that slaughtered the roman legions at the battle of the Teutoburger Wald. Mountain dwellers might locate their gods on the mountain tops as the Greeks placed Zeus on Mount Olympus. Pastoralists, occupying the broad plains, might conceive of sky gods, while agriculturalists might also be interested in the sun and the moon because of the regularity of their movements and the importance of the seasons to one who is convened with raising crops. Sometimes these gods would be hierachically ordered under a patriarchal high god.

To a horticultural people, gods who control the rain will be of particular significance, and the rain god will be a functional god, as well as being included perhaps in a pantheon of sky gods. Wind gods were common among American Indians, and the Babylonian Enlil, like the earliest form of the Semitic Jahwe, was also associated with the wind, clouds, and storms - counterparts of the Teutonic Thor. But another type of god is particularly characteristic of advanced horticulturalists and elementary agriculturalists: the fertility god. The coming of the Neolithic in Europe revealed an increased interest in the fertility worship which had its roots in the Mesolithic. Venus figures, as they have been called, made from clay and representing pronouncedly pregnant women, appeared in Europe among the descendants of Cro-Magnon man and suggest an early deification of motherhood. But with the emergence of the Neolithic we have increasingly frequent indications of fertility rituals throughout the horticultural settlements of western Eurasia and Historical evidence that some of the early Neolithic societies were matriarchal and matrilineal.

Mother goddesses that were widely worshiped in the Mediterranean area in historical times included Isis in Egypt, Astarte in Phoenicia, and Demeter in pre-Indo-European Greece (although the arrival of true Greeks in the Aegean led to a suppression of matriarchal systems because the Greeks were a strongly patriarchal people of originally pastoral origins). These goddesses aided men in ensuring the fertility of the crops, and interestingly they tended to be associated with immortality as well, as though some symbols connection existed between the womb through which man entered the world and the afterlife which followed his departure. Protecting his crops from predators, keen to see them multiply and the small fields wave with rich crops of corn, Neolithic man would understandably have expanded his interest in fertility not only as a key to the mystery of life but as a very practical answer to his material needs. In those societies which learned the facts about male paternity, temple prostitutes might appear, symbolizing in the sexual act the mystery of the creation of life, and the sexual organs, symbolized by phallic representations, might achieve religious significance.


As we have observed, man's earlier essays into the realm of religion retained considerable faith in the efficacy of magic. But when gods have been identified who consistently resist manipulation by magical means, how then shall man go about propitiating them? the first and most obvious answer is that if the gods have a will then they must also have desires, and in man's limited experience these may well be assumed to resemble human desires, for he can conceive of no other needs. Thus, the South African bushmen of the Kalahari desert see god in the shape of a praying mantis but still attribute human qualities of thought and reason to the supernatural figure. The ancient Egyptians and the Hindus both recognized animal-headed gods, like the elephant-headed Ganesh of Indian mythology, but still gave them human-type interests. The ancient Greeks went further and saw their gods in human form, so that the phrase "Greek god" has come down to us today, for they represented their gods as the epitome of human beauty, with the clear-cut handsome features that they associated with aristocratic birth. But they also gave their gods very human desires and weaknesses, and these same gods were guilty of jealousy, seduction, vengeance, and adultery. 

Men therefore tended to see their gods very much in their own image, a phenomenon known as ANTHROPOMORPHISM. The creation of anthropomorphic gods made it still easier to answer the question, how shall we appease the supernatural powers? Obviously, of the gods are like humans, they will have human tastes and probably human weaknesses. Therefore they may be flattered, and they will enjoy gifts and feasting. Flattery and submission are apparent in the act of SACRIFICE, the voluntary destruction of one's own goods, even to the point of sacrificing one's own first-born son, as did the Carthaginians and as Abraham was prepared to do before his god Jahwe. To the extent that the gods are anthropomorphic, then it is possible that there may be a way to their heart through their stomachs, and food and drink may be proferred also.

Archaeology cannot tell us for sure when the first sacrifice was made, but one of the earliest sacrificial ceremonies seems to have been held at Meiendorf in Germany when Cro-Magnon man tossed valuable deer into the Pleistocene lake (see the photograph below). Evidence of the deed is provided by the heavy stones that had weighted the deer down and were still inside their rib cages when they were found by archaeologists some 15,000 years later. What could have been the purpose of such a deed, if it were not an act of sacrifice to some ancient god? Where food is offered to the gods, such rituals may be accompanied by public feasts in which the worshipers imagine that they are partaking of a common meal with their gods. The sharing of meals has always been a symbol of friendship ever since the first proto-humans learned to share their food with other members of the intimate, kin-linked group. The modern businessman still seeks to gain a psychological bond with his customer by discussing the most important parts of his business over a common-meal table. Moslems sacrifice a goat at Ramzan and eat the meat of the sacrificial animal themselves, thus sharing a meal with the supernatural beings.

So it was that the early Indo-Aryans held great horse sacrifices, killing the animals which meant so much to them and consuming the horse meat in sacrificial feasts. However, they ate horse flesh at no other time, since the horse was clearly loved, respected, and useful. At the time of the Norman conquest of England, Scandinavian pagans still practised horse sacrifices and are sacred horse meat at sacrificial feasts. Christianity heavily condemned men for taking part in pagan communion, demanding instead that they participate in the Christian communion, and demanded the eating of horse flesh so thoroughly that Englishmen still shudder at the thought. Perhaps it is not their Christianity that makes them refuse to eat the old sacrificial dish, but an ancient pagan reverence for horses - the antiquity of which is evidenced by the white horses cut into the English chalk downs - that has still not been totally dispelled.

Where the sacrificial object is not merely animal but also human, elements of ritual cannibalism enter into the banquet. The consumption of the flesh and blood of the slaughtered victim, especially where the victim is of noble birth, implies not only the notion of a meal shared with the god, but also the communicant's desire to acquire some of the mana of the sacrificed being. Thus the Aztec sacrificial victims were chosen from the best warriors, preferably nobles, of the nations they defeated, and there is no doubt that some of the Spanish conquistadores finished up inside Aztec stomachs. At coronations of the Aztec kings, thousands of victims were slaughtered, and war was a necessary commitment to their god who hungered for fresh hearts torn from the living body. Victims were slaughtered in vast public religious services, being held spread-eagled over the altar while the priest made an incision in the stomach, thrust in his hands, and tore the heart out while it was still beating. The heart was for the god, but the body was for the worshipers. The skin was deftly flayed from the corpse and handed to the priest, who wrapped himself in the bloody hide before the remainder of the corpse was handed down to the waiting multitude, so that they might consume the sacrificial flesh and benefit from the mana of the victim.

Because of the ancient memory of ritual cannibalism which seems to be implied in the Christian communion service, various Christian sects have in recent centuries dispensed with this part of the Christian ritual, feeling repulsed by what seems to them to be an invitation to eat the flesh and blood of a sacrificed god-king.

Priests and Priesthoods

As we have observed earlier, the introduction of horticulture led to an interesting economic surplus, which made possible the support of full-time non-agricultural specialists in various crafts. Thus in ancient Sumeria, as horticulturalists built temples to their local deities, we may trace the emergence of a regular priesthood whose duty it was to devote themselves full time to the propitiation of the divinities. Similarly, in new Zealand in more recent times, the horticultural Maoris developed a priestly society known as Where Kura, initiates to which spent a five-year apprenticeship learning the rituals, myths, and prayers of their religion, as well as ventriloquism and sleight of hand - thus implying that they were still only in a transitional stage between shamanism and magic on the one hand and priesthood and religion on the other. PRIESTS are distinguished from shamans in being full-time professionals, trained and organized in the propitiation rather than the manipulation of the gods.

At first the dividing line between magical and religious practice of the early shaman-priests could hardly have been discernible. Sometimes the members of the priestly society would be derived from a single clan, as with the Levites of the Hebrews or the Magi of Persia (from when we derive the word magician). In other cases they would have been the younger sons of kings and nobles, as the first Indo-Aryan priests may have been. If they practiced endogamy, they inevitably established themselves as a separate caste which might eventually become more powerful than the nobles and kings. Even where the priests accepted recruits from outside their own kingship grouping, the profession was still guarded jealously, and initiates were subjected to rigorous training and tests before being admitted to full membership of the brotherhood. Once professional and semi-bureaucratic systems of priesthood had emerged in the civilization of antiquity, the role of the priests became extremely prominent. In Sumeria, Egypt, Crete, and in the new world among the Mayans and Aztecs, priestly organizations assumed considerable political significance, largely because religion now claimed to control men's moral actions, but also in part at least because in each of these cases the priests were closely associated with the development of a new and increasingly necessary art writing.

Mass society, characterized by a developing division of labor, needed bureaucrats and clerks who could keep detailed records, and some method of recording data and events. The development of systems of cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing in the city civilization of the Old World and the trend in that direction in the new World owed much to the priesthood. There was in the first place always something magical about words, especially names. They contain something of the spiritual essence of the object they describe. Many primitive peoples are reluctant to give their name to a stranger - some actually keeping their names entirely secret within their own community - for fear that knowing their name, the stranger may be able to exercise some magical power over them. Words and names, from the earliest days of religion, were therefore inclined to be associated with religious concepts. If spoken words are regarded with such respect, how much greater the mystery that surrounds a semisecret symbol inscribed on an inanimate object, which can convey meaning from one man to another without the two ever meeting.

So the very first written symbols seem to have been associated very largely, if not exclusively, with religious and magical thoughts, and the runes carved on a sword or a touchstone were deemed to have magical power. As specialists in the supernatural the new priesthoods of the city civilizations inevitably found themselves closely involved in early attempts at writing. When literate priests could communicate with each other by means of written symbols, their influence in the community was even further enhanced. Writing gave a degree of political power to the priesthood which cannot be easily appreciated in our modern world in which the skills of reading and writing are taken for granted. Even though the art of writing probably owes more, in its long history, to the merchants than to the priests, in Egypt especially, the close association between priesthood and literacy was reflected in the role of the priests as administrators and statesmen.


A horticultural people, concerned with important matters such as the most propitious time for the sowing or reaping of their crops, learn to watch the seasons and judge the passing of time. Here again, religion played a natural and dominant part in the development of a calendar which would serve to determine the correct dates for all annual events in the life of the cultivators. The priests of ancient Sumeria, Egypt, and the Mayan civilization observed the movements of the heavenly bodies and worked out surprisingly accurate calendars in which religious ceremonies and agricultural functions were synchronized and accurately predetermined. Lunar and solar ceremonies aimed at placing the gods could be neatly interwoven with proper husbandry and the routine of the peanut farmer, and all life assumed a routine but highly religious character since the religious ceremonies were so obviously directly linked with the efficient prosecution of horticultural tasks, religious ceremonies began to assume a compulsory nature, all members of society being anxious that none should offend the gods by ignoring the religious duties that they exposed from the community. Thus national rituals came to be organized by the priests, scheduled to be held on regular calendrical occasions, and usually representing, at first, a blend of magic and worship.

Regularly scheduled CALENDRICAL RITUALS are usually associated with nature festivals such as spring, harvest thanksgiving, midsummer, or midwinter, and may be intended to assist nature at a dangerous time, as in midwinter when the sun is at its very lowest point in the sky. Midwinter festivals, or winter solstice festivals, are designed to assist the sun in reversing its path, and instead of continuing to sink daily still lower in the sky, to recommence its annual ascent, bringing spring and summer in its wake. Midsummer is generally a period of rejoicing, for the harvest is ahead, even though the sun is about to bring its downward path. In northern latitudes such solstice festivals could take on a very real importance; for example, in Scandinavia where the sun scarcely shows itself above the horizon in midwinter, fiery wheels were rolled down the hillsides at the winter solstice in an attempt to aid the sun in its annual rebirth. Midsummer was also a magicorcligious festival, though more joyous, and Shakespeare tells us of the magical occurrences, associated with midsummer night. 

Special temples were frequently erected in conjunction with these calendrical rituals, designed by the priests to assist in the observation  of the movements of the heavenly bodies. Both Stonehenge in England and the pyramids of the Toltecs in Central America were laid out to help plot the time of the year and to incorporate the movements of the sun into the calendrical rituals held in its honor. Stone circles laid out on the principle of the sundial were also common in Old World horticultural societies, particularly those of the so-called megaliths peoples of North Africa and Western Europe. So also the Hopi Indians to Arizona, probably receiving their ideas from Mexico, traced the rising and setting of the sun behind various mountain peaks, appointing a special sun watcher to do this, and planting and reaping their crops in accordance with his observations.

CRITICAL OR UNSCHEDULED RITUALS may be contrasted with schedule rituals, since these are not related in any way to the calendrical system. They arise in order to propitiate the gods and cleanse the community of any bad luck whenever disaster threatens or men have reason to believe that the gods are angered with them. Earthquakes and foreign invasion are typical instances of occurrences which call for critical rituals. The recent translation of the records of the Homeric city of Pylos has given us a new account of unscheduled and critical rites held at a time of crisis. Pylos was a Mycenean city with a literate, culture populace and a developed economy based upon commerce as well as mixed farming. It would seem, however, that like so many cities of its day, it fell to invading Dorian Greek tribes, self-proclaimed descendants of Hercules who penetrated the more prosperous region of the Aegean from the mountains of Albania. The Pylos tablets record how in the last few days before the destruction of the city, the inhabitants prepared themselves for the coming attack. Along with orders for additional bronze spearheads and instructions for the disposition of the army and the fleet, the tablets record the critical rites undertaken by the priests to cleanse the city of any unintentional impiety on the part of the inhabitants which may have offended the gods. The rituals apparently failed, for the city was laid in ruins and the tablets are the last we her from Pylos for some 300 years until literacy came to the descendants of the victorious assailants.

Rites of Passage

Other types of ritual which serve an obvious and direct social function and combine elements of both magic and religion are the RITES OF PASSAGE, ritual ceremonies held by members of a community to mark the passage of individuals from one level or stage to another. Such rituals are customarily regarded as desirable at or shortly after birth in order to mark the acceptance of the neonate into society. Similarly rituals are also usually held when puberty is reached, and these may or may not be carried out conjointly with tribal imitation ceremonies designed to initiate the candidate into full tribal membership and full knowledge of the secrets of tribal lore known only to adults. The history of western European peoples reveals few traces of puberty customs, although tribal initiation rites were more common. The Romans, for example, recognized the coming of age of their sons by presenting them with a man's toga. Because Western society has no puberty rituals and no truly significant tribal initiation customs, teenagers are never sure when to regard themselves as adults

The history of western European peoples reveals few traces of puberty customs, although tribal initiation rites were more common. The Romans, for example, recognized the coming of age of their sons by presenting them with a man's toga. Because Western society has no puberty rituals and no truly significant tribal initiation customs, teenagers are never sure when to regard themselves as adults, and no one else is sure either how to treat them - as children or adults. This problem does not exist where puberty and initiation rituals are practiced. Children are treated as children until they have been subjected to the appropriate rituals after which they and everyone else knows that they have attained adult status. The long period of adolescent uncertainty so characteristic of contemporary American society is thus avoided.

In view of the fact that transition from childhood to adult status represents a very significant change in social status in any society, puberty and initiation rituals are sometimes made deliberately severe in order to emphasize the "rebirth" of the candidate in the new role. The "coming-of-age" ball thrown by parents of debutantes is but a mild echo of the rituals which Arunta children undergo. Arunta boys are subjected to deliberate and protracted torture, during which the older men who are already initiated bite the skin on their heads until it bleeds. Other initiation rituals may even involve staking the candidate down while he is bitten by ants or otherwise maltreated to the limit of his endurance. Such deliberate pain serves to ensure that the new status is traumatically ingrained into the candidate's memory and that he must now be ready to play his part in defending the community in war. It has been demonstrated that those societies which allow the male children particularly close association with the womenfolk in infancy tend as a rule to make the "coming out" rituals for males all the more painful in order that the "rebirth" of the child in the new status as a man may be psychologically more effective.

While male rituals more often stress the warrior's role, female puberty rituals are more frequently associated with the need to prepare the initiate for her future role as a wife and mother. Among Nilotic Negroes this may involve cliterodectomy, the removal of the clitoris, with oracle flint knives, presumably to inhibit sexual pleasure. neighbouring Hamites, from whom the Niloric Negroes may have acquired the custom, are usually anxious to endure virginity before marriage, and conduct similar operations which actually result in a scar formation that prevents sexual intercourse until such time as the scar should be formally broken. Both Hamitic and Semitic peoples also customarily circumcise males at the time of puberty or earlier, and all Moslems are required to be circumcised since the Islamic religion originated among the Semites. Following puberty rituals young people are sometimes isolated in separate lodges until such time as they are regarded as ready for marriage, when a further public ritual will be arranged. Marriage rituals seldom involve any painful or unpleasant experiences. Since marriage marks the formation of a new nuclear family and further involves the alliance of two distinct kinship units, with all the economic, social, and political considerations implied by this, it is generally a family celebration . Nevertheless, community participation and elaborate ceremonial generally serve to impress both bride and groom of the essential solemnity of their undertaking and the religious importance of the new phase of life they are entering. 

Old age is not always marked by rites of passage, unless social, economic, or political power is regarded as the privilege of the older generation. When the government and direction of the community is in the hands of the older members of society, we have a situation known as gerontocracy, and in such cases ceremonies may be performed when men reach an agree which entitles them to participate in such offices. Certainly death is invariably marked in all societies by rites of passage, for the "passing over: into the next life is a matter of overwhelming importance and marks a stage in the progress of the soul which is of absorbing interest to survivors. Depending upon how the religion regards the idea of death, so members of one society will meet death contentedly and without fear, while others will live in almost perpetual apprehension of the inevitable day on which they finally depart from the world that is familiar to them.

Mourning and Afterlife

Belief in a soul which was separable from the physical body leads to the assumption that at death the soul merely passes into a different phase of existence. Only a few societies have believed that the soul remains in the body after death, and survivors in these societies might pinch the nose and close the eyes of the corpse to ensure that the soul will remain in the body. The Greeks, however, believed that the soul left the body in its underground tomb and congregated with other disembodied souls in a somewhat dreary, silent, and cold underworld. Happier were the souls of people who believed in a heavenly abode for their gods, for the spirits then might possibly be called to join the gods in their sky palaces. Thus did the Viking heroes hope to be carried up to Balhalla on the horses of the Valkyrie battle maidens, where they could enjoy themselves doing what they seem to have loved the best - jousting and feasting - at least until the dark day of Ragnarok, when gods and heroes would both die fighting the forces of evil, and the world itself would be consumed in flames. By contrast, the Moslems enjoyed a more sensuous Paradise, free from comb at and strife, attended in their every need by female attendants known as houris.

In apprehension of the supernatural powers which might accrue to the souls of the dead, the surviving relatives understandably believed that every effort should be taken to ensure that such souls should rest in peace. Better by far to take pains to ensure that the departed soul was content in heaven, or perhaps securely trapped in hell, than to risk being haunted by an unhappy ghost. When the departed soul was unable to pass on to the other world because of some omission oh the part of the living to comply with the proper rituals, it might be expected to hang miserably around the place where the body died. To avoid this situation, it was necessary to propitiate the ghost of deceased persons in any way that custom demanded. These efforts to propitiate the ghost were called manism by Herbert Spencer, after the Latin word Manes, the name by which the Romans knew the souls of their departed forebears. What the bodies of the dead were laid in recognized burial grounds, these cemeteries would be protected by an elaborate taboo, as with Africans, American Indians, Australian Aboriginals, Polynesians, and even more advanced societies. When the Persian army under Darius was laboriously endeavoring to pursue the nomadic Scythians over their native steppes, the Scythians ridiculed the efforts of the Persians to find them, but declared that if indeed the Persians wished to engage them in battle, they had only to seek out the graves of the Scythaian ancestors and violate these to know the Scythain fury. In its earlier stages horticulture exhausted the soil and made it necessary to abandon villages after a few years, but as the Neolithis advanced, settlements became more permanent, thus men were brought into more intimate contact with the dead. Even where deliberate malice was not ascribed to the ghost, there was the constant fear that ghosts might feel themselves neglected and slighted, even if the slight was unintentional. It was obviously very hard for the living to know how to please a ghost, and since neglected ghosts could become angry and malevolent, it was better to be conveniently free from them. In many societies, therefore, the hut in which a man had died would be destroyed in others, magical devices were developed to protect the living from the dead. Many Bantu and Nilotic Negroes make a hole in the wall of their wattle and daub huts, and remove the corpse through this hole. The hole is then filled in again, and since they believe that the ghost can only re-enter a hut by the same route that the body took when leaving it, the occupants have nothing further to fear.

Fear that the ghost might return from the grave to haunt the living also led to many other magical devices, and the Azande pallbearers weave a zigzag path on the way from the hut to the cemetery in the hope that if the ghost should attempt to return, this will confuse it so that it cannot find its way. For good measure they also toss thorn bushes on the grave to further discourage the ghost from leaving its new abode. Eagerness to keep the ghost contented in the afterlife may also lead men to place food and drink in or near the grave and to bury the dead man's most valuable possessions with him, for who would dare to use the favorite tools or jewelery of a dead person when by so doing he may run the risk of arousing the ghost's jealousy? For similar fear of the departed spirit, widows in New Guinea and some parts of Africa may daub their head and body with white clay to hide their normally dark skin, on the supposition that the spirit of the deceased husband will be unable to recognize them and cause them harm or injury.

Ancestor Worship

The desire to propitiate the spirits of the dead may lead to ANCESTOR WORSHIP in which the soul of the ancestors are worshiped almost as though they were gods. It must not be assumed that all forms of ancestor worship are alike, however, for there are significant differences between those rituals undertaken primarily out of fear of the departed spirit, which may be regarded as malicious, and those rituals designed to comfort and establish communication with a spirit which is believed to be loving and protective. The difference lies in the intentions that are ascribed to the soul as a result of these attitudes. In societies in which the head of the family exercises his power capriciously, fear of the departed soul may be dominant, for the intentions of the deceased are more likely to be suspect. All attitudes toward the spirits of departed relatives will then tend to be self-motivated and may rest primarily upon magical devices intended to avoid the jealousy and anger of the deceased. Such attitudes will not necessarily incorporate strong notions of morality or contribute to the maintenance of social norms and values.

The magical attempts to control the dead or exercise the spirit of the dead amount to little more than a cult based upon fear and the desire to evade personal suffering at the hands of supernatural forces. However, Shintoism and the ancestor worship of the Hindus, as well as that of ancient Greece and Rome, undoubtedly served to link both the living and the dead in a bond of love and mutual family interest, promoting social unity and imposing social norms on both generations. Such systems of ancestor worship may certainly be regarded as religious systems in their own right, since they serve to promote social consciousness with extreme effectiveness, and indeed have played a very important role in the ideological history of many Old world peoples.

Traditionally, an extended Kiribati (Micronesia) family sought aid from ancestral spirits at a sacred spot known as (te bangota). This practice is still carried out today when the family is faced with unusual stress and seeks support from their ancestors.

While cults of the dead do not always impose a strong moral obligation to adhere to social norms, true ancestor-worshiping religions tend to subordinate the individual to the customs, traditions, and values of family, tribe, and nation. In such societies the individual may be prepared to sacrifice his life, as was the Japanese kamikaze pilot in World War II, for the benefit of family and nation. Where the worship of ancestors is highly developed, the family or phylogenetic continuum is seen in an eternal metaphysical reality, and the individual is regarded to nothing more than the temporary trustee of the name, blood, reputation, property, rights, and privilege of the family - the individual scarcely exists except to a facet of the lineage. Ancestor worship sees the lineage as ideally immoral, surviving in perpetuity and embracing no merely the living but also the dead and those not yet born. Even the nation is seen simply as a very large extended family. So the Romans of the early Republic believed that the spirits of the departed remained loyal to the continuing family to the extent that each living family member was perpetually attended, protected, guarded, and judged by his own spiritual assistant or genius. The term genius was derived from the word gens, which may be loosely translated as "clan" - the same word that forms the root of our modern words "generation" and "generate," as well as "gentleman," meaning a member of one of the select patrician gens. The genii were always the spirits of departed ancestors who in their devotion to the family undertook the moral guidance and sometimes even physical protection of living family members.

These genii are not feared by their descendants, but the latter are careful to avoid doing anything that would dishonour the family or harm the family heritage which they held in trust for future generations still unborn. The ancestral genii demand only that the customs and interests of the family be served, including, by implication, the wider community of kinship-linked individuals that makes up the gens, tribe, and nation. Just as in Greece and Rome so also in Japanese Shintoism and to some extent in Chinese Confucianism, ancestor worship validates and reinforces the kinship structure of the community and obligates the individual to dedicate himself to the welfare of his society. With every ritual sacrifice, every remembrance of the ancestors, the obedience to the social values of a familistic society is reinforced. From the devotions of ancestor worship, there consequently arose a particular type of religion which we know as the ethnic religion.

Ethnic Religions

Ethnic religions arise out of ancestor worship and the firm conviction that the individual is but a single link in the continuing chain of the generations, and has but a single duty, service to the family and the family-nation. They are religions that belong essentially to the people who have developed them. Their members show little interest in making converts and indeed usually prohibit admission to any who are not born into the community of worship. Since they do not seek converts, they are not jealous of other religions, except and unless such religions attempt to proselytize their members, and like Shintoism, may even be able to permit their members to recognize other religious systems, provided the prime duty to ancestors and to the nation and national gods are not neglected. Hinduism and the ancient religions of Greece and Rome expected the members of other societies to have their own gods and their own beliefs. Their philosophy was essentially this: live and let live.

Because of their exclusiveness, ethnic religion s promote a strong sense of group identification, in-group loyalty, and ethnocentrism. Their effect is strongly nationalistic and even racialist, and they are likely to encourage the strict enforcement of endogamous regulations relating to connubium, the limits of the interbreeding community. Since ancestor worship places emphasis upon the fame of the forebears and upon the destiny of progeny, ancestor worshipers will tend to select their wives, as the early Greeks admitted of themselves, "like they choose their horses, by the length of their pedigrees." Emphasis is therefore placed upon purity of descent, and the act of reproduction is regarded as sacred. newly married patrician Romans actually consummated the marriage on an ancestral wedding couch kept for the occasion and used by the generations before them for this religious rite. Offspring are likely to be put in death of they fall short of the physical and intellectual standards expected by the family. During the feudal period the Japanese were so coldly deliberate about eugenic infanticide that they waited up to two or three years before making a final decision on the fate of the child to be sure of detecting any defects that might b e overlooked at a younger age.

When eternal life is obtained through the survival of one's progeny, the tendency for close inbreeding, to ensure that the son will resemble the father and that none of the precious blood of the family will be contaminated by alien admixture, may even lead to strict clan endogamy, as with the Inca kings and certain Egyptian dynasties. Such intense attitudes will be further reinforced by customs such as those of the roman patrician families who took death masks of all who died and hung these on the walls of the entrance hall, replacing them in later times by ancestral busts, which in turn gave way in Western history to painted portraits. In addition to promoting national feeling, ethnic religions are also usually associated with a high degree of social stratification which is invariably castelike in nature. Ancient Greece and Rome, Confucian China, and traditional India and Japan were all highly stratified societies, for the patrisms would exclude the plebeians from marriage, and the Brahmans would not mix with lower castes, nor would pre-revolutionary Chinese landowners mix their genes with those of the peasants, nor the Japanese warrior-nobles blend their lineages with the farmers or craftsmen. Elements of familial charisma are found in association with all ethnic religions. Wherever emphasis is placed on family and lineage, those who are most closely related to the original heroic or legendary ancestors are likely to rank more highly than those with more remote kinship, affiliation. Those whose purity of lineage is in doubt are likely to be socially excluded altogether.


Particularly in those religions which have an ethnic character, political, military, or cultural decay may lead to the emergence of REVITALISM, a religious creed that aims to strengthen the moral fiber of the people and serve as a rallying point for group unity.

Many nations believe that an ancient hero-king or leader will return to save his people should they ever suffer military defeat. If defeat has actually taken place and the nation has been suppressed by alien rulers, a form of NATIVISM (also known as millenarianism or messianism) may persist, promising a return of the god-hero at a later date. Among the Jewish people, this took the form of messianism in which the god was to come down to the world himself to save his chosen nation. A special case of revitalization occurred among the Indians of the California and Nevada regions in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This took the form of the GHOST DANCE CULT. An Indian named Wodziwob claimed that the ancestors would return and sweep the White men from the land, and special ritual ghost dances were performed to facilitate and advance the date of the ancestral return. The cult spread over a large area, until the Whites began to fear an Indian uprising, and the Indian agents and military stepped in to suppress the cult.

In Melanesia there developed a particularly interesting CARGO CULT which also had nationalist tendencies, heavily reinforced by an appeal to the appetite for material wealth. The Melanesians at Sabai in the Torres Straits, who had become, nominally at least, Christians, saw that ships regularly brought cargoes of desirable manufactured goods, and the idea of revolution developed, again organized around the belief that the ancestors would return by sea in large ships which would bring with them valued goods, and that all the Whites would be killed and driven into the sea.

Various modifications of the theme occurred repeatedly. In some of these it was argued that the White people merely seem to sit in offices and make mystic signs and paper to acquire the goods from the ships. Thus, if the Melanesians took over the office buildings, killed off the ships would continue to arrive, bringing with them the desired goods.

Missionary Religions

MISSIONARY RELIGIONS stand in sharp contrast to ethnic religions. They tend to be intolerant of rival religious beliefs and seek to convert members of their societies to a recognition of and worship of the one "true god," and to an acceptance of and adherence to the one "true morality" associated with that god. As a result of the monistic outlook, which generally finds expression in MONOTHEISM - the belief in a single all-powerful creator-god - missionary religions have been responsible for a high proportion of the major wars of the Old World. Holy wars are frequently preached to convert unbelievers or to protect holy shrines. The Moslems have fought many such jehad against the "infidels", the Christian Crusaders fought against the Moslems, the Christian Franks against the pagan Saxons, and the Christian Teutonic knights against the pagan Slavs. Even religions of "peace" are often carried to unbelievers with the aid of the sword.

But the sword must also be supported by the spoken and written word, and propaganda to win over the unbelievers must be slanted to appeal. In consequence, missionary religions are seldom race-conscious or aristocratic in character; few will convert to a religion that offers them only a subordinate position in society. Missionary religions are therefore usually universalistic and equalitarian in outlook, and have achieved much success in converting the lower orders of stratified societies by promising them social equality - at least in the after-life. Christianity made wholesale converts by preaching social revolution among the Roman slaves, while in India under the Moghul emperors the Moslem religion was literally millions of coverts from the outcastes of Hindu society by offering the converts the opportunity to escape from underneath the hierarchical Hindu caste system.

The fact that until recently Pakistan comprised two quite separate ethnic groups, separated from each other by nearly a thousand miles of Hindu Indian territory, was due to the missionary appeal of the Islamic religion. When the Hindus reached the eastern part of India nearly 3000 years ago, they found the lowlands and marshes of Bengal inhabited by a darker aboriginal population, partly Australoid in character. Because of the ethnic nature of their religion, they established themselves as a thin upper caste over a larger aboriginal population which was relegated to a low ritual status. Under Moghul rule these aboriginals then converted to Islam. When India was partitioned by popular vote in 1947 into a predominantly Hindu India and a predominantly Moslem Pakistan, East Bengal was carried by this large Moslem convert vote into a political union with West Pakistan a thousand miles away, a region with which the people of East Bengal had few cultural ties other than the Islamic religion and a common legacy of British rule. Renamed "East Pakistan." East Bengal remained subordinate to West Pakistan leadership until 1971 when its people finally won independence under the name of Bangladesh. All contemporary political conflicts are in fact cultural conflicts and can only be understood fully by an anthropological analysis of the problems involved.

But Islam's success does not stem from its appeal to the lower orders alone. It also has something to offer the upper classes as well,. The Moslem religion promises security to the rich in the possession of their wealth. Since all events are the will of Allah, it is not the fault of the wealthy that they are rich. Islam thus supports the status quo in this world, while promising the lower orders equality and happiness in the next life. The two most characteristic missionary religions of the modern world, Christianity and Islam, are both intimately connected with Judaism and trace their beliefs to the monotheistic ideas which arose among Semitic-speaking pastoralism in the Arabian peninsula. It has been suggested that the semi-nomadic charager of these sheep- and goat-herding pasturalists led them to conceive of a god whose power existed as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon, and event beyond the horizon to the ends of the world. Certainly their concept of god was not that of a territorially rooted local spirit like the gods of the Sumerian city states. Indeed, the Hebrews developed the idea of a portable temple to the extent that they transported the things sacred to their god - in particular the Ark of the Covenant - with them when they migrated.

So the basic conditions for an imperialistic, jealous creator-god, seeking recognition and worship from all men, were realized. When the Semitic Assyrians, originally a pastoral people, invaded the settled land of Sumeria and established the world's first large military empire - creating a desert and calling it "Peace" - they closed down all the local temples and set up one-supreme god to be worshiped wherever the force of their arms was felt. In this, they sought to weld their empire into a single unified society, just as the Incas 3000 years later taught those whom they conquered to worship the Inca gods in the hope of establishing a homogeneous and permanent empire under Inca rule. The Assyrian empire was subsequently destroyed by invading Indo-European  Persians who endeared themselves to the Sumerians by causing the local temples that the Assyrians had destroyed to be rebuilt, and by permitting freedom of religious worship once again. This was the Assyrian experiment in missionary monotheism brought to an end. But not so the Hebrew version. A similar monotheism also developed ;among the Semitic Hebrews while these people were still semi-nomadic pastoralists. The Hebrew idea was distinguished by the novel concept of a contract between the Hebrew creator god and the Hebrew people by which they undertook to serve their god in his drive for world recognition. In return for their aid he promised them the successful annexation of the land of Canaan, a small territory already occupied by horticultural Canaanites, as an initial reward, and furthermore promised that when his victory was complete they would rule the world on his behalf as his Chosen People.

Although the Hebrews won their promised land, their capital city and main temple were destroyed by the Romans, who had begun to fear the disturbing and exciting nature of their religious ideas. But the tenacity with which the worshipers of Jahwe have adhered to their beliefs - and after nearly two millennia have recaptured their city of Jerusalem and in effect rebuilt their temple - is evidence of the significance of ideological factors in determining the pattern of human affairs. Hebrews abandoned many of the earlier Semitic customs such as blood sacrifice but retained circumcision and other tribal rites. Through the centuries the Hebraic religion seems to have vacillated between the desire to remain a strictly ethnic religion, practising racial purity and rejecting converts not born of Jewish mothers, and a willingness on the other hand to accept converts to the Judaic religion on the basis of equality. This dispute still divides the more Orthodox from the Reform version of Judaism today, but in a sense it was the Christian heresy that was to become the missionary branch of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

Christianity arose as an heretical off-shoot of the Judaic religion and from an early date declared itself ready to make converts from all nations and races, seeing all mankind as the children of a monotheistic god. Although it almost abandoned its monotheism at one stage, when European converts reared in the pagan tradition insisted on maintaining that "God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" must logically be three gods, not one, the "Arian" heretics who took this view were overruled, and the monotheistic nature of Christianity was saved by an appeal to mysticism. Despite its dogmatic character, Christianity, like other missionary religions, tended in practice to become very eclectic to its accumulation of myths and legends. It was easier to assimilate and reinterpret ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, and even Slavic, Celtic, and Teutonic myths than to quash them. All three religions which trace their origin back to the Middle East-Judaism, Islam, and Christianity -actually plagiarized a wide variety of older cultural sources and excellently illustrate the process whereby culture is diffused in the historical evolution of mankind.

Few Christians today realize how extensively pagan traditions were absorbed into the legacy of Christian ritual. No one originally believed that Christ was born on December 25, but the Catholic Church found it more convenient to schedule the festival of the birth to coincide with the pagan winter solstice festivals, known as Yuletide in northern Europe, than to oppose the ancient rituals involving the cutting of holly and ivy, the burning of the Yule log, and much feasting on boar's flesh. The pagan festival of spring, a nature festival named Easter after the pagan goddess Eostra, symbolized the rebirth of the world of nature after the long sleep of winter, and was absorbed into Christianity as the festival which commemorated the resurrection of Christ. The two ideas, resurrection of the slain god-king and the rebirth of life following the winter sleep, were sufficiently similar to permit identification in the minds of the illiterate peasantry. And it is to the pagan past, not the Christian past, that we owe the popular tradition of Easter eggs, indications of the rebirth of nature, as well as the very name Easter. Similarly, All Saint's Day is a memory of early European ancestor worship, when the spirits of the ancestors came back to earth, thus in Brittany today the country folk still make a visit to the village churchyard on All Saints' Day and leave little offerings on the graves of the departed.

Another significant missionary religion was to emerge in India, and this was Buddhism. Like other missionary religions, Buddhism is universalist and essentially equalitarian. But it is deeply rooted in philosophical beliefs that derive from the ancient Indo-European religious scheme, and like the old Indo-Aryan beliefs sees the universe not so much as the creation of a single mind but as a casual nexus. Instead of rejoicing in this casual stream, however, Buddhism sees life as continuous pain, with desire being inevitably frustrated, thus making pain inevitable. Intellectually, Buddhism has become more of a philosophy of self-control, teaching that man's goal should be escape from the pain and from worldly suffering - even from the constant agony of the cycle of birth and rebirth - by attempting to control and if possible to abolish desire. When the mind could succeed in suppressing the desire of the body, then nirvana ((a state of "nothingness" or "nonbeing") could be attained and the soul would escape from the prison of life.

Buddhism therefore developed in a direction antithetical to the world-affirming tradition of the Indo-European society that gave a birth. While early Indo-Aryan India had seen the world as a good place and urged men to seek eternity through their posterity of even to yearn for rebirth into the world. Buddhism, like Christianity in its early days, taught that the world was an essentially evil place. But is differed from Christianity in declining, in its purer form, to postulate a better world beyond the grave. Just as the pagan Romans were shocked at the appearance of Christian doctrines teaching "hatred of the world," so too the Brahmans were shocked at a religion which turned away from the world. For a time Buddhism dominated the Indian scene, but eventually the ancestor-worshiping ethnic religion was triumphant, being deeply rooted in the basic kinship structure of Hindu society, and Buddhism virtually disappeared from the land which gave it birth.

Comparison of Ethnic and Missionary Religions

It is no accident, therefore that missionary religions are generally monotheistic in nature, and equalitarian and universalistic in outlook, and that by contrast ethnic religions tend toward polytheism, since they seem to originate in ancestor worship and are aristocratic and discriminatory in practice. Ethnic religions are usually strongest among the upper classes of a stratified society because they justify social exclusiveness and the emphasis in open family and lineage pride and racial purity, whereas the lower strata of any society are more likely to respond with alacrity to the appeal of equalitarian missionary religions.

Since ethnic religions have a tendency to deify the ancestors, the upper classes of such societies - known to the Greeks as aristoi or eugenia, the "well-born" - may even claim to be descended from gods. The later Roman emperors were regarded as living gods, while the Incas claimed to be descended from the Sun. In ethnic religions there is therefore relatively little to fear from the gods, whose deeds the more eminent men endeavour to emulate, nor is the search for knowledge, scientific or magical, condemned. The heroes of ethnic religions have been known to cross-examine the gods and even to force them to reveal their knowledge of the universe and its mysteries but in monotheistic missionary religions the emphasis is upon blind and unquestioning obedience o the revealed will of an inscrutable and all-powerful creator-god. The ethos of the monotheistic missionary religion clearly states that faith is desirable and doubt is undesirable.

So it was that the ancient schools of Athenian philosophy, founded in the days of pagan civilization, were closed down under the Byzantine emperors on the advice of the Christian clergy because they taught men to question the revealed word of their god as laid down in their holy book. Galileo was arrested and faced the threat of torture for similar reasons. The way out of this religious blanket which suppressed free thought appeared only when men rediscovered the old pagan writings and introduced the Renaissance. The real conflict between missionary and ethnic religions arose when the former attempted to destroy the tradition of familial charisma vested in the heads of clans and nations. The "divine night" of European kings, based originally on descent from the gods and the possession of familial charisma, was satisfactorily invested with a new concept of church-appointed divinity when a Catholic bishop seized the crown on the occasion of Charlemagne's coronation and placed it on the king's head before the king could do this for himself. By this act he symbolized the supremacy of the church, which in future claimed to extend religious sanctions to kings, including them in God's order of things rather than acknowledging them because they were God-descended in themselves. Henceforth, the kings were merely temporal officials, and the spiritual was divorced from, but theoretically above, the temporal powers.

This is in sharp contrast to the philosophy of societies which maintain in ethnic religion. Even the ancient Sumerian kings had possessed a certain divinity, and the chief priestess in a Sumerian temple was often the king's sister. The Mikado of Japan, into this century, symbolized the combination of both religious and secular offices, and so in tradition does the English queen, if not in fact. Persian kings had sacral responsibilities, as did the earlier pagan kings of Saxon. England who were forbidden by their religion to cut their long yellow hair, long hair being associated with familial charisma and nobility of birth - which is the reason why British judges still wear long wigs on ceremonial occasions, since they are dispensing royal powers as the king's deputies. It was thus no accident that when Henry VIII seized church power from the People and established the Church of England, his subjects approved his decision to declare himself the head of the Church by virtue of the hereditary office as ritual head of the nation-family. Neither the ancient aristocracy nor the lower classes of Europe were ever fully converted to Christianity; much of the pagan tradition survived in the family pride of the nobles and the folk beliefs of the peasantry.  

Other Theories of Region

Tylor's explanation of magic as an attempt to manipulate the supernatural forces and of religion as an attempt to propitiate supernatural powers that refuse to be manipulated is not regarded as adequate to explain the full power of the religious experience over the mind of man, and subsequent sociologists and anthropologists have put forward a number of additional theories. In general, it is felt that religion serves a far more deeply rooted need to society than Tylor's theory ascribes to it. One of the most significant theorists in this field has been Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist who was responsible for building a completely new theory of group behavior that has become the foundation of modern sociological thought  To Durkheim, all groups and all societies tend to develop a social conscience, an accumulation of norms and values which the group or society will seek to impress upon its members at all times. To Kurkheim, religion is the expression of the social conscience. No member of a society can reject the collective conscience or moral culture of his society without feeling alienated or afraid. Religion does not need the idea of a god or of supernatural forces, Durkheim argues, but is likely to invent these to assist in coercing the individual into the acceptance of the group norms. Punishment in an afterlife is prophesied as the fate of those who contravene the social values, while religious services and rituals hel to promote a feeling of togetherness, of contact with the infinite, which is actually an awareness of social identity and an awareness of group participation by the individual. Religion does not arise as an answer to fear, according to Durkheim, but invents fear in order to coerce the individual into subordination to the group values.

Durkheim's theories have not been universally accepted, however, and in particular the psychologists have disputed the correctness of his interpretation. Bronislaw Malinowski argued, rather parallel to Tylor, that religion does reduce human apprehension of the supernatural. Religion, according to Malinowski, is a formula which provides answers to man's questions about the universe, and by providing an institutionalized answer, with all the weight of authority that a socially accepted theory carries, it removes that feeling of insecurity which exists wherever we have an unanswered question. Religion tells us who we are, what we are, and even why we are here. Furthermore, he said, religion purports to offer proven ways of placating the supernatural powers, and so also serves the function of calming man's fears. Religion would to exist, he agrees, if it did not serve a function, and that function is to assuage doubt and fear. Citing his own observations among the Trobriand Islanders, Malinowski demonstrated that those islanders who lived on the inner lagoon where fishing was less dangerous tended to follow different rituals from those who lived on the outer lagoons or the open sea. In the rituals of the latter, the desire to propitiate the forces of the unknown waters was far more prominent than among those who lived on the safe lagoons, and so, he claimed, the religious function - the calming of fear and doubt - was clearly illustrated.

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown also agrees that religion would not exist if it did not serve a useful function. Society functions like a machine, like a gestalt whole, in which each cot must neatly mesh into the next, and any set of practices which do not contribute to the smooth working of the total social machine will eventually be rejected and discontinued. The purpose of religion is, as Durkheim pointed out, to consolidate the value system and overall cosmogony of society. For this reason religion is usually compulsory, while magic is a voluntary pursuit, since magic is not concerned with the social values. Ritual, likewise, serves the social value system. Psychologists explain to us in behavioral terms how habits form as a result of frequently repeated actions. Because rituals are regularly repeated, they tend to be habit-forming, and a particular ideology associated with particular ritual actions, by the process of repetition of thought and deed, becomes deeply ingrained or internalized in the mind. The fact that much ritual is also practised as a communal activity who serves to identify the individual with the community around him and emphasizes the social nature of the mores.

Although the precise nature and function of religion may still be debated, it is nowadays generally accepted that the definition of religion may be widened to include almost any socially accepted philosophy-even a creed such as communism-that is endorsed and emphatically imposed by society upon its members, even if no specific spirit figures are identified. Such religious systems relieve the individual of the need to worry about the unknowable by providing him with socially accepted propositions concerning morality and metaphysics which are not themselves capable of empirical proof. Religion also serves to integrate the group and reduces tension by imposing a consistent cultural system upon all members of a given society. To the extent that a single religious system succeeds in dominating the whole of society, these goals are achieved. But rival religions can can tear a society to pieces and pit one society against another. Religion may therefore have a socially integrating impact in simpler and culturally homogeneous societies, but often exerts a socially disintegrating influence in more complex and diverse societies where rival religions serve as rallying points for apposing systems of normative culture. Whatever way we look at the religious experience, however, there can be no denying the truth of Max Weber's contention that religion, representing as it does distinctive and integrated patterns of ideational programming, has played a very significant role throughout the history of man, as it still does in this present age.  


While Baganda despotism makes rather fearful reading for those who have been acculturated into a different morality, contemporary westerners usually react more favourably toward the Polynesian social system which also took the form of a centralised chieftanship, especially in Hawaii and Tahiti, but was inspired by a sense of noblesse oblige. Nevertheless, Polynesians society was also militaristic, the nobles being particularly proud of their martial skills, and it was even more rigidly stratified on a strictly hereditary basis than that of the Baganda. Like the Baganda the Polynesians vested all authoritative power in the person of their kings, who were also believed to be divinely descended and imbued with such inherited magical mana that no commoner might touch anything which had been in physical contact with them.

The Settling of the South Pacific

The South Pacific is one of the largest relatively homogenous culture areas in the world. Stretching from the equator to the waters of the Antarctic and from Samoa and New Zealand to the Easter Isles, almost due south of Denver, Colorado - this multitude of South Pacific islands is inhabited by a well-proportioned, moderately tall, light brown people with black hair, straight noses, and relatively broad heads. Although the residents of different groups of islands are customarily inbreeding in their habits, the entire area was settled so recently that not enough generations have passed to allow a substantial physical or cultural divergence. In the same way, all the languages spoken i these many islands can be readily identified as belonging to a single Polynesian branch of the Malayo-Polynesian linguistic stock. Despite the possibility of earlier contact between the more easterly of the South Pacific Islands and South America, it would seem that the ancestors of the Polynesians originated somewhere in the general southeast Asian or Malayan region. Genetically, the Polynesians are believed to reflect Australoid, Mangoloid, and Caucasoid elements, and some legends suggest ties with India in the distant past. Certainly there is an interesting parallel between the concept of inherited magicoreligious powers among the Polynesian aristocracy and the familial charisma of the upper castes of the Indo-Aryans.

As far as it is possible to reconstruct the migration of peoples and cultures in Oceania, it would seem that the western part of the area was at an early time inhabited by hunting and gathering Australoids and Negritoes who were later overrun by an Asian horticultured people. Possessing advanced marine skills, these people began a series of oceanic migrations eastward from the Asian mainlands. Skirting Australia and New Guinea, some settled the islands of Melanesia where they admixed with the Negrito population. Others moved in a more northeasterly direction, leaving the Philippines to settle the islands of Micronesia, most of which were at the time unoccupied. This element of the population may also have acquired some Negrito admixture before leaving the Philippine area, so that the Micronesian population may also reflect some Negrito elements. Generally speaking the islands of Micronesia were not so large as those of Melanesia, and consequently the Micronesian settlers had to depend to a greater extent upon fishing to supplement their horticultural techniques.

While all this was happening, other groups of Malayo-Polynesians sailed westward across the Indian Ocean and established settlements on the eastern coast of Africa, completely colonizing the large island of Madagascar which, because of its isolation had no indigenous human population nor even any anthropoids, the most advanced form of life being prosimians of the lemur type. Then at a fairly recent date, around 1000 to 1500 year ago, a further eastward migration of these same Asian people seems to have skirted past the Melanesian and Micronesian islands, since there were already settled, to colonize the rich but empty island archipelagos of Polynesia father out into the Pacific, while a small group of them swung backward to the southwest to become the progenitors of the New Zealand Maoris. These people absorbed very few Negrito genes. The lands which they settled had never before been colonized by any mammalian species, but were rich in plant life, and in many cases the surrounding waters teemed with fish. Travelling literally thousands of miles in large canoes equipped with stabilizing outrigger devices, and guiding themselves by the stars, the Polynesians brought pigs and chickens with them, and settled down to enjoy what was to be in most cases a relatively peaceful existence in an ideal climate surrounded by ample food resources. Planting coconut palms, banana, and breadfruit trees, yams, taros, and sweet potatoes, catching wild pigeons in nets, and fattening their pigs to make a center piece for their sacrificial feasts, the Polynesians built themselves what has been frequently portrayed as an idyllic culture.

Importance of Genealogies

Organized into clans, each of which claims descent from a distinguished common ancestor, and inbred closely in their island homes to the point that all the residents of each island look to outsiders like brothers and sisters, the Polynesians believe that their chiefs symbolize the unity and history of the social group. They pay deep respect to those who are the most directly descended from the ancestral heroes by either the male or female line, and award the highest status to the first-born regardless of sex. Polynesian kings possess inborn magical abilities, inherited from their predecessors, and each successive generation of kings is believed to be more powerful and more elevated than the previous. It is therefore not surprising that great attention is given to the keeping of genealogies. Many authentic genealogies record as many as 30 generations with apparent historical accuracy, while mythical genealogies, which may also be rooted in a degree of historical fact, extend for up to 70 or 80 generations. In some cases the legends which surround these mythical ancestors also indicate the direction of the migration which brought the clans and tribes to their present homes.

Mana and Taboo

Although the inheritance of the royal office is usually restricted to the male line, the first-born child, regardless of its sex, inherits more mana than its younger siblings. Thus a king may be socially inferior to his elder sister, to whom he must therefore show due deference. Many kings find this tiresome and go to great lengths to avoid meeting their elder sisters in public. But even greater problems arise from this principle of sexual equality in the inheritance of rank, for on the death of a king, his title usually passes to his eldest sister's son instead of to his own son, and this can be a constant source of conflict in Polynesian society. One solution to the problem, as adopted in Hawaii, was for the king to marry his elder sister, thus keeping all the inherited mana in the family.

Because of this inherited mana, everything that a king touches becomes taboo, or prohibited, to commoners. Only a few close relatives or special servants are permitted to have physical contact with the king's person, food, eating utensils, or clothes, or indeed to enter the royal household. In some islands the principle is so highly developed that a field has to be abandoned should a king so much as walk across it, and Polynesian royalty has to be carefully secluded form contact with the property and possessions of lesser mortals in order to prevent the complete disruption of the social and economic system.

The Tahitian Culture

Tahiti, in the Society Islands, may be regarded as largely typical of a complex Polynesian society. Tahiti itself is about 35 miles long by 15 miles wide, and contains two volcanic mountains rising to 7000 feet in height. it is almost entirely surrounded by an outer coral reef, which creates an attractive lagoon, the waters of which are normally calm. The climate is mild, the temperature remaining within the 70s all the year round. The volcanic soil is rich, so that with the aid of rain brought in by the regular sea breezes, the islands produce a rich growth of tropical vegetation. As in other Polynesian societies, there are three classes in Tahiti: the chiefly lineage known as the Ari'i, the nobility known as Ra'atira, and the commoners known as Nanahone. All have tribal status, presenting picture of a large kinship group in which some families are elevated far above others because of the directness of their descent from the original heroic ancestors. As in other centralized chieftainships, peace and order in Tahiti are maintained by royal authority, not by blood feud, violations of customs and law are seen as offenses against the religion and the royal power, not as private matters involving only the disputants.

Although the Tahitians do not practiced excessive bodily mutilation, tattooing is widespread. Traditionally the men wear only a loin cloth, while the women war only a skirt covering the lower the lower portion of their body - both loin cloth and skirt are made from bark cloth in the absence of woven animal hair. Like all Polynesians the Tahitians are clean in their body habits, devoting particular attention to the care of their hair, and all buildings and paths are brushed regularly so that they stay clean and tidy. The Tahitian love of beauty, which finds ample inspiration in their South Seas landscape, expresses itself in wood carvings which reveal a strong artistic sense. Great care is taken in the style and form of these carvings, but there is surprisingly little interest in color, and most Tahitian artists prefer natural tones rather than bright or contrasting colors.

Tahitians follow an easy daily routine, taking a light meal in the morning, resting in the afternoon, and feasting in the evening. Because of the heavy emphasis on status - which invades even the household where important differences of rank exist even between brothers according to the priority of birth - most social relations are heavily regulated by tradition. Notwithstanding this, the Tahitian attitude toward sex is well known: commoners tend to look upon sex as a pleasurable pastime, rather like feasting. Although children of the genealogically-conscious nobility are the subject of arranged marriages, those of common parentage are permitted to choose their own mate, and premarital promiscuity is widespread. The concept of romantic love is regarded as childish, and although divorce is rare among royalty and nobility, marriages between commoners are very brittle. The children of broken marriages normally remain with their mother or with their mothers family. 


The Tahitians have a number of gods, and each island has its own favourites. Professional priests maintain elaborate temples where involved rituals are performed to the honor of the state gods and the ancestors of the kings and chieftains. In addition to the priests whose role it is to supervise the ritual ceremonies, there are also a number of diviners and oracles who serve as a medium for the gods by interpreting omens or allowing a god to express himself through their voices. As in many other Polynesian islands, the temples are taboo to commoners, who are obliged to congregate outside the temple precincts while royalty and nobility worship inside. Frequent sacrifices are made to the gods: pigs and dogs being the most customary offering, but following a war, human prisoners are also sacrificed in a thanksgiving ritual. Attention to ritual detail in all ceremonies is greatly emphasized in Polynesian religion, and if any error is made, the entire ceremony has to be done over again.

The Polynesians believe in the existence of a human soul and envisage an afterlife for the souls of royalty and noblemen on a heavenly island of peace and plenty, situated somewhere over the western horizon in the direction of the ancestral homelands. Thus the ghosts of royalty and nobility are not feared. On the other hand, the souls of commoners are believed to proceed to an underworld situated beneath the ocean. Since the world is not so happy a place as the paradise island to which the spirits of the nobility retire, it is believed that the ghosts of commoners often return during the night to visit the world of the living. All funeral rituals are carefully attended to, in an attempt to ensure that in the case of dead royalty the spirit will reach its joyous destination safely, and to ensure that in the case of commoners the spirit will be securely consigned to its predestined underworld, thus freeing the living from its unwelcome attentions as a ghost. While attention to ritual detail ensures the success of the project, the ghosts of man who remain unburied, such as those of men who are drowned at sea, pose a constant problem, haunting their old homelands and threatening harm to the living.  

Polynesian Voyaging
The Trail of Plants and Animals
Polynesia Home Page
Samoa Home Page
Samoa Postcards and Picture Galleries
Oceania Postcards and Picture Galleries
Jane's Oceania Home Page
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
Pacific Islands Radio Stations
Jane's Oceania Travel Page
Please enter your email address for your free Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter!


Hosted By Topica

 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 30th April 2011)
  yahoo.gif (465 bytes)
eXTReMe Tracker