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Munafa ebook

Munafa ebook

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Sir Edward Tylor begins the chapters on Animism in that great work which laid the foundation of the modern study of the history of civilization, by a discussion of the evidence for the existence of tribes destitute of religion. In some half-dozen pages he easily shows that the existence of such tribes, "though in theory possible, and perhaps in fact true, does not at present rest on that sufficient proof which, for an exceptional state of things, we are entitled to demand." He convicts travellers and missionaries who have made the assertion, of contradicting themselves; and he renders probable that the denial of religion to peoples in the lower culture is begotten of a perverted judgement in theological matters, and "the use of wide words in narrow senses."

Other causes are equally prolific of error in regard to savage beliefs. Sir Edward Tylor refers to haste and imperfect acquaintance by the traveller with the people whose beliefs he is professing to repeat. These are obvious causes on which it is needless to dwell. Many peoples, too, are accustomed out of mere politeness to endeavour to divine what sort of answer to his remarks will please a guest, or what sort of answer an enquirer expects to his questions, and to make it accordingly, regardless whether it has any relation to the facts or not. This courtier-like etiquette of agreement applies to every subject, and is emphasized when the enquirer is an official or social superior from whom favour may be looked for or displeasure apprehended. The Malayans, a jungle tribe of southern India, invariably say "Yes" in reply to a question by a government officer or a member of a higher caste, "believing that a negative answer might displease him." In such cases it is difficult to extract the truth on the most indifferent and trivial, to say nothing of weightier, matters.

Passing over these commonplaces, let us pause for a moment on another cause mentioned by Tylor, namely, the natural reluctance of savages to reveal "to the prying and contemptuous foreigner their worship of gods who seem to shrink, like their worshippers, before the white man and his mightier Deity." Very instructive is the account given by Kolben of the Hottentots. Writing in the early years of the eighteenth century, he says it is "a difficult thing to get out of the Hottentots what are really their notions concerning God and religion, or whether they have any at all. They keep all their religious opinions and ceremonies, as they do every other matter established among them, as secret as they can from Europeans, and when they are questioned concerning such matters are very shy in their answers and hide the truth as much as they can." They take refuge from questions in "a thousand fictions," which they excuse, when taxed with them, by alleging that "the Europeans are a crafty, designing people. They never ask a question for the sake of the answer only, but have other ends to serve, perhaps against the peace and security of the Hottentots." From this source, we are told, have sprung most of the contradictions to be found in authors upon the religion of the Hottentots. More than a hundred years after Kolben's day a British traveller, exploring Great Namaqualand under the auspices of the British Government and of the Royal Geographical Society, assembled some of the old men among the Namaqua and put them through an examination. His thirst for information was doubtless praiseworthy; and he was at least successful in proving, albeit unconsciously, the truth of the older traveller's words. For the proceeding he adopted affords a brilliant example of "how not to do it." I quote some of his questions: "What laws have the Namaqua?" Answer--"They have none; they only listen to their chiefs." "Do the people know anything of the stars?" Answer--"Nothing." "Do the Namaqua believe in lucky and unlucky days?" Answer--"They don't know anything of these things." "Are there rainmakers in the land?" Answer--"None." "What do the old Namaqua think becomes of people when they die?" Answer--"They know nothing of these things; all they see is that the people die and are buried, but what becomes of them they know not; and before the missionaries came to the Great River the people had never heard of another world."

Many European casuists justify one who is questioned concerning matters he desires to keep secret, and who meets the inquisitive person with a falsehood. It cannot therefore be surprising that these poor Hottentots thus took advantage of the only defence open to them when they found their most cherished beliefs and customs the subject of impertinent and bungling interrogations by an unsympathetic intruder into their country. Their Bantu neighbours do the same. The Kaffir, we are told, "dislikes to find Europeans investigating his customs, and he usually hides all he can from them and takes a sportive pleasure in baffling and misleading them." When questioned by Andersson, the Ovambo denied that they had any belief, or abruptly stopped him with a "Hush!" Prying of this kind is rarely welcomed even among peoples on a much higher plane of civilization. Not to appeal to our own feelings, we may take as an illustration a people of the Far East. To question a native of Korea concerning custom or belief at once arouses his suspicions. Indeed, for a stranger to enquire the number of houses in a village, or what the land produces, needs much tact if bad feeling is to be avoided. A missionary who lived for many years in the country was of opinion that people are unconscious of their customs. At any rate a Korean asked suddenly about a certain custom will in all likelihood deny that such a thing exists; and yet he may be absolutely free from dishonesty in the matter: he is simply unconscious, he has never thought about it.

To this point we will return directly: our present point is the conscious refusal of information. And here it should be noted that savages, as well as others, do not hide their beliefs only because they do not understand the motive of enquiry, or because they are afraid of ridicule or of the denunciations of the missionary, even where the Christian priest can call down the thunderbolt of the magistrate. These reasons operate, but not alone. From all quarters of the world comes the report that the native is uncommunicative. The Lengua Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco are quite aware that their "superstition is regarded with disfavour by the missionaries"; but they are naturally "very reticent in these matters," and their reticence is only heightened--not caused--by this knowledge. An excellent illustration of the difficulty of discovering the beliefs and even the practices of savages is afforded by Mr Batchelor, a missionary who, having resided among the Ainu of Japan for more than twelve years, wrote an interesting book upon them. He naturally supposed that so long a residence and intimacy with them entitled him to think he knew practically all that could be told about them. Alas for the fallibility of even a careful observer! There was one chamber in the mind of every Ainu which he had not explored. When another twelve years had elapsed he wrote that "when writing that book I must frankly confess that I had no idea, nor had I for many years after, that ophiolatry was practised at all by this people." And all the while the Ainu whom he knew so well were holding beliefs, relating myths, and practising rites of which he had not the least suspicion. Nor is there any reason to suggest that they were concealing those things from him out of fear of ridicule or clerical reproofs.

Deeper reasons exist. German missionaries have been labouring for a number of years among the tribes on the north-eastern coast of New Guinea. In view of the various difficulties attending the investigation of the beliefs of these tribes the latest scientific explorer of the country called in the aid of some of the more experienced of the missionaries. He thus sums up the position: "The heathen Papuan is a reticent fellow, and no power in the world can move him to disclose the secrets of his fathers. He has too much fear of the vengeance of the spirits and of the sorcerers, who would infallibly kill him if he betrayed the smallest thing. Long years of work accomplished with endless patience have been necessary to convince the Black that sorcery is powerless,--that it is all lies and deceit. Only if he is about to be baptized will he voluntarily deliver up to his teacher his knowledge of witchcraft and its methods. In plain terms, he feels the need on this point to lighten both his conscience and his pocket." Reasons of this order have never been better put than by an eminent French anthropologist whose untimely death a few years ago was a serious blow to the cause of science. Reviewing the work of a lady for whom English colleagues yet mourn, he says: "The savage does not like to speak of his belief; he fears the contemptuous mockery of the Whites. Perhaps, too, he fears to give an advantage over himself, in allowing more to be known than is fitting of the rites by which he tries to conciliate the benevolence of the spirits, or to turn away their disfavour from his hut and his plantations. To make known his resources for the fight would be to half-disarm him; surrounded with supernatural dangers, he does not willingly indicate the supernatural means by which he guarantees himself against them." One other reason may be added to these: a reason probably operative in many more cases than enquirers have been aware of. The things after which they ask are often revealed only to the initiate. An outsider, one who is not known to be, or at least treated as, an initiate, will seek in vain by means direct or indirect for information on these matters. A stony silence or repeated lies are all he will get. This has been the cause of much mystification and many contradictory statements about tribes in various parts of the world, not the least in Australia.

It is not suggested, of course, that all contradictory statements emanate from the deliberate mystification of non-initiate enquirers. We have not by any means exhausted the causes of error in regard to savage beliefs. Contradictory statements are made in good faith because those who make them hold contradictory beliefs. On the subject, for example, of the future life the mutually destructive character of the beliefs often held by the same tribes, and even by the same individuals, is one of the truisms of anthropology. The Zulus and their neighbours hold that their dead are to be recognized in the form of various animals, notably snakes, that haunt the tomb or the abodes of the living, and yet that these very dead dwell in the bowels of the earth, presiding in patriarchal fashion over shadowy kraals, and rejoicing in the possession of herds of sky-blue kine with red and white spots. Moreover, notwithstanding this wealth of cattle, they are dependent, if not for their continued existence, at least for their comfort, on the sacrifices offered by their descendants. The truth is that "the whole spirit-world is one of haze and uncertainty." This opinion, expressed by an experienced missionary, is true of all savage and barbarous nations. It is not merely the doctrine of souls that is difficult to understand fully and to state clearly: all the relations with the supernatural are shifting; and the supernatural itself melts away into mist and gloom and the undefined terrors of night.

Proof of the mental capacity of peoples in the lower culture, and their alertness within the narrow range of their appetites, their bodily needs, and the warfare they wage for existence against untoward environment of various kinds, is to be found in every record of exploration, in the reports of every missionary. Beyond that range there are differences between races, as between individuals, in reasoning power, in curiosity, and in general development. Some cause to us unknown may have turned the thoughts of one people into profounder and subtler channels than those of another. We are told of two neighbouring tribes in California that their differences are very striking, and are based on deep-lying racial factors. The mythology of the one is more dramatic, that of the other is more metaphysical, exhibiting "more of the power of abstract thought and intellectual conception." We must beware of reading too extensive a meaning into what is after all merely a comparison of characteristics. It is adduced here for the sole purpose of illustrating the statement that such differences exist even between tribes that are subject to similar external influences. In spite of these differences the unanimous verdict, alike of missionaries and explorers, scientific enquirers and traders, given with tiresome iteration, is that of dormant faculties, want of interest, inability to follow a train of thought, and dislike of intellectual effort. These are qualities that we are sufficiently familiar with at home to render them fully credible in "the poor heathen." Ask a man anywhere--ask a Zulu, ask an English peasant--why such and such a thing is done. He will tell you: "It is the custom," and will look at you with wondering eyes that you can demand a reason or dream of any alternative as possible. Custom to him is more than a second nature. It is nature itself, the established order, the cosmos. To conceive of departure from it would entail a greater burden of thought than he has ever undertaken or would willingly bear. It may even be so much a part of his existence that, like the Korean referred to above, he is barely conscious of it.

In such a case the custom may be denied in perfect good faith. Sometimes, it is true, another cause may lead to the denial. This is well illustrated in a recent work on the Holy Land. The author, speaking of local variations of custom, says: "The small area in which peculiar customs occur, and the comparative isolation of these areas which still prevails, make it often extremely difficult to ascertain local customs and usages. Many of these can only be discovered accidentally or by long residence in the particular locality. The people of neighbouring villages may be quite unaware of the existence of a certain custom, while only a few miles away it may be very familiar. I have known intelligent, educated natives to be entirely ignorant of certain customs, and even to deny their existence, because they were not in vogue in their own particular district, whereas further enquiry or fuller acquaintance with other parts revealed the fact that they were perfectly familiar to others." Here the expression "intelligent, educated natives" must be interpreted of course by reference to the standard of intelligence and education in the rural parts of a country so backward as Palestine. In such a case the ignorance by natives described as intelligent and educated of customs quite different from, and perhaps opposed to, their own may be due to the concentration of their faculties in the struggle for daily needs, or the absorption of their interests in the concerns of their own little community. Millions of men and women in our country, who may be fairly described, by reference to their class and occupation, as "intelligent, educated natives," are quite ignorant--and supremely indifferent--about everything not pertaining to their material well-being, their habitual amusements, the affairs of their little town, their family or their church, or the latest scandal whispered in their tiny coterie. These fill up their life; they have neither leisure nor inclination to worry about anything beyond. We cannot, therefore, be surprised that where the facilities for communication are smaller and the general indigence greater, similar mental indolence may exist. Economic causes, the product themselves of the environment, are often responsible for internal conditions, and cannot be disentangled from them. Intelligent curiosity about things not immediately or apparently affecting ourselves is a rare virtue, and of late development. We ourselves often deem that we pay it abundant homage by witnessing the exhibition of a few lantern slides, or slumbering tranquilly through a lecture on Dante. But to it, if rightly and strenuously pursued, we owe how much of modern discovery and the amenities of civilization! Let us, however, return to our savages.

Of the Nootkas or Ahts of Vancouver Island we are told by Sproat in a passage that has often been quoted that he "had abundant proof in conversing with them about matters in which they took an interest, that their mental capacities are by no means small. It is true that the native mind, to an educated man, seems generally to be asleep; and if you suddenly ask a novel question, you have to repeat it while the mind of the savage is awaking, and to speak with emphasis until he has got your meaning. This may partly arise from the questioner's imperfect knowledge of the language; still, I think, not entirely, as the savage may be observed occasionally to become forgetful when voluntarily communicating information. On his attention being fully aroused he often shows much quickness in reply and ingenuity in argument. But a short conversation wearies him, particularly if questions are asked that require efforts of thought or memory on his part. The mind of the savage then appears to rock to and fro out of mere weakness, and he tells lies and talks nonsense." On this Professor Boas, the distinguished American anthropologist, comments thus: "I happen to know through personal contact the tribes mentioned by Sproat. The questions put by the traveller seem mostly trifling to the Indian; and he naturally soon tires of a conversation carried on in a foreign language, and one in which he finds nothing to interest him. As a matter of fact, the interest of those natives can easily be raised to a high pitch, and I have often been the one who was wearied out first. Neither does the management of their intricate system of exchange prove mental inertness in matters which concern the natives. Without mnemonic aids, they plan the systematic distribution of their property in such a manner as to increase their wealth and social position. These plans require great foresight and constant application."

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