« Prev Lecture III. Note A.—P. 75. Primitive Fetishism… Next »



The theory of a gradual ascent in religion from a primitive Fetishism through . Polytheism to Monotheism, made familiar by Auguste Comte, and repeated with unquestioning faith by writers like Mr. Clodd and Mr. S. Laing, receives scant countenance from the best recent authorities. Certainly, no case has been found in which it is possible to trace historically such an evolution. I cite a few statements and opinions on the subject, and on the rival theories of Ghost-worship, Totemism, etc.

Principal Fairbairn, speaking of this class of theories in general, says: “They assume a theory of development which has not a single historical instance to verify it. Examples are wanted of people who have grown, without foreign influence, from Atheism into Fetishism, and from it through the intermediate stages into Monotheism; and until such examples be given, hypotheses claiming to be ‘Natural Histories of Religion’ must be judged hypotheses still.”—Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, p. 12.

Mr. Max Miller, speaking as an expert, condemns the theory of a primitive Fetishism. He says: “If it has never been proved, and perhaps, according to the nature of the case, can never be proved, that Fetishism in Africa, or elsewhere, was ever in any sense of the word a primary form of religion, neither has it been shown that Fetishism constituted anywhere, whether in Africa or elsewhere, the whole of a people’s religion. Though our knowledge of the religion of the negroes is still very imperfect, yet I believe I may say that, wherever there has been an opportunity of ascertaining, by long and patient intercourse, the religious sentiments even of the lowest savage tribes, no tribe has ever been found without something beyond mere worship of fetishes. . . . I maintain that Fetishism was a corruption of religion in Africa, as elsewhere; that the negro is capable of higher religious ideas than the worship of stocks and stones; and that many tribes who believe in fetishes cherish at the same time very pure, very exalted, and very true sentiments of the Deity.”—Is Fetishism a Primitive Form of Religion? Lecture II. p. 105 (Hibbert Lectures).


In his more recent Lectures he reiterates this view: “If one considers,” he says, “what Fetishism really is, namely, the very last stage in the downward course of religion, this attempt to make a little-understood superstition of some modern negro tribes the key to the religion of Greeks and Romans, nay of the most civilised nations of the world, is perfectly marvellous—Natural Religion, p. 159. Again: “Fetishism, from its very nature, cannot be primitive, because it always presupposes the previous growth of the Divine predicate. As to the Fetishism of modern negroes, we know now that it represents the very lowest stage which religion can reach, whether in Africa or any other part of the world; and I know of no case, even among the most degraded of negro tribes, where remnants of a higher religious belief have not been discovered by the side of this degraded belief in amulets, talismans, and fetishes. The idea of De Brosses and his followers, that Fetishism could reveal to us the very primordia of religious thought, will remain for ever one of the strangest cases of self-delusion, and one of the boldest anachronisms committed by students of the history of religions.”—Ibid. pp. 219, 220.

Mr. Herbert Spencer passes the same judgment. Repudiating Mr. Harrison’s theory of an original Fetishism, he says: “An induction, based on over a hundred examples, warrants me in saying that there has never existed anywhere such a religion as that which Mr. Harrison ascribes to ‘ countless millions of men,’ during ‘countless centuries of time.’ . . . I have shown that, whereas among the lowest races, such as the Juangs, Andamanese, Fuegians, Australians, Tasmanians, and Bushmen, there is no Fetishism, Fetishism reaches its greatest height in considerably advanced societies, like those of ancient Peru and modern India. . . . And I have remarked that, had Fetishism been conspicuous among the lowest races, and inconspicuous among the higher, the statement that it was primordial might have been held proved; but that, as the fact happens to be exactly the opposite, the statement is conclusively disproved—Nineteenth Century, xvi. pp. 8, 9.

This also is Pfleiderer’s opinion: “In presence of these facts, the ‘evolution theory,’ as hitherto stated, which finds the beginnings of religion in Fetishism and Animism, appears to me to he as much wanting in evidence as it is psychologically impossible.”—Religionsphilosophie, lii. p. 16 (Eng. trans.).

But then Mr.. Spencer’s Ghost theory, which he (and now also Dr. Tyler) propounds as a substitute for that of a primitive Fetishism, meets with an equally decisive rejection at the hands of Mr. Harrison, Max Muller, and other influential writers. “I shall say but little about Mr. Spencer’s Ghost theory,” says Mr. Harrison; “I have always held it to be one of the most unlucky of all his sociologic doctrines, and that on psychological as well as on historical grounds. . . . It is certain that the believers in the Ghost theory, as the origin of all forms of religion, are few and far between. The difficulties in the way of it are enormous. Mr. 411Spencer laboriously tries to persuade us that the worship of the sun and the moon arose, not from man’s reverence for these great and beautiful powers of nature, but solely as they were thought to be the abodes of the disembodied spirits of dead ancestors. Animal worship, tree amid plant worship, Fetishism, the Confucian worship of heaven—all, he would have us believe, take their religion entirely from the idea that these objects contain the spirits of the dead. If this is not ‘persistent thinking along defined grooves,’ I know not what it is.”—Nineteenth Century, xvi. pp. 362, 363.

Max Muller subjects the theory to an historical examination in his Lectures on Anthropological Religion, and rejects it as based on totally mistaken data. “Granting even,” he says, “that there are races whose religion consists of ancestor worship only, though, as at present informed, I know of none, would that prove that the worship of nature-gods must everywhere he traced hack to ancestor worship? . . . If a pleader may tell a judge that he has been misinformed as to facts, surely we may claim the same privilege, without being guilty of any want of respect towards a man who, in his own sphere, has done such excellent work. I make no secret that I consider the results of Mr. H. Spencer’s one-sided explanation of the origin of religion as worthy of the strongest condemnation which a love of truth can dictate.”—Lecture V. pp. 13–2, 133.

See also the examination of this theory in Pfleiderer’s Religionsphilosophie, iii. pp. 12–16.

M. Renouf has said: “If from pre-historic we pass to historic times, we at once meet on Egyptian ground with an entire system of notions wonderfully (indeed almost incredibly) similar to those entertained by our Indo-European ancestors. There is, however, no confirmation of Mr. Herbert Spencer’s theory, that the rudimentary form of all religion is the propitiation of dead ancestors. If the Egyptians passed through such a rudimentary form of religion, they had already got beyond it in the age of the Pyramids, for their most ancient propitiation of ancestors is made through prayer to Anubis, Osiris, or some other gods.”—Hibbert Lectures, p. 127.

Totemism, or belief in descent from animals worshipped as Divine, is another phase of explanation of the origin of religion which also meets with little favour from the authorities. “Totemism is one of those pseudo-scientific terms,” says Max Muller, “which have done infinite harm to the study of mythology.”—Anthropological Religion, p. 408. See his remarks on it in this work, pp. 121–124; and in Natural Religion, p. 159. A careful examination of Professor W. R. Smith’s theory of Totemism, as applied to the Semitic religions, may be seen in an article already referred to in the Edinburgh Review for April 1892 (art. “Semitic Religions “). M. Renouf remarks on another advocate of the Totem theory: “Many of you have probably read Mr. M’Lellan’s articles on the ‘Worship of Animals and Plants.’ In order to show that the ancient nations passed through what he calls the Totem stage, 412which he says must have been in pre-historic times, be appeals to the signs of the Zodiac. . . . Mr. M’Lellan is here more than half a century behind his age,” etc. And a note adds: “All Mr. M’Lellan’s statements about the ancient nations are based on equally worthless authorities.”—Hibbert Lectures, pp. 29, 30.

Max Muller, Pfleiderer, Reville, and others reject all these theories, and find the commencement of religion in the worship of the greater objects of nature—such as mountains, rivers, the sun, the sky, etc. But if the other theories begin too low, does not this begin too high, on the supposition that man started as a savage, and that there was no primitive Revelation? May not the advocate of Fetishism reply that man must be already far on in his career of development before this grander style of worship, which demands a highly evolved imagination, is possible to him? And is this view historically supported, any more than the others? Do not the facts point to a higher origin for man, and to a purer primitive perception of the Divine than these theories allow? See next Note, and Note F. to Lecture V.

« Prev Lecture III. Note A.—P. 75. Primitive Fetishism… Next »


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |