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The Golden Bough

Chapter 23. Our Debt to the Savage
IT would be easy to extend the list of royal and priestly taboos, but the instances
collected in the preceding pages may suffice as specimens. To conclude this part of our
subject it only remains to state summarily the general conclusions to which our enquiries
have thus far conducted us. We have seen that in savage or barbarous society there are
often found men to whom the superstition of their fellows ascribes a controlling influence
over the general course of nature. Such men are accordingly adored and treated as gods.
Whether these human divinities also hold temporal sway over the lives and fortunes of
their adorers, or whether their functions are purely spiritual and supernatural, in other
words, whether they are kings as well as gods or only the latter, is a distinction which
hardly concerns us here. Their supposed divinity is the essential fact with which we have
to deal. In virtue of it they are a pledge and guarantee to their worshippers of the
continuance and orderly succession of those physical phenomena upon which mankind
depends for subsistence. Naturally, therefore, the life and health of such a god-man are
matters of anxious concern to the people whose welfare and even existence are bound up
with his; naturally he is constrained by them to conform to such rules as the wit of early
man has devised for averting the ills to which flesh is heir, including the last ill, death.
These rules, as an examination of them has shown, are nothing but the maxims with
which, on the primitive view, every man of common prudence must comply if he would
live long in the land. But while in the case of ordinary men the observance of the rules is
left to the choice of the individual, in the case of the god-man it is enforced under penalty
of dismissal from his high station, or even of death. For his worshippers have far too
great a stake in his life to allow him to play fast and loose with it. Therefore all the quaint
superstitions, the old-world maxims, the venerable saws which the ingenuity of savage
philosophers elaborated long ago, and which old women at chimney corners still impart
as treasures of great price to their descendants gathered round the cottage fire on winter
eveningsall these antique fancies clustered, all these cobwebs of the brain were spun
about the path of the old king, the human god, who, immeshed in them like a fly in the
toils of a spider, could hardly stir a limb for the threads of custom, light as air but strong
as links of iron, that crossing and recrossing each other in an endless maze bound him
fast within a network of observances from which death or deposition alone could release
Thus to students of the past the life of the old kings and priests teems with instruction. In
it was summed up all that passed for wisdom when the world was young. It was the
perfect pattern after which every man strove to shape his life; a faultless model
constructed with rigorous accuracy upon the lines laid down by a barbarous philosophy.
Crude and false as that philosophy may seem to us, it would be unjust to deny it the merit
of logical consistency. Starting from a conception of the vital principle as a tiny being or
soul existing in, but distinct and separable from, the living being, it deduces for the
practical guidance of life a system of rules which in general hangs well together and
forms a fairly complete and harmonious whole. The flawand it is a fatal oneof the system
lies not in its reasoning, but in its premises; in its conception of the nature of life, not in
any irrelevancy of the conclusions which it draws from that conception. But to stigmatise