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The Golden Bough

Chapter 7. Incarnate Human Gods
THE INSTANCES which in the preceding chapters I have drawn from the beliefs and
practices of rude peoples all over the world, may suffice to prove that the savage fails to
recognise those limitations to his power over nature which seem so obvious to us. In a
society where every man is supposed to be endowed more or less with powers which we
should call supernatural, it is plain that the distinction between gods and men is
somewhat blurred, or rather has scarcely emerged. The conception of gods as
superhuman beings endowed with powers to which man possesses nothing comparable in
degree and hardly even in kind, has been slowly evolved in the course of history. By
primitive peoples the supernatural agents are not regarded as greatly, if at all, superior to
man; for they may be frightened and coerced by him into doing his will. At this stage of
thought the world is viewed as a great democracy; all beings in it, whether natural or
supernatural, are supposed to stand on a footing of tolerable equality. But with the growth
of his knowledge man learns to realise more clearly the vastness of nature and his own
littleness and feebleness in presence of it. The recognition of his helplessness does not,
however, carry with it a corresponding belief in the impotence of those supernatural
beings with which his imagination peoples the universe. On the contrary, it enhances his
conception of their power. For the idea of the world as a system of impersonal forces
acting in accordance with fixed and invariable laws has not yet fully dawned or darkened
upon him. The germ of the idea he certainly has, and he acts upon it, not only in magic
art, but in much of the business of daily life. But the idea remains undeveloped, and so far
as he attempts to explain the world he lives in, he pictures it as the manifestation of
conscious will and personal agency. If then he feels himself to be so frail and slight, how
vast and powerful must he deem the beings who control the gigantic machinery of nature!
Thus as his old sense of equality with the gods slowly vanishes, he resigns at the same
time the hope of directing the course of nature by his own unaided resources, that is, by
magic, and looks more and more to the gods as the sole repositories of those supernatural
powers which he once claimed to share with them. With the advance of knowledge,
therefore, prayer and sacrifice assume the leading place in religious ritual; and magic,
which once ranked with them as a legitimate equal, is gradually relegated to the
background and sinks to the level of a black art. It is not regarded as an encroachment, at
once vain and impious, on the domain of the gods, and as such encounters the steady
opposition of the priests, whose reputation and influence rise or fall with those of their
gods. Hence, when at a late period the distinction between religion and superstition has
emerged, we find that sacrifice and prayer are the resource of the pious and enlightened
portion of the community, while magic is the refuge of the superstitious and ignorant. But
when, still later, the conception of the elemental forces as personal agents is giving way
to the recognition of natural law; then magic, based as it implicitly is on the idea of a
necessary and invariable sequence of cause and effect, independent of personal will,
reappears from the obscurity and discredit into which it had fallen, and by investigating
the causal sequences in nature, directly prepares the way for science. Alchemy leads up to
chemistry.
 
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