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Chapter 18. The Perils of the Soul
1. The Soul as a Mannikin
THE FOREGOING examples have taught us that the office of a sacred king or priest is
often hedged in by a series of burdensome restrictions or taboos, of which a principal
purpose appears to be to preserve the life of the divine man for the good of his people.
But if the object of the taboos is to save his life, the question arises, How is their
observance supposed to effect this end? To understand this we must know the nature of
the danger which threatens the king's life, and which it is the intention of these curious
restrictions to guard against. We must, therefore, ask: What does early man understand by
death? To what causes does he attribute it? And how does he think it may be guarded
As the savage commonly explains the processes of inanimate nature by supposing that
they are produced by living beings working in or behind the phenomena, so he explains
the phenomena of life itself. If an animal lives and moves, it can only be, he thinks,
because there is a little animal inside which moves it: if a man lives and moves, it can
only be because he has a little man or animal inside who moves him. The animal inside
the animal, the man inside the man, is the soul. And as the activity of an animal or man is
explained by the presence of the soul, so the repose of sleep or death is explained by its
absence; sleep or trance being the temporary, death being the permanent absence of the
soul. Hence if death be the permanent absence of the soul, the way to guard against it is
either to prevent the soul from leaving the body, or, if it does depart, to ensure that it shall
return. The precautions adopted by savages to secure one or other of these ends take the
form of certain prohibitions or taboos, which are nothing but rules intended to ensure
either the continued presence or the return of the soul. In short, they are life-preservers or
life-guards. These general statements will now be illustrated by examples.
Addressing some Australian blacks, a European missionary said, I am not one, as you
think, but two. Upon this they laughed. You may laugh as much as you like, continued
the missionary, I tell you that I am two in one; this great body that you see is one; within
that there is another little one which is not visible. The great body dies, and is buried, but
the little body flies away when the great one dies. To this some of the blacks replied, Yes,
yes. We also are two, we also have a little body within the breast. On being asked where
the little body went after death, some said it went behind the bush, others said it went into
the sea, and some said they did not know. The Hurons thought that the soul had a head
and body, arms and legs; in short, that it was a complete little model of the man himself.
The Esquimaux believe that the soul exhibits the same shape as the body it belongs to,
but is of a more subtle and ethereal nature. According to the Nootkas the soul has the
shape of a tiny man; its seat is the crown of the head. So long as it stands erect, its owner
is hale and hearty; but when from any cause it loses its upright position, he loses his
senses. Among the Indian tribes of the Lower Fraser River, man is held to have four
souls, of which the principal one has the form of a mannikin, while the other three are
shadows of it. The Malays conceive the human soul as a little man, mostly invisible and