The Golden Bough HTML version

Chapter 27. Succession to the Soul
TO THE VIEW that in early times, and among barbarous races, kings have frequently
been put to death at the end of a short reign, it may be objected that such a custom would
tend to the extinction of the royal family. The objection may be met by observing, first,
that the kingship is often not confined to one family, but may be shared in turn by
several; second, that the office is frequently not hereditary, but is open to men of any
family, even to foreigners, who may fulfil the requisite conditions, such as marrying a
princess or vanquishing the king in battle; and, third, that even if the custom did tend to
the extinction of a dynasty, that is not a consideration which would prevent its
observance among people less provident of the future and less heedful of human life than
ourselves. Many races, like many individuals, have indulged in practices which must in
the end destroy them. The Polynesians seem regularly to have killed two-thirds of their
children. In some parts of East Africa the proportion of infants massacred at birth is said
to be the same. Only children born in certain presentations are allowed to live. The Jagas,
a conquering tribe in Angola, are reported to have put to death all their children, without
exception, in order that the women might not be cumbered with babies on the march.
They recruited their numbers by adopting boys and girls of thirteen or fourteen years of
age, whose parents they had killed and eaten. Among the Mbaya Indians of South
America the women used to murder all their children except the last, or the one they
believed to be the last. If one of them had another child afterwards, she killed it. We need
not wonder that this practice entirely destroyed a branch of the Mbaya nation, who had
been for many years the most formidable enemies of the Spaniards. Among the Lengua
Indians of the Gran Chaco, the missionaries discovered what they describe as a carefully
planned system of racial suicide, by the practice of infanticide by abortion, and other
methods. Nor is infanticide the only mode in which a savage tribe commits suicide. A
lavish use of the poison ordeal may be equally effective. Some time ago a small tribe
named Uwet came down from the hill country, and settled on the left branch of the
Calabar River in West Africa. When the missionaries first visited the place, they found
the population considerable, distributed into three villages. Since then the constant use of
the poison ordeal has almost extinguished the tribe. On one occasion the whole
population took poison to prove their innocence. About half perished on the spot, and the
remnant, we are told, still continuing their superstitious practice, must soon become
extinct. With such examples before us we need not hesitate to believe that many tribes
have felt no scruple or delicacy in observing a custom which tends to wipe out a single
family. To attribute such scruples to them is to commit the common, the perpetually
repeated mistake of judging the savage by the standard of European civilisation. If any of
my readers set out with the notion that all races of men think and act much in the same
way as educated Englishmen, the evidence of superstitious belief and custom collected in
this work should suffice to disabuse him of so erroneous a prepossession.
The explanation here given of the custom of killing divine persons assumes, or at least is
readily combined with, the idea that the soul of the slain divinity is transmitted to his
successor. Of this transmission I have no direct proof except in the case of the Shilluk,
among whom the practice of killing the divine king prevails in a typical form, and with