MYTH AND TOTEMISM AS PRIMITIVE
MODES OF REPRESENTATION

by
Gerald Massey

(First published National Review, 12 October 1888, pp. 238-259.)


In his recent well-written study of Myth, Ritual, and Religion[1], Mr. Andrew Lang has said much concerning the irrationality, the non-naturalness, and the grossness of mythology in general, and of savage myth in particular. He asserts, and strenuously insists, that 'everything in the civilized mythologies which we regard as irrational seems only part of the accepted and natural order of things to contemporary savages, concerning whom we have historical information.'[2]  He describes the savage mythos as being a 'jungle of foolish fancies, a Walpurgis Nacht of gods and beasts and men and stars and ghosts, all moving madly on a level of common personality and animation, and all changing shapes at random' in a 'burlesque ballet of Priapus,' where 'everything may be anything; where nature has no laws, and imagination no limits.'[3]

This state of things, or the appearance of such a state of things, which, as we shall see, is very widely different, he attributes to 'savage beliefs,' 'savage fancies,' 'savage conceptions,' and 'savage confusions,' which survive from a condition of primordial savagery—in short, to the primitive perversion, if not the original sin or 'cussedness' of savage nature, that from the beginning persisted in prepensely going against the commonest testimony of the simplest senses in everyday matters of fact.  The great and prevalent mistake here made is a result of assuming that the non-natural features of mythology in its latest phases are anything like a faithful reflection of the primal mental condition of aboriginal men in some apocryphal past, when everything in nature could be seen non-naturally, and anything believed in which could not be seen. The mirror might have been trusted more if these things had been a direct survival. But they are not; and it is we who are being befooled by this mode of producing evidence that savages are the living representatives of a primordial race of born natural-fools.

Before we attempt to measure the intellectual status, or determine the mental condition and standpoint, of the men who first thought and spoke mythically, we must at least learn something of their symbolical mode of language. The symbolism is not a veil with which a more refined age sought to cover the rudeness of reality; myth and symbol are twin brothers from the birth.  It is the mode more than the matter which makes the mythos. Much that appears irrational when the matter is taken literally may become congruous and rational when we can understand the indirect method of representation. And if it can be shown that a primitive mode of expression has become the later mould of thought, it follows that the later thought or belief may be no true guide to, or criterion of, the earlier standpoint.

According to the mythic mode, then, one thing can be equated by another to express the unknown by the known, as serpent = lightning, scorpion = sunstroke, crocodile = darkness, cow = mother, beetle = creator, cat = moon, hawk = sun, ape = typhoon, or hippopotamus = deluge. But supposing we are unable to read this hieroglyphical language, and have no misgivings on the score of our importance, it is just possible that we may transfer our own mental mist of confusion to the primitive or other misrepresented man, and charge him with not knowing a serpent from the lightning-stroke, the scarabaeus from a god, a woman from a cow, or big B from a bull's foot. This is exactly what has been, and still is, done by writers who entirely misinterpret the primitive typology, and tell us that the early men made no distinction between themselves and the lower animals, but believed they could transform into each other at will because originally reversible, as if they were the natural prototypes of Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll. To us this ancient typology is one of the dead languages, and the oldest of them all.  But we can no more understand the ideas of primitive or uncivilized men in survival without mastering their earliest mode of expressing them, than we can read the language of gestures and hieroglyphics without first learning the current value of the signs. What are the reasons, with any root of reality in human experience, for thinking with Mr. Lang that there ever was a mental condition in which all that is irrational, monstrous, and non-natural nowadays could be looked upon as natural, everyday occurrences of old? It never could have been a matter of savage any more than civilized experience that men had the same nature or possessed the power to change shapes with the beasts. Dress themselves as they might in feathers, they never learned to fly; nor could they live under water, for all their totemic kinship with the water-cow or crocodile. And yet this is supposed to have been a common if not the universal 'belief', without any actual basis whatever, resulting, as Mr. Lang says, from the 'eternal confusion of the savage mind.'[4]

But surely there must be some other way of accounting for such perplexing appearances! The evolutionist, at least, may rest assured that early men were not the victims of that modern disease, subjectivity; not the sufferers from introspection or innate illusions; not the natural transformers of external objects into living subjects; but close clingers to their rock of reality rather than the self-deluded dreamers of vain dreams, or the fools of metaphysical fancies. If they had not secured a firm foothold, however slowly, on the ground of natural fact, however limited they could not have beaten out a practical pathway for those who followed after them.

The present contention is that there never was such an original savage as postulated, whose brain was turned by watching the whirl round of things which he could not keep up with; that there never existed such a mental condition as that of conscious myth-making men; that mythology does not begin with a series of rude guesses at an explanation of natural phenomena; and that, primarily, the myths are not attempts to account for the facts in nature, or to read the riddle of the universe, by way of satisfying a primordial crave of curiosity concerning the cause of things in general. It is in no wise probable that very early or savage men began by asking where the river came from, and then started off to seek its source. They drank of it as an element of life, or were drowned in it, and the power of drowning was imaged by the crocodile, hippopotamus, or other wide-jawed dweller in the waters. Mythology and zootypology are among the results deposited by the primitive mode of representation, but they do not offer reasons, and are not an explanation.

Explanation is the function of later science, not of the earliest observation. Simple explanation would not have needed so much explaining! It is this looking upon the myths as an explanation of natural phenomena, instead of a limited means of representation, that makes them appear so irrational at times, so unnatural. But those who have done this and denounced the 'myth-makers' as senseless, insane, obscene, and blasphemous, or suffering from mental aberration, have been spitting beside the mark. The senselessness of the Mythos comes in mainly where we have lost the sense.  It can certainly be demonstrated that the asserted tendency of the human mind to project itself and mould external phenomena in its own likeness does not go back to the beginnings of mythology, and that anthropomorphic representation was not the primary mode; it can further be shown that the natural genesis of myth was not in a faculty of non-natural conception or a primitive system of false explanation, but in a symbolical kind of representation which was necessitated for those who had to think in things and make use of signs when there was no other mode of expression. Here at starting there is a wide gulf fixed between mythology considered as a mode of representing phenomena, and mythology as a system of explaining it. In the one case we have the results of objective observation presented in a primitive phase of sign-language; in the other, a subjective interpretation of nature in the sphere of causation.

When the moon was represented by the cat who sees in the dark, or by the tadpole that transforms in the water, that implies no attempt at accounting for phenomena, no concern as to cause, no veiling of an esoteric meaning in a physical allegory.  And when the condemned soul in the Egyptian judgment scenes is compelled to enter into the black pig and be driven down into the abyss, that is the typological representation of its being typhonian, not a picture of the transmigration of human souls into the bodies of animals. Primitive mythology when 'simple of itself,' unadulterated or unperverted, was neither confused, immoral, insane, nor obscene.  It was nothing more than unmoral, with no pretence of moralizing. The phenomena represented belonged to external nature and were not human. The primary actors in its drama were not human beings, but the elements themselves, or the beasts, birds, reptiles, fishes or insects, the natural types of elemental powers, which were continued as ideographs in the representation of later ideas. The moderns do but apply a false standard if they consider that to be obscene which was only childish.  In the presence of primitive nature we have no call to keep on blushing publicly for shame; no need to foist a fig-leaf kind of consciousness on the face of very simple folk. Notwithstanding the physical nudity of Egyptian art, for example, the spirit of it is seriously pure.  It is perversion from intended use that is always and everywhere the most fatal cause of debasement and degradation. The comparative mythologist who is also an evolutionist has no business to speak of the 'barbarous and brutal disguises' in which the Egyptians veiled their deities, as if they had sought to vulgarise the divine. There is no meaning in such language when the course of development is properly apprehended.  They neither placed the animals on a level with man nor reduced the gods to the status of beasts; at least that is not the real clue to the mode of representation. This counter-postulate can be proved.

The Mother of the Beginnings is as general in mythology as she was in the totemic system of sociology. She is Typhon in Egypt, who is portrayed as the water-cow, or the crocodile, because she brought forth her brood of the nature-powers from the abyss. She is Tavthe or Tiamat in Babylonia, the dragon of the beginning, because this beginning with birth from the waters necessitated the water-type, whence the fish-mother. The water-cow as Typhon in Egypt was the primary form of the old first bringer-forth. Next the Great Mother as Hathor was the milch-cow. Lastly, the beast becomes a woman as the Mother-Nature. The bushman pantheon consists of zootypes with 'an old woman' as the fountainhead of all. The Mangaian Great Mother is the old woman named Vari-ma-takere, 'the very beginning.'  The Andaman Islanders trace their origin to the 'First Woman', who was found by Pulugu 'swimming about in the waters.' With the Eskimo all descent is from a 'nameless female' who has her dwelling deep under the sea. The beginning and mode of representation are identical in each form of the mythos, and the mother is the same whether imaged by the water-cow or crocodile, the nameless female under the sea—La Source—or the first woman 'swimming about in the waters' on the way to becoming the mythical mermaid. The Zulu tradition that men were not born but were belched forth by a cow, can be read right back to this beginning, whether as the cow on land or in the water.  As the cow the mother first gave the breath of life to men, or rather to the powers first born of nature; indeed, one form of these powers is described as the seven destroying winds or storm-spirits, like the seven Maruts of India; breath and spirit being at one time identical or synonymous. Those who related these things with knowledge were able to distinguish the elemental forces that could be 'belched up' like the seven winds or spirits of the tempest, whereas the later story­tellers unwittingly made them men and the First Mother a woman, instead of the dragon, the cow, or other animal.  This conversion of the zootype into the human being was a primary cause of the great confusion that has not hitherto been explained. For example, the first Great Mother when represented as a crocodile could bring forth the young of crocodiles without any violation of natural law. But when the same old genetrix gives birth in human form as Isis-Neith, and is portrayed in the act of nursing two crocodiles, we are then left to marvel in the maze of mythology. The same change from the zoomorphic to the anthropomorphic representation will account for the tradition of the African Balakai that it was a woman who gave birth to their totemic animals.

The elemental conflict of light and darkness was portrayed by means of two birds as zootypes of the air. In the Egyptian representation the bird of day is the golden hawk.  The bird of night is a black vulture called the Neh. The two are twinned together to typify the power of darkness and light in the double image of Sut-Horus.  These are paralleled by the crow and eagle of the Australian aborigines, which are in eternal conflict as the two natural opponents, whose contest as such is true to nature. Also as birds they are true to the elemental typology. Later on the representation is humanized, whilst the matter of the myth remains the same. Now the same phenomena are interpreted by human beings, and the two actors become the well-known twin-brothers as Sut and Osiris, Cain and Abel, or Gaunab and Tsuni-Goam, who are always seeking to slay each other. Here the venue is entirely changed. If the devourer of the lunar light be a jackal, wolf, or the dragon of eclipse, it does not matter morally; but when it comes to a brother killing his brother, or a son swallowing his own father, as Sut = Jackal is said to swallow Osiris; or the child Heitsi-Eibib violates his own mother; Rhea brings forth a fawn; Neith nurses twin-crocodiles; and these things are related as histories, whether human or divine, then the myth becomes obscene, or savage, or senseless.

The female in mythology, as in sociology, was the primary parent or producer. She, as we have seen, was the dragon of darkness, or the cow, that brought forth the child of light. Later on, her child, who was also her consort, attains to the supremacy of the individualized and causative fatherhood, whereupon his own mother-becomes his own daughter, and the mother, wife, and daughter of the Egyptian sun-god Ra, are all one! This will show how the matter of mythology may be, and has been, deposited by the mode of representation, and did not originate in false belief or natural nastiness. Thus we can comprehend how the non-human became inhuman, and the ante-human was changed into the anti-human, so that the matter of the primitive mythos can only be really read as prehuman. For instance, when the Athenians honoured as ancestors the men and women who were anciently transformed into birds, they were reversing the typology and handing it on by the wrong end.

The early observers of nature have been libelled by the misinterpreters of mythology, especially by those who have impotently applied the philological method of explanation to matters that were extant before either written or spoken language existed.

Professor Sayce, in his Hibbert Lectures, says: 'We find that primitive peoples confound (the stars) with animals, their automatic motions being apparently explicable by no other theory.'[5] Doubtless the human childhood had its puerilities, but one would think that such an explanation belongs rather to the second childhood of the race. Why should the silent Dog-star be mistaken for a barking dog, or still earlier, the howling jackal?  Surely no people, however primitive, could have thought or fancied the starry system turning round the pole was a real live serpent. They saw it glide round subtly as the reptile, and so we find it figured as the great polar serpent or dragon. The Dog-star in Egypt was first adopted as the watcher above, and therefore it was a typical announcer of the coming Nile, as the dog that watched and made the announcement.  The moon was only like a cat as the seer by night; or like a frog because it transformed. To suppose the Aborigines went upon direct likeness in these matters is not to correct the primitive ignorance by modern knowledge, but to confuse and obscure the ancient knowledge through modern ignorance of its mode of representation. Bird-men, bird-gods, and bird-ghosts were not begotten of belief; they are not creations or chimeras of early human fancy, nor grotesque conceptions of the savage mind, any more than is the sphinx, the centaur, or the seven-headed serpent, portrayed in Egypt, India, and Babylonia. When Berosus describes these compound types depicted on the walls of the Temple of Belus in Babylon, he calls them an allegorical description of nature[6]; they belong to the mythical mode of representing ideas in combination, and did not originate readymade in any form of savage belief. The one-legged people of the past were no false creations of belief, nor are they the abortions of verbal metaphor. One-legged was simply the image of an undivided stock.

Bleek tells us that the Bushmen believe or imagine that their sorcerers and magicians, i.e. the wise men, the wizards can and do assume the form of jackals![7] Now if we turn to the Egyptian hieroglyphics we find the jackal 'Seb' (which is also the wolf) is the zootype of wisdom, craft, and cunning.  His name signifies the councillor.  In fact, the jackal is the wise one, the magus in animal guise, but not in disguise. This shows how the wizard could transform into the jackal or be represented by and as the wolf. The type is the same whether as living animal or graven ideograph, although the primitive mode of imaging may come to be mistaken for the later belief or imagining.

Bosman speaks of the African belief that man was made by Anansie, a spider with ten legs.[8] It is also said that the Bushmen think that 'most things' were created by the mantis insect, Cagn, their Supreme Being.  But did these Africans believe or conceive, imagine or assume, that the Creator of most things—if not all—became incarnate in the mantis or the spider? Did the Egyptians believe that the world was made by a beetle when they imaged the Creator as Khepra the scarabaeus rolling up its little globe of earth as a nidus for its seed? Not at all. They were simple naturalists, who observed curiously, and named the beetle as the Former, and then applied the type to other modes of forming. Hence the Supreme Former or Creator could be and was at length represented by (or as) the beetle. In this way Egypt shows us how to read the typology of the spider and the mantis in Africa beyond. The spider manifested a power of weaving, of suspending itself, of bridging space, beyond the reach of man, and so was made use of in sign-language as the figure of a power beyond the human range.

We are told that the Maori believe the souls of the true and faithful dead can pass to Heaven by a bridge of gossamer filaments woven by the spider. The name of the insect is pun­gawerewere, from punga, 'to anchor,' and werewere, 'to be suspended.' This shows how the spider could become the type of an anchorage above, a hope fixed on heaven, a mode of crossing the gulf of death. And if we were to search all nature through, we should find no apter ideograph of an invisible power, whether considered as delusive and deadly, or as the likeness of life that may exist and lurk beyond appearance, than is to be found in the mantis faustus, which imitates the forms and colours of the leaves around, and thus presents a living effigy of that which is and is not according to appearance, an external type of the god who, like the beetle Khepr-Ptah, 'concealeth his form.' Speaking of the mysteries of the mantis Cagn, the Bushman Qing said to Mr. Orpen, 'Only the initiated men of that dance know these things.'[9] He, himself, did not dance that dance, or was not master of the Gnosis. Again, in the Egyptian hieroglyphics the dead are portrayed as the reversed or capsized.  Hence the soul of the deceased who finds that he lives on, exclaims, 'I do not walk on my head'[10]. He went down as one of the reversed, but has righted again. So it is with the Red men, who reverse the totemic figure on their grave-posts as the sign of the dead. The Maori likewise describe a spirit or atua as one who comes walking in a reverse position, and in that manner 'little Maui,' a mythical character, descends the hillside. In all three the description of the dead is identical. Again, we may ask if this is the result of a universal savage belief that such was the mode of locomotion practised by the departed, or does it belong to a typical phase of expression that was common to all three races—the very image being presented in nature by the dying moon that descends, with horns inverted, to the underworld in this reversed position of the dead, and looking like the boat capsized, which gets righted again with every reappearance of the new moon.

If the belief of the savage today be practically limitless, this mode of representing natural phenomena never did originate in primitive belief, or faith, however foolish. All the folly is inherent to the false interpretation, whether that be the work of savage or civilized ignorance. The aborigines of Victoria are credited with the belief that their wild dog at one time was able to talk; and in Egypt the dog, or dog-headed ape is the Speaker impersonated as Taht, the word, speech, or logos, of the later gods. Taht was the man in the moon, whose dog was the cynocephalus, i.e. the dog-headed clicking ape, and its mode of speaking was as the teller of time by the lunations. He is sometimes portrayed in the act of jotting down the dates, with a branch of date-palm for his tally; the talker and writer in one.

In another case it is the serpent that talks, as we meet with it in the Hebrew Book of Genesis. This likewise is one of the talkers in the hieroglyphics, where it is an ideograph of tet, the mouth, tongue, word, or speech. As the ru, or reptile, it is also synonymous with the mouth. A moment's thought will show that the serpent is all mouth, so to say, from its lack of other members. It is a mouth personified. As such it was adopted straight from nature as a mouth­sign, or mouth-piece, of speech, and became the serpent that talked, according to later 'belief,' or ignorance. Moreover, we may read upon the monuments some of the things it said. Because the serpent was seen to slough its skin periodically, it became the supreme type of 'renewal coming of itself.' It was worn as the symbol of reproduction in the phase of motherhood. It was an image of a  λιγγευεσια applied to the reproducing, fructifying, earth; a type of transformation in the lunar phenomena. It was set in the stars of heaven as a figure of time. The periods of time are called the serpents of Kronus (Seb). The serpent could be recognized at a known value for an ideograph in a dozen different phases of character as one of the transformers, and as an emblem of re-genesis it was also the ideograph of future life. The dead in the Egyptian Ritual actually make their transformation in this likeness of future life, the serpent[11]. The root-meaning is the same when the Marawi or the Zulus are said to believe that the spirits of their dead ancestors return to their huts in the shape of serpents. Here the serpent is but a type, not to be confused with a spirit, as the Zulus hold the revenant to be a reality; and those savages who recognise their dead as ghosts are careful to distinguish them from the spirits or powers of the elements, which continued to be represented by the totemic zootypes; they strive not to have them mixed up together. As Mariner testifies[12], the primitive divinities or nature-powers of the Tongans are expressly represented by such zootypes as the lizard, water-snake, and porpoise; and these are the images of the gods as distinguished from the human ghosts, who do not return, or are not recognized in the forms which are held exclusively sacred to the primary superhuman powers. The savages distinguish. Hence the Thlinkeets assert emphatically that the ancestor of the Wolf­clan does not reappear to them in the wolf form. They recognize the difference between the totemic type and the ancestral spirit. It is our modern metaphysical explanation, and the vague theories of a universal animism that confuse the gods and ghosts together, elemental spirits with human, and the zootypes with the non-totemic ancestors.

In the Book of the Dead, the cat and the ass are two of the 'Sayers of Great Words' in the House of Heaven. Not because the Egyptians ever believed the cat and donkey talked. The cat was an animal that could see and pounce on her prey in the dark. She was made a zootype of the moon, the seer in heaven by night. In this character she watches while men sleep, and bruises or holds down the head of the serpent of darkness all through the night. The ass in three characters of the mother, colt, and virile male, was a triple type of the moon's three, phases reckoned at ten days each. But did the Egyptians adore the cat and the ass in consequence? The ignorant onlookers, ancient or modern, might fancy so, because they could not read the signs. When Porphyry[13] asserts that the Egyptians believed the beasts to be common and akin to men and gods, it merely shows be did not understand the ideographic nature of their symbolism any more than he could read the hieroglyphics. But we are now in a position to correct the errors and false inferences of the Greeks concerning that which they continued but did not comprehend. There is ample evidence to show that these were first adopted for use and not for worship; hence the head of the ass remains in the hieroglyphics as the numeral sign for thirty, the number of days in a soli-lunar month. The ass was also stationed in the planispherei as a teller of time, a 'Sayer of Great Words' in heaven, and in later legendary lore we meet naturally enough with an ass that talks. The crocodile having represented the dragon of darkness that swallowed the light, its head survives as the sign of an eclipse in the calendar, and its tail as the ideograph of the word kam for blackness in the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Thus we see that the language assigned to beasts and birds in the folktales did not originate in the fancy of any ancient fabulists, nor in the primitive beliefs of incredibly credulous simpletons, but in the beasts, birds, and reptiles having been made use of as signs, as the living images or zootypes in the earliest language of men.

The Egyptians have preserved for us and bequeathed the means of interpreting this typology of the early thought. The primitive consciousness or knowledge which has lapsed or got confused in inner Africa, or Australia, India, or Greece, lived on and left its record in their system. If the Australian savage does attribute the earliest marriage laws to a crow, he is but saying the same thing as Horapollo[14], who tells us that when the Egyptians denote marriage they depict two crows, because the birds cohabit in the human fashion, and their laws of intercourse are strictly monogamic.

The great power, or most potent medicine of the supreme being Cagn, the Bushman's deity, lies in his tooth; and we find the tooth, 'Hu,' in the hieroglyphics is the type of the adult male, and that it bears the name of the sphinx-god, 'Hu.' This emblem of virility was extracted in the mystery of young-man-making when the youth was typically reduced to the most childish status, to be reborn into the tribe and become a blood-brother as an adult male. The tail of the lioness worn by the pharaoh is the same sign of power when suspended from the roof of his hut by the Xhosa Kaffir chief as his symbol of supremacy. The hare, the jackal, and vulture have the same characters in the Hottentot tales that they keep when they become three divine types, or gods and goddesses in Egyptian mythology. Certain races identify the crocodile with the human soul, and it is reported as a belief, both of the Batavian aborigines and some inner Africans, that when the mother gives birth to a child she at the same time brings forth a crocodile. But Egypt shows us how this belongs to the zoomorphic typology. The crocodile, Sevekh, was a type of extreme intelligence[15] or a soul. The spirit of the deceased during his transformations in the Ritual, exclaims, 'I am the crocodile whose soul comes from men'[16]; that was as the type of great intelligence. Whether applied to the birth or rebirth, the symbolism is the same. When the Zulus say that mankind came 'out of a bed of reeds,' the typology is that of the Egyptian hieroglyphics in which we find one reed stands for 'A,' the old, first one; another reed, 'Su,' is the sign for the child; and the reed denotes origin for Egypt itself. The credulity of living savages may be, in some respects, as Mr. Lang says, 'practically boundless,'[17] without the necessity of our assuming that any aboriginal race of men did ever believe, conceive, imagine, or suppose that they came from a bed of reeds, or a mantis, a snail, an ant, a snipe, a snake, a frog, skunk, or bird, or plant.

No wonder that certain totemic tribes should claim descent from the plant or other vegetable product, when we find the god Seb in Egypt, who personates the earliest form of the fatherhood in this very phase, as the lord of nutriment, the soul of sap and leafy life. Seb is god of the earth, and he symbols fecundity in an ithyphallic form of vegetation, or the element of wood as the productive power of earth. The plant-life and human form are both united in Seb, who is sometimes portrayed lying on the ground covered with leaves.

In the Bundahish[18] the primal pair of human beings Mashya and Mashydoi spring from a plant. The natural allegory had then passed into historic narrative, and the early mode of expression had become the later mould of thought.  But the Egyptians never thought or taught that man descended from a plant or from wood, when they imaged the father on earth (who preceded the father in heaven) as the ithyphallic planter of human existence, the figure of fertility, the masculine tree of life.

Doubtless the ideal significance of the zootypes may be mistaken for reality in the later stage of interpretation by the savage, as it constantly is by the civilized man. Indeed, it is certain that the zootypes were confused with the superhuman powers of nature, as when the Zunis pray to the animal gods and call them their fathers, or the Omahas say to the dying man, 'You came hither from the animals, and you are going back thither.  Do not face this way again. When you go, continue walking!'—like a man. Also, when the New Caledonians will stay a child from killing a lizard by telling him to 'beware of killing his own ancestor.' But the confusion is only mystical, not actual. The mist is raised by the mode of expression, which needs interpretation. The mist may get into the child's mind, but no brotherhood or family of men who knew they were born of a mother from whom they traced their line of descent, ever thought, believed, conceived, or fancied they came from a lizard, or the lizard from a woman. Nor is the gnosis of the original representation quite extinct. Even a race so degraded or undeveloped as the Bushmen have their hidden wisdom, their magi, with an esoteric interpretation of their dramatic dances and pantomime which preserve and perpetuate the mythic meaning of their religious mysteries. What we do really find is that the Inner Africans and other aborigines still continue to talk and think their thought in the same figures of speech that are made visible by art, such as is yet extant amongst the Bushmen; that the Egyptians also preserved the primitive consciousness together with the clue to this most ancient knowledge, with its symbolic methods of communication, and that they converted the living types into the later lithographs and hieroglyphics.

Animals that talk in the folktales of the Bushmen or the Indians, or the märchen of Europe, are still the living originals which became pictographic and ideographic in the zootypology of Egypt, where they represent divinities or devils, i.e. nature-powers at first and deities afterwards, then ideographs and finally the phonetics of the Egyptian alphabet. The elemental origin of the powers first portrayed by means of the zootypes is still recognizable, when everything in nature is classified according to the elements and divided on that principle among the totems of certain Australian and American tribes. Moreover, the Kamilaroi have their ideographs of the prehuman 'sayers' which are continued in their 'sayings' (gurre); and these are reducible to phonetic value as the kangaroo = B; emu = D; sheep = J; duck = E; eagle = M; snake = N; a stork with fish = G, etc[19]. It can thus be shown that the hypothetical 'myth-making man' in the sense of a conscious fabulist or an inventor of impossibilities, is (in the modern sense of the word) the greatest myth of all; that mythology was not a system of explanation but typological mode of representing natural phenomena; that the earliest actors or dramatis personae in this mode of representation were animals and not human beings; that the transformations and shape-shifting between the beasts and men did not originate in savage beliefs, savage perversions of nature or universal confusion of personality; that the persistence of the same mythos with a change of characters from animal to human is accountable for much that is non-natural in later phases; and that as mythology is a mirror of sociology which reflects the changes in human relationships and reckonings of descent from the female or the father, these changes have seriously affected the morals of the later gods and goddesses, more particularly in Greece. It was not the primitive races who fancied that the gods were fond of disguising themselves and appearing to men as trees walking, or carrying on their amours with women as masqueraders in animal forms. The perplexities presented by mythology in its later phases, such as the Greek, are not the result of a simple or direct survival of savage belief so much as the consequence of ignorant perversion and misrepresentation of the original matter and mode of portrayal, which have been the cause of a very chaos of confusion.

It has been suggested by Mr. Herbert Spencer[20] that totemism originated in a misinterpretation of nicknames; but totemism is a department of this same primitive system of zootypology which goes back to the time before personal names could have existed, when the thinking and the labelling had to be done in things or the images of things, with the aid of gesture-signs.  It has now to be shown that totemism, or tribe-heraldry, was not founded on the human worship of animals, birds, reptiles, and insects. Zootypology, in totemism as elsewhere, did not commence as zoolatry.

The term 'worship' is too often imported into the remotest past from lack of the larger knowledge which might have supplied a more rational explanation of human phenomena. If the primitive or archaic men had begun by worshipping beasts and holding their deadliest foes religiously sacred as their dearest friends, if they had not fought with them for very existence every foot of the way, and conquered at last, they never could have attained supremacy over their natural enemies of the animal world. Totemism does not imply any worship of animals on the part of primitive men.

It is the sheerest fallacy to suppose that the most undeveloped aborigines began to worship, say, fifty beasts, reptiles, insects, or birds, because each in some way or measure fulfilled one of fifty different conceptions of the deity that was recognized beneath its half-hundred masks. Nor does totemism prove the existence of an alleged 'savage mental attitude,' which assumes a kindred between man and beast, nor of a 'savage habit of confusing in a community of kinship men, stars, plants, beasts, the heavenly bodies, and the forces of nature.'  This is to confuse the mystical descent according to the totemic type with an actual descent from the original animal; to mistake the sign of kin for kinship.  The confusion here is mainly modern; civilized not savage.  Totemism was earlier than the anthropomorphic mode of representation; hence the system remains almost universally prehuman, and is to a large extent zootypological.

The ancestor of the Takulli Indians was a dog; and 'takulli' is their name for the dog. Like the Tinneh, they are the Dog-Indians. The name of the African Gbe tribe signifies the dog. In both cases the progenitor is but the totemic type. It would be going directly against all; known natural tendency for us to imagine that human nature in the early stage of totemic sociology was confused with that of the lower animals. The very earliest operation of the consciousness that discreted the creature with a thumb from those who were falling behind him on four feet, was by distinguishing himself from his predecessors; and the line of difference once drawn, the mental landmark once laid down, must have broadened with every step in his advance. His recognition of himself depended on his perceiving the unlikeness to them, and fishes were first adopted as zootypes on account of their superior power in relation to the various elements, and, therefore, because of their unlikeness to the nature of man.

The ancestral animal, then, is neither an ideal nor imaginary being as a primitive parent supposed to have been a beast, or a bird, a star, any more than the first female as head of the Gaelic Clan Chatton was a great cat, or was believed to be the great cat. The life-tie assumed between totemic man and the totemic animal, or zootype, was consciously assumed and we can perceive by what processes and on what ground the assumption was made. The zootype being adopted as a badge of distinction the primeval coat of arms, it was a custom for the human beings to enter into a brotherhood of blood. That is, the men who were not born of the same mother, or the two sisters, could extend natural tie of blood by a typical rite to others who were born of different mothers. In this way the larger family, tribe, clan, or sept was formed on the basis of brotherhood under some totemic sign.

One mode of entering this second blood-brotherhood was by the shedding, the exchanging, or the interfusion of blood. In the mysteries of pubescence, or young-man-making, there was a process of regeneration or rebirth, by which a new life-tie was engendered; this was held to be closer than that of nature, and a bond of covenant was established which was considered more inviolate than that of uterine relationship, because it was an institution consciously created for the most important purpose of avoiding promiscuity or incest, as then reckoned. In some of the mysteries the totemic animal was tattooed on the body of the initiate, burned into the flesh, or branded in his blood, which served as the crimson of covenant equally well with the later seal of red wax. Moreover, the rite of this blood-covenant was further extended to the beast of the totem. In an early phase of sociology the same covenant was made between man and beast as between the affiliated human brothers, and their blood was likewise shed to be commingled together, or smeared upon the stone of witness, to be made one.  In this case also the beast would be the totemic type that was thus made akin to the family or tribe.

Now if the animal becomes of kin to the human brother by virtue of a covenant intentionally made in the blood of both, that proves the kinship did not exist before. The relationship did not spring from any root in nature, or false belief, but was planted for the purpose, and is consequently limited to the particular beast and brotherhood. The bear is only kinsman to those whom he serves as a totem, an image of the ancestor, female or male, and a type of the fraternity. So is it with all the other zootypes which had been employed from before the time when the individual fatherhood was known. There is no necessary confusion of identity. An African woman of the ape totem may be seen in the act of suckling a child at one breast and a monkey at the other[21] without our inferring that she thinks the monkey is her child or was her ancestor.

If men had abstained from eating the animals on the ground of spiritual kinship and inter­communion of nature, because of a confusion or identification of themselves with the beasts, they ought to have abstained from eating any, whereas they ate them all in turn, the exceptions being made solely on the artificial ground of the totemic brotherhood. The beast only became of the 'same flesh' with the particular family because it had been consciously adopted as their totem, ancestral animal, or foster brother of the blood-covenant, and not on account of any belief that they descended from this or the other non-human parent with a different progenitor for every separate group. Even in the human relationship the being 'of one flesh' is determined by the totemic typology rather than by the ties of blood. Those of the same totem are always and everywhere of 'one flesh,' which shows that the system represents a later extension of the same family that first derived from one mother; the mode of extension being by the blending of blood, the rebirth, the drinking of the covenant and eating of the fetish. But there was nothing promiscuous in this arrangement, which had been made on purpose to avoid promiscuity. They did eat, and did not tolerate being eaten by, each other's totems. The relationship of men with beasts was most deliberately adopted, and the partnership was held with the strictest regard to the law of limited liability. Thus the blood-brotherhood with the beasts was not based on any belief that they were on a level with the human being, nor on any mental confusion respecting their oneness of nature. At least it was not that which first rendered the animals tapu, or made them sacred.

The typical character of the totemic animal was continued in various ways; putting on the skin was a mode of assimilating the wearer to the powers beyond the beast, the superhuman forces which the beasts had represented in visible symbolry. Hence, on going to battle they wore the skins and acted the role of the animals, birds, and reptiles, as their link of alliance with the superhuman nature-powers that were over all.

In like manner the god Shu, the warrior of the gods, the Egyptian Mars, does battle whilst wearing the superhuman power of the lioness on his head! And the moon-god, Taht-Aan, is clothed with the power of the great ape, the ideograph of superhuman rage when he fights against the demons of darkness by night, on behalf of the absent solar god. In performing the magic passes, for the purpose of healing, the Indian medicine-men would clothe themselves in these signs of superior potency; and we are told that in the act of healing the Omahas would imitate the motions and the cries of their totemic animals. In this sense the Minnitaree Indians considered the wolf to be a very powerful medicine. This transformation of the medas or medicine-men was connected with the abnormal condition of trance.  Into this they entered at times, wrapped up in the skin of the totemic beast, for the purpose of communing with the spirits of the dead. Thus the trance, the transformer, and the transformation; the beast, the nature-power, and the human ghost, got all mixed up together. Such being the fact, it is easy to identify the foundation of the faith or belief that the medicine-men had everywhere the power of transforming into wolves, hyenas, or tigers themselves, and that would cause the fear lest they should apply this power of metamorphosis to others, and ultimately create the belief in their power to transform human beings into animal shapes.  The only veritable power of metamorphosis possessed by the ancient medicine-men or mages, the witches or wizards, was that of inducing the condition of trance. This was and is a fact in nature with which the primitive races were profoundly well acquainted. But those who are ignorant of such phenomena will be apt to mistake a surface appearance for the underlying reality, and must find it difficult to distinguish between the vera causa and a false belief.

The representative character of the animal is unconsciously acknowledged, even where it is not actually known, as shown by the recognition of some great prototype, such as the Indian bear that 'does not die,' the bird that 'lives again,' or the turtle that is eternal; which is not any individual bear, or bird, or turtle.

Not only were blood-covenants enacted with the beasts of prey as representatives of the destroying nature-powers, called by Zunis the 'prey-gods'; not only were the beasts considered too sacred to be eaten by the human brothers, except as a sacrament; the human brothers also offered their own flesh and blood to the totemic animals in the most solemn sacrifice. Garcilasso affirms that men offered up to their totemic animals 'what they usually saw them eat'[22]; and as most of the great powers amongst the elementals were the devourers of flesh and drinkers of blood these were offered to them in a propitiatory sacrifice, the practice being perpetuated when the sun, or some more abstract conception of power, had taken the place of the Carnivora. In the mysteries they changed place and shape and nature with the beasts of prey. They masked themselves in the skins of animals, reptile and birds, and sat at feast in those forms to devour the sacrifice when the human brother or substitute was slain.  In that way they transformed, and were said to change themselves into wolves or tigers, bears or crocodiles, to partake of this most primitive eucharistic rite. For it did become a religions ceremony and a mode of entering into alliance and communion with the powers first apprehended as superhuman. When the ghastly grim reality had passed into the legendary phase, we are told, as Plato tells us in the Republic[23], that those who ate of the human sacrifices offered to the wolf were transformed into wolves.  Herodotus[24] likewise relates that the Neurian wizards changed themselves into wolves for a few days once a year. First, the men who ate human flesh had changed themselves into wolves to eat it, according to the mode of masking.  Next, it was said that by eating human flesh men would become werewolves, and, lastly, we have the werewolf as a man who turns into the wolf on purpose to devour human flesh. Such are the tricks of typology, based on the primitive simplicity and the ignorant misinterpretation of later times when the mythos passes into the fable which deposits these types of the werewolf, the mermaid, the cockatrice, the serpent-woman, the vampire, or the moon-calf.

It was a masquerade; but the men beneath the masks originally knew they were acting in characters which they themselves had created. They wore skins in a typical transformation; they clothed themselves thus in the superhuman powers for a definite purpose, and not because they were returning to the condition of beasts from which they came. The masking and metamorphosis were but a mode of the mysteries, which included the mystery of trance. This primitive drama is not yet played out. It is still to be recognized in certain scenes, characters, and transformations of our Christmas pantomime. The non-natural masks and shapes of beasts still represent the nature-powers, the elementals, or spirits of the elements now become gnomes and fairies, giants, and dwarfs, and other types of beings that never were human. The rites and doctrines are also to be identified at times as survivals in religious ritual. A startling illustration may be seen in a collection of English hymns[25] where these lines occur:—

What greater glory could there be
Than to be clothed with God?
He drew his skin upon my skin,
His blood upon my blood.

That son of the Incas, Garcilasso de la Vega, tells us in his valuable commentaries how, in the beginning men had only sought for pacarissa (or totems), whereby to discriminate one human stock from another. 'Each desired to have a god (or figure) that was different from the other, and their only thought was how to make one different from another,'[26] for the purpose of distinguishing the one stock, group, or brotherhood from all the rest.

The origin of family or tribal totemism could not be more explicitly stated. Also, the Dieri tribe of Australian aborigines have a legend that mankind had married promiscuously until the good spirit ordered them to be divided into groups which were to be called after such of the zootypes as dogs, emus, iguanas, and other totems, the members of each branch being forbidden to intermarry. Thus totemism was evolved as the necessary means of dividing the race, of establishing the social group, and distinguishing each from all around, by making use of the beasts for the particular badges; the earliest mode of doing so being by wearing their skins, before their likenesses could be otherwise imaged; and, therefore, it did not arise from nicknaming individuals after the animals, nor from any desire on the part of primitive men to merge their newly-found identity with the nature of the beasts, or lose it through claiming a common kinship with reptiles, plants, and stones. The cause of a mystical relationship that was recognized between man and the animals may now be traced on grounds less lofty than that of the supposed divine incarnations, and more natural than that of an animistic interfusion which led to a confusion of identity or personality. The animals were first recognized as powers in themselves, but they were also adopted as the living, visible symbols of elemental powers that were superior to both the animal and the human as a means of representing natural phenomena. They were further adopted into the human family as totemic types with religious rites that gave them all the sanctity of the blood-covenant, and made them of one flesh with the human brothers. Thus they were doubly adopted; and this led to their becoming later living fetishes as the naturalized representatives of superhuman powers, if not as the objects of direct human worship.

The blood-covenant which had been entered into with the beasts was still further extended to the powers they represented considered as elemental spirits. These were offered the first lap of the life newly shed. It is at this depth we should have to grope for the origin of human sacrifice, and of the cannibalistic gods. If it stood alone, the making of a blood-covenant with the totem and its elemental power would account for later belief in a mysterious life-relationship between the man and animal. The Geawegal of New South Wales thought they were related to their totem, but in a way that could not be explained. And in the course of descent, as the zootype became fetishtic in the superstitious phase, the life-tie might be looked upon as hereditary and prenatal by those who came later and could not keep track of the beginnings, and who consequently confused the symbolical with an actual descent, and confounded the ancestral animal with an animal ancestor.

The theory of interpretation now presented is that the primitive thinkers were thingers; that gesture-signs and zootypes were among the earliest means and modes of expression; that as the elements manifested the primary powers recognized in the phenomena of destruction and physical forces inimical to man, so the beast of prey were first identified as fitting representatives on some natural ground of likeness in the mode of manifestation, or equivalence of power, to express the earliest perception of that which was superhuman. The animals and reptiles thus acknowledged were primarily the most terrible and fearsome, and therefore they were both really and ideally the fetishes of fear, on the way to becoming the sacred zootypes of later times and more complex conditions of thought and expression.

We find the human development is reflected in the modification of the significance assigned to the zootypes, as when the serpent, once evil, was changed into a symbol of that which is good; the crocodile, as devourer, was turned into a type of intelligence; the water-cow, as mother of life, was supplemented by the milch-cow, as Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of Love.

With the development of perception, and the necessity for an increase in the means of expression, the range of the types was extended to innumerable living things differing according to the fauna of different lands, which were self-suggested, and then adopted as symbols of other, later ideas. The facts can be followed in totemic typology, in the märchen of races, both civilized and savage, in their characters of mythology; and the register may be read in the Egyptian system of hieroglyphy, in the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Red Indians and bushmen, in canting heraldry; in metaphor, as when the brave man is called a lion, the greedy one a hog, the cunning one a fox; and lastly, in ancestral names. It has often been a matter of wonder why the men of the Palaeolithic age should have shown such skill in the drawing of animals, and left an art beyond that of the Neolithic age which followed. But this may possibly be explained by the scarcity of skins and the growing need of copying the totemic zootypes. As the first objects required from the sign-painters were symbolic animals, that may account for the most primitive races having been most expert in pictographic art as it is found in the European bone-caves, and amongst the Bushmen. The tattoo marks showed the tribe or totem at a glance. As one of the Haida Indians said to Mr. Swan, 'If you were tattooed with the design of a swan, the Indians would all know your family name.'[27]

The zootypes were adopted for the ideal purpose they served. They were made totemic; their likenesses were assumed in the mysteries of masking; they were imitated in tattoo; they were copied on bones and shells and stones; they culminated in the hieroglyphical signs which finally became phonetic in the Egyptian alphabet, where we find A as the eagle, B as the ram, F the snake, H the frog, K the calf, M the vulture, N the fish, P the widgeon, R the lion, S the goose, T the beetle, U the hare. From first to last the natural living types were made use of as humanly adopted and humanly developed ideographs derived from the prehuman 'sayers.'

This zoomorphic and totemic typology was eternalized in the zodiacal and other celestial signs as determinatives of time and starry ideographs of the elements and seasons, which will remain the everlasting witnesses to this primitive mode of representation.

An old English name for the zodiac at one time was the 'Bestiary.' And in the Egyptian Ritual the sun-god or Soul of the Deceased, in the eschatological phase, passes through the 'Bestiary'; only instead of saying that he enters into or passes through the signs, they represent him as making his transformation into the Ram or Bull, the Lion or Cat, by assuming the shape of the animal. He becomes the Hawk at one equinox, the Phoenix at the other; the Ape in the fury of Tempest; the Jackal of thunder, the Lion of heat, the Fish of the waters, the Beetle of transformation, the Bennu of resurrection, the Serpent of eternal life. This was the same drama of metamorphosis that was first performed in the totemic mysteries; the zootypes being continued faute de mieux as the extra-human means of expressing the later ideas of spiritual forces and of superhuman life.

The powers, spirits, or gods of mythology had been derived from the elements. They were represented by the zootypes, and to that origin we may look for the cannibalistic or unintelligent deities. In the chief mythologies they are seven in number, or eight—the Ogdoad—with the Mother included. The number seven identifies the elementals as nonhuman spirits.

The powers were seven at first as destroyers in physical phenomena; seven as the giants or Titans that were dispossessed and superseded; seven as the gods of constellations, the seven watchers in heaven; and they were seven finally in the planetary phase. The seven in Egypt became the seven souls of the sun-god, the Supreme Being in whom the elemental and starry pantheon was unified, humanized, and spiritualized at last.  This one god was worshipped as Osiris in one cult; as Amen-Ra in another; Sevekh-Ra in another, and Atum-Ra in another. In this last the one god 'without change' was portrayed in the human likeness as the Divine Father in heaven, the creator of a son or soul 'beyond time' on earth. His material type in each of these four religions was the sun in the underworld, the seer unseen, the vivifier for ever.

It has often been asserted that monotheism was of Semitic origin; but this goal had been reached, this type of Eternal attained in Egypt when the monuments began, that is, more than six thousand years ago; how many aeons earlier no mortal knows. Nevertheless, the zootypes survived and the eel of Atum, the hare of Osiris, the crocodile of Sevekh, the kaf-ape of Shu, the jackal of Sut-Anup, the serpent of Seb, the lioness of Tefnut, the scorpion of Serk, the cat of Pasht, the hawk of Horus, the ibis of Taht, and water-cow of Typhon, still survived as determinatives of the primary powers; their dead bodies being frequently embalmed in mummied forms; and they still remain as witnesses to the immense period of pre-monumental development in the old totemic times of Egypt that preceded this anthropomorphic representation of the One Supreme God.

 

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This page last updated: 07/05/2014