In order to act efficiently against all that hampers the course of progress and paralyzes modern intelligence, we all have to work together towards a better understanding of the roots of ignorant and regressive thought. Residual ideas that we have inherited from centuries gone by which take us back to pre-historic times need to be identified and discredited. A better understanding of these commonly held beliefs is not motivated by a desire to respect them, it is rather a necessary means to expose their savage origins and explain to what extent they form a tangled and confused snarl in the minds of individuals and groups that still believe in them.
Such was the position of archaeologist and historian Salomon Reinach who devoted his life long work to dispel the mists of residual beliefs across cultures. I took liberty, in the previous paragraph, to paraphrase this idea from his voluminous study Cultes, mythes et religions (1905-1923). This is our entry to the main topic of this article in order to search deeply into the origins of the idea of god.
A careful study of research done in anthropology and on the origins of myth will allow us to uncover the deep roots of religions and the beliefs which preceded the birth of the idea of god. Such pagan beliefs should not be dissociated from the history of religions in so far as they provided a breeding ground for their emergence and development. And if in their origins religions fed on, and grew out of the infantile and naïve imagination of human civilizations, they grew stronger at a later stage to become a powerful authority over hearts and minds.
The idea of the primitive god has its origins in the concept of the totem. Many anthropologists agree on the universal character of the totemic system which was not restricted to the native inhabitants of Australia and America.
Let us first cast a quick glance at the totemic system itself. It is a tribal system structured around a number of taboos that can be summed up according to Durkheim, Reinach, Frazer and many others, in a number of practices such as the worship of a selected animal or in other rare cases a plant or a given inanimate matter.
The totem, in its essence, is based on the existence of an elusive and mysterious contract grounded in commonly held beliefs between a given group of people and the animals in their possession. Reinarch observed, in this respect, that the totemic system emerged with the archaic Homo sapiens. This original veneration of the totem animal diminished and then gradually disappeared with the shift from hunter and gatherer stage of human evolution to agriculture and farming.
Studies which looked into this evolution identified similar traits and processes across cultures and civilizations from ancient Greece to Egypt and Syria. In the totemic system, the tribal animal is defined as an object of prohibition. It can be slaughtered only on a specific day of the year and in the presence of all members of the tribe. Special ceremonies and rituals accompanied with scenes of mourning and grief mark the putting to death of the totem animal.
A close study of the reports compiled by Spencer and Gillen on the subject of the totem highlight some of its direct consequences such as the emergence of exogamy and the gradual prohibition of incest. Reinarch also found that at a later stage, the idea of the personified god in the image of human sacrifice in some civilizations was practiced to resurrect and renew life. These beliefs have their origin in the idea of the sacred totem animal. If we take a look at the work of Frazer on tribal traditions preserved to this day in rituals without the original affects which have accompanied them, we find that they are grounded in mythical beliefs as in the belief of the supernatural powers of the totem animal transmitted to the human who consumes its flesh. From an anthropological point of view, these rituals were founded on the belief that the flesh of the totem animal—protector of the tribe—gives to the one who consumes it exceptional powers. This can still be found to this day among some cultures. In some parts of China, for example, some animals’ genitals are consumed because it is believed that they strengthen sexual potency.
Perhaps, we also need to remind our readers that for the Māori tribes, male genitals embody the idea of life while the female ones symbolize the idea of death. Among some Chinese cultures, the consumption of the genitals of male animals is associated with elements of life such as energy and liveliness. This is where we need to stress the dialectical relation between inner psychological drives and energies and the external experiences which led many human societies to embrace these beliefs.
It seems acceptable to derive some relief from the thought that the ignorance of the primitive humans about the scientific explanation of reproduction and procreation led to the idea of the reincarnation of animals and plants through them. The first hypothesis which sought to explain the emergence and development of the totem relied on the principle of a continuous passage of life between humans and their totem animals. The totem animal was considered a member of the tribe to which it belongs. It was endowed with sacred attributes.
But then we moved from that idea of the sacred totem animal to indiscriminate and collective slaughter of animals. The killing of the totem animal was not seen as a sacrifice presented before the gods because at that time, the idea of god was not born yet.
The idea of the sacrifice to the gods developed gradually with the progressive move of human evolution from its stage of savagery to that of agriculture. Animals started to lose their sacred attributes and even more importantly, humans cultivated a sense of disgust towards some animals.
When we look at the work of Robertson Smith and Salomon Reinarch on the sacred character of animals among the ancient peoples of Greece, Rome, Syria and Egypt, we find that for instance wild boars were considered sacred animals in Syria. Perhaps this can explain the origin of the prohibition of pork among Jews and Muslims who lived originally in that part of the world. Feelings and affects which were originally linked with the sacralisation of the animal have gradually changed into their adverse meaning while the idea of prohibition remained the same. We should not forget that the feeling of hatred and disgust are sometimes a necessary means to severe our ties with the original affects associated with the totem animal.
I am not done with my list of examples which support the argument on the deep rootedness of the totemic system in our cultures and there is more on this topic in the second part of the article.
To be continued.