Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Cult of the Dead in Antiquity by Lewis Bayles Paton 1921


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From the earliest period of human history no literary records have come down to us. In lack of direct historical evidence, accordingly, we are compelled to turn to the indirect testimony of comparative religion. Beliefs and rites that existed among all ancient peoples, and that still exist among savages, may safely be regarded as primitive. Applying this method to the study of the earliest conception of the future life, we reach the following conclusions:

a. The Distinction between Soul and Body.—Death is the "king of terrors," yet it is the greatest teacher of our race. Without it men could never have learned the difference between body and spirit; and without the idea of spirit, God could not have been conceived, and religion would have been impossible. When men first began to think, they were confronted with the fact of death. Their companion, felled by a blow, or smitten by a disease, lay prostrate before them. In outward appearance he was the same, but he was unconscious of all that they did, and he could not respond either by word or by motion. It was evident even to the most rudimentary intelligence that an invisible something had gone out of the man. This intangible element the Zulus, some tribes of American Indians, and other savages identify with the shadow cast by the body during life; similarly the Greeks and the Romans spoke of the "shades." Closely allied is the Egyptian conception of the ka, or "double," that accompanied the body during life as its exact counterpart. The Andaman Islanders and some other equally low races identify the immaterial part of man with the reflection seen in still water, or with the image formed in the pupil of another person's eye. The Australian bushmen regard it as a sort of fog or smoke. Most primitive peoples observed the fact that breathing ceases at death, and therefore identified the vital principle with the breath. In many languages the words for "spirit" denote primarily "breath," or "wind," e.g., Skr., prana; Gr., pneuma, anemos; Lat., spiritus, anima; Germ, and Eng., Geist, ghost, which are etymologically connected with gust.

b. The Continued Existence of the Disembodied Soul.—Primitive man believed not only in the distinction between soul and body but also in the ability of the soul to survive the catastrophe of death. The Paleolithic cave-dwellers of the Quarternary period in Belgium and France were contemporary with the mammoth, the cave-lion, and the cave-bear. Their skulls show that they were nearer the apes than any existing race of man. They were dressed in skins, and armed only with the rudest undressed stone implements; yet they placed with their dead ornaments, tools, arms, and food for use in the other life, and celebrated funeral feasts in their honour.

The same was true of the cave-dwellers of the Neolithic age. They buried their dead in caves; or when these were lacking, made dolmens, or box-like structures of stone slabs to receive them. In the stone that covered the entrance a small hole was drilled to allow the spirit access to the tomb and egress from it. The corpse was placed in the contracted position of an unborn child, with its head resting upon its knees, thus perhaps expressing the belief that death is birth into another life. In the caves of Mentone the bones are painted red with oligist or cinnabar, probably as a substitute for blood, the idea being widespread that blood infuses new energy into the dead. In the Neolithic caves of France the skulls of the dead are trepanned. Whether this was intended to facilitate the entrance and egress of the spirit, or to make an amulet for the survivors, it bears witness to some sort of cult of the dead. In the Neolithic caves of Palestine, that were inhabited by a pre-Semitic race, offerings of food and drink were deposited with the dead and their bones were used as amulets. Anthropologists are agreed that no savage race exists which does not believe in some sort of immortality and practise some rites in honour of the dead. In view of these facts, it is evident that immortality was one of the original beliefs of our race.

In the creation of this belief the phenomena of sleep and of dreams must have played a large part. In sleep, as in death, the soul apparently leaves the body; yet it presently returns, and consequently must have continued to live during the interval of unconsciousness. In dreams one seems to visit distant regions. The universal savage interpretation of this experience is that the soul actually leaves the body and journeys to these places, for to the savage dreams are just as real as waking experiences. It is dangerous to waken one suddenly, for the absent spirit may not have time to get back to the body. In swoons also, or unconsciousness resulting from disease, the soul apparently leaves the body; yet it returns, if the man recovers. If the soul can survive such temporary separations from the body, why may it not survive a permanent separation? The savage believes that it does. When death occurs, he at first refuses to recognise anything different from sleep or a swoon. He tries to coax the soul back; and only when dissolution begins, does he at last admit that death has occurred. From this point of view death differs from sleep or swoon only in the fact that the soul has lost the power, or the wish, to return to its body. It does not perish through death any more than through transient states of unconsciousness. Primitive man was unable to think of himself as ceasing to exist; and, strictly speaking, it is impossible even for us of today. In many languages there is no word for "die," only for "be killed." In dreams also one saw the forms of those who had died, and the inference was natural that their spirits survived and returned to visit friends. All the phenomena of apparitions, levitation, hypnotism, clairvoyance, etc., that are known to modern psychical research, and that are given a spiritistic interpretation by many today, were known to primitive man, and doubtless helped also to give support to the belief in the continued existence of the disembodied spirit.

c. Powers Retained by the Soul in Death.—Although, according to the antique conception, the dead lost their physical powers, they lost none of their higher spiritual powers of knowledge, feeling, and will. Ancestors retained a keen interest in their posterity and actively intervened in their affairs. Enemies preserved their original hostility to their foes. The dead were conscious of events that occurred on earth. Those who had met an untimely fate remembered that fact and were unhappy in the other world. The spirits of murdered men, of those that had died in youth, of women that had died in childbirth, and of those that had left no descendants, could not rest. The belief was universal that, under certain conditions, the dead had the power of appearing to the living. When thus appearing, the spirits were believed to retain the semblance of their bodies at the time of death. In the Odyssey (xi. 40) those who have fallen in battle appear to Ulysses "mangled by the spear and clad in bloody armour." The same belief lingers in the ghost-lore of modern Europe, and even the most enlightened Christian finds it impossible to think of his beloved dead otherwise than as they last appeared in life. Returning spirits could speak in audible tones, though with weak and trembling voices that corresponded to their ethereal nature. Thus in the Odyssey (xi. 43) the ghosts approach Ulysses "with gibbering cries."

d. Powers Gained by the Soul in Death.—Spirits, although haunting their bodies, were not restricted to them. They could move at will with lightning-like rapidity to any place where they wished to manifest themselves. They also possessed the extraordinary power of entering new bodies.

1. They Could Occupy Inanimate Objects.—According to primitive theology, spirits could use as their instruments material things, such as sticks and stones, causing in them motion, or endowing them with magical powers. In this case a talisman was produced. They could also animate an object by taking up their abode in it. In this case the result was a fetish. The idea was widespread that they preferred to occupy images made in the likeness of their former bodies. Thus in Egypt statues of the deceased were multiplied in tombs that his ka, or "double," might find abundant opportunity to take up its abode.

2. Spirits Could Take Possession of Animals.—So widespread was this belief among primitive peoples that Wilken, Tylor, and other anthropologists have conjectured that it is the explanation of totemism, or the worship of animals as the ancestors of tribes.

3. Spirits Could Occupy the Bodies of Living Men.— This might take the form either of obsession, resulting in disease or insanity, or of possession, resulting in the imparting of the higher knowledge, skill or power of the spirit. Among all ancient peoples, it was believed that spirits of the dead not only retained the knowledge possessed by them in life, but also acquired new and greater knowledge. The abnormal powers of the subconscious soul, such as crystal-gazing, motor-automatism, thought-transference, telepathy, telesthesia, and foreboding of the future, were ascribed to their influence. They were therefore believed to be far wiser than mortals, and they were consulted for guidance in the affairs of life and for oracles concerning the future.

e. Powers Lost by the Soul in Death.—The identification of the soul with the breath, shadow, reflection, or echo of the living man, led naturally to the conception that it was vague and unsubstantial. Early races and savages have uniformly regarded the soul as a small, feeble being, ordinarily invisible, inaudible, and intangible, that is unable to take care of itself, and that needs to be sheltered and guarded until, so to speak, it "finds itself" in the spirit-world. The sorcerers of Greenland describe the soul as a pale, soft thing, without nerves, without bones, without flesh; when one would seize it, one feels nothing. When Achilles would embrace the shade of Patroclus, it passes through his hands like smoke.

"'Dost thou command me thus? I shall fulfil
Obediently thy wish; yet draw thou near,
And let us give at least a brief embrace,
And so indulge our grief.' He said, and stretched
His longing arms to clasp the shade. In vain;
Away like smoke it went with gibbering cry,
Down to the earth. Achilles sprang upright,
Astonished, clapped his hands, and sadly said,
'Surely there dwell within the realm below
Both soul and form, though bodiless.'"

In like manner Ulysses finds the shade of his mother wholly unsubstantial.

"She spake; I longed to take into my arms
The soul of my dead mother. Thrice I tried,
Moved by a strong desire, and thrice the form
Passed through them like a shadow or a dream.

I spake, and then my reverend mother said:—
'Believe not that Jove's daughter Proserpine
Deceives thee. 'Tis the lot of all our race
When they are dead. No more the sinews bind
The bones and flesh, when once from the white bones
The life departs. Then like a dream the soul
Flies off, and flits about from place to place.'"

Even the souls of heroes are so feeble that they cannot be roused to activity until they have drunk the fresh, hot blood of victims poured into the sacrificial trench. According to AElius Spartianus, the Emperor Hadrian shortly before his death described his soul as "a dear little wandering being, the guest and companion of the body." The belief that spirits are pale, unsubstantial phantoms still lingers in the modern idea of ghosts.

F. Relation of the Disembodied Soul to Its Body.— Another general belief of primitive peoples is that the soul continues to maintain a relation to the dead body. When the flesh has disappeared, the ghost clings to the skull or the bones; and when these have vanished, it haunts the grave where its ashes are buried. Survivals of these ideas are seen in the veneration of relics of the saints in Buddhist and Roman Catholic countries, and in the belief that ghosts appear chiefly in graveyards, or in places where murders have been committed. The idea is wide-spread that an injury to a dead body is also an injury to the departed spirit. Hence the universal custom among primitive peoples and savages of mutilating the corpses of enemies. Thus every one of the Greeks who passes the body of Hector inflicts a blow upon it, and Achilles drags it in the dust at the tail of his chariot.

This connection of the spirit with the corpse explains the vast importance attached by primitive races to burial. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and all other ancient peoples believed that the soul could not rest unless its body was properly entombed. Refusal of burial was an injury that was inflicted only upon criminals, or upon the most hated enemies. Violation of a tomb insured the disquieting of the spirit that dwelt within.

Closely connected with the idea that the ghost haunts the corpse is the idea that it still needs food, drink, and other necessities of life, and that these must be placed either in the grave or upon it. From the earliest times such offerings were deposited with the dead, and the custom still lingers in civilised lands in modified forms such as jewelry, lights, flowers and wreaths.

g. The General Estimate of Death.—From the foregoing survey it appears that primitive man believed that the soul survived death, and that it gained such superhuman powers that it was to be classed with the gods rather than with men, and was entitled to receive divine homage; yet in spite of these facts, he did not look forward with any satisfaction to death as an enlargement of his powers. On the contrary, it was regarded by him as an unmixed evil. So important was the body that existence without it seemed shadowy and worthless. Thus in the Odyssey (xi. 487ff".) Achilles says: "I would be a labourer on earth, and serve for hire some man of mean estate who makes scant cheer, rather than reign o'er all who have gone down to death." Death was not a going to the gods whom one had loved and honoured in life, but a passing out of the sphere of their care and interest. Their rewards and punishments were distributed in this world. In the other world moral distinctions vanished, and all were reduced to one common level of misery. The primitive belief in spirits, accordingly, was not a belief in immortality in any true sense. It was a belief in the continued existence of the soul, but that existence was so vague and shadowy that it was destitute of value. To become a ghost could not be an object of desire for any man. The conception of God needed to be deepened and broadened immensely before an adequate idea of immortality could be formed; nevertheless, these crude beginnings were the foundation on which the structure of a better faith was destined to rise.

h. The Cult of the Dead.—Because of the powers that have just been described the dead were regarded by all ancient peoples as supernatural beings, to whom the same sort of worship should be paid that was rendered to the gods and to other classes of spirits. Veneration of spirits of the dead is seen in rites of mourning, in care of the corpse, in bringing of sacrifice, and in offering of prayers.

i. Removal of Garments.—The custom was widespread in antiquity, and is still found among savages, of removing the garments entirely, or in part, as a sign of mourning. As to the meaning of this custom there is a difference of opinion. Ewald, Leyrer and Kamphausen regard it as a spontaneous expression of grief; but it is hard to see any psychological connection between grief and nakedness. Schwally thinks that it was the costume of slaves and of captives, and hence was a token of humility toward the spirits. Frey takes it as a sign of submission to the gods who have sent death into the family. Frazer holds that it is intended to disguise the survivors from the ghost of the dead, or to awaken its pity, so that it will do no harm. Far more likely is the view of Stade, Benzinger and Jastrow that nakedness, or a simple loin-cloth, was the primitive dress of man that was retained in mourning because it was a religious exercise. Religion is naturally conservative, and the sacred costume of the present is the everyday dress of the past. In Egypt the priests of the Middle Empire wore the dress of the Old Empire, and those of the New Empire, that of the Middle Empire. The vestments of the Roman Catholic clergy of today are the common garments of the later Roman Empire. Modern savages perform their religious rites in less clothing than they wear on ordinary occasions, the reason being that this was the sacred dress of their forefathers.

2. Covering the Head.—In singular contrast to the custom of stripping the body was the other custom of covering the head or mouth, or laying the hand upon the mouth. The theory that this was due to a desire to conceal one's grief from bystanders presupposes a modern Occidental point of view. Others think that it was intended to disguise one from the spirits, or to protect one's mouth and nose so that they might not enter into one's body; but this assumes less intelligence in the spirits than primitive man believed them to possess. Still others regard it as a conventional substitute for cutting the hair.18 The most natural interpretation of this ceremony is that it was designed originally to protect one from inadvertently seeing the ghost that lingered near the corpse. Death might ensue if one saw a ghost just as if one saw a god.19

3. Cuttings in the Flesh.—As W. Robertson Smith has shown cuttings in the flesh, whether practised in the name of gods or of spirits, were designed to make a sacrifice of blood, and so to establish a covenant. In the case of ghosts such offerings were peculiarly acceptable as supplying strength to their feeble forms. Tattooing, which often accompanied the letting of blood, was designed to mark one as a permanent worshipper of the spirit to which the blood was offered.

4. Cutting the Hair.—This rite cannot be regarded as a natural expression of grief, nor can it have been designed to deceive the ghost so that it would not molest one, nor can it have been, as Frazer and Jevons think, a process of disinfection from taboo, since it occurred before the funeral. It can only be interpreted as an act of worship to the dead. Hair-offerings to deities are common throughout the world, and are analogous to blood-offerings, the strength being supposed to reside in the hair.23

5. Covering with Dust or Ashes.—In this case also the theories of natural emotion, of humiliation, and of disguising one's self from the spirits, are all inadequate. This can be only a symbolic act designed to express the thought that one wishes to be buried with the dead and so to maintain communion with them. Jastrow thinks that dust or earth put on the head is a survival of the custom of carrying earth on the head in baskets in order to cover the corpse with a mound, but this will not explain the frequent practice of wallowing in the dust as an act of mourning.

6. Fasting.—Fasting as part of the ritual of mourning is another primitive human custom. Its origin is difficult to trace. A natural reluctance to take food when one is sorrowing does not explain the fasting of people who are in no way related to the deceased, nor does it explain the feast which often follows the burial. Frey thinks that it is an act of humility, like the ritual fasts, designed to propitiate the wrath of the gods who have sent death into the family; but among most peoples the uncleanness of death prohibits the worship of the gods in connection with funeral ceremonies. Others think that it is designed to awaken the pity of the spirits so that they will not harm the survivors, but fear of the spirits of relatives is by no means universal. Frazer, Jevons and Gruneisen hold that death in a house rendered everything taboo, so that food could not be eaten until the corpse was removed. W. R. Smith suggests that fasting was a ritual preparation for the sacrificial feast that followed, like the Roman Catholic fasting before communion. Spencer, Lubbock, Tylor, and Buhl regard it as a means of inducing ecstasy, in which one held intercourse with the spirits. In any case it is unquestionable that fasting was a ritual act.

7. Disposal of the Corpse.—The belief noted above in the continued connection of the disembodied soul with its dead body led all primitive peoples to care for the corpse as an act of homage to the departed spirit. Inhumation, mummification, and cremation were the chief methods of disposal of the dead. The first protected the body from being devoured by beasts or birds, the second preserved it as a permanent dwelling for the spirit, the third etherealized it so that it might become a more fitting habitation for its former tenant. With the dead were buried, or burned, his food, clothing, utensils, weapons and ornaments that he might use them in the other world. The graves of ancestors were regarded as holy spots where their descendants met at stated times to perform religious rites in their honour.

8. Sacrifice.—By all primitive peoples sacrifices were offered upon the grave in addition to the gifts of food, drink, etc., that were buried with the corpse. Thus in the Odyssey (xi. 28-46) Ulysses pours out to the shades the blood of sheep, and makes libations of milk, honey, wine, and water, on which white meal is sprinkled.

Intimately connected with sacrifices to the dead were funeral feasts, in which one partook of the offerings, and thus sealed one's communion with the spirits of the departed. Such feasts have lasted down to modern times in many countries where their original connection with sacrifice has been forgotten.

Sacrifice to the dead explains the importance attached by all ancient peoples to male descendants. Among the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and other patriarchally organised races, the duty of sacrificing to a father devolved upon his oldest son. If there were no son, there would be no offerings, and the ghost could not rest.

9. Prayer to the Dead.—Here belong laments, which were more than mere cries of grief, being often elaborate compositions addressed to the departed, deploring his loss, and begging him to be near and to bless his family. At the time of sacrifice at the grave regular prayers were offered to the spirits as to other deities. Necromancy also, which was universal in antiquity, was a form of prayer in which the spirits were invoked to come and help one with their superior knowledge or skill.

i. Relation of Ancestor-worship to Religion in General. —From the foregoing survey it appears that the cult of the dead is one of the most ancient and most widely-spread forms of human worship. Starting with this fact, a number of ancient writers formulated the theory that ancestor-worship was the origin of all human religion. This theory appears as early as Genesis, chapters 4-5. Here both in J's and in P's lists of the descendants of Adam Semitic gods are regarded as forefathers of mankind and as discoverers of the arts. The work De Syria Dea, ascribed to Lucian, which certainly depends throughout on Semitic sources, shows the same point of view. The idea that the gods are all men who have been deified after death for the services that they have rendered to humanity was first given currency by Euhemerus, a contemporary of Alexander the Great, and hence is known as Euhemerism. It gained favour particularly among the Romans at the beginning of the Christian era, and found a fanatical advocate in Philo Byblius. This theory has been revived by Herbert Spencer, who is followed by Grant Allen in his Evolution of the Idea of God, but it has not won the approval of the majority of students of comparative religion because in all early and savage religions numerous nature-spirits are found whose names and characteristics are entirely different from those of spirits of the dead. A truer view of the relation of ancestor-worship to religion is that the conception of spirit was first gained through the fact of death, and was then extended to other beings than man. The recognition of a distinction between soul and body in man furnished a basis for the interpretation of nature as a whole. Every striking physical object, everything that could do something, or was believed to be able to do something, was supposed to be animated by a spirit that could leave it temporarily or permanently, just as the soul left the body. Thus, besides spirits of the dead, primitive man came to worship a multitude of other spiritual beings that manifested themselves in all sorts of phenomena. These nature-spirits were not conceived as ghosts of the dead, but they were beings of a similar character to disembodied spirits and might be called by the same general names. Thus arose what is often called Animism, but which is preferably called Polydaemonism, or the worship of a host of daemons (DIAMONES), or minor divinities, in contrast to Polytheism, or the worship of a few great gods, and Monotheism, or the worship of one God.

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