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Mr. Max Müller supports his own theory, that fetichism is a
'parasitical growth,' a 'corruption' of religion, by arguments mainly
drawn from historical study of savage creeds, and from the ancient
religious documents of India.

These documents are to English investigators ignorant of Sanskrit 'a
book sealed with seven seals.' The Vedas are interpreted in very
different ways by different Oriental scholars. It does not yet appear
to be known whether a certain word in the Vedic funeral service means
'goat' or 'soul'! Mr. Max Müller's rendering is certain to have the
first claim on English readers, and therefore it is desirable to
investigate the conclusions which he draws from his Vedic studies. The
ordinary anthropologist must first, however, lodge a protest against
the tendency to look for _primitive_ matter in the Vedas. They are the
elaborate hymns of a specially trained set of poets and philosophers,
living in an age almost of civilisation. They can therefore contain
little testimony as to what man, while still 'primitive,' thought
about God, the world, and the soul. One might as well look for the
first germs of religion, for _primitive_ religion strictly so called,
in _Hymns Ancient and Modern_ as in the Vedas. It is chiefly, however,
by way of deductions from the Vedas, that Mr. Max Müller arrives at
ideas which may be briefly and broadly stated thus: he inclines to
derive religion from man's sense of the Infinite, as awakened by
natural objects calculated to stir that sense. Our position is, on the
other hand, that the germs of the religious sense in early man are
developed, not so much by the vision of the Infinite, as by the idea
of Power. Early religions, in short, are selfish, not disinterested.
The worshipper is not contemplative, so much as eager to gain
something to his advantage. In fetiches, he ignorantly recognises
something that possesses power of an abnormal sort, and the train of
ideas which leads him to believe in and to treasure fetiches is one
among the earliest springs of religious belief.

Mr. Müller's opinion is the very reverse: he believes that a
contemplative and disinterested emotion in the presence of the
Infinite, or of anything that suggests infinitude or is mistaken for
the Infinite, begets human religion, while of this religion fetichism
is a later corruption.

* * * * *

In treating of fetichism Mr. Müller is obliged to criticise the system
of De Brosses, who introduced this rather unfortunate term to science,
in an admirable work, _Le Culte des Dieux Fétiches_ (1760). We call
the work 'admirable,' because, considering the contemporary state of
knowledge and speculation, De Brosses' book is brilliant, original,
and only now and then rash or confused. Mr. Müller says that De
Brosses 'holds that all nations had to begin with fetichism, to be
followed afterwards by polytheism and monotheism.' This sentence would
lead some readers to suppose that De Brosses, in his speculations, was
looking for the origin of religion; but, in reality, his work is a
mere attempt to explain a certain element in ancient religion and
mythology. De Brosses was well aware that heathen religions were a
complex mass, a concretion of many materials. He admits the existence
of regard for the spirits of the dead as one factor, he gives Sabaeism
a place as another. But what chiefly puzzles him, and what he chiefly
tries to explain, is the worship of odds and ends of rubbish, and the
adoration of animals, mountains, trees, the sun, and so forth. When he
masses all these worships together, and proposes to call them all
Fetichism (a term derived from the Portuguese word for a talisman), De
Brosses is distinctly unscientific. But De Brosses is distinctly
scientific when he attempts to explain the animal-worship of Egypt,
and the respect paid by Greeks and Romans to shapeless stones, as
survivals of older savage practices.

The position of De Brosses is this: Old mythology and religion are a
tissue of many threads. Sabaeism, adoration of the dead, mythopœic
fancy, have their part in the fabric. Among many African tribes, a
form of theism, Islamite, or Christian, or self-developed, is
superimposed on a mass of earlier superstitions. Among these
superstitions, is the worship of animals and plants, and the cult of
rough stones and of odds and ends of matter. What is the origin of
this element, so prominent in the religion of Egypt, and present, if
less conspicuous, in the most ancient temples of Greece? It is the
survival, answers De Brosses, of ancient practices like those of
untutored peoples, as Brazilians, Samoyeds, Negroes, whom the
Egyptians and Pelasgians once resembled in lack of culture.

This, briefly stated, is the hypothesis of De Brosses. If he had
possessed our wider information, he would have known that, among
savage races, the worships of the stars, of the dead, and of plants
and animals, are interlaced by the strange metaphysical processes of
wild men. He would, perhaps, have kept the supernatural element in
magical stones, feathers, shells, and so on, apart from the triple
thread of Sabaeism, ghost-worship, and totemism, with its later
development into the regular worship of plants and animals. It must be
recognised, however, that De Brosses was perfectly well aware of the
confused and manifold character of early religion. He had a clear view
of the truth that what the religious instinct has once grasped, it
does not, as a rule, abandon, but subordinates or disguises, when it
reaches higher ideas. And he avers, again and again, that men laid
hold of the coarser and more material objects of worship, while they
themselves were coarse and dull, and that, as civilisation advanced,
they, as a rule, subordinated and disguised the ruder factors in their
system. Here it is that Mr. Max Müller differs from De Brosses. He
holds that the adoration of stones, feathers, shells, and (as I
understand him) the worship of animals are, even among the races of
Africa, a corruption of an earlier and purer religion, a 'parasitical
development' of religion.

However, Mr. Max Müller himself held 'for a long time' what he calls
'De Brosses' theory of fetichism.' What made him throw the theory
overboard? It was 'the fact that, while in the earliest accessible
documents of religious thought we look in vain for any very clear
traces of fetichism, they become more and more frequent everywhere in
the later stages of religious development, and are certainly more
visible in the later corruptions of the Indian religion, beginning
with the Âtharva_n_a, than in the earliest hymns of the Rig Veda.'
Now, by the earliest accessible documents of religious thought,
Professor Max Müller means the hymns of the Rig Veda. These hymns are
composed in the most elaborate metre, by sages of old repute, who, I
presume, occupied a position not unlike that of the singers and seers
of Israel. They lived in an age of tolerably advanced cultivation.
They had wide geographical knowledge. They had settled government.
They dwelt in States. They had wealth of gold, of grain, and of
domesticated animals. Among the metals, they were acquainted with that
which, in most countries, has been the latest worked--they used iron
poles in their chariots. How then can the hymns of the most
enlightened singers of a race thus far developed be called 'the
earliest religious documents'? Oldest they may be, the oldest that are
accessible, but this is a very different thing. How can we possibly
argue that what is absent in these hymns, is absent because it had not
yet come into existence? Is it not the very office of _pii vates et
Phœbo digna locuti_ to purify religion, to cover up decently its rude
shapes, as the unhewn stone was concealed in the fane of Apollo of
Delos? If the race whose noblest and oldest extant hymns were pure,
exhibits traces of fetichism in its later documents, may not that as
easily result from a recrudescence as from a corruption? Professor Max
Müller has still, moreover, to explain how the process of corruption
which introduced the same fetichistic practices among Samoyeds,
Brazilians, Kaffirs, and the people of the Âtharva_n_a Veda came to be
everywhere identical in its results.

Here an argument often urged against the anthropological method may be
shortly disposed of. 'You examine savages,' people say, 'but how do
you know that these savages were not once much more cultivated; that
their whole mode of life, religion and all, is not debased and
decadent from an earlier standard?' Mr. Müller glances at this
argument, which, however, cannot serve his purpose. Mr. Müller has
recognised that savage, or 'nomadic,' languages represent a much
earlier state of language than anything that we find for example, in
the oldest Hebrew or Sanskrit texts. 'For this reason,' he says,[197]
'the study of what I call _nomad_ languages, as distinguished from
_State_ languages, becomes so instructive. We see in them what we can
no longer expect to see even in the most ancient Sanskrit or Hebrew.
We watch the childhood of language with all its childish freaks.' Yes,
adds the anthropologist, and for this reason the study of savage
religions, as distinguished from State religions, becomes so
instructive. We see in them what we can no longer expect to see even
in the most ancient Sanskrit or Hebrew faiths. We watch the childhood
of religion with all its childish freaks. If this reasoning be sound
when the Kaffir tongue is contrasted with ancient Sanskrit, it should
be sound when the Kaffir faith is compared with the Vedic faith. By
parity of reasoning, the religious beliefs of peoples as much less
advanced than the Kaffirs as the Kaffirs are less advanced than the
Vedic peoples, should be still nearer the infancy of faith, still
'nearer the beginning.'

We have been occupied, perhaps, too long with De Brosses and our
apology for De Brosses. Let us now examine, as shortly as possible,
Mr. Max Müller's reasons for denying that fetichism is 'a primitive
form of religion.' The negative side of his argument being thus
disposed of, it will then be our business to consider (1) his
psychological theory of the subjective element in religion, and (2)
his account of the growth of Indian religion.

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