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Andrew Lang

Fetishism and Spiritualism

The Making of Religion: Chapter VIII (1900)

Published on: Saturday 18 November 2006

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Andrew Lang, “Fetishism and Spiritualism”, The Making of Religion, (Chapter VIII), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 147-159.


It has been shown how the doctrine of souls was developed according to the anthropological theory. The hypothesis as to how souls of the dead were later elevated to the rank of gods, or supplied models after which such gods might be inventively fashioned, will be criticised in a later chapter. Here it must suffice to say that the conception of a separable surviving soul of a dead man was not only not essential to the savage’s idea of his supreme god, as it seems to me, but would have been wholly inconsistent with that conception. There exist, however, numerous forms of savage religion in addition to the creed in a Supreme Being, and these contribute their streams to the ocean of faith. Thus among the kinds of belief which served in the development of Polytheism, was Fetishism, itself an adaptation and extension of the idea of separable souls. In this regard, like ancestor-worship, it differs from the belief in a Supreme Being, which, as we shall try to demonstrate, is not derived from the theory of ghosts or souls at all.

Fetish (fétiche) seems to come from Portuguese feitiço, a talisman or amulet, applied by the Portuguese to various material objects regarded by the negroes of the west coast with more or less of religious reverence. These objects may be held sacred in some degree for a number of incongruous reasons. They may be tokens, or may be of value in sympathetic magic, or merely odd, and therefore probably endowed with unknown mystic qualities. Or they may have been pointed out in a dream, or met in a lucky hour and associated with good fortune, or they may (like a tree with an unexplained stir in its branches, as reported by Kohl) have seemed to show signs of life by spontaneous movements; in fact, a thing may be what Europeans call a fetish for scores of reasons. For our present purpose, as Mr. Tylor says, ’to class an object as a fetish demands explicit statement that a spirit is considered as embodied in it, or acting through it, or communicating by it, or, at least, that the people it belongs to do habitually think this of such objects; or it must be shown that the object is treated as having personal consciousness or power, is talked with, worshipped…’ and so forth. The in-dwelling spirit may be human, as when a fetish is made out of a friend’s skull, the spirit in which may even be asked for oracles, like the Head of Bran in Welsh legend.

We have tried to show that the belief in human souls may be, in part at least, based on supernormal phenomena which Materialism disregards. We shall now endeavour to make it probable that Fetishism (the belief in the souls tenanting inanimate objects) may also have sources which perhaps are not normal, or which at all events seemed supernormal to savages. We say ’perhaps not normal’ because the phenomena now to be discussed are of the most puzzling character. We may lean to the belief in a supernormal cause of certain hallucinations, but the alleged movements of inanimate objects which probably supply one origin of Fetishism, one suggestion of the presence of a spirit in things dead, leave the inquiring mind in perplexity. In following Mr. Tylor’s discussion of the subject, it is necessary to combine what he says about Spiritualism in his fourth with what he says about Fetishism in his fourteenth and later chapters. For some reason his book is so arranged that he criticises ’Spiritualism’ long before he puts forward his doctrine of the origin and development of the belief in spirits.

We have seen a savage reason for supposing that human spirits inhabit certain lifeless things, such as skulls and other relics of the dead. But how did it come to be thought that a spirit dwelt in a lifeless and motionless piece of stone or stick? Mr. Tylor, perhaps, leads us to a plausible conjecture by writing: ’Mr. Darwin saw two Malay women in Keeling Island, who held a wooden spoon dressed in clothes like a doll: this spoon had been carried to the grave of a dead man, and becoming inspired at full moon, in fact lunatic, it danced about convulsively, like a table or a hat at a modern spirit séance.’ [1] Now M. Lefébure has pointed out (in ’Mélusine’) that, according to De Brosses, the African conjurers gave an appearance of independent motion to small objects, which were then accepted as fetishes, being visibly animated. M. Lefébure next compares, like Mr. Tylor, the alleged physical phenomena of spiritualism, the flights and movements of inanimate objects apparently untouched.

The question thus arises, Is there any truth whatever in these world-wide and world-old stories of inanimate objects acting like animated things? Has fetishism one of its origins in the actual field of supernormal experience in the X region? This question we do not propose to answer, as the evidence, though practically universal, may be said to rest on imposture and illusion. But we can, at least, give a sketch of the nature of the evidence, beginning with that as to the apparently voluntary movements of objects, not untouched. Mr. Tylor quotes from John Bell’s ’Journey in Asia’ (1719) an account of a Mongol Lama who wished to discover certain stolen pieces of damask. His method was to sit on a bench, when ’he carried it, or, as was commonly believed, it carried him, to the very tent’ of the thief. Here the bench is innocently believed to be self-moving. Again, Mr. Rowley tells how in Manganjah the sorcerer, to find out a criminal, placed, with magical ceremonies, two staffs of wood in the hands of some young men. ’The sticks whirled and dragged the men round like mad,’ and finally escaped and rolled to the feet of the wife of a chief, who was then denounced as the guilty person. [2]

Mr. Duff Macdonald describes the same practice among the Yaos: [3]

’The sorcerer occasionally makes men take hold of a stick, which, after a time, begins to move as if endowed with life, and ultimately carries them off bodily and with great speed to the house of the thief.’

The process is just that of Jacques Aymard in the celebrated story of the detection of the Lyons murderer. [4]

In Melanesia, far enough away, Dr. Codrington found a similar practice, and here the sticks are explicitly said by the natives to be moved by spirits. [5] The wizard and a friend hold a bamboo stick by each end, and ask what man’s ghost is afflicting a patient. At the mention of the right ghost ’the stick becomes violently agitated.’ In the same way, the bamboo ’would run about’ with a man holding it only on the palms of his hands. Again, a hut is built with a partition down the middle. Men sit there with their hands under one end of the bamboo, while the other end is extended into the empty half of the hut. They then call over the names of the recently dead, till ’they feel the bamboo moving in their hands.’ A bamboo placed on a sacred tree, ’when the name of a ghost is called, moves of itself, and will lift and drag people about.’ Put up into a tree, it would lift them from the ground. In other cases the holding of the sticks produces convulsions and trance. [6] The divining sticks of the Maori are also ’guided by spirits,’ [7] and those of the Zulu sorcerers rise, fall, and jump about. [8]

These Zulu performances must be really very curious. In the last chapter we told how a Zulu named John, having a shilling to lay out in the interests of psychical research, declined to pay a perplexed diviner, and reserved his capital far a more meritorious performance. He tried a medium named Unomantshintshi, who divined by Umabakula, or dancing sticks—

’If they say "no," they fall suddenly; if they say "yes," they arise and jump about very much, and leap on the person who has come to inquire. They "fix themselves on the place where the sick man is affected; ... if the head, they leap on his head.... Many believe in Umabakula more than in the diviner. But there are not many who have the Umabakula."’

Dr. Callaway’s informant only knew two Umabakulists, John was quite satisfied, paid his shilling, and went home. [9]

The sticks are about a foot long. It is not reported that they are moved by spirits, nor do they seem to be regarded as fetishes.

Mr. Tylor also cites a form of the familiar pendulum experiment. Among the Karens a ring is suspended by a thread over a metal basin. The relations of the dead strike the basin, and when he who was dearest to the ghost touches it the spirit twists the thread till it breaks, and the ring falls into the basin. With us a ring is held by a thread over a tumbler, and our unconscious movements swing it till it strikes the hour. How the Karens manage it is less obvious. These savage devices with animated sticks clearly correspond to the more modern ’table-turning.’ Here, when the players are honest, the pushing is certainly unconscious.

I have tested this in two ways—first by trying the minimum of conscious muscular action that would stir a table at which I was alone, and by comparing the absolute unconsciousness of muscular action when the table began to move in response to no voluntary push. Again, I tried with a friend, who said, ’You are pushing,’ when I gently removed my hands altogether, though they seemed to rest on the table, which still revolved. My friend was himself unconsciously pushing. It is undeniable that, to a solitary experimenter, the table seems to make little darts of its own will in a curious way. Thus, the unconsciousness of muscular action on the part of savages engaged in the experiment with sticks would lead them to believe that spirits were animating the wood. The same fallacy beset the table-turners of 1855-65, and was, to some extent, exposed by Faraday. Of course, savages would be even more convinced by the dancing spoon of Mr. Darwin’s tale, by the dancing sticks of the Zulus, and the rest, whether the phenomena were supernormal or merely worked by unseen strings. The same remark applies to modern experimenters, when, as they declare, various objects move untouched, without physical contact.

Still more analogous than turning tables to the savage use of inspired sticks for directing the inquirer to a lost object or to a criminal, is the modern employment of the divining-rod—a forked twig which, held by the ends, revolves in the hands of the performer when he reaches the object of his quest. He, like the savage cited, is occasionally agitated in a convulsive manner; and cases are quoted in which the twig writhes when held in a pair of tongs! The best-known modern treatise on the divining-rod is that of M. Chevreul, ’La Baguette Divinatoire’ (1854). We have also ’L’Histoire du Merveilleux dans les Temps Modernes,’ by M. Figuier (1860). In 1781 Thouvenel published his 600 experiments with Bleton and others; and Hegel refers to Amoretti’s collection of hundreds of cases. The case of Jacques Aymard, who in the seventeenth century discovered a murderer by the use of the rod in true savage fashion, is well known. In modern England the rod is used in the interests of private individuals and public bodies (such as Trinity College, Cambridge) for the discovery of water.

Professor Barrett has lately published a book of 280 pages, in which evidence of failures and successes is collected. [10] Professor Barrett gives about one hundred and fifty cases, in which he was only able to discover, on good authority, twelve failures. He gives a variety of tests calculated to check frauds and chance coincidence, and he publishes opinions, hostile or agnostic, by geologists. The evidence, as a general rule, is what is called first-hand in other inquiries. The actual spectators, and often the owners of the land, or the persons in whose interest water was wanted, having been present, give their testimony; and it is certain that the ’diviner’ is called in by people of sense and education, commonly too practical to have a theory, and content with getting what they want, especially where scientific experts have failed. [11]

In Mr. Barrett’s opinion, the subconscious perception of indications of the presence of water produces an equally unconscious muscular ’spasm,’ which twirls the rod till it often breaks. Yet ’it is almost impossible to imitate its characteristic movement by any voluntary effort.’ I have myself held the hands of an amateur performer when the twig was moving, and neither by sight nor touch could I detect any muscular movement on his part, much less a spasm. The person was bailiff on a large estate, and, having accidentally discovered that he possessed the gift, used it when he wanted wells dug for the tenants on the property.

The whole topic is obscure; nor am I concerned here with the successes or failures of the divining-rod. But the movements of the twig have never, to my knowledge, been attributed by modern English performers to the operation of spirits. They say ’electricity.’ Mr. Tylor merely writes:

’The action of the famous divining-rod, with its curiously versatile sensibility to water, ore, treasure, and thieves, seems to belong partly to trickery and partly to more or less conscious direction by honester operators.’

As the divining-rod is the only instance in which automatism, whatever its nature and causes, has been found of practical value by practical men, and as it is obviously associated with a number of analogous phenomena, both in civilised and savage life, it certainly deserves the attention of science. But no advance will be made till scientifically trained inquirers themselves arrange and test a large number of experiments. Knowledge of the geological ignorance of the dowsers, examples of fraud on their part, and cases of failure or reported failure, with a general hostile bias, may prevent such experiments from being made by scientific experts on an adequate scale. Such experts ought, of course, to avoid working the dowsers into a state of irritation.

It is just worth while to notice cases in which the rod acts like those of the Melanesians, Africans, and other savages. A Mr. Thomas Welton published an English translation of ’La Verge de Jacob’ (Lyon, 1693). In 1651 he asked his servant to bring into the garden ’a stick that stood behind the parlour door. In great terror she brought it to the garden, her hand firmly clutched on it, nor could she let it go.’ When Mrs. Welton took the stick, ’it drew her with very considerable velocity to nearly the centre of the garden,’ where a well was found. Mr. Welton is not likely to have known of the lately published savage examples. The coincidence with the African and Melanesian cases is, therefore, probably undesigned.

Again, in 1694, the rod was used by le Père Menestrier and others, just as it is by savages, to indicate by its movements answers to all sorts of questions. Experiments of this kind have not been made by Professor Barrett, and other modern inquirers, except by M. Richet, as a mode of detecting automatic action. But it would be just as sensible to use the twig as to use planchette or any other ’autoscopic’ apparatus. If these elicit knowledge unconsciously present to the mind, mere water-finding ought not to be the sole province of the rod. In the same class as these rods is the forked twig which, in China, is held at each end by two persons, and made to write in the sand. The little apparatus called planchette, or the other, the ouija, is of course, consciously or unconsciously, pushed by the performers. In the case of the twig, as held by water-seekers, the difficulty of consciously moving it so as to escape close observation is considerable.

In the case of the ouija (a little tripod, which, under the operators’ hands, runs about a table inscribed with letters at which it points), I have known curious successes to be achieved by amateurs. Thus, in the house of a lady who owned an old château in another county, the ouija, operated on by two ladies known to myself, wrote a number of details about a visit paid to the château for a certain purpose by Mary Stuart. That visit, and its object, a purely personal one, are unknown to history, and the château is not spoken of in Mr. Hay Fleming’s careful, but unavoidably incomplete, itinerary of the Queen’s residence in Scotland. After the communication had been made, the owner of the château explained that she was already acquainted with the circumstances described, as she had recently read them in documents in her charter chest, where they remain.

Of course, the belief we extend to such narratives is entirely conditioned by our knowledge of the personal character of the performers. The point here is merely the civilised and savage practice of automatism, the apparent eliciting of knowledge not otherwise accessible, by the movements of a stick, or a bit of wood. These movements, made without conscious exertion or direction, seem, to savage philosophy, to be caused by in-dwelling spirits, the sources of Fetishism.

These examples, then, demonstrating unconscious movement of objects by the operators, make it clear that movements even of touched objects, may be attributed, by some civilised and by savage amateurs, to ’spirits.’ The objects so moved may, by savages, be regarded in some cases as fetishes, and their movements may have helped to originate the belief that spirits can inhabit inanimate objects. When objects apparently quite untouched become volatile, the mystery is deeper. This apparent animation and frolicsome behaviour of inanimate objects is reported all through history, and attested by immense quantities of evidence of every degree. It would be tedious to give a full account of the antiquity and diffusion of reports about such occurrences. We find them among Neo-Platonists, in the English and Continental Middle Ages, among Eskimo, Hurons, Algonkins, Tartars, Zulus, Malays, Nasquapees, Maoris, in witch trials, in ancient Peru (immediately after the Spanish Conquest), in China, in modern Russia, in New England (1680), all through the career of modern spiritualism, in Hayti (where they are attributed to ’Obeah’), and, sporadically, everywhere. [12]

Among all these cases, we must dismiss whatever the modern paid medium does in the dark. The only thing to be done with the ethnographic and modern accounts of such marvels is to ’file them for reference.’ If a spontaneous example occurs, under proper inspection, we can then compare our old tales. Professor James says: ’Their mutual resemblances suggest a natural type, and I confess that till these records, or others like them, are positively explained away, I cannot feel (in spite of such vast amounts of detected frauds) as if the case of physical mediumship itself, as a freak of nature, were definitely closed… So long as the stories multiply in various lands, and so few are positively explained away, it is bad method to ignore them.’ [13] Here they are not ignored, because, whatever the cause or causes of the phenomena, they would buttress, if they did not originate, the savage belief in spirits tenanting inanimate matter, whence came Fetishism. As to facts, we cannot, of course, ’explain away’ events of this kind, which we know only through report. A conjurer cannot explain a trick merely from a description, especially a description by a non-conjurer. But, as a rule, nothing so much leads to doubt on this theme as the ’explanation’ given—except, of course, in the case of ’dark séances’ got up and prepared by paid mediums. We know, sometimes, how the ’explanation’ arose.

Thus, the house of a certain M. Zoller, a lawyer and member of the Swiss Federal Council, a house at Stans, in Unterwalden, was made simply uninhabitable in 1860-1862. The disturbances, including movements of objects, were of a truly odious description, and occurred in full daylight. M. Zoller, deeply attached to his home, which had many interesting associations with the part his family played in the struggle against revolutionary France, was obliged to abandon the place. He had made every conceivable sort of research, and had called in the local police and savants, to no purpose.

But the affair was explained away thus: While the phenomena could still be concealed from public curiosity, a client called to see M. Zoller, who was out. The client, therefore, remained in the drawing-room. Loud and heavy blows resounded through the room. The client, as it chanced, had once felt the effects of an electric battery, for some medical reason, apparently. M. Zoller writes: ’My eldest son was present at the time, and, when my client asked whether there was such a thing as an electrical machine in the house (the family having been enjoined to keep the disturbances as secret as possible), he allowed S. to think that there was.’ Consequently, the phenomena were set down to M. Zoller’s singular idea of making his house untenantable with an ’electric machine’—which he did not possess. [14] A number of the most respected citizens, including the Superintendent of Police, and the chief magistrate for law, published a statement that neither Zoller, nor any of his family, nor any of themselves, produced or could have produced the phenomena witnessed by them in August 1862. This declaration they put forth in the ’Schwytzer Zeitung,’ October 5, 1863. [15] No electric machine known to mortals could have produced the vast variety of alleged effects, none was ever found; and as M. Zoller changed his servants without escaping his tribulations, they can hardly be blamed for what, prima facie, it seems that they could not possibly do. However, ’electricity,’ like Mesopotamia, is ’a blessed word.’ [16]

My own position in this matter of ’physical phenomena’ is, I hope, clear. They interest me, for my present purpose, as being, whatever their real nature and origin, things which would suggest to a savage his theory of Fetishism. ’An inanimate object may be tenanted by a spirit, as is proved by its extraordinary movements.’ Thus the early thinker might reason, and go on to revere the object. It is to be wished that competent observers would pay more attention to such savage practices as crystal-gazing and automatism as illustrated by the sticks of the Melanesians, Zulus, and Yaos. Our scanty information we pick up out of stray allusions, but it has the advantage of being uncontaminated by theory, the European spectator not knowing the wide range of such practices and their value in experimental psychology.

We have now finished our study of the less normal and usual phenomena, which gave rise to belief in separable, self-existing, conscious, and powerful souls. We have shown that the supernormal factors which, when reflected on, probably supported this belief, are represented in civilised as well as in savage life, while as to their existence among the founders of religion we can historically know nothing at all. If we may infer from certain considerations, the supernormal experiences were possibly more prevalent among the remote ancestors of known savage races than among their modern descendants. We have suggested that clairvoyance, thought transference, and telepathy cannot be dismissed as mere fables, by a cautious inquirer, while even the far more obscure stories of ’physical manifestations’ are but poorly explained away by those who cannot explain them. [17] Again, these faculties have presented—in the acquisition of otherwise unattainable knowledge, in coincidental hallucinations, and in other ways—just the kind of facts on which the savage doctrine of souls might be based, or by which it might be buttressed. Thus, while the actuality of the supernormal facts and faculties remains at least an open question, the prevalent theory of Materialism cannot be admitted as dogmatically certain in its present shape. No more than any other theory, nay, less than some other theories, can it account for the psychical facts which, at the lowest, we may not honestly leave out of the reckoning.

We have therefore no more to say about the supernormal aspects of the origins of religion. We are henceforth concerned with matters of verifiable belief and practice. We have to ask whether, when once the doctrine of souls was conceived by early men, it took precisely the course of development usually indicated by anthropological science.

View online : Evolution of the Idea of God (The Making of Religion: Chapter IX)


[1Darwin, Journal, p. 458; Tylor, Prim. Cult. ii. 152. The spoon was not untouched.

[2Rowley, Universities’ Mission, p. 217.

[3Africana, vol. i. p. 161.

[4In the author’s Custom and Myth, ’The Divining Rod.’

[5Codrington’s Melanesia, p. 210.

[6Op. cit. pp. 229-325.

[7Prim. Cult. vol. i. p. 125.

[8Callaway, Amazulu, p. 330.

[9Callaway, Amazulu, p. 368.

[10The So-called Divining-Rod, S.P.R. 1897.

[11See especially The Waterford Experiments, p. 106.

[12Authorities and examples are collected in the author’s Cock Lane and Common Sense.

[13Proceedings, xii. 7, 8.

[14Personal Narrative, by M. Zoller. Hanke, Zurich, 1863.

[15Daumer, Reich des Wundersamen, Regensburg, 1872, pp. 265, 266.

[16A criticism of modern explanations of the phenomena here touched upon will be found in Appendix B.

[17See Appendix B.

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