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Andrew Lang

Supreme Gods not necessarily developped out of ’Spirit’

The Making of Religion: Chapter XI (1900)

Published on: Saturday 9 December 2006

Keywords :

Andrew Lang, ’Supreme Gods not necessarily developped out of ’Spirit’’, The Making of Religion, (Chapter XI), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 185-192.


Before going on to examine the high gods of other low savages, I must here again insist on and develop the theory, not easily conceived by us, that the Supreme Being of savages belongs to another branch of faith than ghosts, or ghost-gods, or fetishes, or Totems, and need not be—probably is not—essentially derived from these. We must try to get rid of our theory that a powerful, moral, eternal Being was, from the first, ex officio, conceived as ’spirit;’ and so was necessarily derived from a ghost.

First, what was the process of development?

We have examined Mr. Tylor’s theory. But, to take a practical case: Here are the Australians, roaming in small bands, without more formal rulers than ’headmen’ at most; not ancestor worshippers; not polytheists; with no departmental deities to select and aggrandise; not apt to speculate on the Anima Mundi. How, then, did they bridge the gulf between the ghost of a soon-forgotten fighting man, and that conception of a Father above, ’all-seeing,’ moral, which, under various names, is found all over a huge continent? I cannot see that this problem has been solved or frankly faced.

The distinction between the Australian deity, at his highest power, unpropitiated by sacrifice, and the ordinary, waning, easily forgotten, cheaply propitiated ghost of a tribesman, is essential. It is not easy to show how, in ’the dark backward’ of Australian life, the notion of Mungan-ngaur grew from the idea of the ghost of a warrior. But there is no logical necessity for the belief in the evolution of this god out of that ghost. These two factors in religion—ghost and god—seem to have perfectly different sources, and it appears extraordinary that anthropologists have not (as far as I am aware) observed this circumstance before.

Mr. Spencer, indeed, speaks frequently of living human beings adored as gods. I do not know that these are found on the lowest levels of savagery, and Mr. Jevons has pointed out that, before you can hail a man as a god, you must have the idea of God. The murder of Captain Cook notoriously resulted from a scientific experiment in theology. ’If he is a god, he cannot be killed.’ So they tried with a dagger, and found that the honest captain was but a mortal British mariner—no god at all. ’There are degrees.’ Mr. Spencer’s men-gods become real gods—after death. [1]

Now the Supreme Being of savage faith, as a rule, never died at all. He belonged to a world that knew not Death.

One cause of our blindness to the point appears to be this: We have from childhood been taught that ’God is a Spirit.’ We, now, can only conceive of an eternal being as a ’spirit.’ We know that legions of savage gods are now regarded as spirits. And therefore we have never remarked that there is no reason why we should take it for granted that the earliest deities of the earliest men were supposed by them to be ’spirits’ at all. These gods might most judiciously be spoken of, not as ’spirits,’ but as ’undefined eternal beings.’ To us, such a being is necessarily a spirit, but he was by no means necessarily so to an early thinker, who may not yet have reached the conception of a ghost.

A ghost is said, by anthropologists, to have developed into a god. Now, the very idea of a ghost (apart from a wraith or fetch) implies the previous death of his proprietor. A ghost is the phantasm of a dead man. But anthropologists continually tell us, with truth, that the idea of death as a universal ordinance is unknown to the savage. Diseases and death are things that once did not exist, and that, normally, ought not to occur, the savage thinks. They are, in his opinion, supernormally caused by magicians and spirits. Death came into the world by a blunder, an accident, an error in ritual, a decision of a god who was before Death was. Scores of myths are told everywhere on this subject. [2]

The savage Supreme Being, with added power, omniscience, and morality, is the idealisation of the savage, as conceived of by himself, minus fleshly body (as a rule), and minus Death. He is not necessarily a ’spirit,’ though that term may now be applied to him. He was not originally differentiated as ’spirit’ or ’not spirit.’ He is a Being, conceived of without the question of ’spirit,’ or ’no spirit’ being raised; perhaps he was originally conceived of before that question could be raised by men. When we call the Supreme Being of savages a ’spirit’ we introduce our own animistic ideas into a conception where it may not have originally existed. If the God is ’the savage himself raised to the n’th power’ so much the less of a spirit is he. Mr. Matthew Arnold might as well have said: ’The British Philistine has no knowledge of God. He believes that the Creator is a magnified non-natural man, living in the sky.’ The Gippsland or Fuegian or Blackfoot Supreme Being is just a Being, anthropomorphic, not a mrart, or ’spirit.’ The Supreme Being is a wesen, Being, Vui; we have hardly a term for an immortal existence so undefined. If the being is an idealised first ancestor (as among the Kurnai), he is not, on that account, either man or ghost of man. In the original conception he is a powerful intelligence who was from the first: who was already active long before, by a breach of his laws, an error in the delivery of a message, a breach of ritual, or what not, death entered the world. He was not affected by the entry of death, he still exists.

Modern minds need to become familiar with this indeterminate idea of the savage Supreme Being, which, logically, may be prior to the evolution of the notion of ghost or spirit.

But how does it apply when, as by the Kurnai, the Supreme Being is reckoned an ancestor?

It can very readily be shown that, when the Supreme Being of a savage people is thus the idealised First Ancestor, he can never have been envisaged by his worshippers as at any time a ghost; or, at least, cannot logically have been so envisaged where the nearly universal belief occurs that death came into the world by accident, or needlessly.

Adam is the mythical first ancestor of the Hebrews, but he died, [Greek: uper moron], and was not worshipped. Yama, the first of Aryan men who died, was worshipped by Vedic Aryans, but confessedly as a ghost-god. Mr. Tylor gives a list of first ancestors deified. The Ancestor of the Maudans did not die, consequently is no ghost; emigravit, he ’moved west.’ Where the First Ancestor is also the Creator (Dog-rib Indians), he can hardly be, and is not, regarded as a mortal. Tamoi, of the Guaranis, was ’the ancient of heaven,’ clearly no mortal man. The Maori Maui was the first who died, but he is not one of the original Maori gods. Haetsh, among the Kamchadals, precisely answers to Yama. Unkulunkulu will be described later. [3]

This is the list: Where the First Ancestor is equivalent to the Creator, and is supreme, he is—from the first—deathless and immortal. When he dies he is a confessed ghost-god.

Now, ghost-worship and dead ancestor-worship are impossible before the ancestor is dead and is a ghost. But the essential idea of Mungan-ngaur, and Baiame, and most of the high gods of Australia, and of other low races, is that they never died at all. They belong to the period before death came into the world, like Qat among the Melanesians. They arise in an age that knew not death, and had not reflected on phantasms nor evolved ghosts. They could have been conceived of, in the nature of the case, by a race of immortals who never dreamed of such a thing as a ghost. For these gods, the ghost-theory is not required, and is superfluous, even contradictory. The early thinkers who developed these beings did not need to know that men die (though, of course, they did know it in practice), still less did they need to have conceived by abstract speculation the hypothesis of ghosts. Baiame, Cagn, Bunjil, in their adorers’ belief, were there; death later intruded among men, but did not affect these divine beings in any way.

The ghost-theory, therefore, by the evidence of anthropology itself, is not needed for the evolution of the high gods of savages. It is only needed for the evolution of ghost-propitiation and genuine dead-ancestor worship. Therefore, the high gods described were not necessarily once ghosts—were not idealised mortal ancestors. They were, naturally, from the beginning, from before the coming in of death, immortal Fathers, now dwelling on high. Between them and apotheosised mortal ancestors there is a great gulf fixed—the river of death.

The explicitly stated distinction that the high creative gods never were mortal men, while other gods are spirits of mortal men, is made in every quarter. ’Ancestors known to be human were not worshipped as [original] gods, and ancestors worshipped as [original] gods were not believed to have been human.’ [4]

Both kinds may have a generic name, such as kalou, or wakan, but the specific distinction is universally made by low savages. On one hand, original gods; on the other, non-original gods that were once ghosts. Now, this distinction is often calmly ignored; whereas, when any race has developed (like late Scandinavians) the Euhemeristic hypothesis (’all gods were once men’), that hypothesis is accepted as an historical statement of fact by some writers.

It is part of my theory that the more popular ghost-worship of souls of people whom men have loved, invaded the possibly older religion of the Supreme Father. Mighty beings, whether originally conceived of as ’spirits’ or not, came, later, under the Animistic theory, to be reckoned as spirits. They even (but not among the lowest savages) came to be propitiated by food and sacrifice. The alternative, for a Supreme Being, when once Animism prevailed, was sacrifice (as to more popular ghost deities) or neglect. We shall find examples of both alternatives. But sacrifice does not prove that a God was, in original conception, a ghost, or even a spirit. ’The common doctrine of the Old Testament is not that God is spirit, but that the spirit [rûah = ’wind,’ ’living breath’] of Jehovah, going forth from him, works in the world and among men.’ [5]

To resume. The high Gods of savagery—moral, all-seeing directors of things and of men—are not explicitly envisaged as spirits at all by their adorers. The notion of soul or spirit is here out of place. We can best describe Pirnmeheal, and Nàpi and Baiame as ’magnified non-natural men,’ or undefined beings who were from the beginning and are undying. They are, like the easy Epicurean Gods, nihil indiga nostri. Not being ghosts, they crave no food from men, and receive no sacrifice, as do ghosts, or gods developed out of ghosts, or gods to whom the ghost-ritual has been transferred. For this very reason, apparently, they seem to be spoken of by Mr. Grant Allen as ’gods to talk about, not gods to adore; mythological conceptions rather than religious beings.’ [6] All this is rather hard on the lowest savages. If they sacrifice to a god, then the god is a hungry ghost; if they don’t, then the god is ’a god to talk about, not to adore,’ Luckily, the facts of the Bora ritual and the instruction given there prove that Mungan-nganr and other names are gods to adore, by ethical conformity to their will and by solemn ceremony, not merely gods to talk about.

Thus, the highest element in the religion of the lowest savages does not appear to be derived from their theory of ghosts. As far as we can say, in the inevitable absence of historical evidence, the highest gods of savages may have been believed in, as Makers and Fathers and Lords of an indeterminate nature, before the savage had developed the idea of souls out of dreams and phantasms. It is logically conceivable that savages may have worshipped deities like Baiame and Darumulun before they had evolved the notion that Tom, Dick, or Harry has a separable soul, capable of surviving his bodily decease. Deities of the higher sort, by the very nature of savage reflections on death and on its non-original casual character, are prior, or may be prior, or cannot be shown not to be prior, to the ghost theory—the alleged origin of religion. For their evolution the ghost theory is not logically demanded; they can do without it. Yet they, and not the spirits, bogles, Mrarts, Brewin, and so forth, are the high gods, the gods who have most analogy—as makers, moral guides, rewarders, and punishers of conduct (though that duty is also occasionally assumed by ancestral spirits)—with our civilised conception of the divine. Our conception of God descends not from ghosts, but from the Supreme Beings of non-ancestor-worshipping peoples.

As it seems impossible to point out any method by which low, chiefless, non-polytheistic, non-metaphysical savages (if any such there be) evolved out of ghosts the eternal beings who made the world, and watch over morality: as the people themselves unanimously distinguish such beings from ghost-gods, I take it that such beings never were ghosts. In this case the Animistic theory seems to me to break down completely. Yet these high gods of low savages preserve from dimmest ages of the meanest culture the sketch of a God which our highest religious thought can but fill up to its ideal. Come from what germ he may, Jehovah or Allah does not come from a ghost.

It may be retorted that this makes no real difference. If savages did not invent gods in consequence of a fallacious belief in spirit and soul, still, in some other equally illogical way they came to indulge the hypothesis that they had a Judge and Father in heaven. But, if the ghost theory of the high Gods is wrong, as it is conspicuously superfluous, that does make some difference. It proves that a widely preached scientific conclusion may be as spectral as Bathybius. On other more important points, therefore, we may differ from the newest scientific opinion without too much diffident apprehensiveness.


[1Principles of Sociology, i. 417, 421. ’The medicine men are treated as gods… The medicine man becomes a god after death.’

[2I have published a chapter on Myths on the Origin of Death in Modern Mythology.

[3Prim. Cult. ii. 311-316.

[4Jevons, Introduction, p. 197.

[5Robertson Smith. The Prophets of Israel, p. 61.

[6Evolution of the Idea of God, p. 170.

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