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Andrew Lang

More Savage Supreme Beings

The Making of Religion: Chapter XIII (1900)

Published on: Friday 22 December 2006

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Andrew Lang, ’More Savage Supreme Beings’, The Making of Religion, (Chapter XIII), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 193-210.


If many of the lowest savages known to us entertain ideas of a Supreme Being such as we find among Fuegians, Australians, Bushmen, and Andamanese, are there examples, besides the Zulus, of tribes higher in material culture who seem to have had such notions, but to have partly forgotten or neglected them? Miss Kingsley, a lively, observant, and unprejudiced, though rambling writer, gives this very account of the Bantu races. Oblivion, or neglect, will show itself in leaving the Supreme Being alone, as he needs no propitiation, while devoting sacrifice and ritual to fetishes and ghosts. That this should be done is perfectly natural if the Supreme Being (who wants no sacrifice) were the first evolved in thought, while venal fetishes and spirits came in as a result of the ghost theory. But if, as a result of the ghost theory, the Supreme Being came last in evolution, he ought to be the most fashionable object of worship, the latest developed, the most powerful, and most to be propitiated. He is the reverse.

To take an example: the Dinkas of the Upper Nile (’godless,’ says Sir Samuel Baker) ’pay a very theoretical kind of homage to the all-powerful Being, dwelling in heaven, whence he sees all things. He is called "Dendid" (great rain, that is, universal benediction?).’ He is omnipotent, but, being all beneficence, can do no evil; so, not being feared, he is not addressed in prayer. The evil spirit, on the other hand, receives sacrifices. The Dinkas have a strange old chant:

’At the beginning, when Dendid made all things,
He created the Sun,
And the Sun is born, and dies, and comes again!
He created the Stars,
And the Stars are born, and die, and come again!
He created Man,
And Man is born, and dies, and returns no more!’

It is like the lament of Moschus. [1]

Russegger compares the Dinkas, and all the neighbouring peoples who hold the same beliefs, to modern Deists. [2] They are remote from Atheism and from cult! Suggestions about an ancient Egyptian influence are made, but popular Egyptian religion was not monotheistic, and priestly thought could scarcely influence the ancestors of the Dinkas. M. Lejean says these peoples are so practical and utilitarian that missionary religion takes no hold on them. Mr. Spencer does not give the ideas of the Dinkas, but it is not easy to see how the too beneficent Dendid could be evolved out of ghost-propitiation, ’the origin of all religions.’ Rather the Dinkas, a practical people, seem to have simply forgotten to be grateful to their Maker; or have decided, more to the credit of the clearness of their heads than the warmth of their hearts, that gratitude he does not want. Like the French philosopher they cultivate l’indépendance du coeur, being in this matter strikingly unlike the Pawnees.

Let us now take a case in which ancestor-worship, and no other form of religion (beyond mere superstitions), has been declared to be the practice of an African people. Mr. Spencer gives the example of natives of the south-eastern district of Central Africa described by Mr. Macdonald in ’Africana.’ [3] The dead man becomes a ghost-god, receives prayer and sacrifice, is called a Mulungu (= great ancestor or = sky?), is preferred above older spirits, now forgotten; such old spirits may, however, have a mountain top for home, a great chief being better remembered; the mountain god is prayed to for rain; higher gods were probably similar local gods in an older habitat of the Yao. [4]

Such is in the main Mr. Spencer’s résumé of Mr. Duff Macdonald’s report. He omits whatever Mr. Macdonald says about a Being among the Yaos, analogous to the Dendid of the Dinkas, or the Darumulun of Australia, or the Huron Ahone. Yet analysis detects, in Mr. Macdonald’s report, copious traces of such a Being, though Mr. Macdonald himself believes in ancestor-worship as the Source of the local religion. Thus, Mulungu, or Mlungu, used as a proper name, ’is said to be the great spirit, msimu, of all men, a spirit formed by adding all the departed spirits together. [5] This is a singular stretch of savage philosophy, and indicates (says Mr. Macdonald) ’a grasping after a Being who is the totality of all individual existence.... If it fell from the lips of civilised men instead of savages, it would be regarded as philosophy. Expressions of this kind among the natives are partly traditional, and partly dictated by the big thoughts of the moment.’ Philosophy it is, but a philosophy dependent on the ghost theory.

I go on to show that the Wayao have, though Mr. Spencer omits him, a Being who precisely answers to Darumulun, if stripped (perhaps) of his ethical aspect. On this point we are left in uncertainty, just because Mr. Macdonald could not ascertain the secrets of his mysteries, which, in Australia, have been revealed to a few Europeans.

Where Mulungu is used as a proper name, it ’certainly points to a personal Being, by the Wayao sometimes said to be the same as Mtanga. At other times he is a Being that possesses many powerful servants, but is himself kept a good deal beyond the scene of earthly affairs, like the gods of Epicurus.’

This is, of course, precisely the feature in African theology which interests us. The Supreme Being, in spite of the potency which his supposed place as latest evolved out of the ghost-world should naturally give him, is neglected, either as half forgotten, or for philosophical reasons. For these reasons Epicurus and Lucretius make their gods otiosi, unconcerned, and the Wayao, with their universal collective spirit, are no mean philosophers.

’This Mulungu’ or Mtanga, ’in the world beyond the grave, is represented as assigning to spirits their proper places,’ whether for ethical reasons or not we are not informed. [6] Santos (1586) says ’they acknowledge a God who, both in this world and the next, measures retribution for the good or evil done in this.’

’In the native hypothesis about creation "the people of Mulungu" play a very important part.’ These ministers of his who do his pleasure are, therefore, as is Mulungu himself, regarded as prior to the existing world. Therefore they cannot, in Wayao opinion, be ghosts of the dead at all; nor can we properly call them ’spirits.’ They are beings, original, creative, but undefined. The word Mulungu, however, is now applied to spirits of individuals, but whether it means ’sky’ (Salt) or whether it means ’ancestor’ (Bleek), it cannot be made to prove that Mulungu himself was originally envisaged as ’spirit.’ For, manifestly, suppose that the idea of powerful beings, undefined, came first in evolution, and was followed by the ghost idea, that idea might then be applied to explaining the pre-existent creative powers.

Mtanga is by ’some’ localised as the god of Mangochi, an Olympus left behind by the Yao in their wanderings. Here, some hold, his voice is still audible. ’Others say that Mtanga never was a man ... he was concerned in the first introduction of men into the world. He gets credit for ... making mountains and rivers. He is intimately associated with a year of plenty. He is called Mchimwene juene, ’a very chief.’ He has a kind of evil opposite, Chitowe, but this being, the Satan of the creed, ’is a child or subject of Mtanga,’ an evil angel, in fact. [7]

The thunder god, Mpambe, in Yao, Njasi (lightning) is also a minister of the Supreme Being. ’He is sent by Mtanga with rain.’ Europeans are cleverer than natives, because we ’stayed longer with the people of God (Mulungu).’

I do not gather that, though associated with good crops, Mtanga or Mulungu receives any sacrifice or propitiation. ’The chief addresses his own god;’ [8] the chief ’will not trouble himself about his great-great-grand-father; he will present his offering to his own immediate predecessor, saying, ’O father, I do not know all your relatives; you know them all: invite them to feast with you.’ [9]

’All the offerings are supposed to point to some want of the spirit,’ Mtanga, on the other hand, is nihil indiga nostri.

A village god is given beer to drink, as Indra got Soma. A dead chief is propitiated by human sacrifices. I find no trace of any gift to Mtanga. His mysteries are really unknown to Mr. Macdonald: they were laughed at by a travelled and ’emancipated’ Yao. [10]

’These rites are supposed to be inviolably concealed by the initiated, who often say that they would die if they revealed them.’ [11]

How can we pretend to understand a religion if we do not know its secret? That secret, in Australia, yields the certainty of the ethical character of the Supreme Being. Mr. Macdonald says about the initiator (a grotesque figure):—

’He delivers lectures, and is said to give much good advice ... the lectures condemn selfishness, and a selfish person is called mwisichana, that is, "uninitiated."’

There could not be better evidence of the presence of the ethical element in the religious mysteries. Among the Yao, as among the Australian Kurnai, the central secret lesson of religion is the lesson of unselfishness.

It is not stated that Mtanga instituted or presides over the mysteries. Judging from the analogy of Eleusis, the Bora, the Red Indian initiations, and so on, we may expect this to be the belief; but Mr. Macdonald knows very little about the matter.

The legendary tales say ’all things in this world were made by "God."’ ’At first there were not people, but "God" and beasts.’ ’God’ here, is Mlungu. The other statement is apparently derived from existing ancestor-worship, people who died became ’God’ (Mlungu). But God is prior to death, for the Yao have a form of the usual myth of the origin of death, also of sleep: ’death and sleep are one word, they are of one family.’ God dwells on high, while a malevolent ’great one,’ who disturbed the mysteries and slew the initiated, was turned into a mountain. [12]

In spite of information confessedly defective, I have extracted from Mr. Spencer’s chosen authority a mass of facts, pointing to a Yao belief in a primal being, maker of mountains and rivers; existent before men were; not liable to death—which came late among them—beneficent; not propitiated by sacrifice (as far as the evidence goes); moral (if we may judge by the analogy of the mysteries), and yet occupying the religious background, while the foreground is held by the most recent ghosts. To prove Mr. Spencer’s theory, he ought to have given a full account of this being, and to have shown how he was developed out of ghosts which are forgotten in inverse ratio to their distance from the actual generation. I conceive that Mr. Spencer would find a mid-point between a common ghost and Mtanga, in a ghost of a chief attached to a mountain, the place and place-name preserving the ghost’s name and memory. But it is, I think, a far cry from such a chief’s ghost to the pre-human, angel-served Mtanga.

Of ancestor worship and ghost worship, we have abundant evidence. But the position of Mtanga raises one of these delicate and crucial questions which cannot be solved by ignoring their existence. Is Mtanga evolved out of an ancestral ghost? If so, why, as greatest of divine beings, ’Very Chief,’ and having powerful ministers under him, is he left unpropitiated, unless it be by moral discourses at the mysteries? As a much more advanced idea than that of a real father’s ghost, he ought to be much later in evolution, fresher in conception, and more adored. How do we explain his lack of adoration? Was he originally envisaged as a ghost at all, and, if so, by what curious but uniform freak of savage logic is he regarded as prior to men, and though a ghost, prior to death? Is it not certain that such a being could be conceived of by men who had never dreamed of ghosts? Is there any logical reason why Mtanga should not be regarded as originally on the same footing as Munganngaur, but now half forgotten and neglected, for practical or philosophical reasons?

On these problems light is thrown by a successor of Mr. Spencer’s authority, Mr. Duff Macdonald, in the Blantyre Mission. This gentleman, the Rev. David Clement Scott, has published ’A Cyclopaedic Dictionary of the Mang’anja Language in British Central Africa.’ [13] Looking at ancestral spirits first, we find Mzimu, ’spirits of the departed, supposed to come in dreams.’ Though abiding in the spirit world, they also haunt thickets, they inspire Mlauli, prophets, and make them rave and utter predictions. Offerings are made to them. Here is a prayer: ’Watch over me, my ancestor, who died long ago; tell the great spirit at the head of my race from whom my mother came.’ There are little hut-temples, and the chief directs the sacrifices of food, or of animals. There are religious pilgrimages, with sacrifice, to mountains. God, like men in this region, has various names, as Chiuta, ’God in space and the rainbow sign across;’ Mpambe, ’God Almighty’ (or rather ’pre-excellent’); Mlezi, ’God the Sustainer,’ and Mulungu, ’God who is spirit.’ Mulungu = God, ’not spirits or fetish.’ ’You can’t put the plural, as God is One,’ say the natives. ’There are no idols called gods, and spirits are spirits of people who have died, not gods.’ Idols are Zitunzi-zitunzi. ’Spirits are supposed to be with Mulungu.’ God made the world and man. Our author says ’when the chief or people sacrifice it is to God,’ but he also says that they sacrifice to ancestral spirits. There is some confusion of ideas here: Mr. Macdonald says nothing of sacrifice to Mtanga.

Mr. Scott does not seem to know more about the Mysteries than Mr. Macdonald, and his article on Mulungu does not much enlighten us. Does Mulungu, as Creative God, receive sacrifice, or not? [14] Mr. Scott gives no instance of this, under Nsembe (sacrifice), where ancestors, or hill-dwelling ghosts of chiefs, are offered food; yet, as we have seen, under Mulungu, he avers that the chiefs and people do sacrifice to God. He appears to be confusing the Creator with spirits, and no reliance can be placed on this part of his evidence. ’At the back of all this’ (sacrifice to spirits) ’there is God.’ If I understand Mr. Scott, sacrifices are really made only to spirits, but he is trying to argue that, after all, the theistic conception is at the back of the animistic practice, thus importing his theory into his facts. His theory would, really, be in a better way, if sacrifice is not offered to the Creator, but this had not occurred to Mr. Scott.

It is plain, in any case, that the religion of the Africans in the Blantyre region has an element not easily to be derived from ancestral spirit-worship, an element not observed by Mr. Spencer.

Nobody who has followed the examples already adduced will be amazed by what Waitz calls the ’surprising result’ of recent inquiries among the great negro race. Among the branches where foreign influence is least to be suspected, we discover, behind their more conspicuous fetishisms and superstitions, something which we cannot exactly call Monotheism, yet which tends in that direction. [15] Waitz quotes Wilson for the fact that, their fetishism apart, they adore a Supreme Being as the Creator: and do not honour him with sacrifice.

The remarks of Waitz may be cited in full:

’The religion of the negro may be considered by some as a particularly rude form of polytheism and may be branded with the special name of fetishism. It would follow, from a minute examination of it, that—apart from the extravagant and fantastic traits, which are rooted in the character of the negro, and which radiate therefrom over all his creations—in comparison with the religions of other savages it is neither very specially differentiated nor very specially crude in form.

’But this opinion can be held to be quite true only while we look at the outside of the negro’s religion, or estimate its significance from arbitrary pre-suppositions, as is specially the case with Ad. Wuttke.

’By a deeper insight, which of late several scientific investigators have succeeded in attaining, we reach, rather, the surprising conclusion that several of the negro races—on whom we cannot as yet prove, and can hardly conjecture, the influence of a more civilised people—in the embodying of their religious conceptions are further advanced than almost all other savages, so far that, even if we do not call them monotheists, we may still think of them as standing on the boundary of monotheism, seeing that their religion is also mixed with a great mass of rude superstition which, in turn, among other peoples, seems to overrun completely the purer religious conceptions.’

This conclusion as to an element of pure faith in negro religion would not have surprised Waitz, had recent evidence as to the same creed among lower savages lain before him as he worked.

This volume of his book was composed in 1860. In 1872 he had become well aware of the belief in a good Maker among the Australian natives, and of the absence among them of ancestor worship. [16]

Waitz’s remarks on the Supreme Being of the Negro are well worth noting, from his unconcealed astonishment at the discovery.

Wilson’s observations on North and South Guinea religion were published in 1856. After commenting on the delicate task of finding out what a savage religion really is, he writes: ’The belief in one great Supreme Being, who made and upholds all things, is universal.’ [17] The names of the being are translated ’Maker,’ ’Preserver,’ ’Benefactor,’ ’Great Friend.’ Though compact of all good qualities, the being has allowed the world to ’come under the control of evil spirits,’ who, alone, receive religious worship. Though he leaves things uncontrolled, yet the chief being (as in Homer) ratifies the Oath, at a treaty, and is invoked to punish criminals when ordeal water is to be drunk. So far, then, he has an ethical influence. ’Grossly wicked people’ are buried outside of the regular place. Fetishism prevails, with spiritualism, and Wilson thinks that mediums might pick up some good tricks in Guinea. He gives no examples. Their inspired men do things ’that cannot be accounted for,’ by the use of narcotics.

The South Guinea Creator, Anyambia (= good spirit?), is good, but capricious. He has a good deputy, Ombwiri (spelled ’Mbuiri’ by Miss Kingsley); he alone has no priests, but communicates directly with men. The neighbouring Shekuni have mysteries of the Great Spirit. No details are given. This great being, Mwetyi, witnesses covenants and punishes perjury. This people are ancestor-worshippers, but their Supreme Being is not said to receive sacrifice, as ghosts do, while he is so far from being powerless, like Unkulunkulu, that, but for fear of his wrath, ’their national treaties would have little or no force.’ [18] Having no information about the mysteries, of course, we know nothing of other moral influences which are, or may be exercised by these great, powerful, and not wholly otiose beings.

The celebrated traveller, Mungo Park, who visited Africa in 1805, had good opportunities of understanding the natives. He did not hurry through the land with a large armed force, but alone, or almost alone, paid his way with his brass buttons. ’I have conversed with all ranks and conditions upon the subject of their faith,’ he says, ’and can pronounce, without the smallest shadow of doubt, that the belief in one God and in a future state of reward and punishment is entire and universal among them.’ This cannot strictly be called monotheism, as there are many subordinate spirits who may be influenced by ’magical ceremonies.’ But if monotheism means belief in One Spirit alone, or religious regard paid to One Spirit alone, it exists nowhere—no, not in Islam.

Park thinks it remarkable that ’the Almighty’ only receives prayers at the new moon (of sacrifice to the Almighty he says nothing), and that, being the creator and preserver of all things, he is ’of so exalted a nature that it is idle to imagine the feeble supplications of wretched mortals can reverse the decrees and change the purpose of unerring Wisdom.’ The new moon prayers are mere matters of tradition; ’our fathers did it before us.’ ’Such is the blindness of unassisted nature,’ says Park, who is not satirising, in Swift’s manner, the prayers of Presbyterians at home on Yarrow.

Thus, the African Supreme Being is unpropitiated, while inferior spirits are constrained by magic or propitiated with food.

We meet our old problem: How has this God, in the conception of whom there is so much philosophy, developed out of these hungry ghosts? The influence of Islam can scarcely be suspected, Allah being addressed, of course, in endless prayers, while the African god receives none. Indeed, it would be more plausible to say that Mahomet borrowed Allah from the widespread belief which we are studying, than that the negro’s Supreme Being was borrowed from Allah.

Park had, as we saw, many opportunities of familiar discussion with the people on whose mercies he threw himself.

’But it is not often that the negroes make their religious opinions the subject of conversation; when interrogated, in particular, concerning their ideas of a future state, they express themselves with great reverence, but endeavour to shorten the discussion by saying, "Mo o mo inta allo" ("No man knows anything about it").’ [19]

Park himself, in extreme distress, and almost in despair, chanced to observe the delicate beauty of a small moss-plant, and, reflecting that the Creator of so frail a thing could not be indifferent to any of His creatures, plucked up courage and reached safety. [20] He was not of the negro philosophy, and is the less likely to have invented it. The new moon prayer, said in a whisper, was reported to Park, ’by many different people,’ to contain ’thanks to God for his kindness during the existence of the past moon, and to solicit a continuation of his favour during the new one.’ This, of course, may prove Islamite influence, and is at variance with the general tendency of the religious philosophy as described.

We now arrive at a theory of the Supreme Being among a certain African race which would be entirely fatal to my whole hypothesis on this topic, if it could be demonstrated correct in fact, and if it could be stretched so as to apply to the Australians, Fuegians, Andamanese, and other very backward peoples. It is the hypothesis that the Supreme Being is a ’loan-god,’ borrowed from Europeans.

The theory is very lucidly set forth in Major Ellis’s ’Tshi-speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast.’ [21] Major Ellis’s opinion coincides with that of Waitz in his ’Introduction to Anthropology’ (an opinion to which Waitz does not seem bigoted)—namely, that ’the original form of all religion is a raw, unsystematic polytheism,’ nature being peopled by inimical powers or spirits, and everyone worshipping what he thinks most dangerous or most serviceable. There are few general, many local or personal, objects of veneration. [22] Major Ellis only met this passage when he had formed his own ideas by observation of the Tshi race. We do not pretend to guess what ’the original form of all religion’ may have been; but we have given, and shall give, abundant evidence for the existence of a loftier faith than this, among peoples much lower in material culture than the Tshi races, who have metals and an organised priesthood. They occupy, in small villages (except Coomassie and Djuabin), the forests of the Gold Coast. The mere mention of Coomassie shows how vastly superior in civilisation the Tshis (Ashantis and Fantis) are to the naked, houseless Australians. Their inland communities, however, are ’mere specks in a vast tract of impenetrable forest.’ The coast people have for centuries been in touch with Europeans, but the ’Tshi-speaking races are now much in the same condition, both socially and morally, as they were at the time of the Portuguese discovery.’ [23]

Nevertheless, Major Ellis explains their Supreme Being as the result of European influence! A priori this appears highly improbable. That a belief should sweep over all these specks in impenetrable forest, from the coast-tribes in contact with Europeans, and that this belief should, though the most recent, be infinitely the least powerful, cannot be regarded as a plausible hypothesis. Moreover, on Major Ellis’s theory the Supreme Beings of races which but recently came for the first time in contact with Europeans, Supreme Beings kept jealously apart from European ken, and revered in the secrecy of ancient mysteries, must also, by parity of reason, be the result of European influence. Unfortunately, Major Ellis gives no evidence for his statements about the past history of Tshi religion. Authorities he must have, and references would be welcome.

’With people in the condition in which the natives of the Gold Coast now are, religion is not in any way allied with moral ideas.’ [24] We have given abundant evidence that among much more backward tribes morals rest on a religious sanction. If this be not so on the Gold Coast we cannot accept these relatively advanced Fantis and Ashantis as representing the ’original’ state of ethics and religion, any more than those people with cities, a king, a priesthood, iron, and gold, represent the ’original’ material condition of society. Major Ellis also shows that the Gods exact chastity from aspirants to the priesthood. [25] The present beliefs of the Gold Coast are kept up by organised priesthoods as ’lucrative business.’ [26] Where there is no lucre and no priesthood, as among more backward races, this kind of business cannot be done. On the Gold Coast men can only approach gods through priests. [27] This is degeneration.

Obviously, if religion began in a form relatively pure and moral, it must degenerate, as civilisation advances, under priests who ’exploit’ the lucrative, and can see no money in the pure elements of belief and practice. That the lucrative elements in Christianity were exploited by the clergy, to the neglect of ethics, was precisely the complaint of the Reformers. From these lucrative elements the creed of the Apostles was free, and a similar freedom marks the religion of Australia or of the Pawnees. We cannot possibly, then, expect to find the ’original’ state of religion among a people subdued to a money-grubbing priesthood, like the Tshi races. Let religion begin as pure as snow, it would be corrupted by priestly trafficking in its lucrative animistic aspect. And priests are developed relatively late.

Major Ellis discriminates Tshi gods as—

1. General, worshipped by an entire tribe or more tribes.
2. Local deities of river, hill, forest, or sea.
3. Deities of families or corporations.
4. Tutelary deities of individuals.

The second class, according to the natives, were appointed by the first class, who are ’too distant or indifferent to interfere ordinarily in human affairs.’ Thus, the Huron god, Ahone, punishes nobody. He is all sweetness and light, but has a deputy god, called Okeus. On our hypothesis this indifference of high gods suggests the crowding out of the great disinterested God by venal animistic competition. All of class II. ’appear to have been originally malignant.’ Though, in native belief, class I. was prior to, and ’appointed’ class II., Major Ellis thinks that malignant spirits of class II. were raised to class I. as if to the peerage, while classes III. and IV. ’are clearly the product of priesthood’—therefore late.

Major Ellis then avers that when Europeans reached the Gold Coast, in the fifteenth century, they ’appear to have found’ a Northern God, Tando, and a Southern God, Bobowissi, still adored. Bobowissi makes thunder and rain, lives on a hill, and receives, or received, human sacrifices. But, ’after an intercourse of some years with Europeans,’ the villagers near European forts ’added to their system a new deity, whom they termed Nana Nyankupon. This was the God of the Christians, borrowed from them, and adapted under a new designation, meaning ’Lord of the sky.’ (This is conjectural. Nyankum = rain. Nyansa has ’a later meaning, "craft."’) [28]

Now Major Ellis, later, has to contrast Bosman’s account of fetishism (1700) with his own observations. According to Bosman’s native source of information, men then selected their own fetishes. These are now selected by priests. Bosman’s authority was wrong—or priesthood has extended its field of business. Major Ellis argues that the revolution from amateur to priestly selection of fetishes could not occur in 190 years, ’over a vast tract of country, amongst peoples living in semi-isolated communities, in the midst of pathless forests, where there is but little opportunity for the exchange of ideas, and where we know they have been uninfluenced by any higher race.’

Yet Major Ellis’s theory is that this isolated people were influenced by a higher race, to the extent of adopting a totally new Supreme Being, from Europeans, a being whom they in no way sought to propitiate, and who was of no practical use. And this they did, he says, not under priestly influence, but in the face of priestly opposition. [29]

Major Ellis’s logic does not appear to be consistent. In any case we ask for evidence how, in the ’impenetrable forests’ did a new Supreme Deity become universally known? Are we certain that travellers (unquoted) did not discover a deity with no priests, or ritual, or ’money in the concern,’ later than they discovered the blood-stained, conspicuous, lucrative Bobowissi? Why was Nyankupon, the supposed new god of a new powerful set of strangers, left wholly unpropitiated? The reverse was to be expected.

Major Ellis writes: ’Almost certainly the addition of one more to an already numerous family’ of gods, ’was strenuously resisted by the priesthood,’ who, confessedly, are adding now lower gods every day! Yet Nyankupon is universally known, in spite of priestly resistance. Nyankupon, I presume = Anzambi, Anyambi, Nyambi, Nzambi, Anzam, Nyam, the Nzam of the Fans, ’and of all Bantu coast races, the creator of man, plants, animals, and the earth; he takes no further interest in the affair.’ [30] The crowd of spirits take only too much interest; and, therefore, are the lucrative element in religion.

It is not very easy to believe that Nyam, under all his names, was picked up from the Portuguese, and passed apparently from negroes to Bantu all over West Africa, despite the isolation of the groups, and the resistance of the priesthood among tribes ’uninfluenced by any higher race.’

Nyam, like Major Ellis’s class I., appoints a subordinate god to do his work: he is truly good, and governs the malevolent spirits. [31]

The spread of Nyankupon, as described by Major Ellis, is the more remarkable, since ’five or six miles from the sea, or even less, the country was a terra incognita to Europeans,’ [32] Nyankupon was, it is alleged, adopted, because our superiority proved Europeans to be ’protected by a deity of greater power than any of those to which they themselves’ (the Tshi races) ’offered sacrifices.’

Then, of course, Nyankupon would receive the best sacrifices of all, as the most powerful deity? Far from that, Nyankupon received no sacrifice, and had no priests. No priest would have a traditional way of serving him. As the unlucky man in Voltaire says to his guardian angel, ’It is well worth while to have a presiding genius,’ so the Tshis and Bantu might ironically remark, ’A useful thing, a new Supreme Being!’ A quarter of a continent or so adopts a new foreign god, and leaves him planté là; unserved, unhonoured, and unsung. He therefore came to be thought too remote, or too indifferent, ’to interfere directly in the affairs of the world.’ ’This idea was probably caused by the fact that the natives had not experienced any material improvement in their condition ... although they also had become followers of the god of the whites.’ [33]

But that was just what they had not done! Even at Magellan’s Straits, the Fuegians picked up from a casual Spanish sea-captain and adored an image of Cristo. Name and effigy they accepted. The Tshi people took neither effigy nor name of a deity from the Portuguese settled among them. They neither imitated Catholic rites nor adapted their own; they prayed not, nor sacrificed to the ’new’ Nyankupon. Only his name and the idea of his nature are universally diffused in West African belief. He lives in no definite home, or hill, but ’in Nyankupon’s country.’ Nyankupon, at the present day, is ’ignored rather than worshipped,’ while Bobowissi has priests and offerings.

It is clear that Major Ellis is endeavouring to explain, by a singular solution (namely, the borrowing of a God from Europeans), and that a solution improbable and inadequate, a phenomenon of very wide distribution. Nyankupon cannot be explained apart from Taaroa, Puluga, Ahone, Ndengei, Dendid, and Ta-li-y-Tochoo, Gods to be later described, who cannot, by any stretch of probabilities, be regarded as of European origin. All of these represent the primeval Supreme Being, more or less or altogether stripped, under advancing conditions of culture, of his ethical influence, and crowded out by the horde of useful greedy ghosts or ghost gods, whose business is lucrative. Nyankupon has no pretensions to be, or to have been a ’spirit.’ [34]

Major Ellis’s theory is a natural result of his belief in a tangle of polytheism as ’the original state of religion.’ If so, there was not much room for the natural development of Nyankupon, in whom ’the missionaries find a parallel to the Jahveh of the Jews.’ [35] On our theory Nyankupon takes his place in the regular process of the corruption of theism by animism.

The parallel case of Nzambi Mpungu, the Creator among the Fiorts (a Bantu stock), is thus stated by Miss Kingsley:

’I have no hesitation in saying I fully believe Nzambi Mpungu to be a purely native god, and that he is a great god over all things, but the study of him is even more difficult than the study of Nzambi, because the Jesuit missionaries who gained so great an influence over the Fiorts in the sixteenth century identified him with Jehovah, and worked on the native mind from that stand-point. Consequently semi-mythical traces of Jesuit teaching linger, even now, in the religious ideas of the Fiorts.’ [36]

Nzambi Mpungu lives ’behind the firmament.’ ’He takes next to no interest in human affairs;’ which is not a Jesuit idea of God.

In all missionary accounts of savage religion, we have to guard against two kinds of bias. One is the bias which makes the observer deny any religion to the native race, except devil-worship. The other is the bias which lends him to look for traces of a pure primitive religious tradition. Yet we cannot but observe this reciprocal phenomenon: missionaries often find a native name and idea which answer so nearly to their conception of God that they adopt the idea and the name, in teaching. Again, on the other side, the savages, when first they hear the missionaries’ account of God, recognise it, as do the Hurons and Bakwain, for what has always been familiar to them. This is recorded in very early pre-missionary travels, as in the book of William Strachey on Virginia (1612), to which we now turn. The God found by Strachey in Virginia cannot, by any latitude of conjecture, be regarded as the result of contact with Europeans. Yet he almost exactly answers to the African Nyankupon, who is explained away as a ’loan-god.’ For the belief in relatively pure creative beings, whether they are morally adored, without sacrifice, or merely neglected, is so widely diffused, that Anthropology must ignore them, or account for them as ’loan-gods’—or give up her theory!


[1Lejean, Rev. des Deux Mondes, April 1862, p. 760. Citing for the chant, Beltrame, Dictionario della lingua denka, MS.

[2Waitz, ii. 74.


[4Ecclesiastical Institutions, 681.

[5Africana, i. 66.

[6Africana, i. 67.

[7Africana, i. 71, 72.

[8i 88.

[9i. 68.

[10i. 130.


[12Africana, i 279-301.

[13Edinburgh, 1892.

[14Incidentally Mr. Macdonald shows that, contrary to Mr. Spencer’s opinion, these savages have words for dreams and dreaming. They interpret dreams by a system of symbols, ’a canoe is ill luck,’ and ’dreams go by contraries.’

[15Waitz, Anthropologie, ii. 167.

[16Waitz and Gerland, Anthropologie, vi. 796-799 and 809. In 1874 Mr. Howitt’s evidence on the moral element in the mysteries was not published. Waitz scouts the idea that the higher Australian beliefs are of European origin. ’Wir schen vielmehr uralte Tr¸mmer ‰hnlicher Mythologenie in ihnen,’ (vi. 798) flotsam from ideas of immemorial antiquity.

[17Wilson, p. 209.

[18Wilson, p. 392.

[19Park’s Journey, i. 274, 275, 1815.

[20P. 245.

[21London, 1887.

[22Ellis, pp. 20, 21.

[23P. 4.

[24Ellis, p. 10.

[25P. 120.

[26P. 15.

[27P. 125.

[28Ellis, pp. 24, 25.

[29Ellis, p. 189.

[30Miss Kingsley, p. 442.

[31Ellis, p. 229.

[32Ibid. p. 25.

[33Op. cit. p. 27.

[34Ellis, p. 29.

[35Op. cit. p. 28.

[36’African Religion and Law,’ National Review, September 1897, p. 132.

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