Skip to main content

Full text of "Economics of Primitive Religion"

See other formats


Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world by JSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 

Read more about Early Journal Content at 
journal-content . 

JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 

Economics of primitive religion. — By Washbtten Hopkins, 
Professor in Yale University, New Haven, Conn. 

There hung for many years in the Boston State-house, and 
perhaps hangs still, a monster codfish, a token of the main indus- 
try hereabouts. It was placed there with respect, one might 
almost say with devotion, and it is not too much to hazard that, 
had our Puritan forefathers been less advanced theologically, they 
would have considered this effigy, and its original, to be in very 
truth worthy of devout regard and trust. Had they been on a 
low plane of civilization this trust would have been proximate to 

This State-house cod is then a symbol of more than it was 
carved to figure. It is in fact emblematic of an early principle of 
religion, utilitarianism, the principle that often underlies the 
adoration both of the benevolent and malevolent. This, of 
course, is by no means the only god-creative principle, but it is 
an important one and one generally recognized — recognized even 
as early as the Mahabharata in the words : " Men worship Civa 
the destroyer because they fear him, Vishnu the preserver, be- 
cause they hope from him, but who worships Brahman the 
creator ? His work is done." Not a mere phrase, for in India 
to-day there are thousands of temples to Qiva and Vishnu, but 
only two to Brahman. 

To linger, however, upon this principle of utilitarianism is not 
my purpose. It is, indeed, only my starting point, for to admit 
this cause of worship at once leads us farther. If we glance at 
the rich collection of divinities in a settled tribe or nation, such as 
those of Greece or India, we shall see that in any given locality 
the greatest usefulness and potency is ascribed to the local god. 
In a low state of savagery or barbarism local gods are universally 
the most important, and even in a high state of civilization they 
still form the undercurrent of popular divinity. Again, a great 
city makes great its local deity even at the cost of some anterior 
great deity, originally worshipped by city and country alike. 
But a villager, too, worships at his village shrine alone, and his 
real god is the god of that shrine. When the village is influenced 
by a wider theosophy the temple may belong to some universal 
god, as is to-day the case with that of Civa, but such a shrine 

304 W. Hopkins, [1899. 

does not faithfully represent the loftier conception to the lowly 
villager. He cannot see beyond his ken, and so he is continually 
reducing the great god to the size of his own small conception. 
Moreover, although a great god may be duly represented thus, if 
there is at the same time another shrine of a local deity, that local 
god will be or become paramount. Even more must this magni- 
tude of the little have been operative before the higher concep- 
tion became possible. 

The environment which I have tacitly assumed is that of a set- 
tled people. Now let us change the economic conditions and ask 
ourselves what will, and must, have been the gods which obtained 
whenever a primitive people became migratory. It is evident 
that a migratory people can have no constant local gods. There 
is no perpetually familiar mountain or stream whose deity they 
dread. They may worship the sun, but they cannot worship him 
in a local form ; they may worship the souls of the departed, but 
they cannot pay especial reverence to the man-god of one shrine. 

What, then, are the gods that a wandering people can worship 
throughout their whole migratory state? Simply those gods 
which they have always with them. And what are these ? Hor- 
ace says caelum non animum, but if we should interpret the cae- 
lum very literally the poet's Greek original were nearer the truth, 
rowov oi TpoTrov; man changes his abode, his mind remains the 
same, and the sky-god is not changed. The sky-god, not local 
but always with them, they will continue to worship wherever 
they go. This is not true of earth, for earth is not regarded by 
primitive people as one and the same, since a different locality 
implies a different divinity ; there is a local mountain which is a 
separate god, etc. 

Fire, on the other hand, though it often goes out, still remains 
the same magic fire, " the ever new god," as the Vedic poets call 
it ; and it will continue to receive its antique worship, especially 
when, as may have been the case with the forefathers of the 
Romans, it is guarded and not allowed to become extinct. 

But there is one more class of gods, the troop of spirits of the 
dead, that remains with a migrating people. When a people 
settle down they particularize in exact proportion as they localize 
the cult. This man's spirit, they say, resides here on the very 
spot where he lived. Here, then, we worship him and he will 
protect us here. The result is the innumerable shrines which we' 
find raised, for example, in India to-day, to the local Birs or man- 
gods of the places where these heroes used to live. But so long 

Vol. xx.] Economics of Primitive Religion. 305 

as the children's children roam about, they cannot localize nor 
particularize. Each family ghost soon becomes merged in one 
shadowy host of ghosts, travelling with the human tribe, wor- 
shipped by them in general. Only now and then the spirit of 
some special hero is worshipped by more than his own family ; 
then he becomes a tribal god. 

Now all other classes of gods are virtually enshrined in local 
material. Animal gods depend on the environment for their very 
existence. Totems are possible only where the worshippers are 
fairly stationary. No one continues to revere a tiger or an eagle 
who has no idea what these animals look like, and no one claims 
descent, if he can help it, from a nonentity. Gods of the imagina- 
tion — genii, devils of various sorts, and nymphs — lose their power 
in losing their habitation. As the dryads perish with the removal 
of their tree, so when the site is left, the special devil or fairy, 
potent in its local habitation, becomes vague and eventually perishes 
from the mind. The belief in such beings may be unimpaired, 
but the particular object of the cult is variable, so that no one 
individual demon, genius, or other supernatural being can perma- 
nently receive worship from the migratory people. The same is 
true of a sub-division of these gods of fancy, the disease-gods. 
No one worships the cholera or small-pox, as do millions in India 
to-day, who is no longer afraid of it. Diseases change with envi- 
ronment, and their malevolent gods are left behind by travellers. 

Thus far I have considered the hypothetical case of any migra- 
tory nation. Before I take up a concrete instance let me point 
out one more fact. If such a people were once settled and after- 
wards wandered for centuries, all traces of what used to be their 
local gods will have vanished. They, too, will hold as gods only 
those divinities which they have with them always, sky, and 
ancestral ghosts, and fire. If they wander in the tropics they will 
doubtless, even at the start, have in addition to these the sun-god, 
and if they continue to wander there they may retain this god. 
But if they start in the north they are more likely to regard the 
sun as at best a dim cloudy deity or as merely the eye of the sky- 
god. They will not worship him as a fiery, omnipotent, tyrant 
god till they reach the proper environment. So a storm-god may 
accompany one or more branches of a dividing people while they 
move in a circumscribed area ; but just as soon as one branch 
settles down amid a different environment this storm-god will 
yield his power and name to some new local product. In general, 
vol. xx. 20 

306 W. Hopkins, [1899. 

then, sky, with perhaps such celestial phenomena as sun, moon, 
and stars (but these latter are more dependent on circumstances), 
and fire, and the manes will he the oldest, the most venerable gods 
that a migratory people can remember ; unless, indeed, they bear 
with them some effigy or memorial of another deity which tends 
to perpetuate artificially what would otherwise pass from 

Now let us take in illustration a concrete example. If these 
general statements, a priori as they are, yet seem probable, what 
gods should we expect to find as the oldest among the Indo- 
Europeans — oldest, that is to say, from the point of view which we 
must perforce take, the view afforded by linguistic and literary 
evidence. This oldest evidence represents merely a phase of 
development, but it appears to me fully to support the interpre- 
tation I have made. What god is worshipped under the same 
name by more than two of the Indo-European nations ? Only 
the sky-god, Dyauspitar, Zeuspater, Jupiter. Under another 
name the sky is worshipped as Varuna, Ouranos. Both in India 
and in Greece this god appears as the most venerable of all gods 
of phenomena. But what other gods are worshipped by several 
of these severed nations? The Fathers, manes, pitaras, not 
under a particular name but as a host, exactly as we should have 
anticipated. And lastly we have the fire-cult practiced in India, 
Persia, Greece, and Italy as far back as records go. But because 
the (later) twofold Indo-Iranians lived long together, we find 
also in India's oldest pantheon, as in Persia's, a soma-haama cult 
and a Mitra-Mithra sun-cult not found among other nations. So 
too we find the same storm-god in Slavic and Vedic form, but 
not elsewhere. 

Here we have, as I am convinced, the true explanation of an 
apparently mysterious fact, a fact that has led observers astray 
and is apt to do so still. I will not recall to criticize the older 
hypotheses of an original monotheism among the Indo-Europeans. 
These theories were of their time, and represented a reasonable 
stage of mental accomplishment in the interpretation of religious 
phenomena. The great Sanskrit scholars of an earlier generation 
were profoundly impressed by the fact that the sky-god held the 
highest and apparently oldest place ; that he was the most venera- 
ble deity of the Indo-Europeans ; and that some of the Vedic 
hymns addressed to him show an almost monotheistic conception, 
certainly a much higher conception of godhead than attaches to 
any other god of the Vedic age. Hence they naturally argued a 

Vol. xx.] Economics of Primitive Religion. 307 

primeval monotheism. And it is true that the figure of the 
supreme Zeus and the majestic Varuna are such as to suggest 
this consequence. Even a latter-day scholar, Oldenberg, is so 
impressed with the lofty character of the ancient sky-god of 
India that he wishes to derive it from the Semites, as something 
incompatible with the grossness of Vedic polytheism. 

These gods represent, however, as I have shown, not anything 
original, but only what was oldest in the migratory life of their 
worshippers. For all the Indo-Europeans were migrating for 
centuries ; that is to say they shifted from place to place, leaving 
behind what was local, carrying forward only those divinities 
which were really ubiquitous and were felt to be always identical. 

The sky-god is physically lofty, and does not easily lend him- 
self to the hocus-pocus of demonolatry. If we add to this the 
fact that to the Vedic Aryans he was, as has been explained, the 
object of their oldest remembered worship, we can easily under- 
stand why his figure stands out so large in the background of the 
pantheon. We can also understand why the figure fades and 
dwindles as the Aryan invaders exchange the tending of herds 
for agriculture, as they move more and more slowly from Cabul 
to Delhi (to use modern names), and become permanent settlers. 
For with the permanent home rises the local god, Indra the war- 
god, true image of the monsoon-fury ; Qiva, the combination of a 
Vedic storm-god and a local aboriginal disease-god. So with all 
the gods potent at a later date. Every one is local, not one is 
inherited. Even Agni, the fire-god, inwrought as he is into every 
sacrifice, and having thus a firmer hold than had most of his 
peers, becomes a mere godkin, the servant of the great local gods 
who arise in settled communities. These latter appear even in 
the Veda itself, the first insignificant 'god of the field,' and such 
prototypes of the Bhairobas and Vitthalas (modern Vithobas) of 
to-day, as at Pandharpur in the Deccan. 

The Veda thus presents us with at least three strata of divini- 
ties ; the newest local gods, already potent, and destined in the 
«nd to be most powerful ; the intermediate gods, derived from the 
last protracted local settlements and not yet forgotten, Soma, and 
Trita, and perhaps the storm-god Parjanya ; and the still older 
gods which the Aryans revered even before their separation, 
which alone they could have preserved (as they had no images) 
through all changes of time and place, sky-god, fire, and ghosts. 
The venerable position, then, of the sky-god depends on the 
economic position of the people who worshipped him as the god 

308 W. Hopkins, Economics of Primitive Religion. [1899. 

they always had with them. He naturally and inevitably super- 
seded, in the grandeur of his history as well as in the loftiness of 
his physical attributes, all the merely local deities which the 
nation found on its route, adopted, and abandoned again, as they 
successively passed into, through, and out of their spheres of 
divine influence. It was only when the Aryans remained perma- 
nently stationary that they could adopt a permanent local god. 
As soon as they did so, this god, as is always the case, began to 
gain ascendency over the sky-god and over Agni, and finally 
outstripped them both in the race for popularity, only to be in 
turn dethroned as the people passed again into a new environ- 
ment. But in this and in all subsequent moves the old gods were 
no longer obnoxious to the chances of fickle piety, for literature 
now had them comparatively safe. Even with this safeguard, 
however, Varuna becomes before very long a mere god of waters, 
and Dyaus like Zeus is degraded to a Hermes-like thief. 

On one aspect of the case I have scarcely touched. To become 
settled is to be agricultural. Now the settled condition of agri- 
culturists raises a great crop of local earthly divinities. The 
peoples of the Rig -Veda are in a transition state, represented 
now as tending and raping flocks, now as reaping fields ; at one 
time as still in transit across the Punjab, at another as perma- 
nently located. In this shifting of economic conditions there is 
reason to anticipate exactly what we find at this epoch. The 
figures of the ancient sky-god and fire-god are still held in greatest 
reverence, though already decadent in popularity. But what is most 
important is that the older gods are no longer unique in being 
historical gods. For the people are at least so thoroughly settled 
that they regard the local gods also as historical. In other words, 
the latter have already begun to become such inherited divinities 
as Dyaus and Agni, and in less degree Trita and Soma. But at 
the same time they are local, the reflex of the very conditions in 
which the worshipper lives, vivid personalities, near and real. 
When this happens, more important than the upper god becomes 
the god that holds life and death in his hands as the monsoon 
comes or, later, as the season of disease begins to slay. The god 
that answers to the environment, the local god, first Indra, then 
Civa, becomes most important. And as Clva rises, the sky-god 
falls, for the Aryans never again migrated beyond the reach of 
the local conditions into which they had now entered, descending 
as they did from healthy uplands to a land of monsoon and fever.