11 Early Thought

11.1 Primitive Philosophy

Before we go on to tell how 6,000 or 7,000 years ago men began to gather into the first towns and to develop something more than the loose-knit tribes that had hitherto been their highest political association, something must be said about the things that were going on inside these brains of which we have traced the growth and development through a period of 500,000 years from the ape-man stage.

What was man thinking about himself and, about the world in those remote days?

At first he thought very little about anything but immediate things. At first he was busy thinking such things as: «Here is a bear; what shall I do?» Or «There is a squirrel; how can I get it?» Until language had developed to some extent there could have been little thinking beyond the range of actual experience, for language is the instrument of thought as bookkeeping is the instrument of business. It records and fixes and enables thought to get on to more and more complex ideas. It is the hand of the mind to hold and keep. Primordial man, before he could talk, probably saw very vividly, mimicked very cleverly, gestured, laughed, danced, and lived, without much speculation about whence he came or why he lived. He feared the dark, no doubt, and, thunderstorms and big animals and queer things and whatever he dreamt about, and no doubt lie did things to propitiate what be feared or to change his luck and please the imaginary powers in rock and beast and river. He made no clear, distinction between animate and inanimate things; if a stick hurt him, he kicked it; if the river foamed and flooded, he thought it was hostile. His thought was probably very much at the level of a bright little contemporary boy of four or five. He had the same subtle unreasonableness of transition and the same limitations. But since he had little or no speech he would do little to pass on the fancies that came to him, and develop any tradition or concerted acts about them.

The drawings even of Late Palaeolithic man do not suggest that he paid any attention to sun or moon or stars or trees. He was preoccupied only with animals and men. Probably he took day and night, sun and stars, trees and mountains, as being in the nature of things – as a child takes its meal times and its nursery staircase for granted… So far as we can judge, he drew no fantasies, no ghosts or anything of that sort. The Reindeer men’s drawings are fearless familiar things, with no hint about them of any religious or occult feelings. There is scarcely anything that we can suppose to be a religious or mystical symbol at all in his productions. No doubt he had a certain amount of what is called fetishism in his life; he did things we should now think unreasonable to produce desired ends, for that is all fetishism amounts to; it is only incorrect science based on guess-work or false analogy, and entirely different in its nature from religion. No doubt he was excited by his dreams, and his dreams mixed up at times in his mind with his waking impressions and puzzled him. Since he buried his dead, and since even the later Neanderthal men seem to have buried their dead, and apparently with food and weapons, it has been argued that he had a belief in a future life. But it is just as reasonable to suppose that early men buried their dead with food and weapons because they doubted if they were dead, which is not the same thing as believing them to have immortal spirits, and that their belief in their continuing vitality was reinforced by dreams of the departed. They may have ascribed a sort of were-wolf existence to the dead, and wished to propitiate them. The Reindeer man, we feel, was too intelligent and too like ourselves not to have had some speech, but quite probably it was not very serviceable for anything beyond direct statement or matter-of-fact narrative. He lived in a larger community than the Neanderthaler, but how large we do not know. Except when game is swarming, hunting communities must not keep together in large bodies or they will starve. The Indians who depend upon the caribou in Labrador must be living under circumstances rather like those of the Reindeer men. They scatter in small family groups, as the caribou scatter in search of food; but when the deer collect for the seasonal migration, the Indians also collect. That is the time for trade and feasts and marriages. The simplest American Indian is 10,000 years more sophisticated than the Reindeer man, but probably that sort of gathering and dispersal was also the way of Reindeer men. At Solutre in France there are traces of a great camping and feasting place. There was no doubt an exchange of news there, but one may doubt if there was anything like an exchange of ideas. One sees no scope in such a life for theology or philosophy or superstition or speculation. Fears, yes; but unsystematic fears; fancies and freaks of the imagination, but personal and transitory freaks and fancies.

Perhaps there was a certain power of suggestion in these encounters. A fear really felt needs few words for its transmission; a value set upon something may be very simply conveyed.

In these questions of primitive thought and religion, we must remember that the lowly and savage peoples of to-day probably throw very little light on the mental state of men before the days of fully developed language. Primordial man could have had little or no tradition before the development of speech. All savage and. primitive peoples of to-day, on the contrary, are soaked in tradition – the tradition of thousands of generations. They may have weapons like their remote ancestors and methods like them, but what were slight and shallow impressions on the minds of their predecessors are now deep and intricate grooves worn throughout the intervening centuries generation by generation.

11.2 The Old Man in Religion

Certain very fundamental things there may have been in men’s minds long before the coming of speech. Chief among these must have been fear of the Old Man of the tribe. The young of the primitive squatting-place grew up under that fear. Objects associated with him were probably forbidden. Every one was forbidden to touch his spear or to sit in his place, just as to-day little boys must not touch father’s pipe or sit in his chair. He was probably the master of all the women. The youths of the little community had to remember that. The idea of something forbidden, the idea of things being, as it is called, tabu, not to be touched, not to be looked at, may thus have got well into the human mind at a very early stage indeed. J. J. Atkinson, in his Primal Law, an ingenious analysis of these primitive tabus which are found among savage peoples all over the world, the tabus that separate brother and sister, the tabus that make a man run and hide from his step-mother traces them to such a fundamental cause as this. Only by respecting this primal law could the young male hope to escape the Old Man’s wrath. And the Old Man must have been an actor in many a primordial nightmare. A disposition to propitiate him even after he was dead is quite understandable. One was not sure that he was dead. He might only be asleep or shamming. Long after an Old Man was dead, when there was nothing to present him but a mound and a megalith, the women would convey to their children how awful and wonderful he was. And being still a terror to his own little tribe, it was easy to go on to hoping that he would be a terror to other and hostile people. In his life he had fought for his tribe, even if be had bullied it. Why not when he was dead? One sees that the Old Man idea was an idea very natural to the primitive mind and capable of great development. And opposed to the Old Man, more human and kindlier, was the Mother, who helped and sheltered and advised. The psycho-analysis of Freud and Jung has done much to help us to realize how great a part Father fear and Mother love still play in the adaptation of the human mind to social needs. They have made an exhaustive study of childish and youthful dreams and imaginations, a study which has done much to help in the imaginative reconstruction of the soul of primitive man. It was, as it were, the soul of a powerful child. He saw the universe in terms of the family herd. His feat of, his abjection before, the Old Man mingled with his fear of the dangerous animals about him. But the women goddesses were kindlier and more subtle. They helped, they protected, they gratified and consoled. Yet at the same time there was something about them less comprehensible than the direct brutality of the Old Man, a greater mystery. So that the Woman also had her vestiture of fear for him.

11.3 Fear and Hope in Religion

Another idea probably arose early out of the mysterious visitation of infectious diseases, and that was the idea of uncleanness and of being accurst. From that, too, there may have come an idea of avoiding particular places and persons, and persons in particular phases of health. Here was the root of another set of tabus. Then man, from the very dawn of his mental life, may have had a feeling of the sinister about places and things. Animals who dread traps, have that feeling. A tiger will abandon its usual jungle route at the sight of a few threads of cotton.[27] Like most young animals, young human beings are easily made fearful of this or that by their nurses and seniors. Here is another set of ideas, ideas of repulsion and avoidance, that sprang up almost inevitably in men.

As soon as speech began to develop, it must have got to work upon such fundamental feelings and begun to systematize them, and keep them in mind. By talking together men would reinforce each other’s fears and establish a common tradition of tabus of things forbidden and of things unclean. With the idea of, uncleanness would come ideas of cleansing and of removing a curse. The cleansing would be conducted through the advice and with the aid of wise old men or wise old women, and in such, cleansing would lie the germ of the earliest priestcraft and witchcraft.

Speech from the first would be a powerful supplement to the merely imitative education and to the education of cuffs and blows conducted by a speechless parent. Mothers would tell their young and scold their young. As speech developed, men would find they had experiences and persuasions that gave them or seemed to give them power. They would make secrets of these things. There is a double streak in the human mind, a streak cunning secretiveness and a streak perhaps, of later origin that makes us all anxious to tell and astonish and impress each other. Many people make secrets in order to have secrets to tell. These secrets of early men they would convey to younger, more impressionable people, more or less honestly and impressively in some process of initiation. Moreover, the pedagogic spirit overflows in the human mind; most people like «telling other, people not to». Extensive arbitrary prohibitions for the boys, for the girls, for the women, also probably came very early into human history.

Then the idea of the sinister has for its correlative the idea of the propitious, and from that to the idea of making things propitious by ceremonies is an easy step.

11.4 Stars and Seasons

Out of such ideas and a jumble of kindred ones grew the first quasi-religious elements in human life. With every development of speech it became possible to intensify and develop the tradition of tabus and restraints and ceremonies. There is not a savage or barbaric race today that is not held in a net of such tradition. And with the coming of the primitive herdsman there would be a considerable broadening out of all this sort of practice. Things hitherto unheeded would be found of importance in human affairs. Neolithic man was nomadic in a different spirit from the mere daylight drift after food of the primordial hunter. He was a herdsman upon whose mind a sense of direction and the lie of the land had been forced. He watched his flock by night as well as by day. The sun by day and presently the stars by night helped to guide his migrations; he began to find after many ages that the stars are steadier guides than the sun. He would begin to note particular stars and star groups, and to distinguish any individual thing was, for primitive man, to believe it individualized and personal. He would begin to think of the chief stars as persons, very shining and dignified and trustworthy persons looking at him like bright eyes in the night. His primitive tillage strengthened his sense of the seasons. Particular stars ruled his heavens when seedtime was due. Up to a certain point, a mountain peak or what not, a bright star moved, night after night. It stopped there, and then night after night receded. Surely this was a sign, a silent, marvellous warning to the wise. The beginnings of agriculture, we must remember, were in the sub-tropical zone, or even nearer the equator, where stars of the first magnitude shine with a splendour unknown in more temperate latitudes.

Fig. 98 – A Menhir of the Neolithic Period — A carved statue («menhir») of the neolithic period—a contrast to the freedom and vigour of palaeolithic art.

And Neolithic man was counting, and falling under the spell of numbers. There are savage languages that have no, word for any number above five. Some peoples cannot go above two. But Neolithic man in the lands of his origin in Asia, and Africa even more than in Europe was already counting his accumulating possessions. He was beginning to use tallies, and wondering at the triangularity of three and the squareness of four, and why some quantities like twelve were easy to divide in all sorts of ways, and others, like thirteen, impossible. Twelve became a noble, generous, and familiar number to him, and thirteen rather an outcast and disreputable one.

Probably man began reckoning time by the clock of the full and new moons. Moonlight is an important thing to herdsmen who no longer merely hunt their herds, but watch and guard them. Moonlight, too, was, perhaps, his time for love-making, as indeed it may have been for primordial man and the ground ape ancestor before him. But from the phases man’s attitude would go on to the greater cycle of the seasons.

Primordial man probably only drifted before the winter as the days grew cold. Neolithic man knew surely that the winter would come, and stored his fodder and presently his grain. He had to fix a seedtime, a propitious seedtime, or his sowing was a failure. The earliest recorded reckoning is by moons and by generations of men. The former seems to be the case in the Book of Genesis, where, if one reads the great ages of the patriarchs who lived before the flood as lunar months instead of years, Methusaleh and the others are reduced to a credible length of life. But with agriculture began the difficult task of squaring the lunar month with the solar year; a task which has left its scars on our calendar to-day. Easter shifts uneasily from year to year, to the great discomfort of holiday-makers; it is now inconveniently early and now late in the season because of this ancient reference of time to the moon.

And when men began to move with set intention from place to place with their animal and other possessions, then they would begin to develop the idea of other places in which they were not, and to think of what might be in those other places. And in any valley where they lingered for a time, they would, remembering how they got there, ask, «How did this or that other thing get here?» They would begin to wonder what was beyond the mountains, and where the sun went when it set, and what was above the clouds.

11.5 Story-telling and Myth-making

The capacity for telling things increased with their vocabulary. The simple individual fancies, the unsystematic fetish tricks and fundamental tabus of Palaeolithic man began to be handed on and made into a more consistent system. Men began to tell stories about themselves, about the tribe, about its tabus and why they had to be, about the world and the why for the world. A tribal mind came into existence, a tradition. Palaeolithic man was certainly more of a free individualist, more of an artist, as well as more of a savage than Neolithic man. Neolithic man was coming under prescription; he could be trained from his youth and told to do things and not to do things; he was not so free to form independent ideas of his own about things. He had thoughts given to him; he was under a new power of suggestion. And to have more words and to attend more to words is not simply to increase mental power; words themselves are powerful things and, dangerous things. Palaeolithic man’s words, perhaps, were chiefly just names. He used them for what they were. But Neolithic man was thinking about these words, he was thinking about a number of things with a great deal of verbal confusion, and getting to some odd conclusions. In speech he had woven a net to bind his race together, but also it was a net about his feet. Man was binding himself into new and larger and more efficient combinations indeed, but at a price. One of the most notable things about the Neolithic Age is the total absence of that free, direct artistic impulse which was the supreme quality of later Palaeoithic man. We find much industry, much skill, polished implements pottery with conventional designs, co-operation upon all sorts of things, but no evidence of personal creativeness.[28] Self-suppression is beginning for men. Man has entered upon the long and tortuous and difficult path towards a life for the common good, with all its sacrifice of personal impulse, which he is still treading to-day.

Certain things appear in the mythology of mankind again and again. Neolithic man was enormously impressed by serpents – and he no longer took the sun for granted. Nearly everywhere that Neolithic culture went, there went a disposition to associate the sun and the serpent in decoration and worship. This primitive serpent worship spread ultimately far beyond the regions where the snake is of serious practical importance in human life.

11.6 Complex Origins of Religion

With the beginnings of agriculture a fresh set of ideas arose in men’s minds. We have already indicated how easily and naturally men may have come to associate the idea of sowing with a burial. Sir J. G. Frazer has pursued the development of this association in the human mind, linking up with it the conception of special sacrificial persons who are killed at seedtime, the conception of a specially purified class of people to kill these sacrifices, the first priests, and the conception of a sacrament, a ceremonial feast in which the tribe eats portions of the body of the victim in order to share in the sacrificial benefits.

Fig. 101 – Age Implements

Out of all these factors, out of the Old Man tradition, out of the emotions that surround Women for men and Men for women, out of the desire to escape infection and uncleanness, out of the desire for power and success through magic, out of the sacrificial tradition of seedtime, and out of a number of like beliefs and mental experiments and misconceptions, a complex something was growing up in the lives of men which was beginning to bind them together mentally and emotionally in a common life and action.

This something we may call religion (Lat. religare, to bind[^Fn_11.3). It was not a simple, or logical some thing, it was as a tangle of ideas about commanding beings and spirits, about gods, about all sorts of «musts» and «must-nots». Like all other human matters, religion has grown. It must be clear from what has gone before that primitive man – much less his ancestral apes and his ancestral Mesozoic mammals – could have had no idea of God or Religion; only very slowly did his brain and his powers of comprehension become capable of such general conceptions. Religion is something that has grown up with and through human association, and God has been and is still being discovered by man.

This book is not a theological book, and it is not for us to embark upon theological discussion; but it is a part, a necessary and central part, of the history of man to describe the dawn and development of his religious ideas and their influence upon his activities. All these factors we have noted must have contributed to this development, and various writers have laid most stress upon one or other of them. Sir J. G. Frazer has been the leading student of the derivation of sacraments from magic sacrifices. Grant Allen, following Herbert Spencer, in his Evolution of the Idea of God, laid stress chiefly on the posthumous worship of the «Old Man». Sir E. B. Tutor (Primitive Culture) gave his attention mainly to the disposition of primitive man to ascribe a soul to every object animate and inanimate. Mr. A. E. Crawley, in The Tree of Life, has called attention to other centres of impulse and emotion, and particularly to sex as a source of deep excitement. The thing we have to bear in mind is that Neolithic man was still mentally undeveloped, he could be confused and illogical to a degree quite impossible to an educated modern person. Conflicting and contradictory ideas could lie in his mind without challenging one another; now one thing ruled his thoughts intensely and vividly and now another; his fears, his acts, were still disconnected as children’s are.

Fig. 103 – Diagram showing the Duration of the Neolithic Period — Time diagram showing the general duration of the neolithic period in which early thought developed. By this scale, the diagram on p. 47 of the period since the earliest subhuman traces would be 12 feet long, and the diagram of geological time (ch. ii, sec 2) somewhere between 1,500 feet and three miles.

Confusedly under the stimulus of the need and possibility of co-operation and a combined life, Neolithic mankind was feeling out for guidance and knowledge. Men were becoming aware that personally they needed protection and direction, cleansing from impurity, power beyond their own strength.

Confusedly in response to that demand, bold men, wise men, shrewd and cunning men were arising to become magicians, priests, chiefs, and Kings.

They are not to be thought of as cheats or usurpers of power, nor the rest of mankind as their dupes. All men seek ascendancy over other men, but not all such motives are base or bad. The magicians usually believed more or less in their own magic, the priests in their ceremonies, the chiefs in their right. The history of mankind henceforth is a history of more or less blind endeavours to conceive, a common purpose in relation to which all men may live happily, and to create and develop a common consciousness and a common stock of knowledge which may serve and illuminate that purpose. In a vast variety of forms this is appearance of kings and priests and magic men was happening all over the world under Neolithic conditions. Everywhere mankind was seeking where knowledge and mastery and magic power might reside; everywhere individual men were willing, honestly or dishonestly, to rule, to direct, or to be the magic beings who would reconcile the confusions of the community. Another queer development of the later Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages was the development of self-mutilation. Men began to cut themselves about, to excise noses, ears, fingers, teeth and the like, and to attach all sorts of superstitious ideas to these acts. Many children to-day pass through a similar phase in their mental development. There is a phase in the life of most little girls when they are not to be left alone with a pair of scissors for fear that they will cut off their hair. No animal does anything of this sort.

In many ways the simplicity, directness, and, detachment of a later Palaeolithic rock-painter appeal more to modern sympathies than does the state of mind of these Neolithic men, full of the fear of some ancient Old Man who had developed into a tribal God obsessed by ideas of sacrificial propitiations mutilations, and magic murder. No doubt the reindeer hunter was a ruthless hunter and a combative and passionate creature, but be killed for reasons we can still understand; Neolithic man, under the sway of talk and a confused thought process, killed on theory, he killed for monstrous and now incredible ideas, he killed those he loved through fear and under direction. Those Neolithic men not only made human sacrifices at seedtime there is every reason to suppose they sacrificed wives and slaves at the burial of their chieftains; they killed men, women, and children whenever they were under adversity and thought the gods were athirst. They practised infanticide. All these things passed on into the, Bronze Age.

Hitherto a social consciousness had been asleep and not even dreaming in human history. Before it awakened it produced nightmares.

Away beyond the dawn of history, 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, one thinks of the Wiltshire uplands in the twilight of a midsummer day’s morning. The torches pale in the growing light. One has a dim apprehension of a procession through the avenue of stone, of priests, perhaps fantastically dressed with skins and horns and horrible painted masks – not the robed, and bearded dignitaries our artists represent the Druids to have been – of chiefs in skins adorned with necklaces of teeth and bearing spears and axes, their great heads of hair held up with pins of bone, of women in skins or flaxen robes, of a great peering crowd of shock-headed men and naked children. They have assembled from many distant places; the ground between the avenues and Silbury Hill is dotted with their encampments. A certain festive cheerfulness prevails. And amidst the throng march the appointed human victims, submissive, helpless, staring towards the distant smoking altar at which they are to die that the harvests may be good and the tribe increase… To that had life progressed 3,000 or 4,000 years ago from its starting-place in the slime of the tidal beaches.