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The Jew was strictly forbidden to make any graven representation of Jehovah; but in the Hebrew Scriptures He was anthropomorphised through the exigencies of thought and language. The Anglican Article which declares that God has neither parts nor passions, adds that He has wisdom and goodness. Man is not a body only, he has mind and dispositions as well; and the attribution to the Deity of wisdom and goodness is every whit as much anthropomorphosis as the attribution of limbs and passions.
Prayer supposes two factors, man and God: man the subject, God the object. Now the object must be either sensibly or ideally presented, or prayer becomes impossible. If sensibly objected, man worships a fetish, or an artistic image ; if ideally objected, he forms in his brain at the moment of prayer a transitory image, which if cut in wood or stone would be permanent. But, inasmuch as only physical existence can be represented artistically, imageworship may become prejudicial to man’s religious progress, by restraining him from spiritual idolatry.
The object may be also verbally expressed, and the formation of a sacred name is a process analogous to the formation of a sacred image. Thus onomatolatry is the equivalent of idolatry.
I am conscious of an idea of God. I desire to object it. I do so in one of two ways, which is determined by the mode of writing with which I am familiar. At the present time in Europe the system is phonetic; of old it was pictographic. I write God, and in so doing my mind undergoes the following processes. I give to the idea a sound conventionally assumed to express that idea. I then resolve that sound into its phonetic ingredients; to each vocal sound a character has been conventionally assigned. These
signs I arrange in a conventional order from left to right, and thus the thought finds expression. The primitive mode of writing—that out of which, by a series of modifications, the characters traced by my pen have been elaborated—was pictorial, and the process simple. A desire was felt by man to fix his evanescent thoughts, and transmit them to others. For this purpose he employed figures of men, animals, and various objects. No intermediary effort was required between the act of perception and the act of interpretation. The idea of water, for instance, expressed by wavy lines, was received at once, with the utmost rapidity, because the sign bears, in its constituted features, an effective representation of that to which the sign calls attention.
An idol was the plastic expression of the idea of God and of His attributes, each of which was represented by some peculiar sign, to describe which we should employ a certain number of letters of the alphabet arranged in a definite border.
Idolatry, then, is the outward expression of the belief in a personal God. The formation of the idea of a personal God is, and must be, the making of an image, though not necessarily of a graven image.
Idolatry exists in three forms: 1. Fetishism; 2. Symbolism; 3. Ideolatry. Each of these forms shall be considered in succession.
“ When a Schaman is aware that I have no household god,” said a Samoyed to M. Castrén, the linguist, “he comes to me, and I give him a squirrel or an ermine skin. Then he goes away, and comes back with the skin moulded
into a human shape, and dressed in such clothes as we wear. When the Los is sewn and dressed, I lay it in a basket, and bring it into a store chamber
and when I want help of the Los in any matter, either in hunting, or fishing, or in sickness, then I bring it an offering, consisting of skins, or ribands, or beads, which is laid in the basket."This Los is a fetish; it is not yet altogether an idol, it is a spirit entangled in a material object: what that object is matters little; a stump of a tree, a stone, a rag, or an animal, serves the purpose of condensing the impalpable deity into a tangible reality..
Through this coarse superstition glimmers an intelligent conception. It is that of an all-pervading Deity, who is focussed, so to speak, in the fetish. This deity is called Num. "I have heard some Samoyeds declare that the earth, the sea—all nature, in short-are Num."“Where is Num?" asked Castrén of a Samoyed, and the man pointed to the blue sea; but an old woman told him that the sun was Num. 3
The Scithas worshipped by the Lapps had no certain figure or shape formed by nature or art; they were either trees or rough stones, much worn by water. Tornæus says that they were often mere tree stumps with the roots upwards.* The Papuans believe in a mysterious Power or Force above them which is diffused throughout nature; and selecting some form in which they suppose this power to be peculiarly active, they regard it as their guardian deity. Such a fetish is at one time a rude piece of sculpture, as a snake, a lizard, or some other reptile; at another time it is
1 Castrén : Reiseberichte, ii. 170 ; St. Petersburg, 1856.
a bit of bone or mineral; at a third it rises to the dignity of a human figure, small and distorted and hideous. In Papua also the waringin tree is an object of devotion, and is regarded with veneration as a plant in which the diffused spirit is most intensely concentrated. The Vatà tree has, in like manner, been worshipped in India from a remote antiquity; beneath its shadow the ascetic has wasted his life in striving after absorption into Brahma, and on it poets and philosophers have expended the highest praise.
Among the red-skins uncouth stones and trees have received a like religious homage. The Dahcotas honour large rocks as their ancestors. The fetishes of the Iroquois consist in knives, plants, bones, feathers, shells, pipes, stones, beasts. Anything of which an Indian dreams and with which his dream associates power, is to him at once a fetish. It is the same with the negroes. They will adore a bundle of rags or a tuft of straw, an old hat or a rusty nail. The absence of forms of public worship and of images among the Kaffirs and Bechuanas has caused them to be regarded as atheists; yet, says Dr. Livingstone, “they all possess a distinct knowledge of a deity, and of a future state; but they show so little reverence, and feel so little connexion with either, that it is not surprising that some have supposed them entirely ignorant on the subject." ? That is to say, they have the intelligence to conceive God, but not the imaginative faculty to depict Him, nor the inductive faculty by means of which to apply the conception, To men of this low imaginative temperament, a fetish is a religious necessity.
A fetish must be distinguished from an idol. Idols are
1 Schoolcraft : Tribes, &c. ii. 196.
symbols, and are often treated as fetishes, but fetishes are not always idols.
The idol is a likeness, a representation more or less exact of an idea. But a fetish is a concentration of spirit or deity upon one point.
There is nothing necessarily superstitious in fetishism, for it is merely the religious application of an observable general law—the law (1) that forces act from centres, that power is gathered up at special points, and (2) that objects may possess values not physically appreciable.
The world has its centre of gravity; it revolves also around a centre of attraction, the sun, which with all its planetary system is sweeping at the rate of some 150 millions of miles per year round an invisible point in the Pleiades, which may also be moving in an orbit around some other point. Light is not diffused equally everywhere, but is collected in foci, like the sun
“Made porous to receive
Life and force in plants and animals radiate from centres. The spores and eggs of organized life are so many points at which vital energy is gathered up for transmission.
When a man makes a fetish he acts on the supposition that in the spiritual world the mode of operation is analogous to that experimentally known in the material world. He seeks a centre for spiritual essence, towards which he can direct his worship, and to which he can nail his wandering thoughts. In a word, he follows a natural impulse. The principle on which he argues is just, but the manner
i Paradise Lost, vii. 361-3.