Sunday, September 23, 2012

Functional Gods of the Natives

This post is part of the History of the Devil series from Chapter 2: Devil Worship.

Savages.  That's what the early European explorers and settlers thought they had found in the native peoples of the Americas.  Their dress and their customs were so far removed their European counterparts that they seemed primitive and uncivilized to the white men.

Paul Carus begins his historical evaluation with cases of relatively recent, community-wide Devil-worship, working on the thesis (as discussed in the prior post) that all religions have their origin in Devil-worship.  That leads to the Devil-worship of the Native Americans.

But what exactly does Carus mean by "Devil?"  That gets tricky.  Most minds familiar with Christianity will envision the Devil as an "evil" being which actively fights against the good.  Sometimes, that is what Carus means as well, but what he is referring to here is just a demon or deity which does not claim to be perfectly moral or good.  At least, that's what I think he meant, or should have meant.

Another part of Carus' thesis is that Devil-worship is just the first stage of religion.  Given enough time, he implies that religions will eventually evolve to God-worship when "the positive power of good is recognised(sic) and man finds out by experience that the good, although its progress may be ever so slow, is always victorious in the end." HOD, P14, Paul Carus  While I can see how propitiation of "devils" could instigate all religions, I have some problems with this part of his thesis.  I don't think that, given enough time, Devil-worship absolutely will progress to God-worship, if we are defining "God" as a perfectly moral and Good.  Instead, I think that these "Devils" may instead get more complex.

Anyway, on to the natives...

In most of the chapter on "Devil Worship," Carus briefly relays accounts of the religious practices of the Native Americans from various historians.  The sum of these accounts is that, while many of the Native Americans did have a belief in a good deity, it was the devilish deity which garnered the most respect and worship.  This builds on his platform that all religions start with Devil-worship.  However, I got a slightly different vibe when I read Carus' longest quoted reference; one from Captain John Smith, one of the primary leaders in the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia.

Below is Carus' quoted text from Smith's "A map of Virginia. With a description of the covntrey, etc., written by Captaine Smith, etc. Oxford. Printed by Joseph Barnes. 1612."  I have changed the text only to match up with modern English for easier reading:
"There is yet in Virginia no place discovered to bee so Savage in which the savages have not a religion, Deer, and Bow and Arrows. All things that were able to do them hurt beyond their prevention they adore with their kind of divine worship; as the fire, water, lightning, thunder, our ordinance pieces (guns), horses, etc. But their chief God they worship is the Devil. Him they call Oke, and serve him more of fear than love. They say they have conference with him and fashion themselves as near to his shape as they can imagine. In their Temples they have his image evil favoredly carved and then painted and adorned with chains, copper, and beads, and covered with a skin in such manner as the deformity may well suit with such a God." (Original ed., p. 29.)
Carus had many great insights and explorations in his book (as time will show as my series continues), but here I think he is taking Smith's words a little too literally, not accounting for Smith's limited perspective.  Smith's take on the Native American's "divine worship" of powerful items like the white mans' guns and horses should have been tempered with their appreciation for fire and water, both of which they had long known before the white man.  In all likelihood, the Native American's regarded them as gifts from the gods due to their great strength and utility.

Also, we can see that Smith's view was directly tainted by his Christianity, saying not that the natives worship some strange god, or even a demon, but rather nothing less than the Devil (in the Christian sense of the word).  Smith notes that the natives worship more out of fear than love.  Like most modern Christians, Smith seems unaware of the God of the Old Testament, and even some of the content of the New Testament, where God commanded His followers to fear Him over twice as often as He told them to love Him.

As the account continues, we find the "human sacrifice" which provides the direct association with Devil-worship.  I've added the bold emphasis...
"In some part of the Country, they have yearly a sacrifice of children. Such a one was at Quiyoughcohanock, some 10 miles from James Town, and thus performed.

"Fifteen of the properest young boys, between 10 and 15 years of age, they painted white. Having brought them forth, the people spent the [morning] in dancing and singing about them with rattles.

"In the afternoon, they put those children to the root of a tree. By them, all the men stood in a guard, every one having a Bastinado (a stick or club)  in his hand, made of reeds bound together. [These men] made a lane between them all along, through which there were appointed 5 young men to fetch these children. So every one of the five went through the guard, to fetch a child, each after other by turns: the guard fearlessly beating them with their Bastinadoes, and they patiently enduring and receiving all; defending the children with their naked bodies from the unmerciful blows they pay them soundly, though the children escape. All this while,the women weep and cry out very passionately; providing mats, skins, moss, and dry wood, as things fitting their children's funerals.

"After the children were thus passed the guard, the guard tore down the tree, branches and boughs, with such violence, that they rent the body and made wreathes for their heads, or bedecked their hair with the leaves. What else was done with the children was not seen; but they were all cast on a heap in a valley, as dead: where they made a great feast for all the company.

"The Werowance (the chief) being demanded the meaning of this sacrifice, answered that the children were not all dead, but [only] that the Oke or Devil did suck the blood from their left breast [of those], who chanced to be his by lot, till they were dead. But the rest were kept in the wilderness by the young men till nine months were expired, during which time they must not converse with any: and of these, were made their Priests and Conjurers.

"This sacrifice they held to be so necessary, that if they should omit it, their Oke or Devil and all their other Quiyoughcosughes (which are their other Gods) would let them have no Deer, Turkeys, Corn, nor fish: and yet besides, he would make great slaughter amongst them.

"To divert them from this blind idolatry, many used their best endeavors, chiefly with the Werowances of Quiyoughcohanock; whose devotion, apprehension, and good disposition much exceeded any in those Countries: who though we could not as yet prevail with them to forsake [their] false Gods, yet this he did believe, that our God as much exceeded theirs, as our Guns did their Bows and Arrows; and many times did send to the President, at James Town, men with presents, entreating them to pray to his God for rain, for his Gods would not send him any.

"And in this lamentable ignorance do these poor souls sacrifice themselves to the Devil, not knowing their Creator." (Original ed., pp. 32, 33, 34.)
Now, I'm no anthropologist, but I play one on the internet.  What I see here in Smith's account looks to me more like a type of coming-of-age transformation ceremony than a human sacrifice.  Young boys (not yet men)...painted white (like bones)...young men protect the boys (building bonding and group cohesion, but also symbolizing a transitional agent from the underworld of death)...women weeping as though the boys have died (morning the loss of the child' childhood)...boys thrown on a heap (symbolizing death)...nine months later, the come back to the tribe (the symbolic deaths followed by symbolic rebirth via nine months).

As for the "sacrifice," it doesn't appear that the ceremony is really a sacrificial ceremony.  The Werowance explained that the children were not actually killed, although sometimes ("by lot") some boy or boys did die.  He explained that this was Oke's doing, but such a perspective on the loss is similar to what we find in Job 1:21 "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." NIV

As for the sentiment that this ceremony was necessary to satisfy their gods, or else they risk having no "Deer, Turkeys, Corn, nor fish: and yet besides, [Oke] would make great slaughter amongst them," this is also in line with the type of worship we find in the Old Testament, where God would curse the Israelites with much worse than Oke's threat if they failed to obey all of His Law, which included ceremonies.

Of  course, maybe these similarities are just evidence that Jehovah at one time in distant history was more of a "Devil" than a God.  Carus would later make that case with other verses...

On a final note, we see more of Smith's tainted perspective in calling the native religion "blind idolatry."  Clearly he is unable to see the parallels between their religion and his own.  But even beyond that, he does not understand their religion.  It is more complex and more functional than the monotheism he is used to.  This can be seen as he observes that the natives thought that "[the Biblical] God as much exceeded theirs, as our Guns did their Bows and Arrows."

What Smith didn't realize was that they were speaking functionally.  The natives had different gods with different spheres of influence.  They would have thought the white man's God superior only because the God of the Bible allegedly created and controls everything.  So Smith and company didn't make many converts of the natives because their gods already fulfilled the necessary functional roles.  The Biblical God, while more grand in scope, was superfluous to the natives.

When you have a functioning system, there is little impetus for change, and so I think that it is unlikely that all religions would ultimately yield a purely "good" God on a long enough timeline.  A capricious, human-like god, showing both good and bad qualities, could persist on indefinitely, especially given that such behavior mimics the realities of life often all too well.


  1. I think it more likely that an authoritarian government system, not time or 'civilization', is more likely to lead to the conclusion that a deity (or ruler, often the same thing) is all good. It is part of authoritarianism.
    Thinking and nuance show us that our leaders and our world is not 'all good'.

    I found it sadly funny that his proof that the Native's god was a devil was this its worshipers followed more out of fear than love. How convenient that Christian theology often redefines fear of God to be love or wisdom.

    - prairienymph

  2. Thanks prarienymph. I suspect that you are right about an aspect of authoritarian government system forging the god or gods into images of perfect goodness, but I think getting to that point may be a bit of a struggle, requiring the right circumstances. I've got to ponder that transition a little more. Do you you have any theories of that transitions that you like?

    I'm with you: it was sadly funny seeing that line about them worshiping out of fear. :-)

  3. I don't have theories of transition, but it is my understanding that in the Middle East the word 'El' referred to both the leader of a city and later the god of that city (and much later to the god of the general area). Perhaps the growth of the god from revered mortal leader to abstract feared force pushed it from able to acknowledge shortcomings to redefinition of 'good'. Or perhaps the deities became less mature and less able to own up to foibles.

  4. PN, I'd heard of El, but I hadn't dug in to the history yet. That is pretty interesting the El evolved from a city leader. I guess the Canaanites were kind of following the Egyptian model of a ruler/deity. As you say, I suspect redefining good was a major part of the process! :-)