Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

Evolution of Belief: Fetishism

It would be a mistake to think that the evolution of belief was like some sort of punctuated equilibrium, one belief being dropped when another was invented. Far from it. It would be more accurate to think of beliefs as memes that act like DNA, gradually evolving and building a genome over time. Animism did not give way to totemism, rather elements of animism and totemism merged as human beliefs evolved. Sure, over time one belief may have eventually been superseded by another but the evolving beliefs invariably incorporated elements of the earlier beliefs. Maybe earlier beliefs were eventually junked but they often remained in the background of people’s minds, reappearing as superstitions, which, while not real, helped humans get through their often miserable existences.

The evolution of beliefs usually went hand-in-hand with the social evolution of a family, eventually the amalgamation of a number of families and the evolution of social structures associated with a tribe. Each family’s beliefs merged or the biggest or most powerful family forced its beliefs on weaker ones. Usually the retention of a belief in its original form depended on a group of families, a tribe, being completely isolated from other tribes and societies.

The evolution of fetishism as a belief is often confused with magic or sexual deviation but it was one of the most important developments in human thinking. A fetish is an object, usually artistic, which has a special meaning. We saw that the artistic elements of totemism probably began as paintings on cave walls or rocks and probably depicted the totem of a family. It is, however, impossible to isolate painting as an art form. Remember that humans were still early in the stone age but were developing ever more sophisticated tools for killing and cutting meat, preparing vegetables, skinning animals for their fur and building living accommodation and modes of transport. Boats. As improved methods of working flint developed, chipping ever smaller pieces of flint became possible. Thin slivers were ideal not only for skinning but also for carving objects from materials like wood.

At first, objects were decorative, often used for bodily adornment. However, humans found that their brains could do something quite remarkable. They could think in the abstract.

Let us not forget that humans, although their societies were increasing in size and complexity, were still hunter-gatherers moving from place to place within an area. Painting a totem on a cave wall or rock meant that it would have to be repeated in all areas the tribe visited and would have become a particularly odious task. So the painting would instead be in one cave or on one rock in a place visited by the tribe. How much easier it would be to be able to carry a family’s totem with them? But there was a serious problem with that idea; if a family’s totem was a wolf but they visited areas where wolves did not roam, how could a model of the totem represent the animal in which their ancestors resided. The totem was a real thing, a part of their world, and as real as their departed ancestors. If the wolf was not in a place they visited before they developed the fetish they knew they would eventually return to the place where the wolf did roam and therefore they would return to their ancestors. Their ancestors were never far away.

Thinking in abstract, however, allowed humans to think of the object depicting their totem, their fetish, as a representation of their dead. But if their dead resided in the totem but not in the fetish, how could they keep their ancestors with them? For some humans it would not have made sense. So maybe their ancestors did not actually live in the totem but instead lived in a different world, a spirit world, and their spirits could coexist in the spirit world and in their fetish? Or their fetish need merely be a representation of the spirits who existed in the spirit world?

The development of fetishism meant that humans had to devise a new way of thinking about their dead. Being able to think in the abstract about their world allowed the invention of a spirit world. The evolution of of abstract thoughts about spirits would eventually lead to the invention of religion. Before then, however, humans found they had a more pressing problem. Their fetishes were all well and good but they couldn’t converse with the spirits of their ancestors residing within them like they could a living totem. The totem need not be able to speak but it could show them the way and protect them. Maybe each family or tribe needed someone special who could communicate with the spirit world and let them know what their dead were trying to tell them that would help them, the living, in the real, non-spirit world.


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