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Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.

ę 1922




        Various authorities in Ethnology and Anthropology concur in their description and testimony as to the superstitious fears that obsess primitive man.

        Professor Baldwin Spencer, the anthropologist, writes of the Australian aborigines that they have "an intense belief in evil magic. The natives have no idea of disease or pain as being due to anything but evil magic, except that which is caused by an actual accident which they can see. . . Anything they do not understand they associate with evil magic. . . You have only to tell a native that he is victim of evil magic, and he succumbs at once, and can only be cured by the exercise of counter magic.

        "The number of supernatural beings feared by the aborigines of Australia is exceedingly great. For not only are the heavens people with such, but the whole face of the country swarms with them; every thicket, most watering places abound them with evil spirits. In like manner, every natural phenomenon is believed to be the work of demons, none of which seem to be of a benign nature, one and all apparently striving to do all imaginable mischief to the poor black fellow."

        The same is true of the negro. "The negro is wont to regard the whole world around him as peopled with envious beings, to whom he imputes every misfortune that happens to him, and from whose harmful influence he seeks to protect himself by all kinds of magic means." "The religion of the Bolok (of the Upper Congo River)," writes an observer, "has its basis in their fear of those numerous invisible spirits which surround them on every side, and are constantly trying to compass them in their sickness, misfortune and death; and the Boloki's sole object in practicing their religion is to cajole or appease, cheat or conquer or kill those spirits that trouble them, by their Nganga (medicine men), their rites, their ceremonies, and their charms. If there were no evil spirits to circumvent there would be no need of medicine men and their charms. . . The Boloki folk believe that they are surrounded by spirits which try to thwart them at every hour of day and nigh. . . I never met among them a man daring enough to go at night through the forest that divided Mosembe from the upper village even though a large reward was offered. Their invariable reply was: 'There are too many spirits in the bush and forest.' The spirits whom the people dread so much are the mingoli, or disembodied souls of the dead; the life of the Boloki is described as 'one long drawn out fear of what the mingoli may next do to them.' Those dangerous beings dwell everywhere, land and water are full of them; they are ever ready to pronounce on the living and carry them away, or to smite them with disease, and kill them. . . The belief in witchcraft affects their lives in a vast number of ways. It regulates their actions, modifies their mode of thought and speech, controls their conduct towards each other, causes cruelty and callousness in a people not naturally cruel, and sets various members of a family against each other. . . Belief in witches is interwoven into the very fiber of every Bentu speaking man and woman; and the person who does not believe in them is a monster, a witch to be killed."

        The fear of evil spirits, the fear of witchcraft, and the fear of malicious spiritual agencies have been the pest of credulous, fear-obsessed humanity in all ages of its existence. The crusades, and religious wars have shown us the blight suffered by humanity, obsessed by the impulse of self-preservation and the fear instinct. Fear or pretended Love of the great spirit, under whatever name, is used for the avoidance of fears and evils.

        Sir E. F. Thurn describes the Indian of Guiana as haunted by the omnipresence of malicious ghosts and spirits. "The whole world of the Indian swarms with these beings. If by a mental effort, we could for a moment revert to a similar mental position, we should find ourselves surrounded everywhere by a host of harmful beings. . . . It is not therefore, wonderful that the Indian fears to move beyond the light of his camp-fire after dark . . . nor is it wonderful that occasionally the air round the settlement seems to the Indian to grow so full of beings, that a sorcerer is employed."

        The Indians of Paraguay "live in constant dread of supernatural beings and if nothing else contributed to make their life miserable, this ever present dread would be in itself quite sufficient to rob it of most of its joys."

        Professor Powell writes of the Indians: "The Indians believed that diseases were caused by unseen evil beings and by witchcraft, and every cough, every toothache, every headache, every fever, every boil and every wound, in fact all their ailments were attributed to such a cause. Their so-called medical practice was a horrible system of sorcery and to such superstition human life was sacrificed on an enormous scale . . ."

        Similarly, the malignant spirits of the Maori are "so numerous as to surround the living in crowds. The Maori claims: "the spirits throng like mosquitoes, ever watching to inflict harm." The Melanesian "sees himself surrounded at every step by evil spirits and their influences." The Papuans "people land and sea with mysterious, malignant powers which take up their abode in stones and trees or in men, and cause all kinds of misfortunes, especially sickness and death." The Bakua of New Guinea are in constant fear of spirits. . . . "Of forest spirits the number is infinite; for it is above all in the mysterious darkness, the tangled wilderness of the virgin forests that the spirits love to dwell. . . . The spirits are never bent on good, they live in evil places. At night-fall the native hears the voices of the spirits, they make inroads into human habitations, and drive man crazy."

        In Java, the people are firmly convinced that "the number of spirits is innumerable, they are a source of fear and anxiety." The natives of Sumatra are possessed of "fear of unknown powers. . . . Every misfortune bespeaks the ill-will of hostile spirits. The whole world is a meeting place of demons." The Batakas "live in perpetual fear of evil spirits."

        Professor M. Williams writes of the Hindoos: "The great majority of the inhabitants of India are, from the cradle to the burning ground, victims of a form of mental disease which is best explained by the term demonophobia. They are haunted and oppressed by a perpetual dread of demons. They are firmly convinced that evil spirits of all kinds, from malignant fiends to mischievous imps and elves, are ever on the watch to harm, harass and torment them, to cause plague, sickness, famine, and disaster, to impede, injure and mar every good work. The worship of at least ninety per cent of the people of India in the present day is a worship of fear. The simple truth is that evil of all kinds, difficulties, dangers and disasters, famines, diseases, pestilences and death, are thought by an ordinary Hindoo to proceed from demons, or more properly speaking, from devils, and from devils alone." "The underlying principle (of the religion of the Kacharis of Assam) is characteristically one of fear and dread."

        "The Thibetans," writes an observer, "are thorough-going demon worshippers. In every nook, path, big tree, rock, spring, waterfall and lake there lurks a devil,―for which reason few individuals will venture out alone after dark. The sky, the ground, the house, the field, the country, have each their special demons; and sickness is always attributed to malign demonical influence."

        The Burmese, the Laosians of Siam, the Thay of Indo-China are in all their activities controlled by the fear instinct which is at the bottom of all their beliefs. "The Thay cannot take a single step without meeting a demon on the path. . . . Spirits watch him, ready to punish negligence, and he is afraid. Fear is not only for him the beginning of wisdom, it is the whole of his wisdom."

        The Koreans may be regarded as the most superstitious people among the Orientals. Before me lies a Korean book full of superstitions which can only be matched in their absurdities with those of the Australian aborigines who, in their savage culture belong to the paleolithic period. The whole course of the Korean's life is controlled to the very minutiae by the terrors and horrors of demonical, invisible, deadly, malignant powers of demons, spirits, ghosts, hobgoblins, specters, and witches. According to the Korean belief the earth is a pandemonium in which witches and evil spirits hold high carnival. J. M. de Groot writes "In Korean belief, earth, air, and sea are peopled by demons. They haunt every umbrageous tree, shady ravine, spring and mountain crest. . . . They make a sport of human destinies. They are on every roof, ceiling, oven and beam. They fill the chimney, shed, the living room, the kitchen, they are on every shelf and jar. In thousands they waylay the traveler as he leaves his home, beside him, behind him, dancing in front of him, whirring over his head, crying out upon him from air, earth, and water. They are numbered by thousands of billions, and it has been well said that their ubiquity is an unholy travesty of Divine Omnipresence. This belief, and it seems to be the only one he possesses, keeps the Korean in a perpetual state of nervous apprehension, it surrounds him with indefinite terrors, and it may be truly said of him that he passes the time of his sojourning here in fear. . . . The spirits keep the Korean in bondage from birth to death."
        Im Bang, a Korean writer on Korean beliefs, has a characteristic story of a poor relative of some Korean dignitary. This poor relative of the high official once a year gathered hundreds of thousands of spirits whom he checked off, so as to keep their malignant disposition under control. And this gentleman was but one of the many clerks; he was but one census man of the vast bureaucratic spiritistic machinery for the regulation and control of evil demons.

        The same holds true of the other tribes in Asia. Thus the Gyliaks think that all the places on earth are filled with malicious demonical agencies. Similarly, the Koryaks on the Amoor are terrorized by the malignancy of evil spirits that dog their steps. W. Jochelson tells of the Koryaks that "when visiting the houses to cause diseases and to kill people, they (the spirits or demons) enter from under the ground. . . . They are invisible to human beings, they are sometimes so numerous in houses that they sit on the people, and fill up all corners. . . . With hammers and axes they knock people over the heads and cause headache. They bite, and cause swellings. They shoot invisible arrows which stick in the body causing death. The demons tear out pieces of flesh from people, thus causing sores and wounds to form on the body." The same spirit of fear of the invisible and of the mysterious, fear of evil powers, controlling the fate of man, constitutes the central belief of almost every primitive tribe, semi-civilized, ancient, as well as modern nation. They are all controlled by the fundamental instinct of life―the fear instinct.

        The Semitic scholar, R. H. Harper, writes of the Assyrians and Babylonians as follows: "There is no place in the universe where evil spirits can not penetrate. Every manner of evil and disaster is ascribed to them, from pestilence, fever, and the scorching wind of the desert, down to the trifles of life,―a quarrel, a headache, a broken dish, or a bad dream. They walk the street, slip into the door, get into the food, in short, are everywhere, and the danger from their presence is always imminent. . . .

        "Corresponding to a widespread belief in demons was a similar belief in witchcraft. It was not at all strange that the demons, who worked in every possible corner of the universe, should take possession of human beings. . . ."

        The tablets excavated in the imperial library of Ashurbanipal show the spirit of the people even of the highest classes debased with delusions and religious hallucinations due to self-preservation and fear instinct, so dominant in man who, when common-sense departs from him, may be regarded as the irrational animal par excellence.

        We may give the following illustration taken from one of the many tablets of the Shurpu series:

        "The evil spirits like grass have covered the earth. To four winds they spread brilliancy like fire, they send forth flames. The people living in dwellings they torment, their bodies they afflict. In city and country they bring moaning, small and great they make to lament. Man and woman they put in bonds, and fill with cries of woe. Man they fall upon and cover him like a garment. In heaven and earth like a tempest they rain; they rush on in pursuit. They fill him with poison, his hands they bind, his sides they crush."

        According to the ancient rabbis, a man should not drink water by night, for thus he exposes himself to the Shavriri, demons of blindness. What then should he do if he is thirsty? If there be another man with him, let him rouse him up and say: "I am thirsty," but if he be alone, let him tap upon the lid of the jug (to make the demon fancy there is some one with him), and addressing him by his own name, let him say: "Thy mother bid thee beware of the Shavriri, vriri, riri, ri." Rashi, a mediŠvel commentator, says that by this incantation the demon gradually contracts and vanishes as the sound of the word Shavriri decreases.

        The ancient rabbis instruct that "no one should venture out at night time on Wednesday or Saturday, for Agrath, the daughter of the demon Machloth, roams about the accompanied by eighteen myriads of evil demons, each one with has power to destroy." The rabbis claims that their air, land and sea are full of demons, all bent on evil and destruction of man. In this respect the learned rabbis differ but little from the superstitious Korean and the Australian savages. The rabbis warn the pious Jew that "should he forget to hold his prayer cover, he is to shake it thoroughly next morning, in order to get rid of the evil spirits that have harbored there during the night." The evil spirits are infinite in number. Thus the Talmudic authorities are in full accord with the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and with the lowest savages, ancient and modern, obsessed by the fear of spirits, by Demonophobia.

        One cannot help agreeing with the English anthropologist, Frazer, who after his study of the subject, arrives at the following conclusion: "In India from the earliest times down to the present day the real religion of the common folk appears always to have been a belief in a vast multitude of spirits of whom many, if not the most, are mischievous and harmful. As in Europe beneath a superficial layer of Christianity a faith in magic and witchcraft, in ghosts and goblins has always survived and even flourished among the weak and the ignorant (and apparently cultivated) so it has been and so it is in the East (and we may say also in the West). Brahmanism, Buddhism, Islam may come and go, but the belief in magic and demons remains unshaken through them all, and, if we may judge of the future from the past, it is likely to survive the rise and fall of other historical religions. For the great faiths of the world, just in so far as they are the outcome of superior intelligence, of extraordinary fervor of aspiration after the ideal, fail to touch and move the common man. They make claims upon his intellect and his heart, to which neither the one nor the other is capable of responding. With the common herd who compose the great bulk of every people, the new religion is accepted only in an outward show. . . . They yield a dull assent to it with their lips, but in their heart they never abandon their old superstitions (and fears of evil and mysterious miraculous agencies); in these they cherish a faith such as they can never repose in the creed which they nominally profess; and to these, in the trials and emergencies of life, they have recourse as to infallible remedies." And he quotes Maxwell to the effect that "The Buddhists in Ceylon, in times of sickness and danger . . . turn to demons, feared and reverenced in the same way as do 'the Burmese, Talaings, and Malays.'"

        The Jews firmly believe in demonical agencies. "When the even was become, they brought onto Him many that were possessed with devils; and He cast out the spirits with His word, and healed all that were sick." "And in the synagogue there was a man which had a spirit of an unclean devil; and he cried out with a loud voice." "And devils also came out of many . . ., and He rebuking them suffered them not to speak." "And there was a herd of many swine feeding on the mountains . . . Then went the devils out of the man, and entered into the swine, and the herd ran violently down a steep place, and were choked." "Casting out devils" was a sure proof divine mission.

        Perhaps a quotation from the Talmud will make clear the fear of demons which obsesses the Jew: Abba, Benjamin says, "If the eye were permitted to see the malignant spirit that beset us, we could not rest on account of them." Abai, another sage, says: "They outnumber us, they surround us as they heaped up soil in our garden plots." Rav Hunna says: "Every one has a thousand on his left side and ten thousand on his right." Rava claims: "The crowding at the schools is caused by their (demons) pushing in; they cause the weariness which the rabbis experience in their knees, and even tear their clothes by hustling against them. If one would discover traces of their presence, let him sift some ashes upon the floor at his bedside, and next morning he will see their footmarks as of fowls on the surface. But if one would see the demons themselves, he must burn to ashes the after-birth of a first born black kitten, the offspring of a first-born black cat, and then put a little of the ashes into his eyes, and he will not fail to see the demons."

        In the words of Lord Avebury, the archeologist, "the savage is a prey to constant fears . . . Savages never know but what they may be placing themselves in the power of these terrible enemies (the demons); and it is not too much to say that the horrible dread of unknown evil hangs like a thick cloud over savage life and embitters every pleasure."
In our modern times the preachers, the revivalists, the pulpit, appeal to fear and to hell in order to keep their flock in the fold. Fear of eternal damnation for infidels is the war cry of religion.

        Professor Deslar elicited from 875 California normal school students four-fifths of whom were young women, 3225 confessions of belief in superstitions. . . . "How thin is the veneer of culture over that great mass of irrational predisposition which in the hour of fear and excitement resumes control of the popular mind, and leads on to folly and ruin!" (Ross)

        Buckle is right in pointing out the significant fact that superstition is found in any walk of life in which risk or danger predominates. Sailors are more superstitious than landsmen, while farmers and business people, especially gamblers and speculators and more superstitious than industrial workers. Similarly Cumont is right in ascribing the superstition of soldiers as due to risks and dangers of war.

        After the great world wear one notices the rise of all sorts of superstitions. Superstitions and fear are close companions. A modern historian does not hesitate to declare that "Europe is held in hate, because the nations fear each other . . . What sentiment has dug ditch separating Russia from the rest of the world? It is fear. The states of Western Europe, which the Soviets regard as their persecutors, think themselves menaced in their turn by the Soviet republic." The Great War was produced by self-preservation and fear. The world is still in the grip of fear instinct.

        The Bible claims: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The Latin poet declares: Primus in orbe deos fecit timor. The real state of things is: Self and fear are the Lords of life, individual and social.

        Bacon in his essay "On the Wisdom of the Ancients," with his clear insight has stated the matter succinctly: "In the Panic terrors there is set forth a very wise doctrine; for by the nature of things all living creatures are endued with certain fear and dread, the office of which is to preserve their life and existence, and to avoid or repel approaching mischief. But the same nature knows not how to keep just measures,―but together with salutary fears ever mingles vain and empty ones; insomuch that all things (if one could see into the heart of them) are quite full of Panic terrors; human things most of all; so infinitely tossed and troubled as they are with superstitions (which is in truth nothing but a Panic terror), especially in seasons of hardship, anxiety and adversity."


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