But even if that wish had been the determining factor in the inauguration of

But even if that wish had been the determining factor

This preview shows page 38 - 40 out of 163 pages.

But even if that wish had been the determining factor in the inauguration of this custom, we cannot say that it was the most important; awe of the dead in all likelihood predominated for a long time over the sentiments which a milder civilization devel- oped. Death was a sign of violence brought into a world
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which it could destroy . Although motionless, the dead man had a part in the violence which had struck him down; anything which came too near him was threatened by the destruction which had brought him low. Death presented such a contrast between an unfamiliar region and the every- day world that the only mode of thought in tune with it was bound to conflict with the mode of thought governed by work . Symbolical or mythical thought , erroneously labelled 'primitive' by Levy-Bruhl, is the only kind appropriate to violence whose essence is to break the bounds of rational thought implicit in work. According to this way of thinking, t he violence which by striking at the dead man dislocates the ordered course of things does not cease to be dangerous once the victim is dead. It constitutes a supernatural peril which can be 'caught' from the dead body. Death is a danger for those left behind. If they have to bury the corpse it is less' in order to keep it safe than to keep themselves safe from its contagion. Often the idea of contagion is connected with the body's decomposition where formidable aggressive forces are seen at work. The corpse will rot; this biological disorder, like the newly dead body a symbol of destiny, is threaten- ing in itself. We no longer believe in contagious magic, but which of us could be sure of not quailing at the sight of a dead body crawling with maggots? Ancient peoples took the drying up of the bones to be the proof that the threat of violence arising at the time of death had passed over. More often than not the dead man himself held in the clutch of violence, as the survivors see it, is part and parcel of his own disorder , and his whitened bones are what at last betoken the pacification of his spirit. The taboo relating to the corpse does not always appear intelligible . In 'Totem and Taboo' Freud, because of his superficial knowledge of ethnographical data, nowadays much less vague, thought that the taboo generally countered the desire to touch. The desire to touch the dead was doubtless no greater in former times than it is today. The taboo does not necessarily anticipate the desire; in the presence of a corpse horror is immediate and inevitable and practically impossible to resist. The violence attendant upon a man's death is only likely to tempt men in one direction: it may tend to be embodied in us against another living person; the desire to kill may take hold of us. The taboo on murder is a special aspect of the universal taboo on violence. In the eyes of primitive man violence is always the cause of death. It may have acted through magical means, but some- one is always responsible, someone is always a murderer. The two aspects of the taboo are interrelated.
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