The Scriptures of Mankind: An Introduction by Charles Samuel Braden
Dr. Braden was Professor of History and Literature of Religions at Northwestern University (1952). Published by The MacMillan Company, New York, copyright 1952 by Charles S. Braden. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: Pre-literate Sacred Scriptures
Not all religions have a body of sacred scriptures such as that described in the preceding chapter, not even all of those which had reached the stage of writing. For example, neither the Greeks nor the Romans, the Egyptians nor the Babylonians -- all highly literate cultures -- had what may be termed sacred books with a definitely limited canon, held to be the exclusive basis of religious faith. But they did all of them have writings which corresponded closely to various portions of sacred books as found in other religions. These were never collected, regarded as of divine origin and hence as the basis of the several religions. Why this was may be conjectured, but perhaps never certainly known. To this question we shall recur later.
And of course those religions which had not achieved the art of writing had, in a strict sense, no fixed sacred book. But even here there existed all the "makings" of sacred literature, and in some cases they had gone far toward collecting these materials and handing them on verbally from generation to generation. It is amazing what a mass of material can be preserved in the human memory and passed down for centuries by word of mouth.
We may look for a moment at the Bible, our best-known scripture, to see of what it is composed. We discover there the story of the beginnings of the world, the creation of man, the explanation of the origin of many of his institutions; the history or legends of the ancestors of the Hebrew people, the stories of their kings and heroes, the laws by which they lived and whence they were derived; their martial songs of victory and lament over failure; the prescriptions for the cult practices; prayers for help and thanksgiving, for vengeance on enemies; their explanation of suffering; tales for moral instruction; stirring prophecies, their dreams of a future in this life and beyond -- all this and very much more. Is there anything like this to be found among pre-literate peoples? The answer is "Yes," almost everything.
Before a sacred literature of the kind we know emerges, many conditions must be fulfilled.
First of all, there must be a relatively long tribal history during which legends may grow up, institutions arise, religious faith take form, and the emergence of a desire to perpetuate this by transmitting it verbally to succeeding generations. Then the art of writing must be developed. This is a long, slow process. But even this is not enough. Many peoples that have reached this stage have left us no sacred literature because they wrote on easily destructible materials which have not survived the vicissitudes of time. Only those who discovered an enduring medium on which to write are known to us today, and there are very few such media. Stop and reflect on how little that is being written today is upon durable materials. Paper is highly destructible. Even the rag-paper editions of newspapers disintegrate in a comparatively short time, and wood-pulp papers are very soon gone. It may be that some durable kind of film will be elaborated on which, in microfilm form, books may be produced and preserved; but so far the film that is used requires very favorable conditions of storage if it is to endure. Perhaps of all materials that have been used, hard stone is the most enduring, though even this is subject to destructive erosion if exposed to wind and weather. Very little, except inscriptions on monuments, is being written on stone today, and even stone inscriptions are highly vulnerable in a climate such as ours in the United States. We shall see later how Egypt was favored in this respect by her climate.
Or again, even when writing has been achieved, and on durable materials, military conquest may destroy what has for long endured. Conquerors are often highly destructive. Here an eloquent example is the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. The Aztecs had achieved a high stage of culture. They had learned to write in hieroglyphic form, and there existed at the time of the conquest a vast body of writing, as well as stone carvings, but it was almost entirely destroyed. Eager missionaries, fearful that the memory of the old gods of Mexico might be kept alive if the writings which pictured them were preserved, destroyed almost all the books, or codices as they were called, and for the few that remain, the clue to their understanding no longer exists. Fortunately, some of their ideas were preserved by the ancient padres, so that we can see that there did exist among them not a little of the sort of writing which appears in the sacred books of other peoples.
In the modern age an interest has been awakened in the study of existing lower cultures, and as a result much of their legendary lore, their songs, their rituals, their laws, are being translated into modern languages and published. These materials, that would otherwise have been irrevocably lost, are preserved and made available to students of culture. In the United States, for example, recordings have been taken of the songs of the Indians, and the stories are told by native story tellers in their own tongue, then translated. We have thus done for the Indians what they could not, or might never have done, for themselves. In so doing we have discovered a vast wealth of beauty and wisdom which we had hardly thought to find among backward peoples. We have found almost every element that goes into the making of sacred scriptures. Much the same thing has been done for the African peoples, the South Pacific Islanders, and other relatively primitive peoples. It will be worthwhile looking at some of this material, as a phase of what we call pre-literary sacred literature.
Look, first of all, at the creation story as told by various peoples. The Omaha Tribe of American Indians described it thus in what seems a veritable first chapter of Genesis:
At the beginning all things were in the mind of Wakonda. All creatures, including man, were spirits. They moved about in space between the earth and the stars. They were seeking a place where they could come into a bodily existence.
They ascended to the sun, but the sun was not fitted for their abode. They moved on to the moon and found that it also was not good for their home. Then they descended to the earth. They saw that it was covered with water.
They floated through the air to the north, the east, the south, and the west, and found no dry land. They were sorely grieved. Suddenly from the midst of the water uprose a great rock. It burst into flames and the waters floated into the air in clouds.
Dry land appeared; the grasses and the trees grew. The hosts of spirits descended and became flesh and blood. They fed on the seeds and grasses and the fruits of the trees, and the land vibrated with their expressions of joy and gratitude to Wakonda, the Maker of all things.1
The Maoris of New Zealand have a creation poem which details the creative activity through six successive periods. It is in part as follows. (The explanatory phrases inserted within the poem are the work of the transcriber, not a part of the creation poem itself.)
The first period may he styled the epoch of thought --
From the conception the increase,
The second period is that of night or darkness --
The word became fruitful;
This, we are told, is all we have to do with night; during these periods there was no light -- there were no eyes to the world.
The third period is that of light--
From the nothing the begetting,
The fourth period, the creation of the moon and sun --
The atmosphere which floats above the earth.
The fifth period, the creation of land --
The sky which floats above the earth,
The sixth period contains the formation of gods and men.
Here there does not appear to be any pre-existent cause, but in another Maori account, Io was the creator:
Io dwelt within the breathing-space of immensity.
Let there be one light above,
A dominion of light,
And now a great light prevailed.
"Bring forth thou Tupua-horo-nuku."
The Tahitian myth makes the creation of the world the act of a pre-existent being, Taaroa:
He existed. Taaroa was his name.
In a chant used in the Tahitian cult, greater detail of the creation is given. Here, as in many other creation myths, the various parts of the world are formed of the several portions of the body of the creative being:
He took his spine for a mountain ridge, his ribs for mountain slopes, his vitals for broad floating clouds, his flare and his flesh for fatness of the earth, his arms and legs for strength of the earth; his finger nails and toe nails for scales and shells for the fishes, his feathers for trees, shrubs, and creepers, to clothe the earth; and his intestines for lobsters, shrimps, and eels for rivers and seas; and the blood of Ta’aroa got heated; and drifted away for redness for the sky and for rainbows.
But Ta’aroa’s head remained sacred to himself, and he still lived, the same head on an indestructible body.6
A creation song by Earth Doctor reveals something of the thought of the Pima Indians as to how the world began:
Earth Magician shapes this world.
No people is without its proverbial wisdom, which gathers up in brief, pointed, epigrammatic fashion the accumulated wisdom of its past. Anonymous, for the most part, these sayings sometimes may be attributed, as in the case of Proverbs in the Bible, to some famous wise man of the tribe. Here are a few, for example, from the Omaha American Indians. If it be remarked that these are not religious in character, the same may be said of many Biblical Proverbs. A casual glance reveals that in five of the first fifteen chapters of the Book of Proverbs, there is no direct religious reference. Much of that book is made up of plain, common-sense advice concerning conduct, without appeals to any non-human sanction, though of course this may well have been taken for granted, so permeated was the whole of Israel’s life with the sense of dependence upon God.
Among the Omaha Indians these sayings are in common use:
Totem food never satisfies hunger.
A poor man is a hard rider
All persons dislike a borrower.
No one mourns the thriftless.
The path of the lazy leads to disgrace.
A man must make his own arrows.
A handsome face does not make a good husband.7
Here are some examples from Surinam folklore:
When you eat with the devil, then you must have a long fork,
A bad name is a woman’s winding sheet.
The inquisitive sheep is the tiger’s food.
Faces were there before mirrors.
Cunning is more than strength. 8
These are proverbs of the Saramacca Bush-Negroes:
Hide today’s anger until tomorrow.
Still water has a deep bottom.
If you love the bud, you must love the fruit too.
When a child does evil, you should forgive him.9
Some peoples have a memory of a long migration before reaching their permanent home, very much as in the Old Testament is recorded the migration under divine direction of Abraham who went out, he knew not whither, and his descendants. An interesting record is that of the wanderings of the Nahua tribes of Mexico who came out of some not certainly known region of the Northwest into the Valley of Mexico to found the great Aztec Empire. So much did these wanderings resemble those of Israel that one of the early Franciscan Fathers wrote this of them:
They affirm that it was this idol that had commanded them to leave their own country, promising them that they would be the rulers and the chiefs of all the provinces which had been settled by the other six tribes; of a land greatly abounding in gold, silver, precious stones, feathers, and rich shawls, and every costly thing conceivable. . . .
Thus did the Mexicans set out, just as the children of Israel had done, in search of the promised land, taking with them their idol enclosed in an ark, made of rushes, just as the others had taken with them their Ark of the Covenant. They took along with them four principal priests, who made their laws and instructed them in their rites, and ceremonies and in the most superstitious, cruel, and bloody sacrifices ever known, as will be seen farther on in this account, where the sacrifices are described in detail. Under no conditions did the Mexicans ever move an inch without the advice and command of this idol. . . .
The first thing they did whenever they wished to stop at a particular place, was to erect a tabernacle or temple to their false god for the duration of the time they expected to stay there, and they built this temple in the middle of the site on which they had established themselves, the ark being placed upon an altar such as is used in a church, for the idol wished to imitate our religion in many ways, as we shall afterwards show.10
But the Nahuas, quite like the Hebrews, were willful and did not always heed the directions given them by their divine guide:
The Mexicans, quite oblivious to what their idol had told them, namely that this place was merely an imitation and pattern of the land they were to be given, stayed in this delightful place (a long time) and began to feel that it was quite satisfactory, some even saying that they desired to stay there permanently, and that this was really the place selected by their god Huitzilopochtli; that it was from that place that they were all to follow their desires, being the rulers of the four parts of the world, etc.
Their idol, seeing this, waxed so angry that he said to the priests, "Who are these who thus wish to transgress and put obstacles in the way of my orders and commands? Are they perhaps greater than myself? Tell them that I will take vengeance before tomorrow and that they should not dare to give advice about matters which are for me to determine. Let them know that all they have to do is to obey."
Having said this, those who saw assert that the idol looked so ugly and frightful, that all were terrified and frightened. On that very night, it is said, when everything was quiet, a loud noise was heard in part of the camp and when the people rushed there in the morning, they found that all those who had spoken in favor of remaining in this place were dead with their breasts torn open and their hearts torn out. In this way it was that they were taught that most cruel of sacrifices, a custom they always practiced after that, which consisted of cutting open a man s chest in order to tear out his heart and offer it to their idols.11
The bitter lesson taught them,
.. . On the following night Huitzilopochtli appeared in a dream to one of his ministers and said, "Now you are satisfied that I have not told you anything that did not turn out to be truthful and you have seen the thing that I promised you would find in the place where I was going to take you. . . .
"Go there in the morning and you will find the beautiful eagle on the nopal tree and around it you will see a great quantity of green, red, yellow, and white feathers of the elegant birds on which the eagle sustains himself. To this place, where you will find the nopal with the eagle above it, I have given the name Tenochtitlan."12
On the morning of the following day the priest had all the people, old and young, men, women, and children, gathered together, and standing before them he began to tell them about the revelation he had received, dwelling on the great manifestations of regard and the many acts of kindness they had received day after day from their god. After a long harangue he concluded, saying, "The site of this nopal will be the place of our happiness, peace, and rest. Here we will increase in numbers and add prestige to the name of the Mexican people. From this home of ours, shall be known the force of our valorous arms and courage; our undaunted hearts by means of which we shall conquer all the nations and countries in the world, subjecting even the remotest provinces and cities, extending our rule from sea to sea. . .
Proceeding in this way they finally came to the site of the no pal on top of which was perched the eagle with wings spread out to the rays of the sun, absorbing its heat and holding in its claws a gorgeous bird that had very precious and gleaming feathers. When they beheld this, they knelt down and did reverence as to a divine object. The eagle saw them and he also knelt, lowering his head in the direction in which he saw them. When they noticed that the eagle was kneeling before them haymg now seen what they had so earnestly desired, they all began to weep and utter shouts of joy and happiness. Then as an expression of gratitude they exclaimed, "How have we merited this? Who is it who has made us worthy of so much excellence, greatness, and grace? We have beheld that which we so earnestly desired and we have now obtained that which we were seeking. We have found our city, our abode. Let us give thanks to the lord of creation and to our god Huitzilopochtli.13
Is it not strikingly like the story of Israel? Indeed, some believe that it was the Hebrew story learned from the Spaniards which led them to recast their legends in this fashion. But this is by no means certain.
Almost every people has its prayers and rituals for use in the cult. These become fixed and formal and are handed down from generation to generation. Some of them are of singular beauty. They form part of what may correspond to the Hebrew Psalms. Here for example is a prayer of the Omahas. On the eighth day after the birth of a child, the Omaha priest chanted it at the door of the tent where the child lay:
Ho! Ye Sun, Moon, Stars, all ye that
Ho! Ye Winds, Clouds, Rain, Mist, all ye
Ho! Ye Hills, Valleys, Rivers, Lakes, Trees,
Ho! Ye Birds, great and small, that fly
Ho! All ye of the heavens, all ye of the air,
The Haida Indians of Queen Charlotte’s Island, B.C., in Pacific Northwest pray earnestly to the Sun for good weather, because upon it depend the hunting and fishing. They also petition for peace within the tribe and with all enemies:
O good Sun,
The Hako, an elaborate Pawnee ceremony, contains a number of fine prayers and hymns. The first two are to "Our Father, the
Father, unto thee we cry;
An expression of gratitude to Mother Earth, reminiscent of some of the Hebrew Psalms of Thanksgiving, forms a part of the Hako:
Behold! Our Mother Earth is lying here.
Behold on Mother Earth the growing fields!
Behold on Mother Earth the spreading trees!
We see on Mother Earth the running streams;
In an Iroquois ritual of fire and darkness, the note of thanksgiving is also struck and an offering is made. In the presence of a certain society among them, the medicine man throws a bit of sacred tobacco on the altar fire and chants in a low voice:
Great Spirit who puts us to sleep in darkness,
To Huitzilopochtli, mighty war god of the Aztecs, their leader to the promised land, a typical hymn is sung:
1. Huitzilopochtli is first in rank, no one, no one is like unto him: not vainly do I sing (his praises) , coming forth in the garb of our ancestors; I shine: I glitter.
2. He is a terror to the Mixteca; he alone destroyed the Picha-Huasteca, he conquered them.
3. The Dart-Hurler is an example to the city, as he sets to work. He who commands in battle is called the representative of my God.
4. When he shouts aloud he inspires great terror, the divine hurler, the god turning himself in the combat, the divine hurler, the god turning himself in the combat.
5. Amanteca, gather yourselves together with me in the house of war against your enemies, gather yourselves together with me.
6. Pipiteca, gather yourselves together with me in the house of war against your enemies, gather yourselves together with me.19
To the Mother of Gods, Teotenantzin, a divinity much adored by the Aztecs long before the coming of the Europeans, obviously a goddess of fertility who dwelt of old on the precise hill where the Virgin of Guadalupe later appeared to Juan Diego, is addressed the following hymn:
1. Hail to our mother, who caused the yellow flowers to blossom, who scattered the seeds of the maguey, as she came forth from Paradise.
2. Hail to our mother, who poured forth flowers in abundance, who scattered the seeds of the maguey, as she came forth from Paradise.
3. Hail to our mother, who caused the yellow flowers to blossom, she who scattered the seeds of the maguey, as she came forth from Paradise.
4. Hail to our mother, who poured forth white flowers in abundance, who scattered the seeds of the maguey, as she came forth from Paradise.
5. Hail to the goddess who shines in the thorn bush like a bright butterfly.
6. Ho! she is our mother, goddess of the earth, she supplies food in the desert to the wild beasts, and causes them to live.
7. Thus, thus, you see her to be an ever-fresh model of liberality toward all flesh.
8. And as you see the goddess of the earth do to the wild beasts, so also does she toward the green herbs and the fishes.20
The Zuñi Indians of Arizona have some magnificent hymns. One of the most noteworthy is this hymn to the sun. Of course, all these come to us through the medium of a translator, and one may not know whether it has gained or lost in the process of translation. At all events, here it is definitely beautiful:
Early in the morning,
What a wondrous shower of sounds,
Whence come all these distant sounds?
Glory to the sunlight rays,
A Polynesian divinity, Lono, is approached with a sacrifice by the priest, chanting:
Oh Lono, of the blue firmament!
The following quotations reveal the fact that Lono, the god of crops, was a rain god:
Send gracious showers of rain, Oh Lono.
Oh Lono, of the broad leaf,
Now and then there is a song which seems to be individual just as some of the Hebrew Psalms are, and registers some profound experience or hope or aspiration. One wonders in the following, which is called a ritual song of the Pawnees, what has happened between the first and second stanzas:
I know not if the voice of man can reach to the sky;
I now know that the voice of man can reach the sky;
No more poignant human utterance is to be found anywhere than in the "Lament of a Man for his Son." The most remarkable thing about the song is its origin. It is a Paiute Indian who sings it; and in all the literature about Indians, none is represented as more "ornery" than the Paiute. But it is the father-heart of humanity that we hear echoing David’s lament over Absalom:
Son, my son!
Son, my son,
These all too few illustrations of the psalm literature of the preliterate groups of the world do not register the full height nor breadth nor depth of that vast unwritten sea of song and prayer. It may well be said here that we have gleaned the best; much is repetitious, meaningless (to us at least) , superstitious, crude, even savage and licentious, but if God is where the Good, the True, the Beautiful are found, who can deny that among these people there were those who saw something of His face as they "sought after if haply they might find him?"
It is not unusual to find among non-literate people, as among the literate, a feeling of world-weariness or disillusionment, and despair. Some of them, like the ancient Babylonians, developed a carpe diem philosophy; others found nothing to lighten their melancholy. From Mexico come some excellent examples of this type of literature, not unlike the book of Ecelesiastes in the Bible. Two or three of these must suffice.
1. Weeping, I, the singer, weave my song of flowers of sadness; I call to memory the youths, the shards, the fragments, gone to the land of the dead; once noble and powerful here on earth, the youths were dried up like feathers, were split into fragments like an emerald, before the face and in the sight of those who saw them on earth, and with the knowledge of the Cause of All.
2. Alas! alas! I sing in grief as I recall the children. Would that I could turn back again; would that I could grasp their hands once more; would that I could call them forth from the land of the dead; would that we could bring them again on earth, that they might rejoice and delight the Giver of Life; is it possible that we His servants should reject him or should be ungrateful? Thus I weep in my heart as I, the singer, review my memories, recalling things sad and grievous.
3. Would only that I knew they could hear me, there in the land of the dead, were I to sing some worthy song. Would that I could gladden them, that I could console the suffering and the torment of the children. How can it be learned? Whence can I draw the inspiration? They are not where I may follow them; neither can I reach them with my calling as one here on earth.25
But perhaps the most notable example of this kind of literature is one from the great King Nezahualcoyotl, who ruled only a little while before the coming of the European conquerors. The king himself had reached nearer perhaps to a monotheistic conception of God than any of his people, but he was oppressed by the fleeting character of life, and uncertain of what lay beyond this life.
1. The fleeting pomps of the world are like the green willow trees, which aspiring to permanence, are consumed by a fire, fall before the axe, are upturned by the wind, or are scarred and saddened by age.
2. The grandeurs of life are like the flowers in color and in fate; the beauty of these remains so long as their chaste buds gather and store the rich pearls of the dawn and, saving it, drop it in liquid dew; but scarcely has the Cause of All directed upon them the full rays of the sun, when their beauty and glory fail, and the brilliant gay colors which decked forth their pride wither and fade.
3. The delicious realms of flowers count their dynasties by short periods; those which in the morning revel proudly in beauty and strength, by evening weep for the sad destruction of their thrones, and for the mishaps which drive them to loss, to poverty, to death, and to the grave. All things of earth have an end, and in the midst of the most joyous lives, the breath falters, they fall, they sink into the ground.
4. All the earth is a grave, and nought escapes it; nothing is so perfect that it does not fall and disappear.
5. The caverns of earth are filled with pestilential dust which once was the bones, the flesh, the bodies of great ones who sat upon thrones, deciding causes, ruling assemblies, governing armies, conquering provinces, possessing treasures, tearing down temples, flattering themselves with pride, majesty, fortune, praise and dominion. These glories have passed like the dark smoke thrown out by the rude skins on which they are wntten.
6. . . . first and last (all) are confounded in the common clay. What was their fate shall be ours, and of all who follow us.
7. Unconquered princes, warlike chieftains, let us seek, let us sigh for the heaven, for there all is eternal and nothing is corruptible. The darkness of the sepulchre is but the strengthening couch for the glorious sun, and the obscurity of the night but serves to reveal the brilliancy of the stars. No one has power to alter these heavenly lights, for they serve to display the greatness of their Creator, and as our eyes see them now, so saw them our earliest ancestors, and so shall see them our latest posterity.26
Nor are there lacking among most peoples some legal requirements established by the gods, as in the case of the Mosaic and Levitical law in the Bible. Hero stories abound, moral tales told for the instruction of childhood and youth are common to most cultures, but space forbids lengthening this chapter. Enough here if we have established the fact that many, if not all, peoples even at the pre-literate stage have already developed most of the kinds of material that are found in the Bibles of literate peoples. And probably it serves very much the same functions among them as do the Bibles among those whose scriptures were preserved to them in written form.
Pre-Literate Sacred Literature
Sources for Further Beading
George W. Cronyn, The Path on the Rainbow, Boni and Liveright, N.Y., 1918.
Nellie Barnes, American Indian Love Lyrics, Macmillan Co., N. Y., 1925. Natalie Curtis Burlin, The Indian’s Book, Harper & Brothers, N. Y., 1907.
There is a great mass of this material scattered through the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology.
1Alice C. Fletcher, 27th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, p. 571.
2. Richard Taylor, New Zealand and Its Inhabitants, London: William MacIntosh, 24, Paternoster Row, n.d., pp. 109-111.
3E. S. Craighill Handy, Polynesian Religion, Honolulu, Hawaii: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 34, 1927, p. 10.
4Ibid. p. 11
6Frank Russell, 26th Annual Report of the Bureau of American
Ethnology, p. 272.
7From Alice Fletcher, The Omaha Tribe, Bureau of American
Ethnology, Vol. 27, p. 604
8M. J. and Frances Herskovitz, Surinam Folklore, Columbia 9University Press, New York, 1936, pp. 455 ff. 9Ibid. pp.475-481, passim.)
10Paul Radin, The Sources and Authenticity of the History of the Ancient Mexicans, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1920, P. 71
11Ibid., pp. 73, 74
12Ibid., p. 79
13Ibid., p. 80
14Alice Fletcher, op. cit., pp 158-159
15George W. Cronyn,The Path of the Rainbow,pp. 158-159
16Alice Fletcher, Bureau of American Ethnology, Vol. 22, part 2, p. 334.
17Ibid., p. 335
18George W. Cronyn, The Path on the Rainbow, p. 7.
19Daniel G. Briton, Rig Veda Americanus Phildelphia: D.G. Brinton, 1990, pp.16-17.
21"Awakening at Dawn," from Traditional Songs of Zuñi, by Carlos Troyer; Published by Theodore Presser Co.; used by permission.
22Handy, op.cit., pp. 110-111.
23Alice Fletcher, Bureau of American Ethnology, Vol. 22, pp. 343-344.
24From The American Rhythm by Mary Austin, 1923. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co.
25Daniel G. Brinton, Ancient Nahuatl Poetry, Philadelphia; D.G. Brinton, 1890, p.73.
26Ibid., pp. 45-46.