When men believed in ghosts only, religious ritual was more personal, less organized, but the recognition of higher spirits necessitated the employment of “higher spiritual methods” in dealing with them. This attempt to improve upon, and to elaborate, the technique of spirit propitiation led directly to the creation of defenses against the spirits. Man felt helpless indeed before the uncontrollable forces operating in terrestrial life, and his feeling of inferiority drove him to attempt to find some compensating adjustment, some technique for evening the odds in the one-sided struggle of man versus the cosmos.
In the early days of the cult, man’s efforts to influence ghost action were confined to propitiation, attempts by bribery to buy off ill luck. As the evolution of the ghost cult progressed to the concept of good as well as bad spirits, these ceremonies turned toward attempts of a more positive nature, efforts to win good luck. Man’s religion no longer was completely negativistic, nor did he stop with the effort to win good luck; he shortly began to devise schemes whereby he could compel spirit co-operation. No longer does the religionist stand defenseless before the unceasing demands of the spirit phantasms of his own devising; the savage is beginning to invent weapons wherewith he may coerce spirit action and compel spirit assistance.
Man’s first efforts at defense were directed against the ghosts. As the ages passed, the living began to devise methods of resisting the dead. Many techniques were developed for frightening ghosts and driving them away, among which may be cited the following:
1. Cutting off the head and tying up the body in the grave.
2. Stoning the death house.
3. Castration or breaking the legs of the corpse.
4. Burying under stones, one origin of the modern tombstone.
5. Cremation, a later-day invention to prevent ghost trouble.
6. Casting the body into the sea.
7. Exposure of the body to be eaten by wild animals.
Ghosts were supposed to be disturbed and frightened by noise; shouting, bells, and drums drove them away from the living; and these ancient methods are still in vogue at “wakes” for the dead. Foul-smelling concoctions were utilized to banish unwelcome spirits. Hideous images of the spirits were constructed so that they would flee in haste when they beheld themselves. It was believed that dogs could detect the approach of ghosts, and that they gave warning by howling; that cocks would crow when they were near. The use of a cock as a weather vane is in perpetuation of this superstition.
Water was regarded as the best protection against ghosts. Holy water was superior to all other forms, water in which the priests had washed their feet. Both fire and water were believed to constitute impassable barriers to ghosts. The Romans carried water three times around the corpse; in the twentieth century the body is sprinkled with holy water, and hand washing at the cemetery is still a Jewish ritual. Baptism was a feature of the later water ritual; primitive bathing was a religious ceremony. Only in recent times has bathing become a sanitary practice.
But man did not stop with ghost coercion; through religious ritual and other practices he was soon attempting to compel spirit action. Exorcism was the employment of one spirit to control or banish another, and these tactics were also utilized for frightening ghosts and spirits. The dual-spiritism concept of good and bad forces offered man ample opportunity to attempt to pit one agency against another, for, if a powerful man could vanquish a weaker one, then certainly a strong spirit could dominate an inferior ghost. Primitive cursing was a coercive practice designed to overawe minor spirits. Later this custom expanded into the pronouncing of curses upon enemies.
It was long believed that by reverting to the usages of the more ancient mores the spirits and demigods could be forced into desirable action. Modern man is guilty of the same procedure. You address one another in common, everyday language, but when you engage in prayer, you resort to the older style of another generation, the so-called solemn style.
This doctrine also explains many religious-ritual reversions of a sex nature, such as temple prostitution. These reversions to primitive customs were considered sure guards against many calamities. And with these simple-minded peoples all such performances were entirely free from what modern man would term promiscuity.
Next came the practice of ritual vows, soon to be followed by religious pledges and sacred oaths. Most of these oaths were accompanied by self-torture and self-mutilation; later on, by fasting and prayer. Self-denial was subsequently looked upon as being a sure coercive; this was especially true in the matter of sex suppression. And so primitive man early developed a decided austerity in his religious practices, a belief in the efficacy of self-torture and self-denial as rituals capable of coercing the unwilling spirits to react favorably toward all such suffering and deprivation.
Modern man no longer attempts openly to coerce the spirits, though he still evinces a disposition to bargain with Deity. And he still swears, knocks on wood, crosses his fingers, and follows expectoration with some trite phrase; once it was a magical formula.