27 July 2009

Spirits with Legs

The idea that gods and spirits got their start as a supernatural version of people encounters one obvious objection: In hunter-gatherer societies, aren’t some supernatural beings thought of as animals, not humans? And aren’t some supernatural beings—especially the ones anthropologists call “spirits”—too vague a life form to qualify as either human or animal? Why should we, along with [Edward] Tylor, talk of personified causes when Tylor’s own terminology—animated causes—would fit better?

For starters, however unlike a human a “spirit” may sound, when anthropologists ask people to draw pictures of spirits, the pictures usually look more or less like humans: two arms, two legs, a head. Similarly, a great god of the ancient Chinese was called Tian, or “heaven,” which sounds quite unlike a person—yet the earliest written symbol for that god is a stick figure: two arms, two legs, a head.

Even when a supernatural being looks like an animal — as those snowmaking birds of the Klamath presumably did — it doesn’t act like an animal. It may have wings or fur or scales, and it may lack various parts of a normal human being, but it won’t lack the part that explains why human beings do the things they do. As the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has observed, “the only feature of humans that is always projected onto supernatural beings is the mind.”
-- from an appendix to The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.

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