1902 Encyclopedia > Fetishism


FETICHISM is a stage of worship, or of the ways of regarding nature (for in simple states of mind religion and philosophy are in great part merged) in which ordinary material objects are regarded as holding, or as being the vehicle of, supernatural powers and influences,—which powers and influences can, it is supposed, be controlled or directed by the person possessing the object so endowed.

Religions have not, as yet, been scientifically classified in anything like a final manner. Even the most rigorous of minds would hardly assert that the time has yet arrived for such a classification. But it is possible, even now, to collect roughly those beliefs which, whether still existing among savages and uneducated people of all classes or traceable only among the records of the past, bear a general resemblance to each other, and to give a general name marking that resemblance. Such a namewehave in "fetichism." The word feitico, corresponding to our " fetich," seems to have been first applied by Portuguese traders on the west coast of Africa to savage objects of worship, which were noticed from their resemblance to the talismans and charms common in Europe, and popular with sailors and travellers above all men.

In Purchas's Pilgrimage (1614) is a chapter translated from a Dutch author relating to the customs and rites of the negroes of Guinea, in which fetissos and fetisseros, or priests, are frequently mentioned. " When the king will sacrifice to fetisso, he commands the fetissero to enquire of a tree whereto he ascribeth Divinity, what he will demand;" and so the author goes on to describe the manner of questioning this remarkable tree. The word fetich was, however, first used in a general sense by a thoughtful scholar of the 18th century, the president Charles de Brosses, who, in his work Du Culte Des Dieux Fetiches, strung a number of facts re-lating to savages on a theory tracing fetichism in Egyptian and classic mythology and in modern life. Comte, the French philosopher, gave great currency to the term by em-ploying it to characterize what he regarded as a great and necessary stage in the theological development of humanity, —a state " plus ou moins prononcé, mais ordinairement très durable, de pur fétichism, constamment characterise par l'essor libre et direct de tendance primitive à concevoir tous les corps extérieurs quelconques, naturels ou artificiels, comme animés d'une vie essentiellement analogue à la nôtre, avec des simples differences mutuelles d'intensité" (Philosophie Positive, v. 30). In England, and at present among anthropologists generally, the word bears a far more restricted meaning than the one here given to it by Comte. It is applied, not to a belief ascribing volition and will to all objects, to all matter, but to a belief in the peculiar power of certain objects, which power may be discovered and tested by experiment, any success, of course, confirming the hypothesis and giving reputation to the chance-chosen object as a great and potent fetich. Sir J. Lubbock defines fetchism " as that stage of religious thought in which man supposes he can force the deities to comply with his desires." He regards it as the next stage above pure atheism in the religious progress which passes from it, through totemism and shamanism, into idolatry (Origin of Civilization, 199). Tylor defines it as " the doctrine of spirits embodied in, or attached to, or conveying influence through certain material objects."
Both natural and artificial objects are used as fetiches. To the savage nothing seems too great to serve his indivi-dual purposes, nothing too insignificant or commonplace to be the centre of his ideas of power and devotion.

Generally upon beginning an expedition the negro of Guinea chooses the first object that presents itself to his eyes upon issuing forth, and vows to worship that as a god if the work in hand prove successful ; if not, it is cast aside as useless or worse. Stones, trees, twigs, pieces of bark, roots, corn, claws of birds, teeth, skins, feathers, human and animal remains of all kinds—anything that may strike the savage as in any way peculiar—are used in this manner ; even whole species of animals, rivers, the sea, the moon, and the sun. Articles of costume, tools, weapons, boats, and other articles of human manufacture are not objected to.

Museums of such of these things as may have accom-panied success in any expedition are kept, and are regarded as sacred places, not to be entered without reverence. Other such objects are the property of private individuals, household gods, and are consulted upon all occasions of importance. If the wishes of the worshipper be not granted, all a savage's rather powerful vocabulary of abuse is exhausted upon the fetich. It is kicked, stamped upon, dragged through the mud. Change of luck, however, pro-duces apologies, and promises of future regard and worship. Savages who have taken trees as their fetiches, if they are unlucky, cut down trees in revenge. The actions seem rather to be tentatives for the discovery of hidden power than those of any formulated and dogmatic cultus.

In considering the state of mind which all this kind of action implies, wemust remember that not only human beings, not only animate beings, are regarded by savages as possess-ing spirits, but that they attribute spirits to inanimate objects also. The sight of the figures of departed friends and ancestors in dreams gives notice of a world of spirits, but each appearing " in his habit as he lived " seems to imply that garments, weapons, and other objects of human social environment must have spirits also. When a chief dies wives and slaves are slain, weapons broken, garments rent to pieces,—for what reason, but that the warrior should not go naked and alone to the world of spirits 1 As a deadly blow sets free the spirits of animate, so fracture and destruction set free the spirits of inanimate objects.

But the belief in the efficacy of peculiar objects upon a person's welfare is not by any means confined to savages. Witchcraft is a form of fetichism, and it can hardly be said to be dead from among us even now. Others than children may be found who will keep a crooked sixpence, a curious stone, a hard potato, for luck,—prompted by exactly those instincts, which, although long superseded in some races, are perhaps the highest the savage possesses. The power of the fetich seems in many cases, however, to be regarded not as superhuman, but as extra-human. The tendency to believe that what precedes, accompanies, or follows a thing or accident must be somehow causally connected with it is over prevalent; and to palliate our wonder at the gross super-stitions of the savage we must remember how many people we have met in the heart of modern civilization who are careful about lucky and unlucky days and numbers. As the fetich becomes more and more endowed with personality and will, so the belief passes imperceptibly into what is called idolatry.

See Brosses, Du Culte des Dieux Fetiches, 1760; Dulaure, Hist. des different cultes, 1828; Lubbock, Origin of Civilization; Tylor, Primitive Culture; Schultze, Der Fetischismus. (W. HE.)

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