In Andaman Island villages there is a triple arrangement of houses, one set for married couples, one for bachelors, one for spinsters. Boys (at about twelve) can leave the care of women and enter the ranks of men only after severe initiation ordeals (not kept secret from women) designed to test self-control.
Among Australian Aborigines (“Abos”) initiation ceremonies are performed at puberty, the purpose being to give males ascendancy over women; the rites are very severe, and sometimes fatal. Just as farmers in an agricultural country, and as owners and employees in an industrial country organize in every possible way to protect their crops or their production, so among tribes which must depend on the number of men in it everything is done to safe-guard marriage and child bearing; it is because of this, and not because they are “lustful,” or “shameless,” less still because they believe in any nonsense about “phallicism,” that many non-civilized tribes and peoples punish unchastity by death, wall off women by taboos, isolate boys in “men’s houses,” and practice so-called “fertility rites.”
Among the Mosai every male is initiated and circumcised (this latter was almost universal in the ancient world and never was peculiar to the Hebrews); the mans are divided into three grades: boys, warriors, elders.
The men in the Banks Islands comprise a secret society, but instead of entrance being by initiation it is gained by paying a fee—; the “men society” is really a gild. They live in “men’s houses”; they live and work for sake of prestige and wealth; are divided into grades. There are secret clubs, called “ghost associations,” with quarters in hidden places, and with entrance by initiation and payment of a fee.
In American Indian tribes and peoples (the Sioux, Pueblos, Navajo, Apaches, etc., are peoples) are and ever have been numberless clubs, fraternities, societies, with a lavish use of ceremonies of initiation, much symbolism, secret words and passwords. There are countless social clubs, both male and female, many charging fees. In the Crow Tobacco Society women are admitted on a par with the men—androgynous societies are very common among them today. There are many secret cults devoted to purposes analogous to religion. There are exceptions, however; a few Indian peoples, the Shoshones of the Great Basin being one of them, who have never had secret societies of any type.
Africa also is full of secret societies, and on the West Coast are many societies of women, of every sort. one of their commonest purposes is to enable a tribe to mislead other tribes about itself, and this applies to white men: the first generations of explorers and missionaries were lied to, and in consequence sent back fantastic reports which misled anthropologists for two generations—half the clippings and notes which Herbert Spencer so laboriously collected in his files were these “lie misleaders” and for the same reason a large number of the early, and once popular, books on anthropology are now half worthless. There never was such a thing as “primitive man,” or a “primitive culture” (Frazer and Levy-Bruhl to the contrary notwithstanding); men ten thousand years ago were what men are now but did different things, or the same things differently, because they did not have the same inventions, discoveries, machines that we have; nor were they any more “savage,” or “warlike”—the Indian chiefs put on “war dances” not because their young men desired to fight but because they desired not to.
Many tribes and peoples have borrowed secret cults and ceremonies from each other. Sometimes the founder of a cult was a visionary, and received a revelation in the form of a vision, like saint-worshiping cults in the Middle Ages.
Secret societies differ fundamentally; after comparing those of the Melanesians with the American Pueblo Indians, Lowie wrote that “there is no analogy whatever either in constitution, function, or anything else but the exclusion of non-members.” Nor w ere secret societies universal even in so-called “primitive times.” The Dravidi3ns of India had them, but there were none in large parts of Asia. For 2000 years China had secret societies by the hundreds (as did, and do, the Japanese) but they were political organizations, not initiation societies.
In Mexico and Central America the “men’s house” system is still in use among the more remote Indian tribes, but differ much among themselves. It survives also among the Eskimos. Webster collected a long and gruesome catalog of the “ordeals” or “markings” used; in Australia alone he lists pulling out of hair, biting of head, pulling or filing of teeth, sprinkling with blood, immersion in dust or filth, floggings, scarification, painful tattooing, smoking, burning, subincision, circumcision, burials and raisings, burials in snow, immersion in water, handling serpents—he states that circumcision is the most nearly universal. After initiation the youth enters a new life, forgets the old, has a new name, a new language, and new privileges.
Frazer saw in almost every form of initiation ceremonies a dramatization of dying and rising again. Levy Bruhl saw in them evidences of a “pre-logical” culture—one of men not yet possessed of any mind. Both theories are become impossible. A man who has lived among “primitive” people long enough to know them finds that they have the same minds as ourselves. Russians have proved that so-called “primitives” are capable of becoming educated men, and even scientists, in one generation; the French proved the same in their African Colonies, and the Dutch in Java and Sumatra. The “primitive man” of Herbert Spencer and Lord Lubbock turned out to be a myth.
It is dangerous to generalize about ceremonies, rites, symbols, etc., of so-called “primitive rites,” and impossible to argue that identical rites presuppose the same origin. The same sign which among Bushnegroes means “go,” would among Zuni Indians mean “come.” A “burial and resurrection” rite in an African tribe may mean “you will die”; among the Polynesians it may mean “you will not die.”
At the beginning of the century American colleges and universities began everywhere to install departments of anthropology; the literature which a half century before had begun with a few simple books by Herbert Spencer (not an anthropologist) and Lord Avebury began so rapidly to increase that it now defies a life-time of reading, and a number of its titles have rivaled best-sellers in popularity. The following are recommended only as an introduction to a bibliography too large to enumerate:
Primitive Society, by Robert H. Lowie.
Primitive Secret Societies, by Hutton Webster- Maemillan- New York- 1908
The Mind of Primitive lIan, by Franz Boas- Macmillan New York- 1911.
The Golden Bough, by J. G. Frazer.
Source Books for Social Origins, by Wm. I. Thomas University of Chicago Press- Chicago, 1909.
Myth. Ritual and Religion, by Andrew Lang; London; 1887.
Coming of Age in Samoa, by Margaret Mead. (This exploded G. Stanley Hall’s famous theory of adolescence )
Hastings Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethies, the articles are dry and not fertile with thought, but they are often valuable for their bibliographies.
Initiation Introduction and Primitive, by Goblet d’AIviella. (Schure’s popular books on the same subject are worthless.)
Oriantal Religions in Roman Paganism, by Franz Cumont; Chicago; 1911.
Region of the Semites, by Robertson Smith- London 1894. (This famous book raised a theological storm in Scotland. Though out of date factually it is a courageous massive, illumunating work.)
Books published in the past few years have been highly technicalized special studies; preference to older works was given above because theirs is a more general treatment. For a fictionalized treatment of primitive secret cults see The Delight Makers, by Adolph Bandelier; and The Man Tho Would be King, by Rudyard Kipling. Sir Samuel Dill’s From Nero to Marcus Aurelius is not fiction, but reads as easily, and though it deals with the subject at one remove, illuminates it brightly; the same can be said of Ancient Arch and Ritual, by Jane Ellen Harrison.