The Ethnological Significance
of Esoteric Doctrines 1
In recent years the study of the esoteric teachings found in American
tribal society has become one of the favorite subjects of research of
ethnologists. The symbolic significance of complex rites, and the philosophic
views of nature which they reveal, have come to us as a surprise,
suggesting a higher development of Indian culture than is ordinarily
assumed. The study of these doctrines conveys the impression that the
reasoning of the Indian is profound, his emotions deep, his ethical ideals
of a high quality.
It seems worth while to consider briefly the conditions under which
these esoteric doctrines may have developed. Two theories regarding
their origin suggest themselves: the esoteric doctrine may have originated
among a select social group, and the exoteric doctrine may represent
that part of it that leaked out and became known, or was made
known, to the rest of the community; but it may also be that the esoteric
doctrine developed among a select social group from the current beliefs
of the tribe.
It seems to my mind that the second theory is the more plausible one,
principally for the reason that the contents of the teachings among different
tribes are often alike, no matter how much the systems may differ.
Almost all the rituals that are the outward expression of esoteric doctrines
appear to be old, and many have probably existed, almost in their
present form for considerable periods. Nevertheless, there is ample
evidence of frequent borrowing and changes of sacred rites. Examples
are the Sun Dance, various forms of the Ghost Dance, and the Mescal
ceremonials. Miss Fletcher has called attention to the fact that Pawnee
rituals have influenced the development of the rites of many tribes of
the Plains. I might add similar examples from the Pacific coast, such as
the transmission of Kwakiutl rituals to neighboring tribes.
There is also abundant proof showing that the mythologies of all
tribes, notwithstanding the sacredness of some of the myths, contain
312many elements that can be proved to be of foreign origin. It seems
very likely that similar conditions prevailed in the past, because the
wide distribution of many cultural features can be understood only as
the effect of a long-continued process of borrowing and dissemination.
Since the esoteric teaching refers to the rituals, and is often largely
based on mythological concepts, it seems plausible that it should
have developed as a more or less conscious attempt at systematizing the
heterogeneous mass of beliefs and practices current in the tribe. Whenever
a certain ceremonial came to be placed in charge of a small social
group, were they chiefs, priests or simply men of influence, the conditions
must have been favorable for the development of an esoteric
doctrine. The thoughts of the men charged with the keeping of sacred
rites must have dwelt on philosophical or religious questions, and it
would seem natural that in the succession of generations the sacredness
of the rite grew, and its philosophical significance increased in depth.
If this view is correct, the esoteric doctrine must have been evolved
on the foundation of the general culture of the tribe, and must be
considered as a secondary phenomenon the character of which depends
upon the exoteric doctrine.
The opposite view, that the exoteric doctrine is a degenerate form
of esoteric teaching, does not seem to me equally plausible, because it
presupposes a highly complex system of actions and opinions originating
spontaneously in a selected group of individuals. It is difficult to
conceive how, in tribal society, conditions could have prevailed that
would make such a development possible. This theory would seem to
presuppose the occurrence of a general decay of culture. There is no
reason that compels us to assume that such a decay has taken place,
although it may have occurred in exceptional cases. If, on the other
hand, we assume that the esoteric doctrine developed from popular
beliefs, we do not need to assume any cultural conditions materially
different from those found at the present time. It is quite evident that
the esoteric doctrine, after it was once established, influenced, in its
turn, popular belief, and that, therefore, there is a mutual and probably
inextricable interrelation between the two doctrines.
If these considerations are correct, then the esoteric doctrine must,
to a great extent, be considered as the product of individual thought.
It expresses the reaction of the best minds in the community to the
general cultural environment. It is their attempt to systematize the
knowledge that underlies the culture of the community. In other words,
313this doctrine must be treated like any other system of philosophy, and
its study has the same aims as the study of the history of philosophy.
Two characteristics of esoteric doctrine are quite striking. The first
is that at the bottom of each doctrine there seems to be a certain pattern
of thought which is applied to the whole domain of knowledge, and
which gives the whole doctrine its essential character. This line of
thought depends upon the general character of the culture of the tribe,
but nevertheless has a high degree of individuality in each tribe. The
theory of the universe seems to be based on its schematic application.
The second characteristic is that, notwithstanding this systematization
of knowledge, there remain many ideas that are not coordinated with
the general system, and that may be quite out of accord with it. In
such cases the contradiction between the general scheme and special
ideas often escapes entirely the notice of the native philosophers. This
phenomenon is quite analogous to the well-known characteristics of
philosophic systems which bear the stamp of the thought of their time.
The philosopher does not analyze each and every conclusion, but unconsciously
adopts much of the current thought of his environment
The theories regarding the origin of esoteric doctrine may be proved
or disproved by a careful study of its relations to popular beliefs and
to esoteric doctrines found among neighboring tribes. It is evident that
the material needed for the solution of the problem includes both the
esoteric teaching and the popular forms of belief.
What has been said before shows that, to the ethnologist, the problem
of the genesis of exotery is of no less importance than that of
esotery. However we may consider the origin of the latter, it must be
admitted that it is the expression of thought of the exceptional mind.
It is not the expression of thought of the masses. Ethnology, however,
does not deal with the exceptional man; it deals with the masses, and
with the characteristic forms of their thoughts. The extremes of the
forms of thought of the most highly developed and of the lowest mind
in the community are of interest only as special varieties, and in so far
as they influence the further development of the thought of the people.
It may, therefore, be said that the exoteric doctrine is the more general
ethnic phenomenon, the investigation of which is a necessary foundation
for the study of the problems of esoteric teaching.
It is, therefore, evident that we must not, in our study of Indian
life, seek for the highest form of thought only, which is held by the
314priest, the chief, the leader. Interesting and attractive as this field of
research may be, it is supplementary only to the study of the thoughts,
emotional life, and ethical standards of the common people, whose
interests center in other fields of thought and of whom the select class
forms only a special type.
It has taken many years for the study of the culture of civilized
peoples to broaden out so as to take in not only the activities of the
great, but also the homely life of the masses. The appreciation of the
fact that the actions of every individual have their roots in the society
in which he lives, has developed only recently, and has led to the
intensive study of folk-lore and folk-customs that is characteristic of
our times. It seems peculiar that, with increasing knowledge of the
more complex forms of Indian culture, we seem to be losing interest
in the popular belief; that we look for the “true” inward significance of
customs among the select few, and become inclined to consider as
superficial the study of the simpler and cruder ideas and ideals of the
common folk. If it is true that for a full understanding of civilized
society the knowledge of the popular mind is a necessity, it is doubly
true in more primitive forms of society, where the isolation of social
groups is very slight, and where each and every individual is connected
by a thousand ties with the majority of the members of the tribe to
which he belongs.
Far be it from me to deprecate the importance of studies of the
philosophies developed by the Indian mind. Only let us not lose sight
of their intimate relation to the popular beliefs, of the necessity of
studying the two in connection with each other, and of the error that
we should commit if we should consider the esoteric doctrine, and the
whole system of thought and of ethical ideals which it represents, as
the only true form of the inner life of the Indian.315
1 Science, N.S., vol. 16 (1902), pp. 872-874.