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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T58


The Idea of the Future Life among
Primitive Tribes 11

Among the many attempts that have been made to describe and
explain the origin and development of the concepts of soul and
immortality the one made by Edward B. Tylor in his “Primitive Culture”
is most exhaustive and carefully thought out. Although since the
publication of his work, much new evidence has been accumulated, the
new data may well be fitted into his general treatment of the subject.

We are, however, no longer quite ready to accept his interpretation
of the material which he has so assiduously collected and marshalled in
logical order. To him the ideas by which primitive man expresses his
sense experience are a result of speculative thought, of reasoning that
leads to a consistent view of the world. These thoughts, being determined
by the general state of cultural life, lead to concepts which naturally
develop one from the other and represent a typical series which
arises regardless of race and of historical affiliations. It is true that,
sometimes, he sets aside the latter point of view and recognizes specific
forms of thought which belong to various cultural groups, such as the
Indo-Europeans on the one hand, the Semites on the other, but these
approaches to an historical treatment are entirely subordinated to the
general evolutional viewpoint in which certain cultural types appear as
belonging to the evolutionary stages of primitive, barbaric or civilized

We are, at present, more inclined to consider the growth of ideas, not
as a result of rational processes, but rather as an involuntary growth,
and their interpretation as the outcome of rationalization when, together
with correlated action, they rise into consciousness. We recognize that
the rationalizing interpretation of an idea does not by any means necessarily
represent its historical growth, and that a classification of ideas
from a definite viewpoint, beginning with those that seem to be simple
and proceeding to those that seem complex, cannot without further
596proof be interpreted as historical sequence, but may give an entirely
distorted picture of historical happenings.

We may trace the development of the concepts “soul” and “immortality”
in the history of Europe and of other countries in which historical
data are available, but the attempt to give an historical interpretation
for people without recorded history is liable to lead to quite fallacious
results if based on nothing else than a classification of data according to
their complexity.

Nevertheless, the problem that Tylor set himself remains. There
are decided similarities in the views held regarding “soul” and “immortality”
among peoples that in measurable time cannot have had any
historical connection. There is, however, danger of overlooking, on
account of a general resemblance, significant dissimilarities which may
have value from an historical point of view. It is unavoidable that we
should base our considerations, as Tylor did, on the data of individual
psychology and that we should try to understand how, in a given cultural
setting, man may be led to form certain concepts. In following out
this method, we should, however, take into consideration the effects of
secondary rationalization and the historical facts that may have influenced
the ways by which simple ideas grew into complex dogma.

From this point of view Tylor's treatment appears to us as too schematic.
He does not take into consideration the multifarious mental conditions
that may lead to the concepts “soul” and “immortality,” but he
selects a few and bases his conclusions upon their general applicability.
Now and then he does mention the possibility of alternative mental
states that might lead to similar results, only to revert to his main

The difference in point of view appears most clearly in Tylor's summing
up of his explanation of the occurrence of the belief in multiple
souls: 12 “Terms corresponding with those of life, mind, soul, spirit,
ghost, and so forth, are not thought of as describing really separate
entities, so much as the several forms and functions of one individual
being. Thus the confusion which prevails in our own thought and
language, in a manner typical of the thought and language of mankind
in general, is in fact due not merely to vagueness of terms, but to an
ancient theory of substantial unity which underlies them.”

We are inclined to take for our starting point precisely the opposite
point of view.597

The unconscious growth of concepts is expressed nowhere more
clearly than in language. In many languages we find the tendency to
conceptualize a quality, a condition, or even an habitual action, which
then appears in the form of a noun. It is not by any means necessary
that the occurrence of such concepts must lead to an imaginative process
by means of which they are given concrete form, but it gives ready
opportunity for such development. We still feel the force in the use of
metaphorical expressions which are based on the concrete form given to
a term that from a logical point of view, is of attributive character. These
metaphors may be modern or based on ancient patterns.

It is noticeable that particularly the states and functions of physical
and mental life do not appear to primitive man as qualities, conditions
or actions, but as definite concepts which tend to take on concrete form.
Even in modern science we are still struggling with the confusion between
substance and attribute in the analysis of such concepts as matter
and energy.

We do not mean to imply by this that mythology, as Max Müller
states, “is a disease of language,” that all mythological concepts originate
from misinterpreted or reinterpreted linguistic forms; we rather mean
that the formation of concepts is not the same in all languages and that
in particular the grouping of what is substance and what attribute, is not
always made in the same way, and that many attributes are conceived
as substance. It does not seem plausible that linguistic form should be
subsequent to the conscious conceptualization of an attribute as a substance.
The two must rather be considered as concomitant and interdependent
phenomena. It is quite conceivable that where the tendency
to objectivation of attributes prevails, later on the transformation
of other attributes into objects may follow by analogy, but the primary
basis cannot be considered in any way as due to a conscious classification, — just
as little as the classification of the spectrum into a limited
number of fundamental color terms can be due to conscious conceptualization
of a number of selected colors.

On the basis of these considerations we interpret the fact that many
manifestations of life take concrete forms as an effect of the tendency
to conceive certain classes of attributes as substances. In modern languages
terms like hunger, courage, love, sin, consciousness, death, are
either owing to traditional usage or to poetic imagination, endowed with
qualities, even with concrete forms.

The more distinctly a quality is conceived as a concrete substance, the
598less will its existence be bound up with the object possessing the quality
in question. If success in hunting is conceived as a substance that may
associate itself with a person, it will exist independently of the person
who may acquire it or lose it and after his death it will continue to exist
as it existed before its acquisition. When a sin is conceived as a substance,
as is done by the Eskimo, it has an independent existence. It
attaches itself to a person; it may be separated from the sinner, and continue
to exist independently until attached to some other person. They
are no longer qualities that die with the individual to whom they belong.
Sickness is often conceived not as a condition of the body, but as an
extraneous object that may enter the body of a person and may be
extracted again, or that may be thrown into it. This foreign substance
that acts upon the living being may be as permanent in its existence as
the earth, the heavens and the waters.

In all these cases there is no integral association between the object
and its objectivated quality. Each leads an independent existence. The
quality of the expert hunter, or the faculty of the shaman may be conceived
as objects or as personalities that assist the man with whom they
are associated. They are different from his own personality and we
designate them as magical objects or as helping spirits.

There is, however, another group of qualities considered as substances
which are most intimately connected with human life and without
which a person is not a complete living being. Life, power of action,
personality belong to this group. Wherever they occur in one form or
another we designate them as “soul.” The soul represents the objectivated
qualities which constitute either the ideal human being or the
individual personality. A study of the terms which are ordinarily translated
as “soul” shows clearly that the equivalents in primitive tongues
represent a variety of qualities of living man, and that their meaning
varies accordingly.

Often the term “life” corresponds to what we call “soul.” Thus the
Chinook Indian of Northwest America says that when “life” leaves the
body man must die, and that if it is returned to the body, he will recover.
“Life” is an objectivation of all that differentiates the living person from
the dead body. It leads a separate existence and, therefore, continues
to exist after death.

“Life” itself is not always conceived as a unit. When a paralyzed arm
or leg has lost its power of motion, its separate “life” has gone, but the
person continues to live as long as the “great life” that belongs to the
599whole body stays with him. It is not by any means necessary that the
“life” should be conceived in anthropomorphic form; it is sometimes
considered as an object or as an animal such as a butterfly. As long as it
stays in the body, its owner is alive; when it leaves, he dies; when it is
hurt, he sickens.

In a wider sense the power to act, the will power, is classified not as a
function of the living body, but as something substantial, of independent
existence. We might call it the personality separated from the person.
In a way it is another form under which life is conceptualized. On
account of its closer association with the form of living man, it is very
liable to appear in anthropomorphic form.

There is no sharp line that separates this concept from the products
of imagery, in so far as these are not understood as functions of mental
life, but as independent objects. Tylor and others have discussed fully
and adequately the effects of the products of imagination in dreams and
trance experiences in which man finds his body in one place while his
mind visits distant persons and sees distant scenes, or when he finds conversely
distant scenes and persons appearing before his mental eye. These
are based on memory images which attain at times unusual intensity.
Not by a logical process, but by the natural and involuntary process of
classification of experience, man is led to the concept of the objective
existence of the memory-image. Its formation is due to the experiences
of visual and auditory imagery.

We may recognize the objectivation of life and of the memory-image
as the principal sources from which the manifold forms of soul
concepts spring. As the life-soul may vary in form, so the memory-image
soul may take varying forms according to the particular aspect of
the personality that predominates. These two concepts of the soul do
not remain isolated, but the one always influences the other. A detailed
study of their interrelation and of the variety of meanings that corresponds
to our term “soul” would require a close study of the forms of
thought that have grown up on this general psychological background,
partly through an inner development, partly owing to diffusion of ideas.

The most important results of these considerations for our problem
is the recognition of the fact that those qualities, conditions, and functions
which we combine under the term “soul” are looked upon as substances
and that, for this reason, body and soul have separate existence
and their lives are not encompassed in the same space of time.600

In fact, there is probably not a single primitive people that holds
rigidly to the belief that the existence of the soul coincides with the
actual span of life of the individual. The soul may be considered as
existing before the birth of its owner and it may continue to exist after
his death. However, the idea of immortality, of a continued existence
without beginning in the past and without end in the future is not necessarily
implied in these beliefs.

Pre-existence is necessarily connected with the idea of rebirth. It is
another expression of the primitive mythological thought which assumes
that nothing has a beginning, that there is no creation of anything new,
but that everything came into being by transformations. The animals,
plants, striking features of the landscape are commonly accounted for as
due to the transformation of human beings into new forms. Thus also
the birth of a child is accounted for as a result of the transformation of
a pre-existing being. If the Eskimo believe that children, like eggs, live
in the snow and crawl into the mother's womb, if some Australian tribes
believe that a totem or ancestral spirit enters the mother's body, if some
Indian tribes of America believe that salmon may be reborn as children,
or that a deceased person may come back to be born again by a woman
of his own family, this is not necessarily due to a complete lack of knowledge
of the physiological process of conception, but should rather be
interpreted as a particular aspect of the concept of “life” or “soul,” as
independent of bodily existence. This appears very clearly in the case
of the Eskimo who misinterpret sexual intercourse as intended to feed
the child that has entered the mother's womb. These ideas are presumably
analogous to the ideas surviving in our folk-lore in which children
are presented as pre-existing. The belief in transmigration shows most
clearly that we are dealing here with the soul which exists before the
birth of the child.

The term “immortality” is, however, applied more specifically to life
after death. We have pointed out before that the visualization of the
form of a person, due to imagery, is one of the principal sources of the
concept of “soul.” This form survives after the death of the individual
as his memory-image. For this very reason the image-soul cannot possibly
die with the death of the person, but will survive at least as long as
his friends survive. The importance of the recollection of a person for
the future life of the soul is brought out in the beliefs of many Bantu
tribes of Africa. Thus among the Vandau, the soul of a person who
601is remembered will be kindly disposed toward his friends. When the
deceased is forgotten, his soul becomes a malignant being that is feared
and must be driven away.

The memory-image is intangible, it arises suddenly and vanishes
again when the calls of every-day life repress imaginative thought. It
partakes of all the features of the departed and even his voice may dimly
sound in the imagination of the surviving friend. In memory the departed
will appear as he was known in life, in his usual dress and engaged
in his usual occupations so that with his image appear also his
property that he used in his lifetime. The inanimate property partakes
in a peculiar way in the continued existence of the memory-image
even after the objects have been destroyed. It is hardly necessary to
assume with Tylor that the belief in this continued existence of proprietary
objects is due to an animistic belief. In many cases it may be based
merely on the continued existence of the memory-image.

The importance of the memory-image in the formation of the soul
concept is nowhere clearer than in those cases in which the dead one is
believed to continue to exist in the land of souls in the same condition in
which he was at the time of death. When the aging Chukchee demands
to be killed before he is infirm and unable to withstand the hardships
of life, he acts under the assumption that his soul will continue in the
same condition in which he finds himself at the time of death. Whether
or not this is the historical source of the custom is irrelevant for its modern
interpretation by the Chukchee. In the same way the belief of the
Eskimo that a person who dies of old age or of a lingering illness will be
unhappy in future life, while he who is suddenly taken away in full
vigor, as a man who dies a violent death or a woman who dies in childbirth,
will be strong and happy in future life is expressive of the memory-image
that the deceased leaves in the minds of his survivors.

If the belief in continued existence is based on the persistence of the
objectivated memory-image, it might be inferred that there should be a
widespread belief of the death of the soul at the time when all those who
knew the deceased are dead and gone. As a matter of fact, we find indications
of a belief in a second death that conform with this idea, but in
the majority of cases the soul is believed to be immortal. There are a
considerable number of cases in which the second death of a soul is
described, but most of these are not of a character that may easily be
reduced to the fact that the deceased is forgotten. They seem rather to
be due to the imaginative elaboration of the continued life of the soul
602which is necessarily thought to be analogous to our own life and in
which, therefore, death is a natural incident.

It does not seem difficult to understand why the objectivation of the
memory-image should lead to the belief in immortality rather than in a
limited existence after death. To the surviving friend the memory-image
is a substance and he will talk of it as having permanent existence.
It will, therefore, be assumed by his friends who may not have known
the deceased, in the same way, and will continue to exist in their minds
in the same way as all other qualities that are, according to the views
held by their society, conceived as substances.

Knowledge of the presence and actual decomposition of the body and
the long preservation of the skeleton is the source of a number of other
concepts that are related to the idea of immortality. When we speak of
ghosts, we are apt to think more of the disembodied souls which wait to
be redeemed, than of the skeletal remains that are thought to be endowed
with life. Nevertheless we find, every now and then, that the
ghost is not described as the transparent or vaporous apparition of the
memory-image, but as bearing the features of a skeleton, often with
grotesque additions of luminous orbits and nasal aperture. In this form
the ghost is, of course, not the memory-image of the living, but a concept
representing the remains of the dead body endowed with life. For this
reason it happens often that these “immortals” are not individualized,
but are conceived as very impersonal beings who may wage war among
themselves, or against man, who may waylay the unwary and
form a hostile tribe of foreigners, as though they were ordinary living
beings, but endowed with unusual powers. The lack of individuality of
this type of ghost appears very clearly among many American tribes,
while the idea does not seem to prevail in Africa. We can hardly consider
these ghosts as immortal souls, because they lack completely individuality.

Nevertheless there arises at times confusion between the two concepts.
The ghosts have their village or villages and often, when the soul, — in
the sense of life and memory-images, — of the departed leaves the body,
it is said to go to the village of the ghosts where it meets previously
departed friends and many persons whom it does not know, — those who
died long ago. This contradiction is not surprising, because there are
many associative bonds between the two groups of ideas, so that the one
calls forth the other and a sharp line between the two concepts is, therefore,
not established.603

It is most important, for a clear understanding of the questions with
which we are dealing and of similar problems, that we must not expect
a consistent system of beliefs in primitive thought. We must remember
that concepts originating from different principles of unconscious classification
must overlap, and that for this reason, if for no other, the same
concept may belong to conflicting categories. Only when conscious
rationalization sets in and a standardization of beliefs develops may
some of these conflicting or even contradictory views be harmonized.

It would seem, therefore, best not to include in the idea of immortality
of the soul, the idea of separate existence which is attached to
the acquaintance with the decomposing body and the relative permanence
of the skeleton, just as little as we can consider the permanence
and separate existence of objectivated spiritual powers, such as skill
and success as immortal souls. They appear to us rather as helpful
spiritual beings or objects.

The fundamental differences between the various forms of the soul
concept and between the feelings and thoughts that lead to the assumption
of a separate existence of the soul are the source also of many conflicting
views regarding the abode of the soul before birth, during life
and after death. Except in the cases of a well-developed belief in
transmigration, there is no clearly formulated concept of the places
and conditions in which souls exist before birth. Even when they are
believed to be returned ancestors, there does not seem to be a well-defined
belief regarding the mode of life of a pre-existing soul. This may
be due to the lack of congruity between the behavior of the new-born
infant and the memory-image which is ordinarily associated with the
full-grown person. This makes it difficult to bridge the gap between
the existence of the soul and the birth of the child.

During life, more particularly during healthy life, the seat of the
soul is conceived to be in the body, or at least, closely associated with
the body. Quite often the concepts of the relations between body and
soul lack in definiteness. The distinction between a spiritual helper or a
protecting object and the “soul” shows, however, very clearly that
the former is thought of as existing apart from the body, while the
latter is closely associated with it. We pointed out before that we find
in both groups conceptualized attributes, but that the former are less
firmly connected with the fundamental phenomena of life. In many
cases, the “life-soul” is believed to permeate the whole body, or the
special part of the body to which it belongs. When the soul is considered
604as an object, it may be thought to be located in some vital part,
as in the nape of the neck; or, still more commonly, it is identified with
those functions of the body that cease with death, such as the breath,
the flowing blood, or the moving eye. So far as these are visible and
tangible objects of temporary existence, they are considered the seat of
the “life-soul” itself. However, the latter always remains the objectivation
of the functions of life.

The concept of the memory-image soul leads to different beliefs in
regard to its localization. Its essential feature is that it is a fleeting
image of the personality and that, for this reason, it is identical in form
with the person. Shadows and reflections on water partake of these
unsubstantial, fleeting characteristics of the image of the person. Probably
for this reason they are often identified with the memory-image
soul. There are, however, also mixed concepts, as that of a “life-soul”
which, after leaving the body, appear in the form of its owner, but of
diminutive size.

Much clearer than the idea of localization of the pre-existing soul
and of the soul of the living are those relating to the conditions of the
souls after death. In imaginative stories, the details of life after death
are often elaborated. They are confirmed and further embellished by
the reports of people who, in a trance, believe they have visited the
country of the souls.

The presence of the bodily remains, the departure of life, and the
persistence of the memory-image lead to many conflicting views which
have certainly helped in the development of the belief in multiple souls.
While the idea of a life-soul combined with the belief in a continued
existence of the personality, creates readily the formation of the concepts
of a distant country of the dead, the memory-image based on the
remembrance of the daily intercourse of the deceased with his survivors
and the presence of his tangible grave lead rather to the belief in the
continued presence of the soul. In the conflicting tendencies which are
thus established, and in the elaboration of detail which is necessarily
involved in tales regarding future life, historical diffusion plays a much
more important part than in the formation of the mere concepts of soul
and immortality, and it would be quite impossible to understand the
multifarious forms of description of the land of the dead without taking
into consideration the actual interrelations between tribes. An attempt
at a purely psychological analysis would be quite misleading. We find,
for instance, in Africa a widespread idea of sacred groves in which
605ancestral souls reside; this must be taken as a result of historical adaptation,
not as the necessary development of psychological causes that lead
to the same result anywhere, — in the same way, as the characteristic
belief in the different behavior of remembered and forgotten ancestral
souls which is common to many South African tribes, must be due to
historical assimilation. This is proved by the definite localization of
these beliefs in well-circumscribed areas.

Nevertheless a number of features may be recognized which are of
remarkably wide distribution and for which, therefore, a common
psychological cause may be sought.

The belief in a temporary presence of the soul in or near the place
of death is quite common and may be based on the condition of mind
which prevails until the survivors have adapted themselves to the absence
of the deceased. It may be interpreted as the objectivation of the
haunting consciousness of his previous presence in all the little acts of
everyday life, and in the feeling that he ought still to be present. As
this feeling wears down, he departs to the land of the souls. In the
same way the difficulty of separating the dead body from the remembrance
of the body in action may be the cause of the belief that the soul
hovers for some time around the grave, to leave only when the body
begins to decompose.

The ideas relating to the permanent abode of the souls are not easily
interpreted, largely on account of their complex mythological character
which requires a detailed historical investigation. Nevertheless there
are a few general features that are so widely distributed that they may
be briefly touched upon. Generally the village of the dead is thought
to be very far away, at the western confines of our world where the sun
and moon disappear, below the ground or in the sky, and difficult to
reach. Among the obstacles in the way, we find particularly a river that
must be crossed by the soul, or dangerous passages over chasms. It is
but natural that the souls should be conceived as living in the same way
as human beings do. The experiences of primitive man give no other
basis for his imagination to work on. Their occupations are the same,
they hunt, eat and drink, play and dance. A living person who takes
part in their daily life, particularly if he taste of their food, cannot return
to the land of the living. The objects which the immortal souls
use are also immortal, but they appear to the living as old and useless,
often in the form in which they are disposed of at the funeral ceremonies.
Notwithstanding the identity of the social life of the dead and
606of the living, there is a consciousness that things cannot be the same
there as here, and this thought is given expression in the belief that
everything there is the opposite of what it is here. When we have
winter, it is summer there, when we sleep, the souls of the dead are

We cannot enter into the great variety of beliefs regarding the land
of the souls without overstepping the bounds of a socio-psychological

The belief in a number of different countries of the dead, however,
requires brief mention. We are accustomed to think of these distinctions
from an ethical point of view, of heaven for the souls of the good,
of hell for the souls of the bad. It is doubtful whether in primitive life
this concept ever exists. The difference in the locations of the countries
of the dead and of their conditions is rather determined by the memory-image
of the person at the time of his death. The strong and vigorous
who live a happy life, are assembled in one place — the weak and sickly
at another place. When other principles of separation prevail, they may
be reduced to other classificatory concepts. In simple economic conditions
the whole community is equally affected by favorable and unfavorable
conditions. Among the Eskimo, when the weather is propitious,
the whole village has enough food, and every healthy person is
happy. When, on the other hand, no game can be obtained on account
of continued tempests, the whole village is in distress. Therefore a conception
of future life in which in the same village a considerable part
of the people are unhappy, another considerable part happy, does not
coincide with the experience of Eskimo life and we may, perhaps, recognize
in social conditions of this type a cause that leads to a differentiation
of abodes of the dead.

In the preceding discussion, we have considered only the general socio-psychological
basis on which the concepts of “soul” and “immortality”
have arisen. It is necessary to repeat, that for a clear understanding of
the great variety of forms which these beliefs take, the historical relations
between groups of tribes must be considered, not only of those
that are at present in close contact, but also of those which belong to
larger cultural areas in which intertribal cultural influences may belong
to early periods.607

11 Religion and the Future Life, edited by E. Hershey Sneath (New York, 1922),
pp. 9-26. With permission of Fleming H. Revell Company.

21 Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London, 1891), vol. 1, p. 435,