/ Cosmology / Anthropology, Religion /
From Robert Wright, Evolution of God
Linguist Albert Samuel Gatschet studied the Klamath language and culture. He identified five types of supernatural spirits. They apparently fill the quorum for gods, etc.
Gatschet’s writings on the Klamath capture something found in every hunter-gatherer culture: belief in supernatural beings — and always more than one of them; there is no such thing as an indigenously monotheistic hunter-gatherer society.
In fact, the anthropological record reveals at least five different
kinds of hunter-gatherer supernatural beings, some of which are found in all hunter-gatherer societies and most of which are found in most hunter-gatherer societies. Klamath culture, with a rich theology, illustrates all five. 19
- Hunter-gatherer supernatural being Type I: elemental spirits. Parts of nature that modern scientists consider inanimate may be alive, possessing intelligence and personality and a soul. So the workings of nature can become a social drama. When the Klamath saw clouds obscuring the moon, it could mean that Muash, the south wind, was trying to kill the moon — and in fact might succeed, though the moon seems always to have gotten resurrected in the end.
- Hunter-gatherer supernatural being Type II: puppeteers. Parts of nature may be controlled by beings distinct from the parts of nature themselves. By Klamath reckoning, the west wind was emitted by a flatulent dwarf woman, about thirty inches tall, who wore a buckskin dress and a basket hat (and who could be seen in the form of a rock on a nearby mountain). The Klamath sometimes asked her to blow mosquitoes away from Pelican Bay.20
Combining supernatural beings of types I and II into a single scenario is possible. The Klamath believed whirlwinds were driven by an internal spirit, Shukash. The nearby Modoc hunter-gatherers, while agreeing, believed that Shukash was in turn controlled by Tchitchatsa-ash, or “Big Belly,” whose stomach housed bones that rattled, creating the whirlwind’s eerie sound.21 Such theological differences are found not just among different hunter-gatherer societies, but within them. Thus Leme-ish, the Klamath’s thunder spirit, was sometimes spoken of as a single entity but was sometimes said to consist of five brothers who, having been banished from polite society, now made noise to scare people. (These interpretive divergences form the raw material of cultural evolution, just as biological mutations create the diverse traits that feed genetic evolution.)
- Hunter-gatherer supernatural being Type III: organic spirits. Natural phenomena that even we consider alive may have supernatural powers. The coyote, for example, housed evil spirits, and, Gatschet noted, “his lugubrious voice is the presager of war, misfortune, and death.” 22 One species of bird could make snow, and another made fog. Some animal spirits could help the Klamath cure disease, a collaboration facilitated by a spirit called Yayaya-ash, which would assume the form of a one-legged man and lead a medicine man to the home of these animal spirits for consultation.
- Hunter-gatherer supernatural being Type IV: ancestral spirits. Hunter-gatherer societies almost always feature spirits of the deceased, and typically these spirits do at least as much bad as good. Ancestral spirits, Gatschet wrote, were “objects of dread and abomination, feelings which are increased by a belief in their omnipresence and invisibility.” 23
- Hunter-gatherer supernatural being Type V: the high god. Some hunter-gatherer societies, though by no means all, have a “high god.” This isn’t a god that controls the other gods. (One early-twentieth-century anthropologist wrote about the Klamath, with traces of disapproval: “there has been no attempt to marshal the spirits into an ordered pantheon.”) 24 Rather, a high god is a god that is in some vague sense more important than other supernatural beings, and is often a creator god. For the Klamath this was Kmukamtch, who inhabited the sun. Kmukamtch created the world, then created the Klamath themselves (out of a purple berry), and continued to sustain them, though he had been known to rain burning pitch upon his creation in a fit of temper. 25 *