Paper 88— Fetishes, Charms, and Magic — Page 967


The concept of a spirit's entering into an inanimate object, an animal, or a human being, is a very ancient and honorable belief, having prevailed since the beginning of the evolution of religion. This doctrine of spirit possession is nothing more nor less than fetishism. The savage does not necessarily worship the fetish; he very logically worships and reverences the spirit resident therein.

At first, the spirit of a fetish was believed to be the ghost of a dead man; later on, the higher spirits were supposed to reside in fetishes. And so the fetish cult eventually incorporated all of the primitive ideas of ghosts, souls, spirits, and demon possession.


Primitive man always wanted to make anything extraordinary into a fetish; chance therefore gave origin to many. A man is sick, something happens, and he gets well. The same thing is true of the reputation of many medicines and the chance methods of treating disease. Objects connected with dreams were likely to be converted into fetishes. Volcanoes, but not mountains, became fetishes; comets, but not stars. Early man regarded shooting stars and meteors as indicating the arrival on earth of special visiting spirits.

The first fetishes were peculiarly marked pebbles, and “sacred stones” have ever since been sought by man; a string of beads was once a collection of sacred stones, a battery of charms. Many tribes had fetish stones, but few have survived as have the Kaaba and the Stone of Scone. Fire and water were also among the early fetishes, and fire worship, together with belief in holy water, still survives.

Tree fetishes were a later development, but among some tribes the persistence of nature worship led to belief in charms indwelt by some sort of nature spirit. When plants and fruits became fetishes, they were taboo as food. The apple was among the first to fall into this category; it was never eaten by the Levantine peoples.

If an animal ate human flesh, it became a fetish. In this way the dog came to be the sacred animal of the Parsees. If the fetish is an animal and the ghost is permanently resident therein, then fetishism may impinge on reincarnation. In many ways the savages envied the animals; they did not feel superior to them and were often named after their favorite beasts.

When animals became fetishes, there ensued the taboos on eating the flesh of the fetish animal. Apes and monkeys, because of resemblance to man, early became fetish animals; later, snakes, birds, and swine were also similarly regarded.