Saturday, 3 January 2015

The God Who Talks to Earthworms

     The Aetas [eye-tas] of the Philippine island of Luzon are negritos: one of those strange group of black pygmies, pockets of whose populations dot the fringes of southern Asia, remnants of a very early human migration from Africa, hunter-gatherers pushed into the rainforest by later, agricultural peoples. Psychologist Kilton Stewart visited them in the 1930s, accompanied by a half-Aeta interpreter. He discovered that, although not strictly speaking monotheists, they did worship a Supreme God, in this case with the name of Tolandian.
     Now, before the rise of the great world religions, belief in a Supreme God was fundamental to about half the world's populations: the Indo-Europeans, the Semites, sub-Saharan Africans, and Amerindians. Perhaps it is a very ancient belief: a remnant of our ancestral knowledge of the One True God. In any case, the Aetas respected His power. If Tolandian got angry, he could turn the earth over so that the trees were upside down.
     Dr Stewart was with a group called the Zambales when a typhoon hit. As the storm approached, the fears of the negritos increased. The men tore out clumps of their curly hair and threw them on to a burning log as a sacrifice. But soon the fire was quenched by the rain, and the terror of the group mounted, for the thunder was believed to be the angry voice of Tolandian. When the wind swept away their pathetic leaf shelters, they were forced to huddle - forty or so of them - in a cleft of the rocks.
     Suddenly, one of the men leapt up and brandished his jungle knife. Dr Stewart imagined he was about to be killed. "It is enough, Old Man," shouted the Aeta, addressing Tolandian, "I admit my guilt. I have blasphemed your name by saying 'Bee" when I was angry. I have insulted your earthworms and laughed at your monkeys. I am sorry for my sins. Please accept my sacrifice."
     No, Dr Stewart was not the sacrifice. The man swung the knife down into his own thigh, caught the blood in his cupped hands, then threw his hands skywards, allowing the blood to be washed away. Before the night was over, others had done the same. Later they were told it was a sacrifice used when there was no fire for a hair sacrifice. They did not know if other bands of Zambales did the same.
     You may have been puzzled by that reference to earthworms and monkeys. This is the peculiar part. Every other race who worship a Supreme God locate him in the sky, looking down on his subjects below. However, Tolandian lives inside the earth. "The earthworms are his messengers," explained the interpreter. "That is why you must never sneer at them, and why you must always thank them for allowing you to put them on your hook when you fish with them." And it is not only the earthworms.
"Sometimes the monkeys tell things to Tolandian, but they know enough not to talk to anyone else. When the Negritos are hungry they eat the monkey. So you can never tell when the monkeys are going to tattle everything they know to Tolandian. . . . You'd better not make fun of the monkeys if you want to keep in well with Tolandian."
     But you mustn't think that Tolandian is concerned only with his own honour and taboos. You would be blasted with his lightning if you have sex with a woman in your own kin group, for that is incest. And one thing that really riles Tolandian is adultery. If a man discovered that his wife had been unfaithful, he was obliged to kill the other man responsible, even if he were a kinsman, and even if he didn't want to. To let him live would mean to face the wrath of Tolandian.
     "Doesn't Tolandian get mad when you kill a man for committing adultery?" I inquired.
     "No, Tolandian doesn't mind if you kill people," said Juan. "He only gets mad if you don't kill them to fulfil the blood feud. If you killed someone in my group, that would not make Tolandian angry at you, but he would be very mad if one of us did not kill you in return to avenge the death. Letting you live would be a violation of the blood feud. I will not get a wife and take her with me into the strange groups we are going to visit in the north, because anyone might kill me and take her, and they would be safe from the blood feud if my group never heard about it. They would also be safe from Tolandian's anger about adultery, since my wife would no longer have a husband."
     So, not only does Tolandian live in the ground rather than the sky, like any other self-respecting Supreme God, but his commandments include:
     Thou shalt not commit adultery, but not
     Thou shalt not commit murder.

Reference: Kilton Stewart, Pygmies and Dream Giants, chapters 3 and 10. (My copy, from The Scientific Book Club, does not bear a publication date, let alone information on the date of original publication. However, a paperback edition was produced in 1976.)

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