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MANISM (from Lat. manes, "departed spirit, ghost") was a theory of the origin of religion briefly advocated in the late nineteenth century by the popular British philosopher Herbert Spencer (18201903) and by one of his disciples, the Canadian-born Grant Allen (18481899). It bears no relation to, and should not be confused with, theories based on the concept of mana.

That the spirits of the dead occupy an important place in the history of religion is verifiable simply by observation. All primal and many later cultures have regarded the deadand particularly the newly deadas continuing to be active and concerned members of their respective families. Having passed beyond the limitations of earthly life, they are in possession of power greater than that of mortals. This power may be turned to the advantage of the living if the memory of the dead is respected and offerings continue to be made at the graveside or elsewhere. The unburied or uncremated dead, who have not been sent into the afterlife with the proper rituals, or those neglected by their families, are, on the other hand, liable to be dangerous. Always, however, they are believed to occupy a relatively lowly position in the supernatural hierarchy. They have power, but their power is limited as a rule to the circles within which they moved while still alive. Naturally, those who possessed greater power and influence during their lifetimes (chieftains and kings, for instance) were held to wield greater, though still limited, power after death.

The first attempt to link belief in the power of departed spirits with the world of religion was made in the early third century bce, by the Greek writer Euhemerus (c. 340260 bce), in his Hiera anagraphē (Sacred history). Euhemerus claimed that all the gods had been prominent men and women of their own day, revered when alive and worshiped after death. In fact, of course, examples abound in societies past and present of human beings accorded divine honors after death, and similar theories have often been put forward to account for the otherwise obscure origins of several deities. Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda, for example, traced the ancestry of Ϸórr (Thor) and Óðinn (Odin) back to the heroes of the Trojan War. This type of explanation is generally called "euhemerism," after its first advocate.

But euhemerism seeks not to account for the origins of religion as such but only for the worship of particular deities. The theory is certainly sound, if kept within appropriate limits, since the deification process is well attested historically. Manism, on the other hand, sought to explainor to explain awaythe whole of religion on this one principle.

Herbert Spencer's essay "Manners and Fashion" was first published in the Westminster Review in April 1854, thus antedating E. B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (London, 1871) by seventeen years. In it, Spencer claimed to have established a close relation between "Law, Religion, and Manners," in the sense that those who presided over these three areas of human activity ("Deity, Chief, and Master of the Ceremonies") were identical. Reflecting further on the role of chiefs and medicine men in primitive belief, Spencer came to the conclusion that "the aboriginal god is the dead chief: the chief not dead in our sense, but gone away, carrying with him food and weapons to some rumoured region of plenty, some promised land, whither he had long intended to lead his followers, and whence he will presently return to fetch them. This hypothesis, once entertained, is seen to harmonize with all primitive ideas and practices" (Spencer, Essays, vol. 3, London, 1891, p. 7). Thus humankind's earliest deity had been a deified "big man," a deceased chief, whose power had been sufficiently great to have become a tradition and whose power was believed still to be operative from the other side of the gulf between life and death.

In 1862 Spencer published the first volume of his massive composite work of "sociology," appropriately called First Principles (these principles were, however, greatly revised in subsequent editions). There he stated:

As all ancient records and traditions prove, the earliest rulers are regarded as divine personages. The maxims and commands they uttered during their lives are held sacred after their deaths, and are enforced by their divinely-descended successors; who in their turn are promoted to the pantheon of the race, there to be worshipped and propitiated along with their predecessors; the most ancient of whom is the supreme god, and the rest subordinate gods. (Spencer, First Principles, London, 1862, pp. 158159)

This was, in essence, Spencer's theory of what subsequently came to be called "manism," also known as the "ghost theory" of the origin of religion.

Following the publication in 1876 of the first volume of Spencer's Principles of Sociology, in which the theory was again stated, E. B. Tylor made perhaps his only entry into the field of public controversy. He reviewed Spencer's book in the journal Mind (2, no. 6, April 1877, pp. 141156); Spencer replied in the same journal (pp. 415419), with a further rejoinder by Tylor (pp. 419423), by Spencer again (pp. 423429), and a final short contribution by Tylor (p. 429). Tylor's contention was that "Mr. Spencer seems to stretch the principle of deities being actual ancestors deified somewhat far," that his contentions often could not be tested, and that when they could, his cases "hardly look encouraging." His theory, Tylor concluded, was "in conflict not merely with the speculations of mythologists, but with the canons of sober historical criticism." Spencer, who did not like to be criticized and seldom ventured into public controversy, nevertheless penned a reply, suggesting that Tylor actually was in agreement with him "in regarding the ghost-theory as primary and other forms of superstitions as derived [although] it appears that he does not hold this view in the unqualified form given to it by me." Tylor answered, virtually accusing Spencer of plagiarism on some points, but stating that although Spencer had the right to hold his "ghost theory" (which closely resembled the theory put forth by Euhemerus), "I look on this theory as only partly true, and venture to consider Mr. Spencer's attempt to carry it through unreservedly as one of the least satisfactory parts of his system."

The trouble was that it was so hard to envisage any process by which ghosts could become the other inhabitants of the spiritual world. Andrew Lang sketched the broad outlines of this hypothetical process: "The conception of ghosts of the dead is more or less consciously extended, so that spirits who never were incarnate as men become credible beings. They may inform inanimate objects, trees, rivers, fire, clouds, earth, sky, the great natural departments, and thence polytheism results" (Cock Lane and Common Sense, London, 1894, p. 339). This Lang did not accept. He was moving steadily in the direction of his theory of the existence of "high gods" and was disposed to question not only Spencer's "ghost theory" but also Tylor's theory of animism (which resembled Spencer's theory on certain points) as being inadequate explanations of the origin of the concept of deity. Lang appears actually to have believed in ghostswhich neither Spencer nor Tylor didand was a keen psychical researcher (or at least a theorist about the researches of others). He was unable to discern any connection between ghosts and the higher gods, though "a few genuine wraiths, or ghosts would be enough to start the animistic hypothesis, or to confirm it notably, if it was already started" (ibid., p. 346).

Although Herbert Spencer was enormously widely read in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, his popularity was due to the completeness of his system of "synthetic philosophy" rather than to his theory of manism, which won very few adherents. But in 1897 Grant Allen produced his book The Evolution of the Idea of God (abr. ed., London, 1903; reprint, London, 1931), which accepted the manism theory with very few modifications. Allen maintained that "in its simplest surviving savage type, religion consists wholely and solely in certain acts of deference paid by the living to the persons of the dead" (1931 ed., p. 18). But religion is not mythology; indeed, Allen, following Spencer, insisted that mythology, cosmogony, ontology, and ethics were all "extraneous developments," which sprang from different roots and had "nothing necessarily in common with religion proper" (ibid., p. 25). Religion, then, had developed from corpse worship to ghost worship and then to shade worship. All else had developed later and need not be considered as an essential part of religion.

Writing to Allen in 1892, James G. Frazer had stated his agreement with the manism thesis: "so far as I believe ancestor-worship, or the fear of ghosts, to have been on the whole the most important factor in the evolution of religious belief" (quoted in Edward Clodd, Grant Allen: A Memoir, London, 1900, p. 145). Others at the time certainly concurred, wholly or in part, though they preferred the more comprehensive term animism to describe the same set of phenomena and recognized that the theory of manism could accommodate other spirit phenomena only with the greatest difficulty.

Manism in the form proposed by Spencer and Allen was too narrow to account for the genesis of more than a certain selection of religious phenomena. It therefore appealed to very few scholars. Exceptions included, however, Julius Lippert (18391909) of Berlin, who applied it to the biblical material in Der Seelenkult in seinen Beziehungen zur althebräischen Religion (Berlin, 1881) and other works produced during the 1880s. It might also be argued that the manism theory exercised a certain indirect influence on the Myth and Ritual school. In his book Kingship (London, 1927), Arthur M. Hocart (18831939) stated categorically that "the earliest known religion is a belief in the divinity of kings in the earliest records known, man appears to us worshiping gods and their earthly representatives, namely kings" (p. 7). But this connection was at best oblique.

Summing up, we may say that what binds together Euhemerus and Herbert Spencer (for manism might well also be called neo-euhemerism) marks a genuinely important aspect of the history of religion. It cannot, however, be seriously put forward as the origin of religion per se without very serious distortion. This was true even in the high period of evolutionary theory; today, Spencer's manism remains no more than a historical curiosity.

See Also

Ancestors; Preanimism; Spencer, Herbert.


The fullest expression of Herbert Spencer's theory is in his Principles of Sociology, vol. 1 (London, 1876), pp. 304440. For a good short account of Spencer's system of thought, see J. W. Burrow's Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 179227. On Grant Allen, see Edward Clodd's Grant Allen: A Memoir (London, 1900), pp. 142147, and Allen's own The Evolution of the Idea of God, new ed. (London, 1931). See also Henri Pinard de la Boullaye's L'étude comparée des religions, 3d ed., vol. 1, Son histoire dans le monde occidental (Paris, 1919), pp. 381382. Reference may also be made to the series of articles "Ancestor-Worship and Cult of the Dead," by William Crooke and others, in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1908), pp. 425467; in discussing Spencer's theory, Crooke comments, "Needless to say, these views have not met with general acceptance" (p. 427).

Eric J. Sharpe (1987)

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