The Word and Its Employment (§ 1).

Primary and Secondary Fetishism (§ 2).

Character of the Fetish (§ 3).

Operation Aided by Suggestion (§ 4).

Objects Employed and Area of Cult (§ 5).

Cases of Reversion (§ 6).


1. The Word and Its Employment.

Fetishism (Portuguese feitiço, "charm, talisman") is a form of worship regarded as in itself superhumanly powerful in directing or assisting to the attainment of some desired end. The use of the word as denoting a religious cult goes back to C. de Brosses, Du culte des dieux fétiches (Paris, 1760), who rightly supposed that certain customs of the Africans constituted a form of primitive religion. The Portuguese term is the name given to the beads, medals, and crucifixes carried by sailors, and supposed by them to afford protection when in danger and was applied to the fetishes of the Africans by these same sailors, from whom De Brosses obtained it. In more modern treatises on religion the term has been used very loosely. Comte (Philosophie positive, Paris, 1830-42) made fetishism equivalent to animism. Lippert' (Die Religionen der europäischen Culturvölker, Berlin, 1881) meant by it the embodiment of departed spirits in some tangible or visible object. Miss Kingsley and Mr. Nassau cover by it practically the whole of African religious life, though Miss Kingsley recognizes the looseness of her own usage. A delimitation of the term is necessary to abolish the confusion which has developed in its use. The New English Dictionary defines a fetish as "differing from an idol in that it is worshiped in its own character, not as the symbol, image, or occasional residence of a deity." Mr. Lang describes fetishism as "the worship of odds and ends," a description which admirably hits off the fortuitous selection of a fetish and the apparent lack of intrinsic worthfulness in the object chosen. Schultze regards it as "a religious worship of material objects," a definition which would suit many phases of animism. And Waits defines a fetish as "an object of religious veneration, wherein the material and the spirit within it are regarded as one, the two being inseparable."


2. Primary and Secondary Fetishism.

The difficulties of the subject and the resulting confusion are due to two circumstances, its affinities and connections with animism on the one side and with magic on the other. In fetishism there is the same anthropomorphic conception of material objects as in animism; the most passive objects may be regarded as having volition and power to accomplish some end. A fetish is often used as the materials of magic are used and for similar purposes. But another cause of confusion is the fact that no distinction is made between a primitive and a developed variety. Primitive fetishism is suggested by Mr. Lang's description. The original fetish is an adventitious find of which care is taken, to which success in an undertaking is ascribed, and subsequent worship is accorded. The classic example is that of a Bushman who on leaving his hut to transact some important business trod on a stone which caused him some pain. He at once picked up the stone, regarding it as a fetish which had obtruded itself upon his notice for the purpose of forwarding his undertaking. His object was accomplished, and he thereafter paid the stone due homage. The adventitious meeting of this object at the moment of the inception of an enterprise was to the African an indication of its fetishistic character, and his success in the work proved for him its potency in that particular direction. Almost as classic is the case of the anchor cast up on the West African coast. A native broke off a fluke in order to utilize the iron, and soon after died. The natives thereafter on passing the spot always paid reverence to the anchor and frequently employed it as a destructive agent. The sequence of perception, events, and thought was the novelty of form of the object, the injury done it by breaking off the fluke, the subsequent death of the offender, and the inference that the anchor was a malignant fetish to be propitiated. On this principle any object of peculiar form--a deformed horn of a deer, the trigger of a gun, or any object dropped by a European, a queerly shaped stone, a particolored feather, a tooth, etc.--may become a fetish, the use of which may be indeterminate at the time but which is believed to possess power in some particular direction by reason of its very strangeness. But resemblance to an object or to the achievement desired plays no necessary part as it does in mimetic magic (see COMPARATIVE RELIGION, VI. 1, a, § 5). Secondary fetishism shows a likeness to magic in that it is the result of the exercise of primitive invention like that which attempts to produce rain by simulating its fall. It is an attempt to force or create that which does not readily come to hand. Thus natives on the Guinea Coast take a joint of bamboo, a shell, or some similar object and fill it with oddly assorted materials; this they suppose furnishes a residence for a spirit which may be induced to enter the mass, make it its home, become one with it, and thus be available for assistance to the possessor. Or the home of the spirit may be a piece of wood carved into a rude resemblance to some object. In this case there is recognition of a distinction between the spirit and its home, a distinction which does not exist in primary fetishism, in which the stone, anchor, feather, etc., is itself a fetish. On another side the fetish is to be distinguished from charms, amulets and the like, by the fact that it is supposed to operate by its own inherent power, while charms work by virtue imparted from some higher power.


3. Character of the Fetish.

The fundamental character of a fetish is that the material object is itself the power and the object of worship and possesses personality and will. A second characteristic is that its power is not general, but is used for a definite end, usually material, and for a single kind of purpose. Hence for the various purposes of life the worshiper may accumulate a vast number of fetishes. A case is known where an individual had over 20,000, the use of each of which he professed to be able to describe. The assumed value and power of a fetish therefore depends upon accidental coincidence, upon the savage fallacy of post hoc propter hoc. Success in an undertaking makes almost certain the power of the fetish chosen for that particular purpose. But the fetishist may recognize after repeated failures that the object is worthless for the end in view and may then discard it. He will not, even then, admit its impotence but will assert that its power does not lie in that direction. The institution rests therefore upon a rude empiricism. The first essay with a fetish is a test which subsequent essays will either establish or disprove. A series of successes may occur which raise the value of the object so enormously that its service is desired by a tribe, and in that case the finder, who is supposed to know its peculiarities becomes a sort of priest. And the repute of the fetish may grow to such dimensions that its use becomes intertribal, the result being enlarged power and possessions and influence to both possessor and the home tribe.


4. Operation Aided by Suggestion.

While the individual use of the fetish is as various as the needs of man in the savage state, tribal and intertribal use of it is largely connected with a crude justice, with intertribal disputes, and with war. In cases of justice the operation is by means of suggestion or autosuggestion. Thus, in cases of suspected domestic infidelity or of theft the procedure is that of the Ordeal (q.v.). For example, where the lizard is fetish, in case of crime or offense the animal is caught and whipped, when the culprit, in terror of the vengeance of the fetish, confesses and makes restoration. Much the same process goes on in the case of intertribal disputes, while the tribe which has bought the aid of such a fetish for purposes of war is endowed with a confidence so bold as to be irresistible. Each success enhances the estimation in which the object is held. That out of this sort of fetish may have developed some of the great divinities found among savages is a possibility students of religion now recognize, and fetishism is regarded as one of the springs of polytheism. How it may contribute a priesthood is shown above. The qualities of humanity plus a superhuman power being attributed to the fetish, especially a jealous regard of its own prerogatives, it is an object of the highest care. It must be constantly conciliated. To please it, vows are undertaken which must be scrupulously performed. Thus vows are made for children during their infancy which enslave them for life to the service of the fetish whose protection is thus invoked. But failure to keep such a vow sets autosuggestion in operation, discouragement supervenes, and the death of the victim not seldom results from the terror excited. The same result often issues from the knowledge that an enemy has set a powerful fetish in operation against a man, especially where it is deemed impossible to utilize a still greater power. For fetishes are employed for all purposes for which magic is supposed to operate.


5. Objects Employed and Area of Cult.

The objects employed as fetish are most various. Nothing is too minute or too great, too repulsive or too attractive to be so used. Stones, mountains, water, wind, fire, plants and trees, animals, human beings possessing exceptional characteristics (such as albinos), refuse, parts of animals or of corpses (particularly the eyes)--in short, objects the most insignificant or magnificent are chosen. And there are clear traces that the most diverse regions and ages have witnessed the operation of the institution. It can be traced in ancient Greece, India, China, Egypt, and Babylonia. It is practised in North America, in Oceanica, New Zealand, and Australia. But its garden is in Africa, so much so that in general the religion of Africans is often described as fetishism (see above).


6. Cases of Reversion.

Notice should be taken of a superstitious persistence of fetishistic practises and conceptions or of a reversion to them among civilized nations, especially those which lag in the course of progress. Thus there can be no doubt that in Roman Catholic countries the peasantry hold their medals, agni dei, and other religious emblems in fetishistic regard. A Russian mujik has been known, when about to commit a crime, to cover the icon in the room so that it might not witness the deed. And within a generation the Bible has been fetishistically employed in Scotland by laying it on the doorstep to keep out witches.