My Commonplace Book (a diary of excerpts copied from printed books, with comments added by the reader)

By Dorothy Bryant
Tuesday July 12, 2011 - 12:40:00 PM

"I had a romantic idea of the earth religions. I felt they took us back to the beginning. . . I thought they had a kind of beauty. But the past here (in Nigeria) is still lived . . . The dark abyss of paganism.
"A Lagos city councillor said to me, 'Muslims and Christians practice forgiveness and cannot harm you. In the pagan religion there is no forgiveness . . .there are rules you have to follow very strictly, and if you go against them you either die or go mad.'"

V.S. Naipaul The Mask of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010)

I once shared Naipaul's romantic idea of the “beauty” of pagan religion. Then I did some research for a play I wrote about Gauguin in Tahiti. I learned that the word TABU, used throughout the world, came from the Tahitian language, because so many things on Tahiti were TABU: like women walking on the same paths as men, or touching anything men ate, or even riding in a canoe. (The only authentic scenes in those romantic south sea island movies were those of girls swimming out to meet ships from Europe. It was “sink or swim” getting to those ships whose crews were so much kinder to them than Tahitian men.) 

I learned that Tahitians were terrified of nightfall, because the spirits of the dead—their dead, their ancestors—now fearsome, haunted the dark, trying to capture the souls of the living. Dying did not end suffering. Death meant "going into night" among those evil spirits who ruled after the sun went down. 

The Christian missionaries preached a god who loved all human beings, a god who insisted on forgiveness, not vengeance, and who promised that a virtuous earthly life would be followed by an afterlife in paradise. Whatever problems Christian missionaries from Europe created, we can understand their success in gaining converts. 

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