Going back to a time before time could be recorded, in what came to be the modern state of Tanzania, chimpanzees had religion.
Naturally, it was not a religion in the sense of our current ones, with texts and liturgy and hierarchies, but it was organized around the idea of a creator who had put the chimpanzees in this lush, magnificent spot on what they could not have conceived was the Earth. They acted out their rituals in something like interpretive dance, with gestures and grunts and much bowing to the heavens. Their god, they believed, was a benevolent one who loved them.
It is tempting, in our millennial sense of superiority, to mock the idea of a chimpanzee religion, but we must admit that any species with a somewhat advanced brain – one that allows more than mere instinctive behavior – might be likely to conceive one. After all, the chimpanzees, unlike lesser primates and monkeys, had cognition, they lived in groups much like Homo sapiens later would, and they were invested with a sense of curiosity. When they looked into the heavens they wondered why they were not able to touch the stars as they were able to reach into a stream and touch the rocks in its bed. They wondered why things were the way they were. Why sometimes food was plentiful and sometimes not. Why some of their babies died young. And then one night, after eons of wondering, a single, old, benign elder named Sonny Jim (for want of a better name; we have no way of knowing their real names, if they had them at all) began to dance in charade-like movements around a fire that had been set by a lightning strike. The others in his group sat in a circle around him and the fire, paused in their mutual grooming, and watched Sonny Jim as he told them of a theory he had.
It appeared to suggest – like all religions do – that there was a higher power in the universe, beyond the edges of their jungled hills, up in the heights of the heavens and in the depths of the lakes (for he had no idea that oceans existed). He waved his long arms in slow, wide circles toward the black sky to imply an all-enveloping greatness. He took a heap of bananas and danced around it to indicate grand bounty. He hugged himself and made his face look content in the light, to demonstrate the blessing of the fire’s warmth. Sonny Jim went around and kissed each female on the face, one by one, as if to show gratitude for fertility and affection, and then he touched foreheads with each male and slapped each male’s arms in celebration of companionship, camaraderie. Then he took a rock, a good-sized rock about the heft of a ripe melon, and he turned his back on the others as he stepped into the darkness beyond the reach of the firelight. The others were frightened by this because it could be interpreted as an act of aggression, and they held each other while they waited for Sonny Jim to return. When he did he was holding the rock behind his body, out of sight. He waved his free hand into the sky again, to remind the group that he was referring to the greatness without, beyond, and he waited for their recognition before going on. Then he pantomimed – as best he could, anyway, for he hadn’t seen it happen that many times in his life, because it was a solitary thing – the behavior of a female in the act of giving birth. He lay on his back in the dust, now moving the rock between his legs as if it were the emerging infant. He made recognizable but stylized grunts. He laid one palm on his belly as if to sooth it. And then, with both hands coming around his legs to grasp the rock, he pulled it away from his body and brought it to his chest.
There was silence all around Sonny Jim, except, perhaps for the sputtering of the fire, as he lay there for a little while with the rock on his chest, at his nipple. He stroked it sweetly.
The others, male and female, younger, older, began to move their heads in comprehension, but just in case they were misinterpreting him, Sonny Jim rose to his feet, cupping the newborn rock in one hand, held it aloft, toward heaven, and waved his other hand around it in a motion that was unmistakable to the rest of the group.
A mother ape, he was saying, had given birth to everything.
To his group, and later to others thanks to Sonny Jim’s habit of performing his rite whenever contact was made with strange colonies, the idea caught on. Even the baboons accepted a version of it, though of course they insisted the great mother was a baboon and not a chimpanzee. Soon, well before Sonny Jim died, nearly all the primates in what is now the modern state of Tanzania, believed in this theory of how they had come to live in such a beautiful, rich place without much suffering. Even after Sonny Jim was gone (and everyone now knew that birth and death were part of the great mother’s design), the religion lived and flourished.
It was not to survive into our day, however. For one thing, a questioning chimpanzee named Itchy Tom eventually wondered out loud – or rather through pantomime – who it was who had impregnated the great mother in the first place, who had knocked her up? That might have been enough to wound the faith, but there was another, perhaps more important thing. Sonny Jim had neglected to include in his theory the concept we call original sin, and we now know that there can be no meaningful religion that does not impose on its devotees the unbearable guilt of having been born into the world tainted.
Janet Barrows is a writer and technical editor from Chicago. Her last contribution to The Disappointed Housewife was “Maya,” in May 2018.
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