“The Lord Bless Thee, and Keep Thee”: Did Leo Tolstoy, in 1902, Stumble Upon the Reason We Bless People Before Sending Them Off to War?

In Part 2 of the Gilgamesh Epic, the elders of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk send Gilgamesh on a journey to the Land of Cedars with this blessing:

May Shamash [the sun god] give you your heart’s desire, may he let you see with your eyes the thing accomplished which your lips have spoken; may he open a path for you where it is blocked, and a road your feet to tread. May he open the mountains for you crossing, and may the night-time bring you the blessings of night, and Lugulbanda, your guardian god, stand beside you for victory. May you have victory in the battle as though you fought with a child.

A blessing is a curious human phenomenon.

Obviously, it is a gesture of love. If you can’t help a person you care for materially, you can at least offer her a blessing that conveys your allegience to her life and goals.

But there is also an element of magical thinking going on wherever blessings are offered. If you go through the ritual of speaking blessings aloud, somehow that is supposed to affect outcomes in the future.

But this, just as obviously, is a false notion, for it is highly unlikely, if there are gods, that they respond to the petition of human voices. At least nothing in history suggests that they ever have. We might cite the Holocaust as exhibit A in this regard.

But the question still lingers: Why did we, as a species, ever conclude that blessings worked, and why did we invest valuable time on them when we could be doing something else?

From a Darwinian perspective, it seems to be a delusional, and thus ineffective, survival strategy.

But this is only the first impression. Maybe blessings have very real effects. Here are two possibilities:

  • Perhaps, when one cannot materially effect the outcome of an event, trying something—anything—such as offering a blessing—can make one at least feel calmer than someone not offering a blessing. 
  • Speaking blessings in a group enhances solidarity (because people are affirming one another in agreement). That could certainly have survival advantages.

These two possibilities may be sufficient, in and of themselves, to suggest why humans ever started using word magic of the blessing sort. 

But I think that there is a very credible third possiblity, and I think that its effects may vastly overshadow any other postulated effects.

Perhaps there is some direct and powerful benefit to the HEARER.

A person offering a blessing may not have her words actually heard by the ear of a god, but they are heard by at least one person—the person who receives the blessing.

A blessing might have powerful survival effects on the psychology of the receiver, helping him or her to marshal courage in a moment of stress. A blessed person may say to him or herself later, in a moment of terror or battle, something like this:

I am assured that the gods are on my side, and the elders of my city have formally blessed me, and they have told me to be courageous, and trust the gods. I have been promised that the gods will make a way for me if I am faithful to my kin group and our dieties, and I have been.

The great 19th century novelist, Leo Tolstoy, who was an astute observer of human behavior, theorized that human activity is born of three causes, and one of those, interestingly, is what he called “suggestion.” Tolstoy’s thoughts on “suggestion” may provide a clue as to why humans are sent off with blessings from their family and tribes before, say, going off to war: It may be because blessings have a strong effect on behavior. Here’s Tolstoy’s interesting quote in full:

All human activity is actuated by three motive causes: feeling, reason, and suggestion—the characteristic the doctors call hypnotism. At times a person acts under the influence of feeling alone, seeking to achieve what he desires. At times he acts under the influence of his reason alone, which indicates what he ought to do. At other times, and more frequently, he acts because he himself, or others, have suggested a certain action and he unconsiously submits to the suggestion. Under normal conditions of life all three motive forces take part in influencing a person’s behaviour. Feeling impels him to a certain action, reason tests the conformity of this action against the surrounding circumstances, and against the past and anticipated future, and suggestion urges him to complete without thought or feeling, those actions evoked by feeling and condoned by reason.

Tolstoy wrote this in the fifth chapter of his 1902 book, What is Religion?, two years after the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Speculation about human psychology and behavior was in the European cultural air, and Tolstoy was clearly thinking about it.

It may be that Tolstoy inadvertently hit upon as good a theory as any as to why people, very early in human civilizational development, offered one another blessings.

The first people to offer blessings upon one another may have discovered a form of psychological fire—something that potently affected one’s courage and doggedness, especially under stress.

When one believes that a blessing is operative upon your life, you go about, consciously and unconsciously, to manifest its promise. You are, in short, under the spell of Tolstoyan “suggestion.”

But unfortunately it only works if you believe it.

Atheists and agnostics, it would seem, cannot benefit from blessings.

Being a clear thinking, unmystified atheist or agnostic may convey other survival benefits, but seeing through the “thought magic” behind blessings may not be one of them.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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