Their Origin and Meaning
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 10 - THE SAVIOUR-GOD AND THE VIRGIN-MOTHER | Comment and Feedback

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From the consideration of the world-wide belief in a past Golden Age, and the world-wide practice of the Eucharist, in the sense indicated in the last chapter, to that of the equally widespread belief in a human-divine Saviour, is a brief and easy step. Some thirty years ago, dealing with this subject, (Footnote 1) I wrote as follows:-

"The true Self of man consists in his organic relation with the whole body of his fellows; and when the man abandons his true Self he abandons also his true relation to his fellows. The mass-Man must rule in each unit-man, else the unit-man will drop off and die. But when the outer man tries to separate himself from the inner, the unit-man from the mass-Man, then the reign of individuality begins - a false and impossible individuality of course, but the only means of coming to the consciousness of the true individuality."

And further,

"Thus this divinity in each creature, being that which constitutes it and causes it to cohere together, was conceived of as that creature's saviour, healer - healer of wounds of body and wounds of heart - the Man within the man, whom it was not only possible to know, but whom to know and be united with was the alone salvation. This, I take it, was the law of health - and of holiness - as accepted at some elder time of human history, and by us seen as through a glass darkly."

I think it is impossible not to see - however much in our pride of Civilization (!) we like to jeer at the pettinesses of tribal life - that these elder people perceived as a matter of fact and direct consciousness the redeeming presence (within each unit-member of the group) of the larger life to which he belonged. This larger life was a reality - "a Presence to be felt and known"; and whether he called it by the name of a Totem-animal, or by the name of a Nature-divinity, or by the name of some gracious human-limbed God - some Hercules, Mithra, Attis, Orpheus, or what-not - or even by the great name of Humanity itself, it was still in any case the Saviour, the living incarnate Being by the realization of whose presence the little mortal could be lifted out of exile and error and death and suffering into splendor and life eternal.

It is impossible, I think, not to see that the myriad worship of "Saviours" all over the world, from China to Peru, can only be ascribed to the natural working of some such law of human and tribal psychology - from earliest times and in all races the same - springing up quite spontaneously and independently, and (so far) unaffected by the mere contagion of local tradition. To suppose that the Devil, long before the advent of Christianity, put the idea into the heads of all these earlier folk, is really to pay too great a compliment both to the power and the ingenuity of his Satanic Majesty - though the ingenuity with which the early Church did itself suppress all information about these pre-Christian Saviours almost rivals that which it credited to Satan! And on the other hand to suppose this marvellous and universal consent of belief to have sprung by mere contagion from one accidental source would seem equally far-fetched and unlikely.

But almost more remarkable than the world-encircling belief in human-divine Saviours is the equally widespread legend of their birth from Virgin-mothers. There is hardly a god - as we have already had occasion to see - whose worship as a benefactor of mankind attained popularity in any of the four continents, Europe, Asia, Africa and America - who was not reported to have been born from a Virgin, or at least from a mother who owed the Child not to any earthly father, but to an impregnation from Heaven. And this seems at first sight all the more astonishing because the belief in the possibility of such a thing is so entirely out of the line of our modern thought. So that while it would seem not unnatural that such a legend should have, sprung up spontaneously in some odd benighted corner of the world, we find it very difficult to understand how in that case it should have spread so rapidly in every direction, or - if it did not spread - how we are to account for its spontaneous appearance in all these widely sundered regions.

I think here, and for the understanding of this problem, we are thrown back upon a very early age of human evolution - the age of Magic. Before any settled science or philosophy or religion existed, there were still certain Things - and consequently also certain Words - which had a tremendous influence on the human mind, which in fact affected it deeply. Such a word, for instance, is 'Thunder'; to hear thunder, to imitate it, even to mention it, are sure ways of rousing superstitious attention and imagination. Such another word is 'Serpent,' another 'Tree,' and so forth. There is no one who is insensible to the reverberation of these and other such words and images (Footnote 2); and among them, standing prominently out, are the two 'Mother' and 'Virgin.' The word Mother touches the deepest springs of human feeling. As the earliest word learnt and clung to by the child, it twines itself with the heart-strings of the man even to his latest day. Nor must we forget that in a primitive state of society (the Matriarchate) that influence was probably even greater than now; for the father of the child being (often as not) unknown the attachment to the mother was all the more intense and undivided. The word Mother had a magic about it which has remained even until to-day. But if that word rooted itself deep in the heart of the Child, the other word 'virgin' had an obvious magic for the full grown and sexually mature Man - a magic which it, too, has never lost.

There is ample evidence that one of the very earliest objects of human worship was the Earth itself, conceived of as the fertile Mother of all things. Gaia or Ge (the earth) had temples and altars in almost all the cities of Greece. Rhea or Cybele, sprung from the Earth, was "mother of all the gods." Demeter ("earth mother") was honored far and wide as the gracious patroness of the crops and vegetation. Ceres, of course, the same. Maia in the Indian mythology and Isis in the Egyptian are forms of Nature and the Earth-spirit, represented as female; and so forth. The Earth, in these ancient cults , was the mystic source of all life, and to it, as a propitiation, life of all kinds was sacrificed. [There are strange accounts of a huge fire being made, with an altar to Cybele in the midst, and of deer and fawns and wild animals, and birds and sheep and corn and fruits being thrown pell-mell into the flames. (Footnote 3)] It was, in a way, the most natural, as it seems to have been the earliest and most spontaneous of cults - the worship of the Earth-mother, the all-producing eternal source of life, and on account of her never-failing ever-renewed fertility conceived of as an immortal Virgin.

But when the Saviour-legend sprang up - as indeed I think it must have sprung up, in tribe after tribe and people after people, independently - then, whether it sprang from the divinization of some actual man who showed the way of light and deliverance to his fellows "sitting in darkness," or whether from the personification of the tribe itself as a god, in either case the question of the hero's parentage was bound to arise. If the 'saviour' was plainly a personification of the tribe, it was obviously impossible to suppose him the son of a mortal mother. In that case - and if the tribe was generally traced in the legends to some primeval Animal or Mountain or thing of Nature - it was probably easy to think of him (the saviour) as, born out of Nature's womb, descended perhaps from that pure Virgin of the World who is the Earth and Nature, who rules the skies at night, and stands in the changing phases of the Moon, and is worshiped (as we have seen) in the great constellation Virgo. If, on the other hand, he was the divinization of some actual man, more or less known either personally or by tradition to his fellows, then in all probability the name of his mortal mother would be recognized and accepted; but as to his father, that side of parentage being, as we have said, generally very uncertain, it would be easy to suppose some heavenly Annunciation, the midnight visit of a God, and what is usually termed a Virgin-birth.

There are two elements to be remembered here, as conspiring to this conclusion. One is the condition of affairs in a remote matriarchial period, when descent was reckoned always through the maternal line, and the fatherhood in each generation was obscure or unknown or commonly left out of account; and the other is the fact - so strange and difficult for us to realize - that among some very primitive peoples, like the Australian aborigines, the necessity for a woman to have intercourse with a male, in order to bring about conception and child-birth, was actually not recognized. Scientific observation had not always got as far as that, and the matter was still under the domain of Magic! (Footnote 4) A Virgin-Mother was therefore a quite imaginable (not to say 'conceivable') thing; and indeed a very beautiful and fascinating thing, combining in one image the potent magic of two very wonderful words. It does not seem impossible that considerations of this kind led to the adoption of the doctrine or legend of the virgin-mother and the heavenly father among so many races and in so many localities - even without any contagion of tradition among them.

Anyhow, and as a matter of fact, the world-wide dissemination of the legend is most remarkable. Zeus, Father of the gods, visited Semele, it will be remembered, in the form of a thunderstorm; and she gave birth to the great saviour and deliverer Dionysus. Zeus, again, impregnated Danae in a shower of gold; and the child was Perseus, who slew the Gorgons (the powers of darkness) and saved Andromeda (the human soul (Footnote 5)). Devaki, the radiant Virgin of the Hindu mythology, became the wife of the god Vishnu and bore Krishna, the beloved hero and prototype of Christ. With regard to Buddha St. Jerome says (Footnote 6)

"It is handed down among the Gymnosophists, of India that Buddha, the founder of their system, was brought forth by a Virgin from her side."

The Egyptian Isis, with the child Horus, on her knee, was honored centuries before the Christian era, and worshiped under the names of "Our Lady," "Queen of Heaven," "Star of the Sea," "Mother of God," and so forth. Before her, Neith, the Virgin of the World, whose figure bends from the sky over the earthly plains and the children of men, was acclaimed as mother of the great god Osiris. The saviour Mithra, too, was born of a Virgin, as we have had occasion to notice before; and on the Mithrais monuments the mother suckling her child is a not uncommon figure. (Footnote 7)

The old Teutonic goddess Hertha (the Earth) was a Virgin, but was impregnated by the heavenly Spirit (the Sky); and her image with a child in her arms was to be seen in the sacred groves of Germany. (Footnote 8) The Scandinavian Frigga, in much the same way, being caught in the embraces of Odin, the All-father, conceived and bore a son, the blessed Balder, healer and saviour of mankind. Quetzalcoatl, the (crucified) saviour of the Aztecs, was the son of Chimalman, the Virgin Queen of Heaven. (Footnote 9) Even the Chinese had a mother-goddess and virgin with child in her arms (Footnote 10); and the ancient Etruscans the same. (Footnote 11)

Finally, we have the curiously large number of black virgin mothers who are or have been worshiped. Not only cases like Devaki the Indian goddess, or Isis the Egyptian, who would naturally appear black-skinned or dark; but the large number of images and paintings of the same kind, yet extant - especially in the Italian churches - and passing for representations of Mary and the infant Jesus. Such are the well-known image in the chapel at Loretto, and images and paintings besides in the churches at Genoa, Pisa, Padua, Munich and other places. It is difficult not to regard these as very old Pagan or pre-Christian relics which lingered on into Christian times and were baptized anew - as indeed we know many relics and images actually were - into the service of the Church. "Great is Diana of the Ephesians"; and there is I believe more than one black figure extant of this Diana, who, though of course a virgin, is represented with innumerable breasts (Footnote 12) - not unlike some of the archaic statues of Artemis and Isis. At Paris, far on into Christian times there was, it is said, on the site of the present Cathedral of Notre Dame, a Temple dedicated to 'our Lady' Isis; and images belonging to the earlier shrine would in all probability be preserved with altered name in the later.

All this illustrates not only the wide diffusion of the doctrine of the Virgin-mother, but its extreme antiquity. The subject is obscure, and worthy of more consideration than has yet been accorded it; and I do not feel able to add anything to the tentative explanations given a page or two back, except perhaps to suppose that the vision of the Perfect Man hovered dimly over the mind of the human race on its first emergence from the purely animal stage; and that a quite natural speculation with regard to such a being was that he would be born from a Perfect Woman - who according to early ideas would necessarily be the Virgin Earth itself, mother of all things. Anyhow it was a wonderful Intuition, slumbering as it would seem in the breast of early man, that the Great Earth after giving birth to all living creatures would at last bring forth a Child who should become the Saviour of the human race.

There is of course the further theory, entertained by some, that virgin-parturition - a kind of Parthenogenesis - has as a matter of fact occasionally occurred among mortal women, and even still does occur. I should be the last to deny the possibility of this (or of anything else in Nature), but, seeing the immense difficulties in the way of proof of any such asserted case, and the absence so far of any thoroughly attested and verified instance, it would, I think, be advisable to leave this theory out of account at present.

But whether any of the explanations spoken of are right or wrong, and whatever explanation we adopt, there remains the fact of the universality over the world of this legend - affording another instance of the practical solidarity and continuity of the Pagan Creeds with Christianity.


  1. See Civilisation: its Cause and Cure, ch. i. Return
  2. Nor is it difficult to see how out of the discreet use of such words and images, combined with elementary forms like the square, the triangle and the circle, and elementary numbers like 3, 4, 5, etc., quite a science, so to speak, of Magic arose. Return
  3. See Pausanias iv. 32. 6; and Lucian, De Syria Dea, 49. Return
  4. Probably the long period (nine months) elapsing between cohabitation and childbirth confused early speculation on the subject. Then clearly cohabitation was not always followed by childbirth. And, more important still, the number of virgins of a mature age in primitive societies was so very minute that the fact of their childlessness attracted no attention - whereas in our societies the sterility of the whole class is patent to everyone. Return
  5. For this interpretation of the word Andromeda see The Perfect Way by Edward Maitland, preface to First Edition, 1881. Return
  6. Contra Jovian, Book I; and quoted by Rhys Davids in his Buddhisim. Return
  7. See Doane's Bible Myths, p. 332, and Dupuis' Origins of Religious Beliefs Return
  8. R. P. Knight's Ancient Art and Mythology, p. 21. Return
  9. See Kingsborough's Mexican Antiquities, vol. vi, p. 176, where it is said "an ambassador was sent from heaven on an embassy to a Virgin of Tulan, called Chimalman . . . announcing that it was the will of the God that she should conceive a son; and having delivered her the message he rose and left the house; and as soon as he had left it she conceived a son, without connection with man, who was called Quetzalcoat], who they say is the god of air." Further, it is explained that Quetzalcoatl sacrificed himself, drawing forth his own blood with thorns; and that the word Quetzalcoatlotopitzin means "our well-beloved son." Return
  10. Doane, p. 327. Return
  11. See Inman's Pagan and Christian Symbolism, p. 27. Return
  12. See illustration, p. 30, in Inman's Pagan and Christian Symbolism. Return

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