|PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS|
Their Origin and Meaning
|The Edward Carpenter Archive|
by Simon Dawson
I have wandered, in pursuit of Totems and the Eucharist, some way from the astronomical thread of Chapters II and III, and now it would appear that in order to understand religious origins we must wander still farther. The chapters mentioned were largely occupied with Sungods and astronomical phenomena, but now we have to consider an earlier period when there were no definite forms of gods, and when none but the vaguest astronomical knowledge existed. Sometimes in historical matters it is best and safest to move thus backwards in Time, from the things recent and fairly well known to things more ancient and less known. In this way we approach more securely to some understanding of the dim and remote past.
It is clear that before any definite speculations on heaven-dwelling gods or divine beings had arisen in the human mind - or any clear theories of how the sun and moon and stars might be connected with the changes of the seasons on the earth - there were still certain obvious things which appealed to everybody, learned or unlearned alike. One of these was the return of Vegetation, bringing with it the fruits or the promise of the fruits of the earth, for human food, and also bringing with it increase of animal life, for food in another form; and the other was the return of Light and Warmth, making life easier in all ways. Food delivering from the fear of starvation; Light and Warmth delivering from the fear of danger and of cold. These were three glorious things which returned together and brought salvation and renewed life to man. The period of their return was 'Spring,' and though Spring and its benefits might fade away in time, still there was always the hope of its return - though even so it may have been a long time in human evolution before man discovered that it really did always return, and (with certain allowances) at equal intervals of time.
Long then before any Sun or Star gods could be called in, the return of the Vegetation must have enthralled man's attention, and filled him with hope and joy. Yet since its return was somewhat variable and uncertain the question, What could man do to assist that return? naturally became a pressing one. It is now generally held that the use of Magic - sympathetic magic - arose in this way. Sympathetic magic seems to have been generated by a belief that your own actions cause a similar response in things and persons around you. Yet this belief did not rest on any philosophy or argument, but was purely instinctive and sometimes of the nature of a mere corporeal reaction. Every schoolboy knows how in watching a comrade's high jump at the Sports he often finds himself lifting a knee at the moment 'to help him over'; at football matches quarrels sometimes arise among the spectators by reason of an ill-placed kick coming from a too enthusiastic on-looker, behind one; undergraduates running on the tow-path beside their College boat in the races will hurry even faster than the boat in order to increase its speed; there is in each case an automatic bodily response increased by one's own desire. A person acts the part which he desires to be successful. He thinks to transfer his energy in that way. Again, if by chance one witnesses a painful accident, a crushed foot or what-not, it commonly happens that one feels a pain in the same part oneself - a sympathetic pain. What more natural than to suppose that the pain really is transferred from the one person to the other? and how easy the inference that by tormenting a wretched scape-goat or crucifying a human victim in some cases the sufferings of people may be relieved or their sins atoned for?
Simaetha, it will be remembered, in the second Idyll of Theocritus, curses her faithless lover Delphis, and as she melts his waxen image she prays that he too may melt. All this is of the nature of Magic, and is independent of and generally more primitive than Theology or Philosophy. Yet it interests us because it points to a firm instinct in early man - to which I have already alluded - the instinct of his unity and continuity with the rest of creation, and of a common life so close that his lightest actions may cause a far-reaching reaction in the world outside.
Man, then, independently of any belief in gods, may assist the arrival of Spring by magic ceremonies. If you want the Vegetation to appear you must have rain; and the rain-maker in almost all primitive tribes has been a most important personage. Generally he based his rites on quite fanciful associations, as when the rain-maker among the Mandans wore a raven's skin on his head (bird of the storm) or painted his shield with red zigzags of lightning (Footnote 1); but partly, no doubt, he had observed actual facts, or had had the knowledge of them transmitted to him - as, for instance that when rain is impending loud noises will bring about its speedy downfall, a fact we moderns have had occasion to notice on battlefields. He had observed perhaps that in a storm a specially loud clap of thunder is generally followed by a greatly increased downpour of rain. He had even noticed (a thing which I have often verified in the vicinity of Sheffield) that the copious smoke of fires will generate rain-clouds - and so quite naturally he concluded that it was his smoking sacrifices which had that desirable effect. So far he was on the track of elementary Science. And so he made "bull- roarers" to imitate the sound of wind and the blessed rain-bringing thunder, or clashed great bronze cymbals together with the same object. Bull-voices and thunder-drums and the clashing of cymbals were used in this connection by the Greeks, and are mentioned by Aeschylus (Footnote 2); but the bull-roarer, in the form of a rhombus of wood whirled at the end of a string, seems to be known, or to have been known, all over the world. It is described with some care by Mr. Andrew Lang in his Custom and Myth (pp. 29-44), where he says
"it is found always as a sacred instrument employed in religious mysteries, in New Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, ancient Greece, and Africa."
Sometimes, of course, the rain-maker was successful; but of the inner causes of rain he knew next to nothing; he was more ignorant even than we are! His main idea was a more specially 'magical' one - namely, that the sound itself would appeal to the spirits of rain and thunder and cause them to give a response. For of course the thunder (in Hebrew Bath-Kol, "the daughter of the Voice") was everywhere regarded as the manifestation of a spirit. (Footnote 3) To make sounds like thunder would therefore naturally call the attention of such a spirit; or he, the rain-maker, might make sounds like rain. He made gourd-rattles (known in ever so many parts of the world) in which he rattled dried seeds or small pebbles with a most beguiling and rain-like insistence; or sometimes, like the priests of Baal in the Bible, (Footnote 4) he would cut himself with knives till the blood fell upon the ground in great drops suggestive of an oncoming thunder-shower.
"In Mexico the raingod was propitiated with sacrifices of children. If the children wept and shed abundant tears, they who carried them rejoiced, being convinced that rain would also be abundant." (Footnote 5)
Sometimes he, the rain-maker, would whistle for the wind, or, like the Omaha Indians, flap his blankets for the same purpose.
In the ancient myth of Demeter and Persephone - which has been adopted by so many peoples under so many forms - Demeter the Earth-mother loses her daughter Persephone (who represents of course the Vegetation), carried down into the underworld by the evil powers of Darkness and Winter. And in Greece there was a yearly ceremonial and ritual of magic for the purpose of restoring the lost one and bringing her back to the world again. Women carried certain charms,
"fir-cones and snakes and unnamable objects made of paste, to ensure fertility; there was a sacrifice of pigs, who were thrown into a deep cleft of the earth, and their remains afterwards collected and scattered as a charm over the fields." (Footnote 6)
Fir-cones and snakes from their very forms were emblems of male fertility; snakes, too, from their habit of gliding out of their own skins with renewed brightness and color were suggestive of resurrection and re-vivification; pigs and sows by their exceeding fruitfulness would in their hour of sacrifice remind old mother Earth of what was expected from her! Moreover, no doubt it had been observed that the scattering of dead flesh over the ground or mixed with the seed, did bless the ground to a greater fertility; and so by a strange mixture of primitive observation with a certain child-like belief that by means of symbols and suggestions Nature could be appealed to and induced to answer to the desires and needs for her children this sort of ceremonial Magic arose. It was not exactly Science, and it was not exactly Religion; but it was a naive, and perhaps not altogether mistaken, sense of the bond between Nature and Man.
For we can perceive that earliest man was not yet consciously differentiated from Nature. Not only do we see that the tribal life was so strong that the individual seldom regarded himself as different or separate or opposed to the rest of the tribe; but that something of the same kind was true with regard to his relation to the Animals and to Nature at large. This outer world was part of himself, was also himself. His sub-conscious sense of unity was so great that it largely dominated his life. That brain-cleverness and brain-activity which causes modern man to perceive such a gulf between him and the animals, or between himself and Nature, did not exist in the early man. Hence it was no difficulty to him to believe that he was a Bear or an Emu. Sub-consciously he was wiser than we are. He knew that he was a bear or an emu, or any other such animal as his totem-creed led him to fix his mind upon. Hence we find that a familiarity and common consent existed between primitive man and many of his companion animals such as has been lost or much attenuated in modern times. Elisee Reclus in his very interesting paper La Grande Famille (Footnote 7) gives support to the idea that the so-called domestication of animals did not originally arise from any forcible subjugation of them by man, but from a natural amity with them which grew up in the beginning from common interests, pursuits and affections. Thus the chetah of India (and probably the puma of Brazil) from far-back times took to hunting in the company of his two-legged and bow-and-arrow-armed friend, with whom he divided the spoil. W. H. Hudson (Footnote 8) declares that the Puma, wild and fierce though it is, and capable of killing the largest game, will never even to-day attack man, but when maltreated by the latter submits to the outrage, unresisting, with mournful cries and every sign of grief. The Llama, though domesticated in a sense, has never allowed the domination of the whip or the bit, but may still be seen walking by the side of the Brazilian peasant and carrying his burdens in a kind of proud companionship. The mutual relations of Women and the Cow, or of Man and the Horse (Footnote 9) (also the Elephant) reach so far into the past that their origin cannot be traced. The Swallow still loves to make its home under the cottage eaves and still is welcomed by the inmates as the bringer of good fortune. Elisee Reclus assures us that the Dinka man on the Nile calls to certain snakes by name and shares with them the milk of his cows.
And so with Nature. The communal sense, or subconscious perception, which made primitive men feel their unity with other members of their tribe, and their obvious kinship with the animals around them, brought them also so close to general Nature that they looked upon the trees, the vegetation, the rain, the warmth of the sun, as part of their bodies, part of themselves. Conscious differentiation had not yet set in. To cause rain or thunder you had to make rain- or thunder-like noises; to encourage Vegetation and the crops to leap out of the ground, you had to leap and dance.
"In Swabia and among the Transylvanian Saxons it is a common custom (says Dr. Frazer) for a man who has some hemp to leap high in the field in the belief that this will make the hemp grow tall." (Footnote 10)
Native May-pole dances and Jacks in the Green have hardly yet died out - even in this most civilized England. The bower of green boughs, the music of pipes, the leaping and the twirling, were all an encouragement to the arrival of Spring, and an expression of Sympathetic Magic. When you felt full of life and energy and virility in yourself you naturally leapt and danced, so why should you not sympathetically do this for the energizing of the crops? In every country of the world the vernal season and the resurrection of the Sun has been greeted with dances and the sound of music. But if you wanted success in hunting or in warfare then you danced before-hand mimic dances suggesting the successful hunt or battle. It was no more than our children do to-day, and it all was, and is, part of a natural-magic tendency in human thought.
Let me pause here for a moment. It is difficult for us with our academical and somewhat school-boardy minds to enter into all this, and to understand the sense of (unconscious or sub-conscious) identification with the world around which characterized the primitive man - or to look upon Nature with his eyes. A Tree, a Snake, a Bull, an Ear of Corn. We know so well from our botany and natural history books what these things are. Why should our minds dwell on them any longer or harbor a doubt as to our perfect comprehension of them? And yet (one cannot help asking the question): Has any one of us really ever seen a Tree? I certainly do not think that I have - except most superficially. That very penetrating observer and naturalist, Henry D. Thoreau, tells us that he would often make an appointment to visit a certain tree, miles away - but what or whom he saw when he got there, he does not say. Walt Whitman, also a keen observer, speaks of a tulip-tree near which he sometimes sat-
"the Apollo of the woods - tall and graceful, yet robust and sinewy, inimitable in hang of foliage and throwing-out of limb; as if the beauteous, vital, leafy creature could walk, if it only would";
and mentions that in a dream-trance he actually once saw his
"favorite trees step out and promenade up, down and around very curiously." (Footnote 11)
Once the present writer seemed to have a partial vision of a tree. It was a beech, standing somewhat isolated, and still leafless in quite early Spring. Suddenly I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and up-turned finger-tips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them far into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots plunged in the earth and drawing the same energies from below. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of Earth and Sky, and full of a most amazing activity.
The reader of this will probably have had some similar experiences. Perhaps he will have seen a full-foliaged Lombardy poplar swaying in half a gale in June - the wind and the sun streaming over every little twig and leaf, the tree throwing out its branches in a kind of ecstasy and bathing them in the passionately boisterous caresses of its two visitants; or he will have heard the deep glad murmur of some huge sycamore with ripening seed clusters when after weeks of drought the steady warm rain brings relief to its thirst; and he will have known that these creatures are but likenesses of himself, intimately and deeply-related to him in their love and hunger longing, and, like himself too, unfathomed and unfathomable.
It would be absurd to credit early man with conscious speculations like these, belonging more properly to the twentieth century; yet it is incontrovertible, I think, that in some ways the primitive peoples, with their swift subconscious intuitions and their minds unclouded by mere book knowledge, perceived truths to which we moderns are blind. Like the animals they arrived at their perceptions without (individual) brain effort; they knew things without thinking. When they did think of course they went wrong. Their budding science easily went astray. Religion with them had as yet taken no definite shape; science was equally protoplasmic; and all they had was a queer jumble of the two in the form of Magic. When at a later time Science gradually defined its outlook and its observations, and Religion, from being a vague subconscious feeling, took clear shape in the form of gods and creeds, then mankind gradually emerged into the stage of evolution in which we now are. Our scientific laws and doctrines are of course only temporary formulae, and so also are the gods and the creeds of our own and other religions; but these things, with their set and angular outlines, have served in the past and will serve in the future as stepping-stones towards another kind of knowledge of which at present we only dream, and will lead us on to a renewed power of perception which again will not be the laborious product of thought but a direct and instantaneous intuition like that of the animals - and the angels.
To return to our Tree. Though primitive man did not speculate in modern style on these things, I yet have no reasonable doubt that he felt (and feels, in those cases where we can still trace the workings of his mind) his essential relationship to the creatures of the forest more intimately, if less analytically, than we do to-day. If the animals with all their wonderful gifts are (as we readily admit) a veritable part of Nature - so that they live and move and have their being more or less submerged in the spirit of the great world around them - then Man, when he first began to differentiate himself from them, must for a long time have remained in this subconscious unity, becoming only distinctly conscious of it when he was already beginning to lose it. That early dawn of distinct consciousness corresponded to the period of belief in Magic. In that first mystic illumination almost every object was invested with a halo of mystery or terror or adoration. Things were either tabu, in which case they were dangerous, and often not to be touched or even looked upon - or they were overflowing with magic grace and influence, in which case they were holy, and any rite which released their influence was also holy. William Blake, that modern prophetic child, beheld a Tree full of angels; the Central Australian native believes bushes to be the abode of spirits which leap into the bodies of passing women and are the cause of the conception of children; Moses saw in the desert a bush (perhaps the mimosa) like a flame of fire, with Jehovah dwelling in the midst of it, and he put off his shoes for he felt that the place was holy; Osiris was at times regarded as a Tree-spirit (Footnote 12); and in inscriptions is referred to as "the solitary one in the acacia" - which reminds us curiously of the "burning bush." The same is true of others of the gods; in the old Norse mythology Ygdrasil was the great branching World-Ash, abode of the soul of the universe; the Peepul or Bo-tree in India is very sacred and must on no account be cut down, seeing that gods and spirits dwell among its branches. It is of the nature of an Aspen, and of little or no practical use, (Footnote 13) but so holy that the poorest peasant will not disturb it. The Burmese believe the things of nature, but especially the trees, to be the abode of spirits.
"To the Burman of to-day, not less than to the Greek of long ago, all nature is alive. The forest and the river and the mountains are full of spirits, whom the Burmans call Nats. There are all kinds of Nats, good and bad, great and little, male and female, now living round about us. Some of them live in the trees, especially in the huge figtree that shades half-an-acre without the village; or among the fern-like fronds of the tamarind." (Footnote 14)
There are also in India and elsewhere popular rites of marriage of women (and men) to Trees; which suggest that trees were regarded as very near akin to human beings! The Golden Bough (Footnote 15) mentions many of these, including the idea that some trees are male and others female. The well-known Assyrian emblem of a Pine cone being presented by a priest to a Palm-tree is supposed by E. B. Tylor to symbolize fertilization - the Pine cone being masculine and the Palm feminine. The ceremony of the god Krishna's marriage to a Basil plant is still celebrated in India down to the present day; and certain trees are clasped and hugged by pregnant women - the idea no doubt being that they bestow fertility on those who embrace them. In other cases apparently it is the trees which are benefited, since it is said that men sometimes go naked into the Clove plantations at night in order by a sort of sexual intercourse to fertilize them.
One might go on multiplying examples in this direction quite indefinitely. There is no end to them. They all indicate - what was instinctively felt by early man, and is perfectly obvious to all to-day who are not blinded by "civilization" (and Herbert Spencer!) that the world outside us is really most deeply akin to ourselves, that it is not dead and senseless but intensely alive and instinct with feeling and intelligence resembling our own. It is this perception, this conviction of our essential unity with the whole of creation, which lay from the first at the base of all Religion; yet at first, as I have said, was hardly a conscious perception. Only later, when it gradually became more conscious, did it evolve itself into the definite forms of the gods and the creeds - but of that process I will speak more in detail presently.
The Tree therefore was a most intimate presence to the Man. It grew in the very midst of his Garden of Eden. It had a magical virtue, which his tentative science could only explain by chance analogies and assimilations. Attractive and beloved and worshipped by reason of its many gifts to mankind - its grateful shelter, its abounding fruits, its timber, and other invaluable products - why should it not become the natural emblem of the female, to whom through sex man's worship is ever drawn? If the Snake has an unmistakable resemblance to the male organ in its active state, the foliage of the tree or bush is equally remindful of the female. What more clear than that the conjunction of Tree and Serpent is the fulfilment in nature of that sex-mystery which is so potent in the life of man and the animals? and that the magic ritual most obviously fitted to induce fertility in the tribe or the herds (or even the crops) is to set up an image of the Tree and the Serpent combined, and for all the tribe-folk in common to worship and pay it reverence. In the Bible with more or less veiled sexual significance we have this combination in the Eden-garden, and again in the brazen Serpent and Pole which Moses set up in the wilderness (as a cure for the fiery serpents of lust); illustrations of the same are said to be found in the temples of Egypt and of South India, and even in the ancient temples of Central America. (Footnote 17) In the myth of Hercules the golden apples of the Hesperides garden are guarded by a dragon. The Etruscans, the Persians and the Babylonians had also legends of the Fall of man through a serpent tempting him to taste of the fruit of a holy Tree. And De Gubernatis, (Footnote 18) pointing out the phallic meaning of these stories, says
"the legends concerning the tree of golden apples or figs which yields honey or ambrosia, guarded by dragons, in which the life, the fortune, the glory, the strength and the riches of the hero have their beginning, are numerous among every people of Aryan origin: in India, Persia, Russia, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Greece and Italy."
Thus we see the natural-magic tendency of the human mind asserting itself. To some of us indeed this tendency is even greater in the case of the Snake than in that of the Tree. W. H. Hudson, in Far Away and Long Ago, speaks of
"that sense of something supernatural in the serpent, which appears to have been universal among peoples in a primitive state of culture, and still survives in some barbarous or semi-barbarous countries."
The fascination of the Snake - the fascination of its mysteriously gliding movement, of its vivid energy, its glittering eye, its intensity of life, combined with its fatal dart of Death - is a thing felt even more by women than by men - and for a reason (from what we have already said) not far to seek. It was the Woman who in the story of the Fall was the first to listen to its suggestions. No wonder that, as Professor Murray says, (Footnote 19) the Greeks worshiped a gigantic snake (Meilichios) the lord of Death and Life, with ceremonies of appeasement, and sacrifices, long before they arrived at the worship of Zeus and the Olympian gods.
Or let us take the example of an Ear of Corn. Some people wonder - hearing nowadays that the folk of old used to worship a Corn-spirit or Corn-god - wonder that any human beings could have been so foolish. But probably the good people who wonder thus have never really looked (with their town-dazed eyes) at a growing spike of wheat. (Footnote 20) Of all the wonderful things in Nature I hardly know any that thrills one more with a sense of wizardry than just this very thing - to observe, each year, this disclosure of the Ear within the Blade - first a swelling of the sheath, then a transparency and a whitey-green face within a hooded shroud, and then the perfect spike of grain disengaging itself and spiring upward towards the sky - "the resurrection of the wheat with pale visage appearing out of the ground."
If this spectacle amazes one to-day, what emotions must it not have aroused in the breasts of the earlier folk, whose outlook on the world was so much more direct than ours - more 'animistic' if you like! What wonderment, what gratitude, what deliverance from fear (of starvation), what certainty that this being who had been ruthlessly cut down and sacrificed last year for human food had indeed arisen again as a savior of men, what readiness to make some human sacrifice in return, both as an acknowledgment of the debt, and as a gift of something which would no doubt be graciously accepted! - (for was it not well known that where blood had been spilt on the ground the future crop was so much more generous?) - what readiness to adopt some magic ritual likely to propitiate the unseen power - even though the outline and form of the latter were vague and uncertain in the extreme! Dr. Frazer, speaking of the Egyptian Osiris as one out of many corn-gods of the above character, says (Footnote 21):
"The primitive conception of him as the corn-god comes clearly out in the festival of his death and resurrection, which was celebrated the month of Athyr. That festival appears to have been essentially a festival of sowing, which properly fell at the time when the husbandman actually committed the seed to the earth. On that occasion an effigy of the corn-god, moulded of earth and corn, was buried with funeral rites in the ground in order that, dying there, he might come to life again with the new crops. The ceremony was in fact a charm to ensure the growth of the corn by sympathetic magic, and we may conjecture that as such it was practised in a simple form by every Egyptian farmer on his fields long before it was adopted and transfigured by the priests in the stately ritual of the temple." (Footnote 22)
The magic in this case was of a gentle description; the clay image of Osiris sprouting all over with the young green blade was pathetically poetic; but, as has been suggested, bloodthirsty ceremonies were also common enough. Human sacrifices, it is said, had at one time been offered at the grave of Osiris. We bear that the Indians in Ecuador used to sacrifice men's hearts and pour out human blood on their fields when they sowed them; the Pawnee Indians used a human victim the same, allowing his blood to drop on the seed-corn. It is said that in Mexico girls were sacrificed, and that the Mexicans would sometimes grind their (male) victim, like corn, between two stones. ("I'll grind his bones to make me bread.") Among the Khonds of East India - who were particularly given to this kind of ritual - the very tears of the sufferer were an incitement to more cruelties, for tears of course were magic for Rain. (Footnote 23)
And so on. We have referred to the Bull many times, both in his astronomical aspect as pioneer of the Spring- Sun, and in his more direct role as plougher of the fields, and provider of food from his own body. "The tremendous mana of the wild bull," says Gilbert Murray, "occupies almost half the stage of pre-Olympic ritual." (Footnote 24) Even to us there is something mesmeric and overwhelming in the sense of this animal's glory of strength and fury and sexual power. No wonder the primitives worshiped him, or that they devised rituals which should convey his power and vitality by mere contact, or that in sacramental feasts they ate his flesh and drank his blood as a magic symbol and means of salvation.
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