|PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS|
Their Origin and Meaning
|The Edward Carpenter Archive|
by Simon Dawson
The tradition of a "Golden Age" is widespread over the world, and it is not necessary to go at any length into the story of the Garden of Eden and the other legends which in almost every country illustrate this tradition. Without indulging in sentiment on the subject we may hold it not unlikely that the tradition is justified by the remembrance, among the people of every race, of a pre-civilization period of comparative harmony and happiness when two things, which to-day we perceive to be the prolific causes of discord and misery, were absent or only weakly developed - namely, property and self-consciousness (Footnote 1)
During the first century B.C. there was a great spread of Messianic Ideas over the Roman world, and Virgil's 4th Eclogue, commonly called the Messianic Eclogue, reflects very clearly this state of the public mind. The expected babe in the poem was to be the son of Octavian (Augustus) the first Roman emperor, and a messianic halo surrounded it in Virgil's verse. Unfortunately it turned out to be a girl! However there is little doubt that Virgil did - in that very sad age of the world, an age of "misery and massacre," and in common with thousands of others - look for the coming of a great 'redeemer.' It was only a few years earlier - about B.C. 70 - that the great revolt of the shamefully maltreated Roman slaves occurred, and that in revenge six thousand prisoners from Spartacus' army were nailed on crosses all the way from Rome to Capua (150 miles). But long before this Hesiod had recorded a past Golden Age when life had been gracious in communal fraternity and joyful in peace, when human beings and animals spoke the same language, when death had followed on sleep, without old age or disease, and after death men had moved as good daimones or genii over the lands. Pindar, three hundred years after Hesiod, had confirmed the existence of the Islands of the Blest, where the good led a blameless, tearless, life. Plato the same, (Footnote 2) with further references to the fabled island of Atlantis; the Egyptians believed in a former golden age under the god Ra to which they looked back with regret and envy; the Persians had a garden of Eden similar to that of the Hebrews; the Greeks a garden of the Hesperides, in which dwelt the serpent whose head was ultimately crushed beneath the heel of Hercules; and so on. The references to a supposed far-back state of peace and happiness are indeed numerous.
So much so that latterly, and partly to explain their prevalence, a theory has been advanced which may be worth while mentioning. It is called the "Theory of intra-uterine Blessedness," and, remote as it may at first appear, it certainly has some claim for attention. The theory is that in the minds of mature people there still remain certain vague memories of their pre-natal days in the maternal womb - memories of a life which, though full of growing vigor and vitality, was yet at that time one of absolute harmony with the surroundings, and of perfect peace and contentment, spent within the body of the mother - the embryo indeed standing in the same relation to the mother as St. Paul says we stand to God, "in whom we live and move and have our being"; and that these vague memories of the intra-uterine life in the individual are referred back by the mature mind to a past age in the life of the race. Though it would not be easy at present to positively confirm this theory, yet one may say that it is neither improbable nor unworthy of consideration; also that it bears a certain likeness to the former ones about the Eden-gardens, etc. The well-known parallelism of the Individual history with the Race-history, the "recapitulation" by the embryo of the development of the race, does in fact afford an additional argument for its favorable reception.
These considerations, and what we have said so often in the foregoing chapters about the unity of the Animals (and Early Man) with Nature, and their instinctive and age-long adjustment to the conditions of the world around them, bring us up hard and fast against the following conclusions, which I think we shall find difficult to avoid.
We all recognize the extraordinary grace and beauty, in their different ways, of the (wild) animals; and not only their beauty but the extreme fitness of their actions and habits to their surroundings - their subtle and penetrating Intelligence in fact. Only we do not generally use the word "Intelligence." We use another word (Instinct) - and rightly perhaps, because their actions are plainly not the result of definite self-conscious reasoning, such as we use, carried out by each individual; but are (as has been abundantly proved by Samuel Butler and others) the systematic expression of experiences gathered up and sorted out and handed down from generation to generation in the bosom of the race - an Intelligence in fact, or Insight, of larger subtler scope than the other, and belonging to the tribal or racial Being rather than to the isolated individual - a super-consciousness in fact, ramifying afar in space and time.
But if we allow (as we must) this unity and perfection of nature, and this somewhat cosmic character of the mind, to exist among the Animals, we can hardly refuse to believe that there must have been a period when Man, too, hardly as yet differentiated from them, did himself possess these same qualities - perhaps even in greater degree than the animals - of grace and beauty of body, perfection of movement and action, instinctive perception and knowledge (of course in limited spheres); and a period when he possessed above all a sense of unity with his fellows and with surrounding Nature which became the ground of a common consciousness between himself and his tribe, similar to that which Maeterlinck, in the case of the Bees, calls the Spirit of the Hive. (Footnote 3) It would be difficult, nay impossible, to suppose that human beings on their first appearance formed an entire exception in the process of evolution, or that they were completely lacking in the very graces and faculties which we so admire in the animals - only of course we see that (like the animals) they would not be self-conscious in these matters, and what perception they had of their relations to each other or to the world around them would be largely inarticulate and sub-conscious - though none the less real for that.
Let us then grant this preliminary assumption - and it clearly is not a large or hazardous one - and what follows? It follows - since to-day discord is the rule, and Man has certainly lost the grace, both physical and mental, of the animals - that at some period a break must have occurred in the evolution-process, a discontinuity - similar perhaps to that which occurs in the life of a child at the moment when it is born into the world. Humanity took a new departure; but a departure which for the moment was signalized as a loss - the loss of its former harmony and self-adjustment. And the cause or accompaniment of this change was the growth of Self-consciousness. Into the general consciousness of the tribe (in relation to its environment) which in fact had constituted the mentality of the animals and of man up to this stage, there now was intruded another kind of consciousness, a consciousness centering round each little individual self and concerned almost entirely with the interests of the latter. Here was evidently a threat to the continuance of the former happy conditions. It was like the appearance of innumerable little ulcers in a human body - a menace which if continued would inevitably lead to the break-up of the body. It meant loss of tribal harmony and nature-adjustment. It meant instead of unity a myriad conflicting centres; it meant alienation from the spirit of the tribe, the separation of man from man, discord, recrimination, and the fatal unfolding of the sense of sin. The process symbolized itself in the legend of the Fall. Man ate of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Sometimes people wonder why knowledge of any kind - and especially the knowledge of good and evil - should have brought a curse. But the reason is obvious. Into, the placid and harmonious life of the animal and human tribes fulfilling their days in obedience to the slow evolutions and age-long mandates of nature, Self-consciousness broke with its inconvenient and impossible query:
"How do these arrangements suit me? Are they good for me, are they evil for me? I want to know. I will know!"
Evidently knowledge (such knowledge as we understand by the word) only began, and could only begin, by queries relating to the little local self. There was no other way for it to begin. Knowledge and self- consciousness were born, as twins, together. Knowledge therefore meant Sin (Footnote 4); for self-consciousness meant sin (and it means sin to-day). Sin is Separation. That is probably (though disputed) the etymology of the word - that which sunders. (Footnote 5) The essence of sin is one's separation from the whole (the tribe or the god) of which one is a part. And knowledge - which separates subject from object, and in its inception is necessarily occupied with the 'good and evil' of the little local self, is the great engine of this separation. [Mark! I say nothing against this association of Self-consciousness with 'Sin' (so-called) and 'Knowledge' (so-called). The growth of all three together is an absolutely necessary part of human evolution, and to rail against it would be absurd. But we may as well open our eyes and see the fact straight instead of blinking it.] The culmination of the process and the fulfilment of the 'curse' we may watch to-day in the towering expansion of the self-conscious individualized Intellect - science as the handmaid of human Greed devastating the habitable world and destroying its unworthy civilization. And the process must go on - necessarily must go on - until Self-consciousness, ceasing its vain quest (vain in both senses) for the separate domination of life, surrenders itself back again into the arms of the Mother-consciousness from which it originally sprang - surrenders itself back, not to be merged in nonentity, but to be affiliated in loving dependence on and harmony with the cosmic life.
All this I have dealt with in far more detail in Civilization: its Cause and Cure, and in The Art of Creation; but I have only repeated the outline of it as above, because some such outline is necessary for the proper ordering and understanding of the points which follow.
We are not concerned now with the ultimate effects of the 'Fall' of Man or with the present-day fulfilment of the Eden-curse. What we want to understand is how the 'Fall' into self-consciousness led to that great panorama of Ritual and Religion which we have very briefly described and summarized in the preceding chapters of this book. We want for the present to fix our attention on the commencement of that process by which man lapsed away from his living community with Nature and his fellows into the desert of discord and toil, while the angels of the flaming sword closed the gates of Paradise behind him.
It is evident I think that in that 'golden' stage when man was simply the crown and perfection of the animals - and it is hardly possible to refuse the belief in such a stage - he possessed in reality all the essentials of Religion. (Footnote 6) It is not necessary to sentimentalize over him; he was probably raw and crude in his lusts of hunger and of sex; he was certainly ignorant and superstitious; he loved fighting with and persecuting 'enemies' (which things of course all religions to-day - except perhaps the Buddhist - love to do); he was dominated often by unreasoning Fear, and was consequently cruel. Yet he was full of that Faith which the animals have to such an admirable degree - unhesitating faith in the inner promptings of his own nature; he had the joy which comes of abounding vitality, springing up like a fountain whose outlet is free and unhindered; he rejoiced in an untroubled and unbroken sense of unity with his Tribe, and in elaborate social and friendly institutions within its borders; he had a marvelous sense-acuteness towards Nature and a gift in that direction verging towards "second-sight"; strengthened by a conviction - which had never become conscious because it had never been questioned - of his own personal relation to the things outside him, the Earth, the Sky, the Vegetation, the Animals. Of such a Man we get glimpses in the far past - though indeed only glimpses, for the simple reason that all our knowledge of him comes through civilized channels; and wherever civilization has touched these early peoples it has already withered and corrupted them, even before it has had the sense to properly observe them. It is sufficient, however, just to mention peoples like some of the early Pacific Islanders, the Zulus and Kafirs of South Africa, the Fans of the Congo Region (of whom Winwood Reade (Footnote 7) speaks so highly), some of the Malaysian and Himalayan tribes, the primitive Chinese, and even the evidence with regard to the neolithic peoples of Europe, (Footnote 8) in order to show what I mean.
Perhaps one of the best ideas of the gulf of difference between the semi-civilized and the quite primal man is given by A. R. Wallace in his Life (Vol. i, p. 288):
"A most unexpected sensation of surprise and delight was my first meeting and living with man in a state of nature with absolute uncontaminated savages! This was on the Uaupes river. . . . They were all going about their own work or pleasure, which had nothing to do with the white men or their ways; they walked with the free step of the independent forest-dweller . . . original and self-sustaining as the wild animals of the forests, absolutely independent of civilization . . . living their own lives in their own way, as they had done for countless generations before America was discovered. Indeed the true denizen of the Amazonian forests, like the forest itself, is unique and not to be forgotten."
Elsewhere (Footnote 9) Wallace speaks of the quiet, good-natured, inoffensive character of these copper-colored peoples, and of their quickness of hand and skill, and continues:
"their figures are generally superb; and I have never felt so much pleasure in gazing at the finest statue as at these living illustrations of the beauty of the human form."
Though some of the peoples just mentioned may be said to belong to different grades or stages of human evolution and physically some no doubt were far superior to others, yet they mostly exhibit this simple grace of the bodily and mental organism, as well as that closeness of tribal solidarity of which I have spoken. The immense antiquity, of the clan organization, as shown by investigations into early marriage, points to the latter conclusion. Travellers among Bushmen, Hottentots, Fuegians, Esquimaux, Papuans and other peoples - peoples who have been pushed aside into unfavorable areas by the invasion of more warlike and better-equipped races, and who have suffered physically in consequence - confirm this. Kropotkin, speaking of the Hottentots, quotes the German author P. Kolben who travelled among them in 1275 or so.
"He knew the Hottentots well and did not pass by their defects in silence, but could not praise their tribal morality highly enough. Their word is sacred, he wrote, they know nothing of the corruption and faithless arts of Europe. They live in great tranquillity and are seldom at war with their neighbors, and are all kindness and goodwill to one another." (Footnote 10)
Kropotkin further says:
"Let me remark that when Kolben says 'they are certainly the most friendly, the most liberal and the most benevolent people to one another that ever appeared on the earth' he wrote a sentence which has continually appeared since in the description of savages. When first meeting with primitive races, the Europeans usually make a caricature of their life; but when an intelligent man has stayed among them for a longer time he generally describes them as the 'kindest' or the 'gentlest' race on the earth. These very same words have been applied to the Ostyaks, the Samoyedes, the Eskimos, the Dyaks, the Aleuts, the Papuans, and so on, by the highest authorities. I also remember having read them applied to the Tunguses, the Tchuktchis, the Sioux, and several others. The very frequency of that high commendation already speaks volumes in itself." (Footnote 11)
Many of the tribes, like the Aleuts, Eskimos, Dyaks, Papuans, Fuegians, etc., are themselves in the Neolithic stage of culture - though for the reason given above probably degenerated physically from the standard of their neolithic ancestors; and so the conclusion is forced upon one that there must have been an immense period, (Footnote 12) prior to the first beginnings of 'civilization,' in which the human tribes in general led a peaceful and friendly life on the earth, comparatively little broken up by dissensions, in close contact with Nature and in that degree of sympathy with and understanding of the Animals which led to the establishment of the Totem system. Though it would be absurd to credit these tribes with any great degree of comfort and well-being according to our modern standards, yet we may well suppose that the memory of this long period lingered on for generations and generations and was ultimately idealized into the Golden Age, in contrast to the succeeding period of everlasting warfare, rancor and strife, which came in with the growth of Property with its greeds and jealousies, and the accentuation of Self-consciousness with all its vanities and ambitions.
I say that each tribe at this early stage of development had within it the essentials of what we call Religion - namely a bedrock sense of its community with Nature, and of the Common life among its members - a sense so intimate and fundamental that it was hardly aware of itself (any more than the fish is aware of the sea in which it lives), but yet was really the matrix of tribal thought and the spring of tribal action. It was this sense of unity which was destined by the growth of self-consciousness to come to light and evidence in the shape of all manner of rituals and ceremonials; and by the growth of the imaginative intellect to embody itself in the figures and forms of all manner of deities.
Let us examine into this a little more closely. A lark soaring in the eye of the sun, and singing rapt between its "heaven and home" realizes no doubt in actual fact all that those two words mean to us; yet its realization is quite subconscious. It does not define its own experience: it feels but it does not think. In order to come to the stage of thinking it would perhaps be necessary that the lark should be exiled from the earth and the sky, and confined in a cage. Early Man felt the great truths and realities of Life - often I believe more purely than we do - but he could not give form to his experience. that stage came when he began to lose touch with these realities; and it showed itself in rites and ceremonials. The inbreak of self-consciousness brought out the facts of his inner life into ritualistic and afterwards into intellectual forms.
Let me give examples. For a long time the Tribe is all in all; the individual is completely subject to the 'Spirit of the Hive'; he does not even think of contravening it. Then the day comes when self-interest, as apart from the Tribe, becomes sufficiently strong to drive him against some tribal custom. He breaks the tabu; he eats the forbidden apple; he sins against the tribe, and is cast out. Suddenly he finds himself an exile, lonely, condemned and deserted. A horrible sense of distress seizes him - something of which he had no experience before. He tries to think about it all, to understand the situation, but is dazed and cannot arrive at any conclusion. His one necessity is Reconciliation, Atonement. He finds he cannot live outside of and alienated from his tribe. He makes a Sacrifice, an offering to his fellows, as a seal of sincerity - an offering of his own bodily suffering or precious blood, or the blood of some food-animal, or some valuable gift or other - if only he may be allowed to return. The offering is accepted. The ritual is performed; and he is received back. I have already spoken of this perfectly natural evolution of the twin-ideas of Sin and Sacrifice, so I need not enlarge upon the subject. But two things we may note here: (1) that the ritual, being so concrete (and often severe), graves itself on the minds of those concerned, and expresses the feelings of the tribe, with an intensity and sharpness of outline which no words could rival, and (2) that such rituals may have, and probably did, come into use even while language itself was in an infantile condition and incapable of dealing with the psychological situation except by symbols. They, the rituals, were the first effort of the primitive mind to get beyond, subconscious feeling and emerge into a world of forms and definite thought.
Let us carry the particular instance, given above, a stage farther, even to the confines of abstract Thought and Philosophy. I have spoken of "The Spirit of the Hive" as if the term were applicable to the Human as well as to the Bee tribe. The individual bee obviously has never thought about that 'Spirit,' nor mentally understood what Maeterlinck means by it; and yet in terms of actual experience it is an intense reality to the bee (ordaining for instance on some fateful day the slaughter of all the drones), controlling bee-movements and bee- morality generally. The individual tribesman similarly steeped in the age-long human life of his fellows has never thought of the Tribe as an ordaining being or Spirit, separate from himself - till that day when he is exiled and outcast from it. Then he sees himself and the tribe as two opposing beings, himself of course an Intelligence or Spirit in his own limited degree, the Tribe as a much greater Intelligence or Spirit, standing against and over him. From that day the conception of a god arises on him. It may be only a totem-god - a divine Grizzly-Bear or what not - but still a god or supernatural Presence, embodied in the life of the tribe. This is what Sin has taught him. (Footnote 13) This is what Fear, founded on self-consciousness, has revealed to him. The revelation may be true, or it may be fallacious (I do not prejudge it); but there it is - the beginning of that long series of human evolutions which we call Religion.
[For when the human mind has reached that stage of consciousness in which each man realizes his own 'self' as a rational and consistent being, "looking before and after," then, as I have said already, the mind projects on the background of Nature similarly rational Presences which we may call 'Gods'; and at that stage 'Religion' begins. Before that, when the mind is quite unformed and dream-like, and consists chiefly of broken and scattered rays, and when distinct self-consciousness is hardly yet developed, then the presences imagined in Nature are merely flickering and intermittent phantoms, and their propitiation and placation comes more properly under, the head of 'Magic.']
So much for the genesis of the religious ideas of Sin and Sacrifice, and the rites connected with these ideas - their genesis through the in-break of self-consciousness upon the corporate sub-consciousness of the life of the Community. But an exactly similar process may be observed in the case of the other religious ideas.
I spoke of the doctrine of the second birth, and the rites connected with it both in Paganism and in Christianity. There is much to show that among quite primitive peoples there is less of shrinking from death and more of certainty about a continued life after death than we generally find among more intellectual and civilized folk. It is, or has been, quite, common among many tribes for the old and decrepit, who are becoming a burden to their fellows, to offer themselves for happy dispatch, and to take willing part in the ceremonial preparations for their own extinction; and this readiness is encouraged by their naive and untroubled belief in a speedy transference to "happy hunting-grounds" beyond the grave. The truth is that when, as in such cases, the tribal life is very whole and unbroken - each individual identifying himself completely with the tribe - the idea of the individual's being dropped out at death, and left behind by the tribe, hardly arises. The individual is the tribe, has no other existence. The tribe goes on, living a life which is eternal, and only changes its hunting-grounds; and the individual, identified with the tribe, feels in some subconscious way the same about himself.
But when one member has broken faith with the tribe, when he has sinned against it and become an outcast - ah! then the terrors of death and extinction loom large upon him. "The wages of sin is death." There comes a period in the evolution of tribal life when the primitive bonds are loosening, when the tendency towards self-will and self-determination (so necessary of course in the long run for the evolution of humanity) becomes a real danger to the tribe, and a terror to the wise men and elders of the community. It is seen that the children inherit this tendency - even from their infancy. They are no longer mere animals, easily herded; it seems that they are born in sin - or at least in ignorance and neglect of their tribal life and calling. The only cure is that they must be born again. They must deliberately and of set purpose be adopted into the tribe, and be made to realize, even severely, in their own persons what is happening. They must go through the initiations necessary to impress this upon them. Thus a whole series of solemn rites spring up, different no doubt in every locality, but all having the same object and purpose. [And one can understand how the necessity of such initiations and second birth may easily have been itself felt in every race, at some stage of its evolution - and that quite as a spontaneous growth, and independently of any contagion of example caught from other races.]
The same may be said about the world-wide practice of the Eucharist. No more effective method exists for impressing on the members of a body their community of life with each other, and causing them to forget their jangling self-interests, than to hold a feast in common. It is a method which has been honored in all ages as well as to-day. But when the flesh partaken of at the feast is that of the Totem - the guardian and presiding genius of the tribe - or perhaps of one of its chief food-animals - then clearly the feast takes on a holy and solemn character. It becomes a sacrament of unity - of the unity of all with the tribe, and with each other. Self-interests and self- consciousness are for the time submerged, and the common life asserts itself; but here again we see that a custom like this would not come into being as a deliberate rite until self-consciousness and the divisions consequent thereon had grown to be an obvious evil. The herd-animals (cows, sheep, and so forth) do not have Eucharists, simply because they are sensible enough to feed along the same pastures without quarrelling over the richest tufts of grass.
When the flesh partaken of (either actually or symbolically) is not that of a divinized animal, but the flesh of a human-formed god - as in the mysteries of Dionysus or Osiris or Christ - then we are led to suspect (and of course this theory is widely held and supported) that the rites date from a very far-back period when a human being, as representative of the tribe, was actually slain, dismembered and partly devoured; though as time went on, the rite gradually became glossed over and mitigated into a love-communion through the sharing of bread and wine.
It is curious anyhow that the dismemberment or division into fragments of the body of a god (as in the case of Dionysus, Osiris, Attis, Prajapati and others) should be so frequent a tenet of the old religions, and so commonly associated with a love-feast of reconciliation and resurrection. It may be fairly interpreted as a symbol of Nature-dismemberment in Winter and resurrection in Spring; but we must also not forget that it may (and indeed must) have stood as an allegory of tribal dismemberment and reconciliation - the tribe, conceived of as a divinity, having thus suffered and died through the inbreak of sin and the self-motive, and risen again into wholeness by the redemption of love and sacrifice. Whatever view the rank and file of the tribe may have taken of the matter, I think it is incontestable that the more thoughtful regarded these rites as full of mystic and spiritual meaning. It is of the nature, as I have said before, of these early symbols and ceremonies that they held so many meanings in solution; and it is this fact which gave them a poetic or creative quality, and their great hold upon the public mind.
I use the word "tribe" in many places here as a matter of convenience; not forgetting however that in some cases "clan" might be more appropriate, as referring to a section of a tribe; or "people" or "folk" as referring to unions of several tribes. It is impossible of course to follow out all the gradations of organization from tribal up to national life; but it may be remembered that while animal totems prevail as a rule in the earlier stages, human-formed gods become more conspicuous in the later developments. All through, the practice of the Eucharist goes on, in varying forms adapting itself to the surrounding conditions; and where in the later societies a religion like Mithraism or Christianity includes people of very various race, the Rite loses quite naturally its tribal significance and becomes a celebration of allegiance to a particular god - of unity within a special Church, in fact. Ultimately it may become - as for a brief moment in the history of the early Christians it seemed likely to do - a celebration of allegiance to all Humanity, irrespective of race or creed or color of skin or of mind: though unfortunately that day seems still far distant and remains yet unrealized. It must not be overlooked, however, that the religion of the Persian Bab, first promulgated in 1845 to 1850 - and a subject I shall deal with presently - had as a matter of fact this all embracing and universal scope.
To return to the Golden Age or Garden of Eden. Our conclusion seems to be that there really was such a period of comparative harmony in human life - to which later generations were justified in looking back, and looking back with regret. It corresponded in the psychology of human Evolution to stage One. The second stage was that of the Fall; and so one is inevitably led to the conjecture and the hope that a third stage will redeem the earth and its inhabitants to a condition of comparative blessedness.
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