|PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS|
Their Origin and Meaning
|The Edward Carpenter Archive|
by Simon Dawson
There is a passage in Richard Jefferies' imperishably beautiful book The Story of my Heart - a passage well known to all lovers of that prose-poet - in which he figures himself standing "in front of the Royal Exchange where the wide pavement reaches out like a promontory," and pondering on the vast crowd and the mystery of life.
"Is there any theory, philosophy, or creed,"
"is there any system of culture, any formulated method, able to meet and satisfy each separate item of this agitated pool of human life? By which they may be guided, by which they may hope, by which look forward? Not a mere illusion of the craving heart - something real, as real as the solid walls of fact against which, like seaweed, they are dashed; something to give each separate personality sunshine and a flower in its own existence now; something to shape this million-handed labor to an end and outcome that will leave more sunshine and more flowers to those who must succeed? Something real now, and not in the spirit-land; in this hour now, as I stand and the sun burns. . . . Full well aware that all has failed, yet, side by side with the sadness of that knowledge, there lives on in me an unquenchable belief, thought burning like the sun, that there is yet something to be found. . . . It must be dragged forth by the might of thought from the immense forces of the universe."
In answer to this passage we may say "No, - a thousand times No! there is no theory, philosophy, creed, system or formulated method which will meet or ever satisfy the demand of each separate item of the human whirlpool." And happy are we to know there is no such thing! How terrible if one of these bloodless 'systems' which strew the history of religion and philosophy and the political and social paths of human endeavor had been found absolutely correct and universally applicable - so that every human being would be compelled to pass through its machine-like maw, every personality to be crushed under its Juggernath wheels! No, thank Heaven! there is no theory or creed or system; and yet there is something - as Jefferies prophetically felt and with a great longing desired - that can satisfy; and that, the root of all religion, has been hinted at in the last chapter. It is the consciousness of the world-life burning, blazing, deep down within us: it is the Soul's intuition of its roots in Omnipresence and Eternity.
The gods and the creeds of the past, as shown in the last chapter - whatever they may have been, animistic or anthropomorphic or transcendental, whether grossly brutish or serenely ideal and abstract - are essentially projections of the human mind; and no doubt those who are anxious to discredit the religious impulse generally will catch at this, saying "Yes, they are mere forms and phantoms of the mind, ephemeral dreams, projected on the background of Nature, and having no real substance or solid value. The history of Religion (they will say) is a history of delusion and illusion; why waste time over it? These divine grizzly Bears or Aesculapian Snakes, these cat-faced Pashts, this Isis, queen of heaven, and Astarte and Baal and Indra and Agni and Kali and Demeter and the Virgin Mary and Apollo and Jesus Christ and Satan and the Holy Ghost, are only shadows cast outwards onto a screen; the constitution of the human mind makes them all tend to be anthropomorphic; but that is all; they each and all inevitably pass away. Why waste time over them?"
And this is in a sense a perfectly fair way of looking at the matter. These gods and creeds are only projections of the human mind. But all the same it misses, does this view, the essential fact. It misses the fact that there is no shadow without a fire, that the very existence of a shadow argues a light somewhere (though we may not directly see it) as well as the existence of a solid form which intercepts that light. Deep, deep in the human mind there is that burning blazing light of the world-consciousness - so deep indeed that the vast majority of individuals are hardly aware of its existence. Their gaze turned outwards is held and riveted by the gigantic figures and processions passing across their sky; they are unaware that the latter are only shadows - silhouettes of the forms inhabiting their own minds. (Footnote 1) The vast majority of people have never observed their own minds; their own mental forms. They have only observed the reflections cast by these. Thus it may be said, in this matter, that there are three degrees of reality. There are the mere shadows - the least real and most evanescent; there are the actual mental outlines of humanity (and of the individual), much more real, but themselves also of course slowly changing; and most real of all, and permanent, there is the light "which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" - the glorious light of the world-consciousness. Of this last it may be said that it never changes. Every thing is known to it - even the very impediments to its shining. But as it is from the impediments to the shining of a light that shadows are cast, so we now may understand that the things of this world and of humanity, though real in their degree, have chiefly a kind of negative value; they are opaquenesses, clouds, materialisms, ignorances, and the inner light falling upon them gradually reveals their negative character and gradually dissolves them away till they are lost in the extreme and eternal Splendor. I think Jefferies, when he asked that question with which I have begun this chapter, was in some sense subconsciously, if not quite consciously, aware of the answer. His frequent references to the burning blazing sun throughout The Story of the Heart seem to be an indication of his real deep-down attitude of mind.
The shadow-figures of the creeds and theogonies pass away truly like ephemeral dreams; but to say that time spent in their study is wasted, is a mistake, for they have value as being indications of things much more real than themselves, namely, of the stages of evolution of the human mind. The fact that a certain god-figure, however grotesque and queer, or a certain creed, however childish, cruel, and illogical, held sway for a considerable time over the hearts of men in any corner or continent of the world is good evidence that it represented a real formative urge at the time in the hearts of those good people, and a definite stage in their evolution and the evolution of humanity. Certainly it was destined to pass away, but it was a step, and a necessary step in the great process; and certainly it was opaque and brutish, but it is through the opaque things of the world, and not through the transparent, that we become aware of the light. It may be worth while to give instances of how some early rituals and creeds, in themselves apparently barbarous or preposterous, were really the indications of important moral and social conceptions evolving in the heart of man. Let us take, first, the religious customs connected with the ideas of Sacrifice and of Sin, of which such innumerable examples are now to be found in the modern books on Anthropology. If we assume, as I have done more than once, that the earliest state of Man was one in which he did not consciously separate himself from the world, animate and inanimate, which surrounded him, then (as I have also said) it was perfectly natural for him to take some animal which bulked large on his horizon - some food-animal for instance - and to pay respect to it as the benefactor of his tribe, its far-back ancestor and totem-symbol; or, seeing the boundless blessing of the cornfields, to believe in some kind of spirit of the corn (not exactly a god but rather a magical ghost) which, reincarnated every year, sprang up to save mankind from famine. But then no sooner had he done this than he was bound to perceive that in cutting down the corn or in eating his totem-bear or kangaroo he was slaying his own best self and benefactor. In that instant the consciousness of disunity, the sense of sin in some undefined yet no less disturbing and alarming form would come in. If, before, his ritual magic had been concentrated on the simple purpose of multiplying the animal or, vegetable forms of his food, now in addition his magical endeavor would be turned to averting the just wrath of the spirits who animated these forms - just indeed, for the rudest savage would perceive the wrong done and the probability of its retribution. Clearly the wrong done could only be expiated by an equivalent sacrifice of some kind on the part of the man, or the tribe - that is by the offering to the totem-animal or to the corn-spirit of some victim whom these nature powers in their turn could feed upon and assimilate. In this way the nature-powers would be appeased, the sense of unity would be restored, and the first At-one-ment effected.
It is hardly necessary to recite in any detail the cruel and hideous sacrifices which have been perpetrated in this sense all over the world, sometimes in appeasement of a wrong committed or supposed to have been committed by the tribe or some member of it, sometimes in placation or for the averting of death, or defeat, or plague, sometimes merely in fulfilment of some long-standing custom of forgotten origin - the flayings and floggings and burnings and crucifixions of victims without end, carried out in all deliberation and solemnity of established ritual. I have mentioned some cases connected with the sowing of the corn. The Bible is full of such things, from the intended sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, to the actual crucifixion of Jesus by the Jews. The first- born sons were claimed by a god who called himself "jealous" and were only to be redeemed by a substitute. (Footnote 2) Of the Canaanites it was said that "even their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods"; (Footnote 3) and of the King of Moab, that when he saw his army in danger of defeat, "he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead and offered him for a burnt-offering on the wall!" (Footnote 4) Dr. Frazer (Footnote 5) mentions the similar case of the Carthaginians (about B.C. 300) sacrificing two hundred children of good family as a propitiation to Baal and to save their beloved city from the assaults of the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles. And even so we hear that on that occasion three hundred more young folk volunteered to die for the fatherland.
The awful sacrifices made by the Aztecs in Mexico to their gods Huitzilopochtli, Texcatlipoca, and others are described in much detail by Sahagun, the Spanish missionary of the sixteenth century. The victims were mostly prisoners of war or young children; they were numbered by thousands. In one case Sahagun describes the huge Idol or figure of the god as largely plated with gold and holding his hands palm upward and in a downward sloping position over a cauldron or furnace placed below. The children, who had previously been borne in triumphal state on litters over the crowd and decorated with every ornamental device of feathers and flowers and wings, were placed one by one on the vast hands and rolled down into the flames - as if the god were himself offering them. (Footnote 6) As the procession approached the temple, the members of it wept and danced and sang, and here again the abundance of tears was taken for a good augury of rain. (Footnote 7)
Bernal Diaz describes how he saw one of these monstrous figures - that of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, all inlaid with gold and precious stones; and beside it were "braziers, wherein burned the hearts of three Indians, torn from their bodies that very day, and the smoke of them and the savor of incense were the sacrifice."
Sahagun again (in Book II, ch. 5) gives a long account of the sacrifice of a perfect youth at Easter-time - which date Sabagun connects with the Christian festival of the Resurrection. For a whole year the youth had been held in honor and adored by the people as the very image of the god (Tetzcatlipoca) to whom he was to be sacrificed. Every luxury and fulfilment of his last wish (including such four courtesans as he desired) had been granted him. At the last and on the fatal day, leaving his companions and his worshipers behind, be slowly ascended the Temple staircase; stripping on each step the ornaments from his body; and breaking and casting away his flutes and other musical instruments; till, reaching the summit, he was stretched, curved on his back, and belly upwards, over the altar stone, while the priest with obsidian knife cut his breast open and, snatching the heart out, held it up, yet beating, as an offering to the Sun. In the meantime, and while the heart still lived, his successor for the next year was chosen.
In Book II, ch. 7 of the same work Sahagun describes the similar offering of a woman to a goddess. In both cases (he explains) of young man or young woman, the victims were richly adorned in the guise of the god or goddess to whom they were offered, and at the same time great largesse of food was distributed to all who needed. [Here we see the connection in the general mind between the gift of food (by the gods) and the sacrifice of precious blood (by the people).] More than once Sahagun mentions that the victims in these Mexican ceremonials not infrequently offered themselves as a voluntary sacrifice; and Prescott says (Footnote 8) that the offering of one's life to the gods was "sometimes voluntarily embraced, as a most glorious death opening a sure passage into Paradise."
Dr. Frazer describes (Footnote 9) the far-back Babylonian festival of the Sacaea in which "a prisoner, condemned to death, was dressed in the king's robes, seated on the king's throne, allowed to issue whatever commands he pleased, to eat, drink and enjoy himself, and even to lie with the king's concubines." But at the end of the five days he was stripped of his royal robes, scourged, and hanged or impaled. It is certainly astonishing to find customs so similar prevailing among peoples so far removed in space and time as the Aztecs of the sixteenth century A.D. and the Babylonians perhaps of the sixteenth century B.C. But we know that this subject of the yearly sacrifice of a victim attired as a king or god is one that Dr. Frazer has especially made his own, and for further information on it his classic work should be consulted.
Andrew Lang also, with regard to the Aztecs, quotes largely from Sahagun, and summarizes his conclusions in the following passage:
"The general theory of worship was the adoration of a deity, first by innumerable human sacrifices, next by the special sacrifice of a man for the male gods, of a woman for each goddess. (Footnote 10) The latter victims were regarded as the living images or incarnations of the divinities in, each case; for no system of worship carried farther the identification of the god with the sacrifice [? victim], and of both with the officiating priest. The connection was emphasized by the priests wearing the newly-flayed skins of the victims - just as in Greece, Egypt and Assyria, the fawn-skin or bull-hide or goat-skin or fish- skin of the victims is worn by the celebrants. Finally, an image of the god was made out of paste, and this was divided into morsels and eaten in a hideous sacrament by those who communicated." (Footnote 11)
Revolting as this whole picture is, it represents as we know a mere thumbnail sketch of the awful practices of human sacrifice all over the world. We hold up our hands in horror at the thought of Huitzilopochtli dropping children from his fingers into the flames, but we have to remember that our own most Christian Saint Augustine was content to describe unbaptized infants as crawling for ever about the floor of Hell! What sort of god, we may ask, did Augustine worship? The Being who could condemn children to such a fate was certainly no better than the Mexican Idol. And yet Augustine was a great and noble man, with some by no means unworthy conceptions of the greatness of his God. In the same way the Aztecs were in many respects a refined and artistic people, and their religion was not all superstition and bloodshed. Prescott says of them (Footnote 12) that they believed in a supreme Creator and Lord "omnipresent, knowing all thoughts, giving all gifts, without whom Man is as nothing - invisible, incorporeal, one God, of perfect perfection and purity, under whose wings we find repose and a sure defence." How can we reconcile St. Augustine with his own devilish creed, or the religious belief of the Aztecs with their unspeakable cruelties? Perhaps we can only reconcile them by remembering out of what deeps of barbarism and what nightmares of haunting Fear, man has slowly emerged - and is even now only slowly emerging; by remembering also that the ancient ceremonies and rituals of Magic and Fear remained on and were cultivated by the multitude in each nation long after the bolder and nobler spirits had attained to breathe a purer air; by remembering that even to the present day in each individual the Old and the New are for a long period thus intricately intertangled. It is hard to believe that the practice of human and animal sacrifice (with whatever revolting details) should have been cultivated by nine-tenths of the human race over the globe out of sheer perversity and without some reason which at any rate to the perpetrators themselves appeared commanding and convincing. To-day  we are witnessing in the Great European War a carnival of human slaughter which in magnitude and barbarity eclipses in one stroke all the accumulated ceremonial sacrifices of historical ages; and when we ask the why and wherefore of this horrid spectacle we are told, apparently in all sincerity, and by both the parties engaged, of the noble objects and commanding moralities which inspire and compel it. We can hardly, in this last case, disbelieve altogether in the genuineness of the plea, so why should we do so in the former case? In both cases we perceive that underneath the surface pretexts and moralities Fear is and was the great urging and commanding force.
The truth is that Sin and Sacrifice represent - if you once allow for the overwhelming sway of fear - perfectly reasonable views of human conduct, adopted instinctively by mankind since the earliest times. If in a moment of danger or an access of selfish greed you deserted your brother tribesman or took a mean advantage of him, you 'sinned' against him; and naturally you expiated the sin by an equivalent sacrifice of some kind made to the one you had wronged. Such an idea and such a practice were the very foundation of social life and human morality, and must have sprung up as soon as ever, in the course of evolution, man became capable of differentiating himself from his fellows and regarding his own conduct as that of a 'separate self.' It was in the very conception of a separate self that 'sin' and disunity first began; and it was by 'sacrifice' that unity and harmony were restored, appeasement and atonement effected.
But in those earliest times, as I have already indicated more than once, man felt himself intimately related not only to his brother tribesman, but to the animals and to general Nature. It was not so much that he thought thus as that he never thought otherwise! He felt subconsciously that he was a part of all this outer world. And so he adopted for his totems or presiding spirits every possible animal, as we have seen, and all sorts of nature-phenomena, such as rain and fire and water and clouds, and sun, moon and stars - which we consider quite senseless and inanimate. Towards these apparently senseless things therefore he felt the same compunction as I have described him feeling towards his brother tribesmen. He could sin against them too. He could sin against his totem-animal by eating it; he could sin against his 'brother the ox' by consuming its strength in the labor of the plough; he could sin against the corn by cutting it down and grinding it into flour, or against the precious and beautiful pine-tree by laying his axe to its roots and converting it into mere timber for his house. Further still, no doubt he could sin against elemental nature. This might be more difficult to be certain of, but when the signs of elemental displeasure were not to be mistaken - when the rain withheld itself for months, or the storms and lightning dealt death and destruction, when the crops failed or evil plagues afflicted mankind - then there could be little uncertainty that he had sinned; and Fear, which had haunted him like a demon from the first day when he became conscious of his separation from his fellows and from Nature, stood over him and urged to dreadful propitiations.
In all these cases some sacrifice in reparation was the obvious thing. We have seen that to atone for the cutting-down of the corn a human victim would often be slaughtered. The corn-spirit clearly approved of this, for wherever the blood and remains of the victim were strewn the corn always sprang up more plentifully. The tribe or human group made reparation thus to the corn; the corn-spirit signified approval. The 'sin' was expiated and harmony restored. Sometimes the sacrifice was voluntarily offered by a tribesman; sometimes it was enforced, by lot or otherwise; sometimes the victim was a slave, or a captive enemy; sometimes even an animal. All that did not so much matter. The main thing was that the formal expiation had been carried out, and the wrath of the spirits averted.
It is known that tribes whose chief food-animal was the bear felt it necessary to kill and eat a bear occasionally; but they could not do this without a sense of guilt, and some fear of vengeance from the great Bear-spirit. So they ate the slain bear at a communal feast in which the tribesmen shared the guilt and celebrated their community with their totem and with each other. And since they could not make any reparation directly to the slain animal itself after its death, they made their reparation before, bringing all sorts of presents and food to it for a long anterior period, and paying every kind of worship and respect to it. The same with the bull and the ox. At the festival of the Bouphonia, in some of the cities of Greece as I have already mentioned, the actual bull sacrificed was the handsomest and most carefully nurtured that could be obtained; it was crowned with flowers and led in procession with every mark of reverence and worship. And when - as I have already pointed out - at the great Spring festival, instead of a bull or a goat or a ram, a human victim was immolated, it was a custom (which can be traced very widely over the world) to feed and indulge and honor the victim to the last degree for a whole year before the final ceremony, arraying him often as a king and placing a crown upon his head, by way of acknowledgment of the noble and necessary work he was doing for the general good.
What a touching and beautiful ceremony was that - belonging especially to the North of Syria, and lands where the pine is so beneficent and beloved a tree - the mourning ceremony of the death and burial of Attis! when a pine-tree, felled by the axe, was hollowed out, and in the hollow an image (often itself carved out of pinewood) of the young Attis was placed. Could any symbolism express more tenderly the idea that the glorious youth - who represented Spring, too soon slain by the rude tusk of Winter - was himself the very human soul of the pine-tree? (Footnote 13) At some earlier period, no doubt, a real youth had been sacrificed and his body bound within the pine-tree? At some earlier period, no doubt, a real youth had been sacrificed and his body bound within the pine; but now it was deemed sufficient for the maidens to sing their wild songs of lamentation; and for the priests and male enthusiasts to cut and gash themselves with knives, or to sacrifice (as they did) to the Earth-mother the precious blood offering of their virile organs - symbols of fertility in return for the promised and expected renewal of Nature and the crops in the coming Spring. For the ceremony, as we have already seen, did not end with death and lamentation, but led on, perfectly naturally, after a day or two to a festival of resurrection, when it was discovered - just as in the case of Osiris - that the pine-tree coffin was empty, and the immortal life had flown. How strange the similarity and parallelism of all these things to the story of Jesus in the Gospels - the sacrifice of a life made in order to bring salvation to men and expiation of sins, the crowning of the victim, and arraying in royal attire, the scourging and the mockery, the binding or nailing to a tree, the tears of Mary, and the resurrection and the empty coffin! - or how not at all strange when we consider in what numerous forms and among how many peoples, this same parable and ritual had as a matter of fact been celebrated, and how it had ultimately come down to bring its message of redemption into a somewhat obscure Syrian city, in the special shape with which we are familiar.
Though the parable or legend in its special Christian form bears with it the consciousness of the presence of beings whom we may call gods, it is important to remember that in many or most of its earlier forms, though it dealt in 'spirits' - the spirit of the corn, or the spirit of the Spring, or the spirits of the rain and the thunder, or the spirits of totem-animals - it had not yet quite risen to the idea of gods. It had not risen to the conception of eternal deities sitting apart and governing the world in solemn conclave - as from the slopes of Olympus or the recesses of the Christian Heaven. It belonged, in fact, in its inception, to the age of Magic. The creed of Sin and Sacrifice, or of Guilt and Expiation - whatever we like to call it - was evolved perfectly naturally out of the human mind (when brought face to face with Life and Nature) at some early stage of its self-consciousness. It was essentially the result of man's deep, original and instinctive sense of solidarity with Nature, now denied and belied and to some degree broken up by the growth and conscious insistence of the self-regarding impulses. It was the consciousness of disharmony and disunity, causing men to feel all the more poignantly the desire and the need of reconciliation. It was a realization of union made clear by its very loss. It assumed of course, in a subconscious way as I have already indicated, that the external world was the habitat of a mind or minds similar to man's own; but that being granted, it is evident that the particular theories current in this or that place about the nature of the world - the theories, as we should say, of science or theology - did not alter the general outlines of the creed; they only colored its details and gave its ritual different dramatic settings. The mental attitudes, for instance, of Abraham sacrificing the ram, or of the Siberian angakout slaughtering a totem-bear, or of a modern and pious Christian contemplating the Saviour on the Cross are really almost exactly the same. I mention this because in tracing the origins or the evolution of religions it is important to distinguish clearly what is essential and universal from that which is merely local and temporary. Some people, no doubt, would be shocked at the comparisons just made; but surely it is much more inspiriting and encouraging to think that whatever progress has been made in the religious outlook of the world has come about through the gradual mental growth and consent of the peoples, rather than through some unique and miraculous event of a rather arbitrary and unexplained character - which indeed might never be repeated, and concerning which it would perhaps be impious to suggest that it should be repeated.
The consciousness then of Sin (or of alienation from the life of the whole), and of restoration or redemption through Sacrifice, seems to have disclosed itself in the human race in very far-back times, and to have symbolized itself in some most ancient rituals; and if we are shocked sometimes at the barbarities which accompanied those rituals, yet we must allow that these barbarities show how intensely the early people felt the solemnity and importance of the whole matter; and we must allow too that the barbarities did sear and burn themselves into rude and ignorant minds with the sense of the need of Sacrifice, and with a result perhaps which could not have been compassed in any other way.
For after all we see now that sacrifice is of the very essence of social life. "It is expedient that one man should die for the people"; and not only that one man should actually die, but (what is far more important) that each man should be ready and willing to die in that cause, when the occasion and the need arises. Taken in its larger meanings and implications Sacrifice, as conceived in the ancient world, was a perfectly reasonable thing. It should pervade modern life more than it does. All we have or enjoy flows from, or is implicated with, pain and suffering in others, and - if there is any justice in Nature or Humanity - it demands an equivalent readiness to suffer on our part. If Christianity has any real essence, that essence is perhaps expressed in some such ritual or practice of Sacrifice, and we see that the dim beginnings of this idea date from the far-back customs of savages coming down from a time anterior to all recorded history.
Forward to Chapter 8 | Return to Top of Page