Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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* Qapptlrt, fiva-T ai tov Oeov atffojantvov,
Earai yap rjulv tK irovuv aomjpla.

* Summarised in Themis, pp. 68-71.


themselves. This mysterious power in all things they
called Wakonda, and through it all things were related
to man and to each other. In the idea of the continuity
of life a relation was maintained between the seen and
the unseen, the dead and the living, and also between
the fragment of anything and its entirety."^ Thus an
Omaha novice might at any time seek to obtain Wakonda
by what was called the rite of the vision. He would go out
alone, fast, chant incantations, and finally fall into a
trance (much resembling what in modern times has been called
cosmic consciousness) in which he would perceive the inner
relations of all things and the solidarity of the least object
with the rest of the universe.

Another rite in connection with initiation, and common all
over the pagan world — in Greece, America, Africa, Aus-
tralia, New Mexico, etc. — was the daubing of the novice all
over with clay or chalk or even dung, and then after a
while removing the same.- The novice must have looked
a sufficiently ugly and uncomfortable object in this state;
but later, when he was thoroughly washed, the ceremony
must have afforded a thrilling illustration of the idea of
a new birth, and one which would dwell in the minds of
the spectators. When the daubing was done as not infre-
quently happened with white clay or gypsum, and the
ritual took place at night, it can easily be imagined
that the figures of young men and boys moving about in
the darkness would lend support to the idea that they
were spirits belonging to some intermediate world — who
had already passed through death and were now waiting
for their second birth on earth (or into the tribe) which
would be signalized by their thorough and ceremonial
washing. It will be remembered that Herodotus (viii, 27)
gives a circumstantial account of how the Phocians in

^ A. C. Fletcher, The Significance of the Scalp-lock, Journal of
Anthropological Studies, xxvii (1897-8), p. 436.

2 See A. Lang's Myth, Ritual and Religion, i, 274 sq.


a battle with the Thessalians smeared six hundred of their
bravest warriors with white clay so that, looking like
supernatural beings, and falling upon the Thessalians by
night, they terrified the latter and put them to instant

Such then — though only very scantily described — were some
of the rites of Initiation and Second Birth celebrated in the
old Pagan world. The subject is far too large for ade-
quate treatment within the present limits; but even so
we cannot but be struck by the appropriateness in many
cases of the teaching thus given to the young, the con-
creteness of the illustrations, the effectiveness of the sym-
bols used, the dramatic character of the rites, the strong
enforcement of lessons on the nature and duties of the
life into which the candidates were about to enter. Chris-
tianity followed on, and inherited these traditions, but
one feels that in its ceremonies of Baptism and Con-
firmation, which of course correspond to the Pagan In-
itiations, it falls short of the latter. Its ceremonies
(certainly as we have them to-day in Protestant countries)
are of a very milk-and- watery character; all allusion to
and teaching on the immensely important subject of Sex
is omitted, the details of social and industrial morality are
passed by, and instruction is limited to a few rather common-
place lessons in general morality and religion.

It may be appropriate here, before leaving the subject of
the Second Birth, to inquire how it has come about that
this doctrine — so remote and metaphysicial as it might
appear — has been taken up and embodied in their creeds
and rituals by quite primitive people all over the world,
to such a degree indeed that it has ultimately been adopted
and built into the foundations of the latter and more
intellectual religions, like Hinduism, Mithraism, and the
Egyptian and Christian cults. I think the answer to
this question must be found in the now-familiar fact that


the earliest peoples felt themselves so much a part of
Nature and the animal and vegetable world around them
that (whenever they thought about these matters at all)
they never for a moment doubted that the things which
were happening all round them in the external world were
also happening within themselves. They saw the Sun,
overclouded and nigh to death in winter, come to its birth
again each year; they saw the Vegetation shoot forth
anew in spring — the revival of the spirit of the Earth;
the endless breeding of the Animals, the strange trans-
formations of Worms and Insects; the obviously new life
taken on by boys and girls at puberty; the same at a later
age when the novice was transformed into the medicine-
man — the choupan into the angakok among the Esqui-
maux, the Dacotah youth into the wakan among the Red
Indians; and they felt in their sub-conscious way the
same everlasting forces of rebirth and transformation work-
ing within themselves. In some of the Greek Mysteries
the newly admitted Initiates were fed for some time
after on milk only "as though we were being born
again." (See Sallustius, quoted by Gilbert Murray.) When
sub-conscious knowledge began to glimmer into direct con-
sciousness one of the first aspects (and no doubt one of
the truest) imder which people saw life was just thus: as
a series of rebirths and transformations.^ The most mod-
ern science, I need hardly say, in biology as well as
in chemistry and the field of inorganic Nature, supports
that view. The savage in earliest times felt the truth of
some things which we to-day are only beginning intel-
lectually to perceive and analyze.

Christianity adopted and absorbed — as it was bound
to do — this world-wide doctrine of the second birth. Pass-
ing over its physiological and biological applications, it
gave to it a fine spiritual significance — or rather it insisted

1 The fervent and widespread belief in animal metamorphoses among
early peoples is well known.


especially on its spiritual significance, which (as we have
seen) had been widely recognized before. Only — as I
suppose must happen with all local religions — it narrowed
the application and outlook of the doctrine down to a special
case — "As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be
made alive." The Universal Spirit which can give re-
birth and salvation to every child of man to whom it
comes, was offered only under a very special form — that of
Jesus Christ.^ In this respect it was no better than the
religions which preceded it. In some respects — that is,
where it was especially fanatical, blinkered, and hostile to
other sects — it was worse. But to those who perceive
that the Great Spirit may bring new birth and salvation
to some under the form of Osiris, equally well as to others
under the form of Jesus, or again to some under the form
of a Siberian totem- Bear equally as to others under the
form of Osiris, these questionings and narrowings fall
away as of no importance. We in this latter day can see
the main thing, namely that Christianity was and is just
one phase of a world-old religion, slowly perhaps expanding
its scope, but whose chief attitudes and orientations have been
the same through the centuries.

Many other illustrations might be taken of the truth of
this view, but I will confine myself to two or three more.
There is the instance of the Eucharist and its exceedingly
widespread celebration (under very various forms) among
the pagans all over the world — as well as among Christians.
I have already said enough on this subject, and need not
delay over it. By partaking of the sacramental meal, even
in its wildest and crudest shapes, as in the mysteries
of Dionysus, one was identified with and united to the

1 The same happened with regard to another great Pagan doctrine
(to which I have just alluded), the doctrine of transformations and
metamorphoses; and whereas the pagans believed in these things,
us the common and possible heritage of every man, tlie Christians
only allowed themselves to entertain the idea in the special and
unique instance of the Transfiguration of Christ.


god; in its milder and more spiritual aspects as in the Mith-
raic. Egj^tian, Hindu and Christian cults, one passed behind
the veil of may a and this ever-changing world, and entered
into the region of divine peace and power.^

Or again the doctrine of the Saviour. That also is one
on which I need not add much to what has been said already.
The number of pagan deities (mostly virgin-born and
done to death in some way or other in their efforts to
save mankind) is so great- as to be difficult to keep
account of. The god Krishna in India, the god Indra
in Nepaul and Thibet, spilt their blood for the salvation
of men; Buddha said, according to Max Miiller,^ "Let all
the sins that were in the world fall on me, that the world
may be delivered"; the Chinese Tien, the Holy One — "one
with God and existing with him from all eternity" — died
to save the world; the Egyptian Osiris was called Sa-
viour, so was Horus; so was the Persian Mithras; so was
the Greek Hercules who overcame Death though his body
was consumed in the burning garment of mortality, out of
which he rose into heaven. So also was the Phrygian
Attis called Saviour, and the Syrian Tammuz or Adonis
likewise — both of whom, as we have seen, were nailed
or tied to a tree, and afterwards rose again from their
biers or coffins. Prometheus, the greatest and earliest bene-
factor of the human race, was nailed by the hands and
feet, and with arms extended, to the rocks of IMount
Caucasus, Bacchus or Dionysus, born of the virgin Semele

1 Baring Gould in his Ortg. Relig. Belief, i. 401, says: — "Among
the ancient Hindus Some was a chief deity; he is called the Giver
of Life and Health. ... He became incarnate among men, was taken
by them and slain, and brayed in a mortar [a god of com and
wine apparently]. But he rose in flame to heaven to be 'the Bene-
factor of the World' and the 'Mediator between God and Man.'
Through communion with him in his sacrifice, man (who partook of this
god) has an assurance of immortality, for by that sacrament he ob-
tains union with his divinity."

2 See for a considerable list Doane's Bible Myths, ch. xx.

3 Hist. Sanskrit Literature, p. 80.


to be the Liberator of mankind (Dionysus Eleutherios
as he was called), was torn to pieces, not unlike Osiris. Even
in far Mexico Quetzalcoatl, the Saviour, was born of a virgin,
was tempted, and fasted forty days, was done to death, and
his second coming looked for so eagerly that (as is well known)
when Cortes appeared, the Mexicans, poor things, greeted
him as the returning god!^ In Peru and among the Ameri-
can Indians, North and South of the Equator, similar legends
are, or were, to be found.

Briefly sketched as all this is, it is enough to prove quite
abundantly that the doctrine of the Saviour is world-wide
and world-old, and that Christianity merely appropriated
the same and (as the other cults did) gave it a special
color. Probably the wide range of this doctrine would
have been far better and more generally known, had not the
Christian Church, all through, made the greatest of efforts
and taken the greatest precautions to extinguish and
snuff out all evidence of pagan claims on the subject.
There is much to show that the early Church took this
line with regard to pre-Christian saviours;^ and in later times
the same policy is remarkably illustrated by the treat-
ment in the sixteenth century of the writings of Sahagun
the Spanish missionary — to whose work I have already re-
ferred. Sahagun was a wonderfully broad-minded and
fine man who, while he did not conceal the barbarities
of the Aztec religion, was truthful enough to point out
redeeming traits in the manners and customs of the
people and some resemblances to Christian doctrine and
practice. This infuriated the bigoted Catholics of the
newly formed Mexican Church. They purloined the man-
uscripts of Sahagun's Historia and scattered and hid them
about the country, and it was only after infinite labor
and an appeal to the Spanish Court that he got them
together again. Finally, at the age of eighty, having trans-

1 See Kingsborough, Mexican Antiquities, vol. vi.

2 See TertuUian's Apologia, c. i6; Ad Nationes, c. xii.


lated them into Spanish (from the original Mexican) he
sent them in two big volumes home to Spain for safety;
but there almost immediately they disappeared, and could
not be found! It was only after two centuries that they
ultimately turned up (1790) in a Convent at Tolosa in
Navarre. Lord Kingsborough published them in England
in 1830.

I have thus dwelt upon several of the main doctrines of
Christianity — namely, those of Sin and Sacrifice, the Eu-
charist, the Saviour, the Second Birth, and Transfigura-
tion — as showing that they are by no means imique in
our religion, but were common to nearly all the religions
of the ancient world. The list might be much further ex-
tended, but there is no need to delay over a subject which is
now very generally understood. I will, however, devote a
page or two to one instance, which I think is very remarkable,
and full of deep suggestion.

There is no doctrine in Christianity which is more
reverenced by the adherents of that religion, or held in higher
estimation, than that God sacrificed his only Son for the
salvation of the world; also that since the Son was not
only of like nature but of the same nature with the
Father, and equal to him as being the second Person of
the Divine Trinity, the sacrifice amounted to an immola-
tion of Himself for the good of mankind. The doctrine
is so mystical, so remote, and in a sense so absurd
and impossible, that it has been a favorite mark through
the centuries for the ridicule of the scoffers and enemies
of the Church; and here, it might easily be thought, is a
belief which — whether it be considered glorious or whether
contemptible — is at any rate unique, and peculiar to that

And yet the extraordinary fact is that a similar belief
ranges all through the ancient religions, and can be traced
back to the earliest times. The word ho::t which is used


in the Catholic Mass for the bread and wine on the Altar,
supposed to be the transubstantiated body and blood of
Christ, is from the Latin Hostia which the dictionary
interprets as "an animal slain in sacrifice, a sin-offering." It
takes us far far back to the Totem stage of folk-life,
when the tribe, as I have already explained, crowned a
victim-bull or bear or other animal with flowers, and
honoring it with every offering of food and worship,
sacrificed the victim to the Totem spirit of the tribe, and
consumed it in an Eucharistic feast — the medicine-man
or priest who conducted the ritual wearing a skin of the
same beast as a sign that he represented the Totem-
divinity, taking part in the sacrifice of 'himself to himself.'
It reminds us of the Khonds of Bengal sacrificing their
meriahs crowned and decorated as gods and goddesses;
of the Aztecs doing the same; of Quetzalcoatl pricking
his elbows and fingers so as to draw blood, which he offered
on his own altar; or of Odin hanging by his own desire upon
a tree. "I know I was hanged upon a tree shaken by
the winds for nine long nights. I was transfixed by
a spear; I was moved to Odin, myself to myself." And
so on. The instances are endless. "I am the oblation,"
says the Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita,^ "I am the
sacrifice, I the ancestral offering." "In the truly orthodox
conception of sacrifice," says Elie Reclus,^ "the conse-
crated offering, be it man, woman or virgin, lamb or
heifer, cock or dove, represents the deity himself. . . .
Brahma is the 'imperishable sacrifice'; Indra, Soma, Hari and
the other gods, became incarnate in animals to the
sole end that they might be immolated. Perusha, the
Universal Being, caused himself to be slain by the Im-
mortals, and from his substance were born the birds of the
air, wild and domestic animals, the offerings of butter
and curds. The world, declared the Rishis, is a series
of sacrifices disclosing other sacrifices. To stop them
1 Ch. ix, V. 1 6, 8 Primitive Folk, ch. vi.


would be to suspend the life of Nature. The god Siva, to
whom the Tipperahs of Bengal are supposed to have sacrificed
as many as a thousand human victims a year, said to the
Brahamins: 'It is I that am the actual offering; it is I that
you butcher upon my altars.' "

It was in allusion to this doctrine that R. W. Emerson,
paraphrasing the Katha-Upanishad, wrote that immortal verse
of his: —

If the red slayer thinks he slays,

Or the slain thinks he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways

I take, and pass, and turn again.

I say it is an astonishing thing to think and realize that
this profound and mystic doctrine of the eternal sacrifice
of Himself, ordained by the Great Spirit for the creation
and salvation of the world — a doctrine which has attracted
and fascinated many of the great thinkers and nobler minds
of Europe, which has also inspired the religious teachings
of the Indian sages and to a less philosophical degree the
writings of the Christian Saints — should have been seized
in its general outline and essence by rude and primitive
people before the dawn of history, and embodied in their
rites and ceremonials. What is the explanation of this

It is very puzzling. The whole subject is puzzling. The
world-wide adoption of similar creeds and rituals (and,
we may add, legends and fairy tales) among early peo-
ples, and in far-sundered places and times is so remark-
able that it has given the students of these subjects
'furiously to think'^ — yet for the most part without great
success in the way of finding a solution. The sup-
position that (i) the creed, rite or legend in question has
sprung up, so to speak, accidentally, in one place, and

^ See A. Lang's Myth, Ritual and Religion, vol. ii.


then has travelled (owing to some inherent plausibility)
over the rest of the world, is of course one that commends
itself readily at first; but on closer examination the
practical difficulties it presents are certainly very great.
These include the migrations of customs and myths in quite
early ages of the earth across trackless oceans and con-
tinents, and between races and peoples absolutely in-
capable of understanding each other. And if to avoid
these difficulties it is assumed that the present human
race all proceeds from one original stock which radiating
from one centre — say in South-Eastern Asia^ — overspread the
world, carrying its rites and customs with it, why, then we
are compelled to face the difficulty of supposing this radiation
to have taken place at an enormous time ago (the continents
being then all more or less conjoined) and at a period
when it is doubtful if any religious rites and customs
at all existed; not to mention the further difficulty of sup-
posing all the four or five hundred languages now existing
to be descended from one common source. The far
tradition of the Island of Atlantis seems to afford a pos-
sible explanation of the community of rites and customs be-
tween the Old and New World, and this without assum-
ing in any way that Atlantis (if it existed) was the
original and sole cradle of the human race.' Anyhow it
is clear that these origins of human culture must be of
extreme antiquity, and that it would not be wise to be
put off the track of the investigation of a possible common
source merely by that fact of antiquity.

-A second supposition, however, is (2) that the natural
psychological evolution of the human mind has in the various

1 See Hastings, Encycl. Religion and Ethics, art. "Ethnology."

2 E. J. Payne, History of the New World called America (vol. i,
p. g3) says: "It is certain that Europe and America once formed a
single continent," but inroads of the sea "left a vast island or penin-
sula stretching from Iceland to the Azores — which gradually disap-
peared." Also he speaks (i. 93) of the "Miocene Bridge" between
Siberia and the New World.


times and climes led folk of the most diverse surroundings
and heredity — and perhaps even sprung from separate
anthropoid stocks — to develop their social and religious
ideas along the same general lines — and that even to the
extent of exhibiting at times a remarkable similarity in
minute details. This is a theory which commends it-
self greatly to a deeper and more philosophical consid-
eration; but it brings us up point-blank against another
most difficult question (which we have already raised),
namely, how to account for extremely rude and primi-
tive peoples in the far past, and on the very border-
land of the animal life, having been susceptible to the germs
of great religious ideas (such as we have mentioned) and
having been instinctively — though not of course by any pro-
cess of conscious reasoning — moved to express them in
symbols and rites and ceremonials, and (later no doubt)
in myths and legends, which satisfied their feelings and
sense of fitness — though they may not have known why —
and afterwards were capable of being taken up and embodied
in the great philosophical religions.

This difficulty almost compels us to a view of human
knowledge which has found supporters among some able
thinkers — the view, namely, that a vast store of knowl-
edge is already contained in the subconscious mind of man
(and the animals) and only needs the provocation of outer
experience to bring it to the surface; and that in the second
stage of human psychology this process of crude and
piecemeal externalization is taking place, in preparation for
the final or third stage in which the knowledge will be re-
absorbed and become direct and intuitional on a high and
harmonious plane — something like the present intuition of
the animals as we perceive it on the animal plane. How-
ever this general subject is one on which I shall touch
again, and I do not propose to dwell on it at any length

There is a third alternative theory (3) — a combination


of (i) and (2) — namely, that if one accepts (2) and the
idea that at any given stage of human development there
is a predisposition to certain symbols and rites belonging to
that stage, then it is much more easy to accept theory (i)
as an important factor in the spread of such symbols
and rites; for clearly, then, the smallest germ of a cus-
tom or practice, transported from one country or people
to another at the right time, would be sufficient to wake
the development or growth in question and stimulate it into
activity. It will be seen, therefore, that the important point
towards the solution of this whole puzzling question is the
discussion of theory (2) — and to this theory, as illus-
trated by the world-wide myth of the Golden Age, I will
now turn.



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 un-
likely 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}

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 ex-
pected babe in the poem was to be the son of Octavian (Au-
gustus) the first Roman emperor, and a messianic halo sur-
rounded 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

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Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 10 of 25)