Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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1 For a fuller working out of this, see Civilisation: its Cause and
Cure, by E. Carpenter, ch. i.

137



138 PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS

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 con-
firmed the existence of the Islands of the Blest, where
the good led a blameless, tearless, life. Plato the same,^
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 Hesper-
ides, in which dwelt the serpent whose head was ulti-
mately crushed beneath the heel of Hercules; and so on.
The references to a supposed far-back state of peace and hap-
piness are indeed numerous.

So much so that latterly, and partly to explain their prev-
alence, 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 re-
main 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 re-

1 See arts, by Margaret Scholes, Socialist Review, Nov. and Dec.
1Q12.



MYTH OF THE GOLDEN AGE 139

lation to the mother as St. Paul says ive 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 in-
dividual 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 consid-
eration; also that it bears a certain likeness to the former
ones about the Eden-gardens, etc. The well-known par-
allelism 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 con-
clusions, 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 penetrat-
ing 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 abun-
dantly proved by Samuel Butler and others) the sys-
tematic 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 belong-
ing to the tribal or racial Being rather than to
the isolated individual — a super-consciousness in fact,
ramifying afar in space and time.



140 PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS

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 knowl-
edge (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.^ It would be difficult,
nay impossible, to suppose that human beings on their
first appearance formed an entire exception in the pro-
cess 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 5c//-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
5«Z>-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 fol-
lows? It follows — since to-day discord is the rule, and
Man has certainly lost the grace, both physical and men-
tal, 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. Hu-
manity took a new departure; but a departure which for the
moment was signalized as a loss — the loss of its former

1 See The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck; and for nu-
merous similar cases among other animals, P. Kropotkin's Mutual Aid:
a factor in Evolution.



MYTH OF THE GOLDEN AGE 141

harmony and self-adjustment. And the cause or accompani-
ment of this change was the growth of Self -conscious-
ness. Into the general consciousness of the tribe (in relation
to its environment) which in fact had constituted the men-
tality 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 continu-
ance of the former happy conditions. It was like the appear-
ance 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 myr-
iad 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 evo-
lutions and age-long mandates of nature, Self-conscious-
ness broke with its inconvenient and impossible query:
"How do these arrangements suit we? 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^; for self-consciousness meant sin

1 Compare also other myths, like Cupid and Psyche, Lohengrin
etc., in which a fatal curiosity leads to tragedy.



142 PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS

(and it means sin to-day). Sin is Separation. That is
probably (though disputed) the etymology of the word —
that which sunders} 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 ob-
ject, 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 asso-
ciation of Self-consciousness with 'Sin' (so-called) and
'Knowledge' (so-called). The growth of all three to-
gether is an absolutely necessary part of human evolu-
tion, 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 In-
tellect — science as the handmaid of human Greed devas-
tating 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 domina-
tion 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 understand-
ing of the points which follow.

We are not concerned now with the ultimate effects of
the 'Fair of Man or with the present-day fulfilment of

1 German Sunde, sin, and sonder, separated ; Dutch sonde, sin ; Latin
sons, guilty. Not unlikely that the German root Siihn, expiation, is
connected; Suhn-bock, a scape-goat.



MYTH OF THE GOLDEN AGE 143

the Eden-curse, What we want to understand is how the
'Fair into self-consciousness led to that great panorama
of Ritual and Religion which we have very briefly de-
scribed 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 Re-
ligion.^ 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 uru-easoning 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 vi-
tality, springing up like a fountain whose outlet is free and un-
hindered; 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

^ See S. Reinach, Cults, Myths, etc., introduction: "The primitive
life of humanity, in so far as it is not purely animal, is religious.
Religion is the parent stem which has thrown off, one by one, art,
agriculture, law, morality, politics, etc."



144 PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS

to the things outside him, the Earth, the Sky, the Vege-
tation, 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^ 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,^
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 un-
expected 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-sustain-
ing as the wild animals of the forests, absolutely indepen-
dent 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^ Wallace speaks of the
quiet, good-natured, inoffensive character of these cop-
per-colored peoples, and of their quickness of hand and
skill, and continues: "their figures are generally superb;

1 Savage Africa, ch. xxxvii.

2 See KropoLkin's Mutual Aid, ch. iii.

3 Travels on the Amazon (1853), ch. xviL



MYTH OF THE GOLDEN AGE 145

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 evo-
lution 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 investiga-
tions into early marriage, points to the latter conclusion.
Travellers among Bushmen, Hottentots, Fuegians, Esqui-
maux, 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, speak-
ing of the Hottentots, quotes the German author P. Kol-
ben who travelled among them in 1275 or so. "He
knew the Hottentots well and did not pass by their de-
fects 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 an-
another."^ 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

1 P. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, p. 90. W. J. Sollas also speaks in
terms of the highest praise of the Bushmen — "their energy, patience,
courage, loyalty, affection, good manners and artistic sense" {Ancient
Hunters, 191S, p. 425).



146 PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS

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 vol-
umes in itself."^

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 prob-
ably degenerated physically from the standard of their
neolithic ancestors; and so the conclusion is forced upon
one that there must have been an ijnmense period,'' 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 dissen-
sions, 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 stand-
ards, yet we may well suppose that the memory of
this long period lingered on for generations and gener-
ations 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 Prop-
erty with its greeds and jealousies, and the accen-

1 Ibid, p. 91.

2 See for estimates of periods infra ch. xiv; also, for the peaceful-
ness of these early peoples, Havelock Ellis on "The Origin of War,"
where he says "We do not find the weapons of warfare or the wounds
of warfare among these Palaeolithic remains ... it was with civi-
lization that the art of killing developed, i. e. within the last 10,000 or
12,000 years when Neolithic men (who became our ancestors) were
just arriving."



MYTH OF THE GOLDEN AGE 14-7

tuation of Self-consciousness with all its vanities and
ambitions.

I say that each tribe at this early stage of develop-
ment 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 in-
tellect to embody itself in the figures and forms of all man-
ner 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 experi-
ence: 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 IVIan 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 contra-
vening 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;



148 PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS

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: (i) 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 in-
fantile condition and incapable of dealing with the psy-
chological situation except by symbols. They, the rituals,
were the first effort of the primitive Tnind to get beyorKl
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 under-
stood 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



MYTH OF THE GOLDEN AGE 149

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.^ 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 scat-
tered rays, and when distinct self-consciousness is hardly
yet developed, then the presences imagined in Nature are
merely flickering and intermittent phantoms, and their pro-
pitiation and placation comes more properly under the
head of 'Magic.']

So much for the genesis of the religious ideas of Sin

1 It is to be noted, in that charming idyll of the Eden garden, that
it is only after eating of the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve per-
ceive the Lord God walking in the garden, and converse with him
(Genesis iii. 8).



150 PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN CREEDS

and Sacrifice, and the rites connected with these ideas —


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