Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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their genesis through the in-break of self-consciousness
upon the corporate 5«6-consciousness of the life of the
Community. But an exactly similar process may be ob-
served 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 un-
broken — 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

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 primi-
tive bonds are loosening, when the tendency towards selj-
will and ^^//-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 ob-
ject 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 com-
munity 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 tliat 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 com-
mon life asserts itself; but here again we see that a
custom like this would not come into being as a deliberate
rite untU 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 symboli-
cally) 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

It is curious anyhow that the dismemberment or division
into fragments of the body of a god (as in the case of Diony-
sus, Osiris, Attis, Prajapati and others) should be so
frequent a tenet of the old religions, and so commonly asso-
ciated with a love-feast of reconciliation and resurrection.
It may be fairly interpreted as a symbol of Nature-dismem-
berment 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 suf-
fered 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, hu-
man-formed gods become more conspicuous in the later devel-
opments. 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 sig-
nificance and becomes a celebration of allegiance to a particu-
lar 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 hu-
man 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



From the consideration of the world-wide belief in a past
Golden Age, and the world-wide practice of the Eucharist,
in the sense, indicated in the last chapter, to that of the
equally widespread belief in a human-divine Saviour, is
a brief and easy step. Some thirty years ago, dealing
with this subject,^ I wrote as follows: — "The true Self
of man consists in his organic relation with the whole body
of his fellows; and when the man abandons his true Self
he abandons also his true relation to his fellows. The
mass-Man must rule in each unit-man, else the unit-man
will drop off and die. But when the outer man tries to
separate himself from the inner, the unit-man from the
mass-Man, then the reign of individuality begins — a false
and impossible individuality of course, but the only means
of coming to the consciousness of the true individuality."
And further, "Thus this divinity in each creature, being
that which constitutes it and causes it to cohere together,
was conceived of as that creature's saviour, healer — healer
of wounds of body and wounds of heart — the Man within
the man, whom it was not only possible to know, but whom
to know and be united with was the alone salvation. This,
I take it, was the law of health — and of holiness — as

^ See Civilisation: its Cause and Cure, ch. i.


accepted at some elder time of human history, and by
us seen as through a glass darkly."

I think it is impossible not to see — ^however much in our
pride of Civilization (!) we like to jeer at the pettinesses
of tribal life — that these elder people perceived as a matter
of fact and direct consciousness the redeeming presence
(within each unit-member of the group) of the larger life
to which he belonged. This larger life was a reality —
"a Presence to be felt and known"; and whether he
called it by the name of a Totem-animal, or by the name
of a Nature-divinity, or by the name of some gracious
human-limbed God — some Hercules, Mithra, Attis, Orpheus,
or what-not — or even by the great name of Humanity
itself, it was still in any case the Saviour, the living
incarnate Being by the realization of whose presence the little
mortal could be lifted out of exile and error and death and
suffering into splendor and life eternal.

It is impossible, I think, not to see that the myriad worship
of "Saviours" all over the world, from China to Peru,
can only be ascribed to the natural working of some such
law of human and tribal psychology — from earliest times
and in all races the same — springing up quite spontaneously
and independently, and (so far) unaffected by the mere
contagion of local tradition. To suppose that the Deval,
long before the advent of Christianity, put the idea into
the heads of all these earlier folk, is really to pay too great
a compliment both to the power and the ingenuity of his
Satanic Majesty — though the ingenuity with which the
early Church did itself suppress all information about these
pre-Christian Saviours almost rivals that which it credited
to Satan! And on the other hand to suppose this mar-
vellous and universal consent of belief to have sprung
by mere contagion from one accidental source would seem
equally far-fetched and imlikely.

But almost more remarkable than the world-encircling
belief in human-divine Saviours is the equally widespread


legend of their birth from Virgin-mothers. There is hardly
a god — as we have already had occasion to see — whose
worship as a benefactor of mankind attained popularity
in any of the four continents, Europe, Asia, Africa and
America — who was not reported to have been born from a
Virgin, or at least from a mother who owed the Child
not to any earthly father, but to an impregnation from
Heaven. And this seems at first sight all the more
astonishing because the behef in the possibility of such
a thing is so entirely out of the line of our modern thought.
So that while it would seem not unnatural that such a legend
should have sprung up spontaneously in some odd be-
nighted corner of the world, we find it very difficult to
understand how in that case it should have spread so rapidly
in every direction, or — if it did not spread — how we are
to account for its spontaneous appearance in all these
widely sundered regions.

I think here, and for the understanding of this problem,
we are thrown back upon a very early age of human
evolution — the age of Magic. Before any settled science
or philosophy or religion existed, there were still certain
Things — and consequently also certain Words — which had
a tremendous influence on the human mind, which in fact
affected it deeply. Such a word, for instance, is 'Thunder';
to hear thunder, to imitate it, even to mention it, are sure
ways of rousing superstitious attention and imagination.
Such another word is 'Serpent,' another 'Tree,' and so
forth. There is no one who is insensible to the reverber-
ation of these and other such words and images^; and
among them, standing prominently out, are the two
'Mother' and 'Virgin.' The word Mother touches the deep-
est springs of human feeling. As the earliest word

1 Nor is it difficult to see how out of the discreet use of such words
and images, combined with elementary forms like the square, the
triangle and the circle, and elementary numbers like 3, 4, 5, etc., quite
a science, so to speak, of Magic arose.


learnt and clung to by the child, it twines itself with the
heart-strings of the man even to his latest day. Nor
must we forget that in a primitive state of society (the
Matriarchate) that influence was probably even greater
than now; for the father of the child being (often as not)
unknown the attachment to the mother was all the more
intense and undivided. The word Mother had a magic about
it which has remained even until to-day. But if that
word rooted itself deep in the heart of the Child, the
other word 'virgin' had an obvious magic for the full
grown and sexually mature ]\Ian — a magic which it, too,
has never lost.

There is ample evidence that one of the very earliest ob-
jects of human worship was the Earth itself, conceived of
as the fertile Mother of all things. Gaia or Ge (the earth)
had temples and altars in almost all the cities of Greece.
Rhea or Cybele, sprung from the Earth, was "mother of
all the gods." Demeter ("earth mother") was honored
far and wide as the gracious patroness of the crops and vege-
tation. Ceres, of course, the same. ^laia in the In-
dian mythology and Isis in the Eg3^tian are forms of Na-
ture and the Earth-spirit, represented as female; and so
forth. The Earth, in these ancient cults, was the mystic
source of all life, and to it, as a propitiation, life of all kinds
was sacrificed. [There are strange accounts of a huge
fire being made, with an altar to Cybele in the midst, and
of deer and fawns and wild animals, and birds and sheep and
corn and fruits being thrown pell-mell into the flames.^]
It was, in a way, the most natural, as it seems to have been
the earliest and most spontaneous of cults — the worship
of the Earth-mother, the all-producing eternal source of
life, and on account of her never-failing ever-renewed
fertility conceived of as an immortal Virgin.

But when the Saviour-legend sprang up — as indeed I
think it must have sprung up, in tribe after tribe and
^ See Pausanias iv. 32. 6; and Lucian, De Syria Dea, 49.


people after people, independently — then, whether it
sprang from the divinization of some actual man who
showed the way of light and deliverance to his fellows
"sitting in darkness," or whether from the personification
of the tribe itself as a god, in either case the question of the
hero's parentage was bound to arise. If the 'saviour'
was plainly a personification of the tribe, it was obviously
impossible to suppose him the son of a mortal mother. In
that case — and if the tribe was generally traced in the
legends to some primeval Animal or Mountain or thing
of Nature — it was probably easy to think of him (the
saviour) as born out of Nature's womb, descended per-
haps from that pure Virgin of the World who is the
Earth and Nature, who rules the skies at night, and stands
in the changing phases of the Moon, and is worshiped
(as we have seen) in the great constellation Virgo. If, on
the other hand, he was the divinization of some actual
man, more or less known either personally or by tradition to
his fellows, then in all probability the name of his mortal
mother would be recognized and accepted; but as to his
father, that side of parentage being, as we have said,
generally very uncertain, it would be easy to suppose some
heavenly Annunciation, the midnight visit of a God, and what
is usually termed a Virgin-birth.

There are two elements to be remembered here, as conspir-
ing to this conclusion. One is the condition of affairs
in a remote matriarchial period, when descent was reck-
oned always through the maternal line, and the father-
hood in each generation was obscure or unknown or
commonly left out of account; and the other is the
fact — so strange and difficult for us to realize — that among
some very primitive peoples, like the Australian aborigines,
the necessity for a woman to have intercourse with a
male, in order to bring about conception and child-birth,
was actually not recognized. Scientific observation had not
always got as far as that, and the matter was still under


the domain of Magic !^ A Virgin-Mother was therefore a
quite imaginable (not to say 'conceivable') thing; and in-
deed a very beautiful and fascinating thing, combining
in one image the potent magic of two very wonderful
words. It does not seem impossible that considerations
of this kind led to the adoption of the doctrine or legend
of the virgin-mother and the heavenly father among so many
races and in so many localities — even without any contagion
of tradition among them.

Anyhow, and as a matter of fact, the world-wide dis-
semination of the legend is most remarkable, Zeus, Father
of the gods, visited Semele, it will be remembered, in the
form of a thunderstorm; and she gave birth to the great
saviour and deliverer Dionysus, Zeus, again, impregnated
Danae in a shower of gold; and the child was Perseus, who
slew the Gorgons (the pov/ers of darkness) and saved
Andromeda (the human soul-), Devaki, the radiant Vir-
gin of the Hindu mythology, became the wife of the
god Vishnu and bore Krishna, the beloved hero and pro-
totype of Christ, With regard to Buddha St, Jerome
says^ "It is handed down among the Gymnosophists of India
that Buddha, the founder of their system, was brought forth
by a Virgin from her side." The Egyptian Isis, with
the child Horus on her knee, was honored centuries
before the Christian era, and worshiped under the names
of ''Our Lady," "Queen of Heaven," "Star of the Sea,"
"Mother of God," and so forth. Before her, Neith, the

1 Probably the long period (nine months) elapsing between co-
habitation and childbirth confused early speculation on the subject.
Then clearly cohabitation was not always followed by childbirth.
And, more important still, the number •'■'f virgins of a mature age in
primitive societies was so very minute • that the fact of their child-
lessness attracted no attention — whereas in our societies the sterility
of the whole class is patent to everyone.

2 For this interpretation of the word Andromeda see The Perfect
Way by Edward Maitland, preface to First Edition, i8Si.

3 Contra Jovian, Book I; and quoted by Rhys Davids in his Bud-
dhism, p. 183.


Virgin of the World, whose figure bends from the sky over
the earthly plains and the children of men, was acclaimed
as mother of the great god Osiris. The saviour Mithra,
too, was born of a Virgin, as we have had occasion to
notice before; and on the Mithrais monuments the mother
suckling her child is a not uncommon figure.^

The old Teutonic goddess Hertha (the Earth) was a Vir-
gin, but was impregnated by the heavenly Spirit (the
Sky) ; and her image with a child in her arms was to
be seen in the sacred groves of Germany.- The Scandinavian
Frigga, in much the same way, being caught in the embraces
of Odin, the All-father, conceived and bore a son, the
blessed Balder, healer and saviour of mankind. Quetzal-
coatl, the (crucified) saviour of the Aztecs, was the son of
Chimalman, the Virgin Queen of Heaven.^ Even the Chinese
had a mother-goddess and virgin with child in her arms*;
and the ancient Etruscans the same.^

Finally, we have the curiously large number of black
virgin mothers who are or have been worshiped. Not
only cases like Devaki the Indian goddess, or Isis the
Egyptian, who would naturally appear black-skinned or
dark; but the large number of images and paintings of
the same kind, yet extant — especially in the Italian
churches — and passing for representations of Mary and

1 See Doane's Bible Myths, p. 332, and Dupuis' Origins of Religious

2 R. P. Knight's Ancient Art and Mythology, p. 21.

2 See Kingsborough's Mexican Antiquities, vol. vi, p. 176, where
it is said "an ambassador was sent from heaven on an embassy to
a Virgin of Tulan, called Chimalman . . . announcing that it was
the will of the God that she should conceive a son; and having de-
livered her the message he rCise and left the house; and as soon
as he had left it she conceived, a son, without connection with man,
who was called Quetzalcoatl, w.io they say is the god of air." Further,
it is explained that Quetzalcortl sacrificed himself, drawing forth his
own blood with thorns; and that the word Quetzalcoatlotopitzin means
"our well-beloved son."

■* Doane, p. 327.

^ See Inman's Pagan and Christian Symbolism, p. 27.


the infant Jesus. Such are the well-known image in the
chapel at Loretto, and images and paintings besides in
the churches at Genoa, Pisa, Padua, Munich and other
places. It is difficult not to regard these as very old Pagan
or pre-Christian relics which lingered on into Christian
times and were baptized anew — as indeed we know many
relics and images actually were — into the service of the
Church. "Great is Diana of the Ephesians"; and there is
I believe more than one black figure extant of this
Diana, who, though of course a virgin, is represented
with innumerable breasts^ — not unlike some of the archaic
statues of Artemis and Isis. At Paris, far on into Christian
times there was, it is said, on the site of the present
Cathedral of Notre Dame, a Temple dedicated to 'our Lady'
Isis; and images belonging to the earlier shrine would
in all probability be preserved with altered name in the

All this illustrates not only the wide diffusion of the doc-
trine of the Virgin-mother, but its extreme antiquity.
The subject is obscure, and worthy of more consideration
than has yet been accorded it; and I do not feel able to
add anything to the tentative explanations given a page
or two back, except perhaps to suppose that the vision
of the Perfect Man hovered dimly over the mind of the
human race on its first emergence from the purely ani-
mal stage; and that a quite natural speculation with
regard to such a being was that he would be born from a
Perfect Woman — who according to early ideas would
necessarily be the Virgin Earth itself, mother of all things.
Anyhow it was a wonderful Intuition, slumbering as it
would seem in the breast of early man, that the Great Earth
after giving birth to all living creatures would at last bring
forth a Child who should become the Saviour of the
human race.

There is of course the further theory, entertained by
1 See illustration, p. 30, in Inman's Pagan and Christian Symbolism.


some, that virgin-parturition — a kind of Parthenogenesis —
has as a matter of fact occasionally occurred among mortal
women, and even still does occur. I should be the last
to deny the possibility of this (or of anything else in Nature),
but, seeing the immense difficulties in the way of proof of
any such asserted case, and the absence so far of any
thoroughly attested and verified instance, it would, I
think, be advisable to leave this theory out of account
at present.

But whether any of the explanations spoken of are right
or wrong, and whatever explanation we adopt, there remains
the fact of the universality over the world of this legend — •
affording another instance of the practical solidarity and con-
tinuity of the Pagan Creeds with Christianity.

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Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 12 of 25)