Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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It is unnecessary to labor the conclusion of the last two
or three chapters, namely that Christianity grew out of the
former Pagan Creeds and is in its general outlook and
origins continuous and of one piece with them. I have
not attempted to bring together all the evidence in favor
of this contention, as such work would be too vast, but more
illustrations of its truth will doubtless occur to readers, or will
emerge as we proceed.

I think we may take it as proved ( i ) that from the earliest
ages, and before History, a great body of religious be-
lief and ritual — first appearing among very primitive and
unformed folk, whom we should call 'savages' — has come
slowly down, broadening and differentiating itself on the
way into a great variety of forms, but embodying always
certain main ideas which became in time the ac-
cepted doctrines of the later Churches — the Indian, the
Egj^tian, the Mithraic, the Christian, and so forth. What
these ideas in their general outline have been we can
perhaps best judge from our "Apostles' Creed," as it is
recited every Sunday in our churches.

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven
and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who
was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin
Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead



and buried. He descended into Hell; the third day he rose
again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, and
sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from
thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I
believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholic Church;
the communion of Saints; the Forgiveness of sins; the
Resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Here we have the All-Father and Creator, descending from
the Sky in the form of a spirit to impregnate the earthly
Virgin-mother, who thus gives birth to a Saviour-hero.
The latter is slain by the powers of Evil, is buried and
descends into the lower world, but arises again as God
into heaven and becomes the leader and judge of man-
kind. We have the confirmation of the Church (or,
in earlier times, of the Tribe) by means of a Eucharist
or Communion which binds together all the members,
living or dead, and restores errant individuals through
the Sacrifice of the hero and the Forgiveness of their sins;
and we have the belief in a bodily Resurrection and con-
tinued life of the members within the fold of the Church
(or Tribe), itself regarded as eternal.

One has only, instead of the word 'Jesus,' to read Diony-
sus or Krishna or Hercules or Osiris or Attis, and in-
stead of 'Mary' to insert Semele or Devaki or Alcmene
or Neith or Nana, and for Pontius Pilate to use the name
of any terrestrial tyrant who comes into the corresponding
story, and lo! the creed fits in all particulars into the
rites and worship of a pagan god. I need not enlarge
upon a thesis which is self-evident from all that has gone
before. I do not say, of course, that all the religious
beliefs of Paganism are included and summarized in our
Apostles' Creed, for — as I shall have occasion to note in the
next chapter — I think some very important religious elements
are there omitted; but I do think that all the beliefs which
are stmimarized in the said creed had already been fully


represented and elaborately expressed in the non-Christian
religions and rituals of Paganism.

Further (2) I think we may safely say that there is no
certain proof that the body of beliefs just mentioned sprang
from any one particular centre far back and radiated thence
by dissemination and mental contagion over the rest of the
world; but the evidence rather shows that these beliefs
were, for the most part, the spontaneous outgrowths (in
various localities) of the human mind at certain stages of
its evolution; that they appeared, in the different races
and peoples, at different periods according to the degree
of evolution, and were largely independent of intercourse
and contagion, though of course, in cases, considerably
influenced by it; and that one great and all-important
occasion and provocative of these beliefs was actually
the rise of self -consciousness — that is, the coming of the
mind to a more or less distinct awareness of itself and of its
own operation, and the consequent development and growth
of Individualism, and of the Self-centred attitude in human
thought and action.

In the third place (3)1 think we may see — and this is the
special subject of the present chapter — that at a very early
period, when humanity was hardly capable of sys-
tematic expression in what we call Philosophy or Science,
it could not well rise to an ordered and literary expres-
sion of its beliefs, such as we find in the later religions and
the 'Churches' (Babylonian, Jewish, East Indian, Christian,
or what-not), and yet that it felt these beliefs very intensely
and was urged, almost compelled, to their utterance in
some form or other. And so it came about that people
expressed themselves in a vast mass of ritual and myth —
customs, ceremonies, legends, stories — which on accoimt
of their popular and concrete form were handed down
for generations, and some of which linger on still in the
midst of our modern civilization. These rituals and legends
were, many of them, absurd enough, rambling and childish


in character, and preposterous in conception, yet they gave
the expression needed; and some of them of course, as we
have seen, were full of meaning and suggestion.

A critical and commercial Civilization, such as ours,
in which (notwithstanding much talk about Art) the artistic
sense is greatly lacking, or at any rate but little dif-
fused, does not as a rule understand that poetic rites,
in the evolution of peoples, came naturally before anything
like ordered poems or philosophy or systematized views
about life and religion — such as we love to wallow in!
Things were jelt before they were spoken. The loading
of diseases into disease-boats, of sins onto scape-goats, the
propitiation of the forces of nature by victims, human or
animal, sacrifices, ceremonies of re-birth, eucharistic feasts,
sexual communions, orgiastic celebrations of the common
life, and a host of other things — all said plainly enough what
was meant, but not in words. Partly no doubt it was
that at some early time words were more difficult of
command and less flexible in use than actions (and at
all times are they not less expressive?). Partly it was
that mankind was in the child-stage. The Child delights
in ritual, in symbol, in expression through material ob-
jects and actions:

See, at his feet some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly learned art;

A wedding or a festival,

A mourning or a funeral;

And this hath now his heart.

And primitive man in the child-stage felt a positive joy in
ritual celebrations, and indulged in expressions which we but
little understand; for these had then his heart.

One of the most pregnant of these expressions was Dancing.
Children dance instinctively. They dance with rage;
they dance with joy, with sheer vitality; they dance


with pain, or sometimes with savage glee at the suf-
fering of others; they delight in mimic combats, or in
animal plays and disguises. There are such things as
Courting-dances, when the mature male and female go
through a ritual together — not only in civilized ball-rooms
and the back-parlors of inns, but in the farmyards where
the rooster pays his addresses to the hen, or the yearling
bull to the cow — with quite recognized formalities; there
are elaborate ceremonials performed by the Australian
bower-birds and many other animals. All these things —
at any rate in children and animals — come before speech;
and anyhow we may say that love-rites, even in mature
and civilized man, hardly admit of speech. Words only
vulgarize love and blunt its edge.

So Dance to the savage and the early man was not merely
an amusement or a gymnastic exercise (as the books
often try to make out), but it was also a serious
and intimate part of life, an expression of religion
and the relation of man to non-human Powers. Imagine
a young dancer — and the admitted age for ritual dancing
was commonly from about eighteen to thirty — coming
forward on the dancing-ground or platform for the
invocation of Rain. We have unfortunately no kinematic
records, but it is not impossible or very difficult to imagine
the various gestures and movements which might be con-
sidered appropriate to such a rite in different localities
or among different peoples. A modern student of Dalcroze
Eurhythmies would find the problem easy. After a time
a certain ritual dance (for rain) would become stereotyped
and generally adopted. Or imagine a young Greek leading an
invocation to Apollo to stay some plague which was
ravaging the country. He might as well be accompanied
by a small body of co-dancers; but he would be the leader
and chief representative. Or it might be a war-dance —
as a more or less magical preparation for the raid or foraj/^.
We are familiar enough with accounts of war-dances among


American Indians. C. O. Miiller in his History and An-
tiquities of the Doric Race^ gives the following account of
the Pyrrhic dance among the Greeks, which was danced in
full armor: — "Plato says that it imitated all the
attitudes of defence, by avoiding a thrust or a cast, retreat-
ing, springing up, and crouching — as also the opposite
movements of attack with arrows and lances, and also
of every kind of thrust. So strong was the attachment
to this dance at Sparta that, long after it had in the other
Greek states degenerated into a Bacchanalian revel, it was
still danced by the Spartans as a warlike exercise, and
boys of fifteen were instructed in it." Of the Hunting-
dance I have already given instances.- It always had
the character of Magic about it, by which the game or
quarry might presumably be influenced; and it can easily
be understood that if the Hunt was not successful the blame
might well be attributed to some neglect of the usual
ritual mimes or movements — no laughing matter for the
leader of the dance.

Or there were dances belonging to the ceremonies of Initia-
tion — dances both by the initiators and the initiated. Jane
E. Harrison in Themis (p. 24) says, "Instruction among
savage peoples is always imparted in more or less mi-
metic dances. At initiation you learn certain dances
which confer on you definite social status. When a man
is too old to dance, he hands over his dance to another
and a younger, and he then among some tribes ceases
to exist socially. . . . The dances taught to boys at
initiation are frequently if not always armed dances. These
are not necessarily warlike. The accoutrement of spear
and shield was in part decorative, in part a provision for
making the necessary hubbub." (Here Miss Harrison

1 Book rv, ch. 6, § 7.

2 See also Winwood Reade's Savage Africa, ch. xviii, in which he
speaks of the "gorilla dance," before hunting gorillas, as a "religious


reproduces a photograph of an Initiation dance among
the Akikuyu of British East Africa.) The Initiation-
dances blend insensibly and naturally with the Mystery
and Religion dances, for indeed initiation was for the most
part an instruction in the mysteries and social rites of
the Tribe. They were the expression of things which
would be hard even for us, and which for rude folk would
be impossible, to put into definite words. Hence arose
the expression — whose meaning has been much discussed
by the learned — "to dance out {Hopx^i^rOai) a mystery."^
Lucian, in a much-quoted passage,^ observes: "You cannot
find a single ancient mystery in which there is not dancing
. . . and this much all men know, that most people say of
the revealers of the mysteries that they 'dance them
out.' " Andrew Lang, commenting on this passage,^
continues: "Clement of Alexandria uses the same term when
speaking of his own 'appalling revelations.' So closely
connected are mysteries with dancing among savages that
when Mr. Orpen asked Q'lng, the Bushman hunter, about
some doctrines in which Qing was not initiated, he said:
'Only the initiated men of that dance know these things.'
To 'dance' this or that means to be acquainted with this
or that myth, which is represented in a dance or ballet d'action.
So widely distributed is the practice that Acosta in an
interesting passage mentions it as familiar to the people
of Peru before and after the Spanish conquest." [And
we may say that when the 'mysteries' are of a sexual nature
it can easily be understood that to 'dance them out'
is the only way of explaining them ! ]

Thus we begin to appreciate the serious nature and the
importance of the dance among primitive folk. To dub
a youth "a good dancer" is to pay him. a great compliment.

1 Meaning apparently either simply to represent, or, sometimes to
divulge, a mystery.

* irepi 'Opxria-eoi^, ch. xv. 277.

' Myth, Ritual and Religion, i, 272.


Among the well-known inscriptions on the rocks in the
island of Thera in the ^gean sea there are many which
record in deeply graven letters the friendship and devotion
to each other of Spartan warrior-comrades; it seems
strange at first to find how often such an epithet of
praise occurs as Bathycles dances well, Eumelos is a perfect
dancer (dptoros opx«o"Tas). One hardly in general expects
one warrior to praise another for his dancing! But when
one realizes what is really meant — namely the fitness of
the loved comrade to lead in religious and magical rituals
— then indeed the compliment takes on a new complexion.
Religious dances, in dedication to a god, have of course been
honored in every country. MUller, in the work just
cited ,^ describes a lively dance called the hyporchema
which, accompanied by songs, was used in the worship
of Apollo. "In this, besides the chorus of singers who
usually danced around the blazing altar, several persons
were appointed to accompany the action of the poem
with an appropriate pantomimic display." It was prob-
ably some similar dance which is recorded in Exodus,
ch. xxxii, when Aaron made the Israelites a golden Calf
(image of the Egyptian Apis). There was an altar and a
fire and burnt offerings for sacrifice, and the people dancing
around. Whether in the Apollo ritual the dancers were
naked I cannot say, but in the affair of the golden Calf
they evidently were, for it will be remembered that it
was just this which upset Moses' equanimity so badly —
"when he saiv that the people were naked" — and led to the
breaking of the two tables of stone and the slaughter of
some thousands of folk. It will be remembered also
that David on a sacrificial occasion danced naked before
the Lord.-

It may seem strange that dances in honor of a god should
be held naked; but there is abundant evidence that this

1 Book II, ch. viii, § 14.

- 2 Sam. vi.


was frequently the case, and it leads to an interesting specu-
lation. Many of these rituals undoubtedly owed their
sanctity and solemnity to their extreme antiquity. They
came down in fact from very far back times when
the average man or woman — as in some of the Central
African tribes to-day — wore simply nothing at all; and
like all religious ceremonies they tended to preserve their
forms long after surrounding customs and conditions had
altered. Consequently nakedness lingered on in sacri-
ficial and other rites into periods when in ordinary life it
had come to be abandoned or thought indecent and shame-
ful. This comes out very clearly in both instances above-
quoted from the Bible. For in Exodus xxxii. 25 it is said
that "Aaron had made them (the dancers) naked unto their
shame among their enemies {read opponents)," and in 2
Sam. vi. 20 we are told that Michal came out and sarcasti-
cally rebuked the "glorious king of Israel" for "shame-
lessly uncovering himself, like a vain fellow" (for which
rebuke, I am sorry to say, David took a mean revenge
on Michal). In both cases evidently custom had so
far changed that to a considerable section of the popu-
lation these naked exhibitions had become indecent, though
as parts of an acknowledged ritual they were still retained
and supported by others. The same conclusion may be de-
rived from the commands recorded in Exodus xx. 26 and
xxviii. 42, that the priests be not "uncovered" before the
altar — commands which would hardly have been needed had
not the practice been in vogue.

Then there were dances (partly magical or religious) per-
formed at rustic and agricultural festivals, like the Epi-
lenios, celebrated in Greece at the gathering of the grapes.^
Of such a dance we get a glimpse in the Bible (Judges xxi.
20) when the elders advised the children of Benjamin to go
out and lie in wait in the vineyards, at the time of the
yearly feast; and "when the daughters of Shiloh come out

* ETTiXijj'toi vixvol'- hymns sung over the winepress (Dictionary).


to dance in the dances, then come ye out of the vineyards
and catch you every man a wife from the daughters of
Shiloh" — a touching example apparently of early so-called
'marriage by capture'! Or there were dances, also partly
or originally religious, of a quite orgiastic and Bacchan-
alian character, like the Bryallicha performed in Sparta by
men and women in hideous masks, or the Deimalea by
Sileni and Satyrs waltzing in a circle; or the Bibasis
carried out by both men and women — a quite gymnastic
exercise in which the performers took a special pride in strik-
ing their own buttocks with their heels! or others wilder
still, which it would perhaps not be convenient to

We must see how important a part Dancing played in
that great panorama of Ritual and Religion (spoken of in
the last chapter) which, having originally been led up to
by the 'Fall of Man,' has ever since the dawn of history
gradually overspread the world with its strange procession
of demons and deities, and its symbolic representations
of human destiny. When it is remembered that ritual
dancing was the matrix out of which the Drama sprang,
and further that the drama in its inception (as still to-day
in India) was an affair of religion and was acted in, or in
connection with, the Temples, it becomes easier to under-
stand how all this mass of ceremonial sacrifices, expiations,
initiations. Sun and Nature festivals, eucharistic and orgiastic
communions and celebrations, mystery-plays, dramatic rep-
resentations, myths and legends, etc., which I have touched
upon in the preceding chapters — together with all the
emotions, the desires, the fears, the yearnings and the
wonderment which they represented — have practically sprung
from the same root: a root deep and necessary in the
psychology of Man. Presently I hope to show that they
will all practically converge again in the end to one
meaning, and prepare the way for one great Synthesis to


come — ^an evolution also necessary and inevitable in human

In that truly inspired Ode from which I quoted a few
pages back, occur those well-known words whose repetition
now will, on account of their beauty, I am sure be excused: —

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting.
And Cometh from afar;

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light and whence it flows

He sees it in his joy;
The youth who daily farther from the east

Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,

And by the vision splendid

Is on his way attended;
At length the man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of common day.

Wordsworth — though he had not the inestimable advan-
tage of a nineteenth-century education and the inheri-
tance of the Darwinian philosophy — does nevertheless put
the matter of the Genius of the Child in a way which
(with the alteration of a few conventional terms) we scientific
moderns are quite inclined to accept. We all admit now
that the Child does not come into the world with a mental
tabula rasa of entire forgetfulness but on the contrary
as the possessor of vast stores of sub-conscious memory, de-
rived from its ancestral inheritances; we all admit that a cer-
tain grace and intuitive insight and even prophetic quality, in
the child-nature, are due to the harmonization of these racial
inheritances in the infant, even before it is born; and


that after birth the impact of the outer world serves
rather to break up and disintegrate this harmony than
to confirm and strengthen it. Some psychologists indeed
nowadays go so far as to maintain that the child is not
only 'Father of the man,' but superior to the man/ and
that Boyhood and Youth and Maturity are attained to not
by any addition but by a process of loss and subtraction.
It will be seen that the last ten lines of the above quotation
rather favor this view.

But my object in making the quotation was not to insist
on the truth of its application to the individual Child, but
rather to point out the remarkable way in which it illustrates
what I have said about the Childhood of the Race. In fact,
if the quotation be read over again with this interpretation
(which I do not say Wordsworth intended) that the 'birth'
spoken of is the birth or evolution of the distinctively self-
conscious Man from the Animals and the animal-natured,
unself-conscious human beings of a preceding age, then the
parable unfolds itself perfectly naturally and convincingly.
That birth certainly was sleep and a forgetting; the grace
and intuition and instinctive perfection of the ani-
mals was lost. But the forgetfulness was not entire; the
memory lingered long of an age of harmony, of an Eden-
garden left behind. And trailing clouds of this remembrance
the first tribal men, on the edge of but not yet within the
civilization-period, appear in the dawn of History.

As I have said before, the period of the dawn of Self-
consciousness was also the period of the dawn of the practical
and inquiring Intellect; it was the period of the babyhood
of both; and so we perceive among these early people (as
we also do among children) that while in the main the heart
and the intuitions were right, the intellect was for

1 Man in the course of his life falls away more and more from the
specifically human type of his early years, but the Ape in the course
of his short life goes very much farther along the road of degradation
and premature senility." {Man and Woman, by Havelock Ellis, p. 24).


a long period futile and rambling to a degree. As soon as
the mind left the ancient bases of instinct and sub-conscious
racial experience it fell into a hopeless bog, out of which
it only slowly climbed by means of the painfully-gathered
stepping-stones of logic and what we call Science. "Heaven
lies about us in our infancy." Wordsworth perceived
that wonderful world of inner experience and glory out of
which the child emerges; and some even of us may perceive
that similar world in which the untampered animals still
dwell, and out of which self-regarding Man in the history
of the race was long ago driven. But a curse went with
the exile. As the Brain grew, the Heart withered. The
inherited instincts and racially accumulated wisdom, on
which the first men thrived and by means of which they
achieved a kind of temporary Paradise, were broken up;
delusions and disease and dissension set in. Cain turned
upon his brother and slew him; and the shades of the prison-
house began to close. The growing Boy, however, (by
whom we may understand the early tribes of Mankind)
had yet a radiance of Light and Joy in his life; and the
Youth — though travelling daily farther from the East — still
remained Nature's priest, and by the vision splendid was on
his way attended: but

At length the Man perceived it die away.
And fade into the light of common day.

What a strangely apt picture in a few words (if we like to
take it so) of the long pilgrimage of the Human Race,

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Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 13 of 25)