Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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dation of social standards, and upgrowth of petty Philis-
tinism and niaiserie. Love, in fact, having in this modern
world-movement been denied, and its natural manifestations
affected with a sense of guilt and of sin, has really languished
and ceased to play its natural part in life; and a vast number

1 See Havelock Ellis, The Objects of Marriage, a pamphlet pub-
lished by the "British Society for the Study of Sex-psychology."


of people — both men and women, finding themselves
barred or derailed from the main object of existence,
have turned their energies to 'business' or 'money-making'
or 'social advancement' or something equally futile,
as the only poor substitute and pis alter open to

Why (again we ask) did Christianity make this apparently
great mistake? And again we must reply: Perhaps the
mistake was not so great as it appears to be. Perhaps
this was another case of the necessity of learning by loss.
Love had to be denied, in the form of sex, in order that it
might thus the better learn its own true values and needs. Sex
had to be rejected, or defiled with the sense of guilt and self-
seeking, in order that having cast out its defilement it might
return one day, transformed in the embrace of love.
The whole process has had a deep and strange world-
significance. It has led to an immensely long period of sup-
pression — suppression of two great instincts — the physical
instinct of sex and the emotional instinct of love. Two
things which should naturally be conjoined have been
separated; and both have suffered. And we know from
the Freudian teachings what suppressions in the root-in-
stincts necessarily mean. We know that they inevitably
terminate in diseases and distortions of proper action,
either in the body or in the mind, or in both; and that
these evils can only be cured by the liberation of the said
instincts again to their proper expression and harmonious
functioning in the whole organism. No wonder then that,
with this agelong suppression (necessary in a sense though
it may have been) which marks the Christian dispensation,
there should have been associated endless Sickness and Crime
and sordid Poverty, the Crucifixion of animals in the
name of Science and of human workers in the name of
Wealth, and wars and horrors innumerable! Hercules
writhing in the Nessus-shirt or Prometheus nailed to the


rocks are only as figures of a toy miniature compared with
this vision of the great and divine Spirit of Man caught in the
clutches of those dread Diseases which through the centuries
have been eating into his very heart and vitals.

It would not be fair to pile on the Christian Church the
blame for all this. It had, no doubt, its part to play in the
whole great scheme, namely, to accentuate the self-
motive; and it played the part very thoroughly and
successfully. For it must be remembered (what I have again
and again insisted on) that in the pagan cults it was always
the salvation of the clan, the tribe, the people that was the
main consideration; the advantage of the individual took
only a very secondary part. But in Christendom — after
the communal enthusiasms of apostolic days and of the
medieval and monastic brotherhoods and sisterhoods had
died down — religion occupied itself more and more with
each man or woman's individual salvation, regardless of
what might happen to the community; till, with the rise
of Protestantism and Puritanism, this tendency reached
such an extreme that, as some one has said, each
man was absorbed in polishing up his own little soul in a
corner to himself, in entire disregard to the damnation which
might come to his neighbor. Religion, and Morality
too, under the commercial regime became, as was natural,
perfectly selfish. It was always: "Am / saved? Am
/ doing the right thing? Am / v/inning the favor of God
and man? Will my claims to salvation be allowed?
Did / make a good bargain in allowing Jesus to be crucified
for me?" The poison of a diseased self -consciousness en-
tered into the whole human system.

As I say, one must not blame the Christians too much for
all this — partly because, after the communal periods which
I have just mentioned, Christianity was evidently deeply
influenced by the rise of Commercialism, to which during
the last two centuries it has so carefully and piously
adapted itself; and partly because — if our view is anyv.'here


near right — this microbial injection of self-consciousness
was just the necessary work which (in conjunction with
commercialism) it had to perform. But though one does
not blame Christianity one cannot blind oneself to its defects
— the defects necessarily arising from the part it had to
play. When one compares a healthy Pagan ritual — say
of Apollo or Dionysus — including its rude and crude sacrifices
if you like, but also including its whole-hearted spontaneity
and dedication to the common life and welfare — with the
morbid self-introspection of the Christian and the eternally
recurring question "What shall I do to be saved?" — the com-
parison is not favorable to the latter. There is (at
any rate in modern days) a mawkish milk-and-wateriness
about the Christian attitude, and also a painful self-con-
sciousness, which is not pleasant; and though Nietzsche's
blonde beast is a sufficiently disagreeable animal, one almost
thinks that it were better to be that than to go about with
one's head meekly hanging on one side, and talking always
of altruism and self-sacrifice, while in reality one's heart was
entirely occupied with the question of one's own salvation.
There is besides a lamentable want of grit and substance
about the Christian doctrines and ceremonials. Somehow
under the sex-taboo they became spiritualized and ethereal-
ized out of all human use. Study the initiation-rites of any
savage tribe — with their strict discipline of the young
braves in fortitude, and the overcoming of pain and fear;
with their very detailed lessons in the arts of war and life
and the duties of the grown man to his tribe; and with
their quite practical instruction in matters of Sex; and then
read our little Baptismal and Confirmation services, which
ought to correspond thereto. How thin and attenuated and
weak the latter appear! Or compare the Holy Com-
munion, as celebrated in the sentimental atmosphere of
a Protestant Church, with an ancient Eucharistic feast of
real jollity and community of life under the acknowledged
presence of the god; or the Roman Catholic service of the


Mass, including its genuflexions and mock oblations and
droning ritual sing-song, with the actual sacrifice in early
days of an animal-god- victim on a blazing altar; and I think
my meaning will be clear. We do not want, of course,
to return to all the crudities and barbarities of the past; but
also we do not want to become attenuated and spiritualized
out of all mundane sense and recognition, and to live in an
otherworld Paradise void of application to earthly

The sex-taboo in Christianity was apparently, as I have
said, an effort of the human soul to wrest itself free from
the entanglement of physical lust — which lust, though nor-
mal and appropriate and in a way gracious among the
animals, had through the domination of self -consciousness
become diseased and morbid or monstrous in Man. The
work thus done has probably been of the greatest value
to the human race ; but, just as in other cases it has sometimes
happened that the effort to do a certain work has resulted
in the end in an unbalanced exaggeration so here. We
are beginning to see now the harmful side of the repression
of sex, and are tentatively finding our way back again to a
more pagan attitude. And as this return-movement is
taking place at a time when, from many obvious signs, the
self-conscious, grasping, commercial conception of life is
preparing to go on the wane, and the sense of solidarity to
re-establish itself, there is really good hope that our
return-journey may prove in some degree successful.

Man progresses generally, not both legs at once like a
sparrow, but by putting one leg forward first, and then
the other. There was this advantage in the Christian
taboo of sex that by discouraging the physical and sen-
sual side of love it did for the time being allow the spiritual
side to come forward. But, as I have just now indicated,
there is a limit to that process. We cannot always keep
one leg first in walking, and we do not want, in life, always
to put the spiritual first, nor always the material and


sensual. The two sides in the long run have to keep pace
with each other.

And it may be that a great number of the very curious
and seemingly senseless taboos that we find among the primi-
tive peoples can be partly explained in this way: that is,
that by ruling out certain directions of activity they
enabled people to concentrate more effectually, for the time
being, on other directions. To primitive folk the great world,
whose ways are puzzling enough in all conscience to us,
must have been simply bewildering in its dangers and com-
plications. It was an amazement of Fear and Ignorance.
Thunderbolts might come at any moment out of the blue sky,
or a demon out of an old tree trunk, or a devastating
plague out of a bad smell — or apparently even out of nothing
at all! Under those circumstances it was perhaps wise,
wherever there was the smallest suspicion of danger or
ill-luck, to create a hard and fast taboo — just as we tell
our children on no account to walk under a ladder (thereby
creating a superstition in their minds), partly because it
would take too long to explain all about the real dangers
of paint-pots and other things, and partly because for the
children themselves it seems simpler to have a fixed and
inviolable law than to argue over every case that occurs.
The priests and elders among early folk no doubt took the
line of forbiddal of activities, as safer and simpler, even if
carried sometimes too far, than the opposite, of easy per-
mission and encouragement. Taboos multiplied — many of
them quite senseless — but perhaps in this perilous maze
of the world, of which I have spoken, it really was simpler
to cut out a large part of the labyrinth, as forbidden ground,
thus rendering it easier for the people to find their way in
those portions of the labyrinth which remained. If
you read in Deuteronomy (ch. xiv) the list of birds and
beasts and fishes permitted for food among the Israelites,
or tabooed, you will find the list on the whole reasonable,
but you will be struck by some curious exceptions (according


to our ideas), which are probably to be explained by the
necessity of making the rules simple enough to be compre-
hended by everybody — even if they included the forbiddal
of some quite eatable animals.

At some early period, in Babylonia or Assyria, a very
stringent taboo on the Sabbath arose, which, taken up in turn
by the Jewish and Christian Churches, has ruled the
Western World for three thousand years or more, and still
survives in a quite senseless form among some of our rural
populations, who will see their corn rot in the fields rather
than save it on a Sunday.^ It is quite likely th^t this taboo
in its first beginning was due not to any need of a weekly
rest-day (a need which could never be felt among nomad
savages, but would only occur in some kind of industrial
and stationary civilization), but to some superstitious fear,
connected with such things as the changes of the Moon,
and the probable ill-luck of any enterprise undertaken on
the seventh day, or any day of Moon-change. It is probable,
however, that as time went on and Society became more
complex, the advantages of a weekly rest-day (or market-
day) became more obvious and that the priests and legis-
lators deliberately turned the taboo to a social use.- The
learned modern Ethnologists, however, will generally have
none of this latter idea. As a rule they delight in repre-
senting early peoples as totally destitute of common sense
(which is supposed to be a monopoly of us moderns!);
and if the Sabbath-arrangement has had any value or use
they insist on ascribing this to pure accident, and not to
the application of any sane argument or reason.

It is true indeed that a taboo — in order to be a proper
taboo — must not rest in the general mind on argument or
reason. It may have had good sense in the past or even

^ For other absurd Sunday taboos see Westerraarck. on The Moral
Ideas, vol. ii, p. 289.

- For a tracing of this taboo from useless superstition to pr:Actical
utility see Hastings's Encyd. Religion and Ethics, art. "The Sabbath."


an underlying good sense in tlie present, but its foundatian
must rest on something beyond. It must be an absolute
fiat — something of the nature of a Mystery^ or of Religion
or Magic — and not to be disputed. This gives it its blood-
curdling quality. The rustic does not know what would
happen to him if he garnered his corn on Sunday, nor does
the diner-out in polite society know what would happen if
he spooned up his food with his knife — but they both
are stricken with a sort of paralysis at the very suggestion of
infringing these taboos.

Marriage-customs have always been a fertile field for the
generation of taboos. It seems doubtful whether any-
thing like absolute promiscuity ever prevailed among the hu-
man race, but there is much to show that wide choice and
intercourse were common among primitive folk and that
the tendency of later marriage custom has been on the whole
to limit this range of choice. At some early period the
forbiddal of marriage between those who bore the
same totem-name took place. Thus in Australia "no man of
the Emu stock might marry an Emu woman; no Blacksnalie
might marry a Blacksnake woman, and so forth."^ Among
the Kamilaroi and the Arunta of S. Australia the tribe was
divided into classes or clans, sometimes four, sometimes
eight, and a man of one particular clan was only mar-
riageable with a woman of another particular clan — say (i)
with (3) or (2) with (4), and so on.^ Customs with a similar
tendency, but different in detail, seem to have prevailed
among native tribes in Central Africa and N. America.
And the regulations in all this matter have been so (appar-
ently) entirely arbitrary in the various cases that it would
almost appear as if the bar of kinship through the Totem
had been the excuse, originating perhaps in some superstition,
but that the real and more abiding object was simply limita-

1 See Westermarck, Ibid., ii. 586.

2 Myth, Ritual and Religion, \, p. 66.

3 See Spencer and Gilkn, Native Tribes of Australia.


tion. And this perhaps was a wise line to take. A taboo
on promiscuity had to be created, and for this purpose any
current prejudice could be made use of .^

With us moderns the whole matter has taken a different
complexion. When we consider the enormous amount of
suffering and disease, both of mind and body, arising from
the sex-suppression of which I have just spoken, especially
among women, we see that mere unreasoning taboos — which
possibly had their place and use in the past — can be
tolerated no longer. We are bound to turn the search-
light of reason and science on a number of superstitions which
still linger in the dark and musty places of the Churches and
the Law courts. Modern inquiry has shown conclusively
not only the foundational importance of sex in the evo-
lution of each human being, but also the very great
variety of spontaneous manifestations in different indi-
viduals and the vital necessity that these should be recog-
nized, if society is ever to expand into a rational hu-
man form. It is not my object here to sketch the fu-
ture of marriage and sex-relations generally — a subject
which is now being dealt with very effectively from many
sides; but only to insist on our using our good sense in the
whole matter, and refusing any longer to be bound by sense-
less pre-judgments.

Something of the same kind may be said with regard to
Nakedness, which in modern Civilization has become the
object of a very serious and indeed harmful taboo; both
of speech and act. As someone has said, it became in the
end of the nineteenth century almost a crime to mention
by name any portion of the human body within a radius
of about twenty inches from its centre ( ! ) and as a matter
of fact a few dress-reformers of that period were actually
brought into court and treated as criminals for going about
with legs bare up to the knees, and shoulders and chest

1 The author of The Mystic Rose seems to take this view. See
p. 214 of that book.


uncovered! Public follies such as these have been re-
sponsible for much of the bodily and mental disease and
suppression just mentioned, and the sooner they are sent to
limbo the better. No sensible person would advocate
promiscuous nakedness any more than promiscuous sex-
relationship; nor is it likely that aged and deformed
people would at any time wish to expose themselves. But
surely there is enough good sense and appreciation of grace
and fitness in the average human mind for it to be able to
liberate the body from senseless concealment, and give it
its due expression. The Greeks of old, having on the
whole clean bodies, treated them with respect and distinction.
The young men appeared quite naked in the palaes-
tra, and even the girls of Sparta ran races publicly in
the same condition;^ and some day when our bodies (and
minds too) have become clean we shall return to similar
institutions. But that will not be just yet. As long as
the defilement of this commercial civilization is on us we
shall prefer our dirt and concealment. The powers that
be will protest against change. Heinrich Scham, in his
charming little pamphlet Nackende Menschen,'^ describes the
consternation of the commercial people at such ideas:

" 'What will become of us,' cried the tailors, 'if you go

"And all the lot of them, hat, cravat, shirt, and shoemakers
joined in the chorus.

" 'And where shall I carry my money?' cried one who had
just been made a director."

^ See Theocritus, Idyll xviii.

2 Published at Leipzig about 1893,



Referring back to the existence of something resembling
a great World-reHgion which has come down the centuries,
continually expanding and branching in the process, we have
now to consider the genesis of that special brand or
branch of it which we call Christianity. Each religion or
cult, pagan or Christian, has had, as we have seen, a vast
amount in common with the general World-religion; yet each
has had its own special characteristics. What have been the
main characteristics of the Christian branch, as differentiating
it from the other branches?

We saw in the last chapter that a certain ascetic attitude
towards Sex was one of the most salient marks of the Chris-
tian Church; and that whereas most of the pagan cults
(though occasionally favoring frightful austerities and
cruel sacrifices) did on the whole rejoice in pleasure and
the world of the senses, Christianity — following largely on
Judaism — displayed a tendency towards renunciation of
the world and the flesh, and a withdrawal into the inner and
more spiritual regions of the mind. The same tendency
may be traced in the Egyptian and Phrygian cults of that
period. It will be remembered how Juvenal (Sat. VI,
510-40) chaffs the priests of Cybele at Rome for making
themselves "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake,"
or the rich Roman lady for plunging in the wintry Tiber



for a propitiation to Isis. No doubt among the later pagans
"the long intolerable tyranny of the senses over the soul"
had become a very serious matter. But Christianity rep-
resented perhaps the most powerful reaction against this;
and this reaction had, as indicated in the last chapter, the
enormously valuable result that (for the time) it disentangled
love from sex and established Love, pure and undefiled, as
ruler of the world. "God is Love." But, as also indicated,
the divorce between the two elements of human nature,
carried to an extreme, led in time to a crippling of both
elements and the development of a certain morbidity and
self-consciousness which, it cannot be denied, is painfully
marked among some sections of Christians — especially those
of the altruistic and 'philanthropic' type.

Another characteristic of Christianity which is also very
fine in its way but has its limits of utility, has been its
insistence on "morahty." Some modern writers indeed have
gone so far — forgetting, I suppose, the Stoics — as to
claim that Christianity's chief mark is its high morality,
and that the pagans generally were quite wanting in
the moral sense! This, of course, is a profound
mistake. I should say that, in the true sense of the
word, the early and tribal peoples have been much more
'moral' as a rule — that is, ready as individuals to pay
respect to the needs of the community — than the later and
more civilized societies. But the mistake arises from the
different interpretations of the word; for whereas all
the pagan religions insisted very strongly on the just-
mentioned kind of morality, which we should call civic duty
to one's neighbor, the Christians made morality to consist
more especially in a man's duty to God. It became
with them a private affair between a man's self and God,
rather than a public affair; and thus led in the end to a
very obnoxious and quite pharisaic kind of morality, whose
chief inspiration was not the helping of one's feiiovv-man
but the saving of one's own soul.


There may perhaps be other salient points of differentiation
between Christianity and the preceding pagan religions; but
for the present we may recognize these two — (a) the tendency
towards a renunciation of the world, and the consequent cul-
tivation of a purely spiritual love and (b) the insistence on a
morality whose inspiration was a private sense of duty
to God rather than a public sense of duty to one's neighbor
and to society generally. It may be interesting to trace the
causes which led to this differentiation.

Three centuries before our era the conquests of Alexander
had had the effect of spreading the Greek thought and
culture over most of the known world. A vast number
of small bodies of worshipers of local deities, with their vari-
ous rituals and religious customs, had thus been broken up,
or at least brought into contact with each other and
partially modified and hellenized. The orbit of a more
general conception of life and religion was already being traced.
By the time of the founding of the first Christian Church
the immense conquests of Rome had greatly extended
and established the process. The Mediterranean had
become a great Roman lake. Merchant ships and routes
of traffic crossed it in all directions; tourists visited its shores.
The known world had become one. The numberless
peoples, tribes, nations, societies within the girdle of the
Empire, with their various languages, creeds, customs,
religions, philosophies, were profoundly influencing each
other.^ A great fusion was taking place; and it was becoming
inevitable that the next great religious movement would have
a world-wide character.

It was probable that this new religion would combine many
elements from the preceding rituals in one cult. In

1 For an enlargement on this theme see Glover's Conflict of Religions
in the early Roman Empire; also S. J. Case, Evolution of Early Chris-
tianity (University of Chicago, 1914). The Adonis worship, for in-
stance (a resurrection-cult), "was still thriving in Syria and Cyprus
when Paul preached there," and the worship of Isis and Serapis had
already reached Athens, Rome and Naples.


connection with the fine temples and elaborate services of
Isis and Cybele and Mithra there was growing up a powerful
pr'esthocd; Franz Cumont^ speaks of "the learned priests
of the Asiatic cults" as building up, on the foundations
of old fetichism and superstition, a complete religious
philosophy — just as the Brahmins had built the monism
of the Vedanta on the "monstrous idolatries of Hinduism."
And it was likely that a similar process would evolve the
new religion expected. Toutain again calls attention to

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Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 15 of 25)