Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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Gibed and jeered at she bewails her lonely fate;
Nevertheless youngest-bom she surpasses her sisters and endues

a garment of the sun and stars;
From a tiny spark she ascends and irradiates the universe,

and is wedded to the prince of heaven.

How lovely this vision of the little maiden sitting unbe-
known close to the Hearth-fire of the universe — herself
indeed just a little spark from it; despised and rejected;
rejected by the world, despised by her two elder sisters (the
body and the intellect) ; yet she, the soul, though latest-
born, by far the most beautiful of the three. And of
the Prince of Love who redeems and sets her free; and of her

1 2 Peter iii. 4; written probably about a.d. 150.


wedding garment the glory and beauty of all nature and of
the heavens! The parables of Jesus are charming in their
way, but they hardly reach this height of inspiration.

Or the world-old myth of Eros and Psyche. How strange
that here again there are three sisters (the three stages of
human evolution), and the latest-born the most beautiful
of the three, and the jealousies and persecutions heaped on
the youngest by the others, and especially by Aphrodite the
goddess of mere sensual charm. And again the coming of
the unknown, the unseen Lover, on whom it is not per-
mitted for mortals to look; and the long, long tests and suf-
ferings and trials which Psyche has to undergo before Eros
may really take her to his arms and translate her to the
heights of heaven. Can we not imagine how when these
things were represented in the Mysteries the world flocked
to see them, and the poets indeed said, "Happy are
they that see and seeing can understand?" Can we not
imderstand how it was that the Amphictyonic decree of the
second century B.C. spoke of these same Mysteries as en-
forcing the lesson that "the greatest of human blessings
is fellowship and mutual trust"?



Thus we come to a thing which we must not pass over,
because it throws great light on the meaning and interpreta-
tion of all these rites and ceremonies of the great World-
religion. I mean the subject of the Ancient Mysteries. And
to this I will give a few pages.

These Mysteries were probably survivals of the oldest re-
ligious rites of the Greek races, and in their earlier forms
consisted not so much in worship of the gods of Heaven
as of the divinities of Earth, and of Nature and Death. Crude,
no doubt, at first, they gradually became (especially in their
Eleusinian form) more refined and philosophical; the rites
were gradually thrown open, on certain conditions, not
only to men generally, but also to women, and even to slaves;
and in the end they influenced Christianity deeply.^

There were apparently three forms of teaching made
use of in these rites: these were Xcyo/xevo, things said;
Set/cvu/xera, things shown; and Spwfieva, things per-
formed or acted} I have given already some instances
of things said — texts whispered for consolation in the
neophyte's ear, and so forth; of the third group, things
enacted, we have a fair amount of evidence. There were

1 See Edwin Hatch, D.D., The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages
on the Christian Church (London, 1890), pp. 283-5.

2 Cheetham, op. cit., pp. 49-61 sq.



ritual dramas or passion-plays, of which an important
one dealt with the descent of Kore or Proserpine into the
underworld, as in the Eleusinian representations,^ and her
redemption and restoration to the upper world in Spring;
another with the sufferings of Psyche and her rescue by Eros,
as described by Apuleius- — himself an initiate in the cult
of Isis. There is a parody by Lucian, which tells
of the birth of Apollo, the marriage of Coronis, and the
coming of Aesculapius as Savior; there was the dying
and rising again of Dionysus (chief divinity of the Orphic
cult) ; and sometimes the mystery of the birth of Dionysus
as a holy child. ^ There was, every year at Eleusis, a
solemn and lengthy procession or pilgrimage made, symbolic
of the long pilgrimage of the human soul, its sufferings and

"Almost always," says Dr. Cheetham, "the suffering of a
god — suffering followed by triumph — seems to have been
the subject of the sacred drama." Then occasionally to
the Neophytes, after taking part in the pilgrimage, and
when their minds had been prepared by an ordeal of
darkness and fatigue and terrors, was accorded a revelation
of Paradise, and even a vision of Transfiguration — the form
of the Hierophant himself, or teacher of the Mys-
teries, being seen half-lost in a blaze of light.* Finally, there
was the eating of food and drinking of barley-drink from
the sacred chest^ — a kind of Communion or Eucharist.

1 See Famell, op. cit., iii. 158 sq.

2 See The Golden Ass.

* Farncll, ii. 177 * Ibid., 179 sq.

5 Ibid., 186. Sacred chests, in which holy things were kept, figure
frequently in early rites and legends — as in the case of the ark of
the Jewish tabernacle, the ark or box carried in celebrations of the
mysteries of Bacchus (Theocritus, Idyll xxvi), the legend of Pandora's
box which contained the seeds of all good and evil, the ark of Noah
which saved all living creatures from the flood, the Argo of
the argonauts, the moonshaped boat in which Isis floating over
the waters gathered together the severed limbs of Osiris, and so
brought about his resurrection, and the many chests or coffins out


Apuleius in The Golden Ass gives an interesting account
of his induction into the mysteries of Isis: how, bidding
farewell one evening to the general congregation outside, and
clothed in a new linen garment, he was handed by
the priest into the inner recesses of the temple itself; how
he "approached the confines of death, and having trod on
the threshold of Proserpine (the Underworld), returned
therefrom, being borne through all the elements. At
midnight I saw the sun shining with its brilliant light:
and I approached the presence of the Gods beneath and
the Gods above, and stood near and worshipped them."
During the night things happened which must not be
disclosed; but in the morning he came forth "consecrated
by being dressed in twelve stoles painted with the figures of
animals."^ He ascended a pulpit in the midst of the Temple,
carrying in his right hand a burning torch, while a
chaplet encircled his head, from which palm-leaves pro-
jected like rays of light. "Thus arrayed like the Sun, and
placed so as to resemble a statue, on a sudden, the curtains
being drawn aside, I was exposed to the gaze of the multitude.
After this I celebrated the most joyful day of my
initiation, as my natal day [day of the New Birth]
and there was a joyous banquet and mirthful con-

One can hardly refuse to recognize in this account the
description of some kind of ceremony which was supposed
to seal the illumination of a man and his new birth into
divinity — the animal origin, the circling of all experience,
the terrors of death, and the resurrection in the form of

of which the various gods (Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Jesus), having been
laid there in death, rose again for the redemption of the worid. They
all evidently refer to the mystic womb of Nature and of Woman,
and are symbols of salvation and redemption. (For a full discussion
of this subject, see The Great Law of religious origins, by W. William-
son, ch. iv.)

1 An allusion no doubt to the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the path-
way of the Sun, as well as to the practice of the ancient priests of
wearing the skins of totem-animals in sign of their divinity.


the Sun, the symbol of all light and life. The very word
"illumination" carries the ideas of light and a new birth with
it. Reitzenstein in his very interesting book on the Greek
Mysteries^ speaks over and over again of the illumination
(<f>u)Ti(Tfi6s) which was held to attend Initiation and
Salvation. The doctrine of Salvation indeed (o-wTT/pta)
was, as we have already seen, rife and widely current in
the Second Century b. c. It represented a real experience,
and the man who shared this experience became a ^«ios
dvdpojTTo^ or divine man. ^ In the Orphic Tablets the
phrase "I am a child of earth and the starry heaven, but
my race is of heaven (alone)" occurs more than once.
In one of the longest of them the dead man is instructed
"after he has passed the waters (of Lethe) where the white
Cypress and the House of Hades are" to address these very
words to the guardians of the Lake of Memory while
he asks for a drink of cold water from that Lake. In
another the dead person himself is thus addressed: "Hail,
thou who hast endured the Suffering, such as indeed thou
hadst never suffered before; thou hast become god from
man/"^ Ecstacy was the acme of the religious life; and,
what is especially interesting to us, Salvation or the divine
nature was open to all men — to all, that is, who should go
through the necessary stages of preparation for it.*

Reitzenstein contends (p. 26) that in the Mysteries,
transfigvu-ation (/xcTa^op^wo-is), salvation (awTrjpui), and
new birth (TroAtyyevtcrui) were often conjoined. He says

1 Die hellenistischen Mysterien-Religionen, by R. Reitzenstein, Leipzig,

2 Reitzenstein, p. 12.

3 These Tablets (so-called) are instructions to the dead as to their
passage into the other world, and have been found in the tombs, in
Italy and elsewhere, inscribed on very thin gold plates and buried
with the departed. See Manual of Greek Antiquities by Percy Gardner
and F. B. Jerome (1896) ; also Prolegomena to Greek Religion by Jane
E. Harrison (1908).

* Reitzenstein, pp. 15 and 18; also S. J. Case, Evolution of Early
Christianity, p. 301.


(p. 31), that in the Egyptian Osiris-cult, the Initiate acquires
a nature "equal to God" ( icrd^eos ), the very same ex-
pression as that used of Christ Jesus in Philippians ii. 6;
he mentions Apollonius of Tyana and Sergius Paulus as
instances of men who by their contemporaries were consid-
ered to have attained this nature; and he quotes Akh-
naton (Pharaoh of Egypt in 1375 B.C.) as having said,
"Thou art in my heart; none other knows Thee, save thy
son Akhnaton; Thou hast initiated him into thy wisdom
and into thy power." He also quotes the words of Hermes
(Trismegistus) — "Come unto Me, even as children to their
mother's bosom: Thou art I, and I am Thou; what is thine
is mine, and what is mine is thine; for indeed I am
thine image ( etSwAov )," and refers to the dialogue between
Hermes and Tat, in which they speak of the great and mystic
New Birth and Union with the All — with all Elements, Plants
and Animals, Time and Space.

"The Mysteries," says Dr. Cheetham very candidly,
"influenced Christianity considerably and modified it in some
important respects"; and Dr. Hatch, as we have seen,
not only supports this general view, but follows it
out in detail.^ He points out that the membership of the
Mystery-societies was very numerous in the earliest times,
A.D.; that their general aims were good, including a sense of
true religion, decent life, and brotherhood; that clean-
ness from crime and confession were demanded from the
neophyte; that confession was followed by baptism
(KaOapais) and that by sacrifice; that the term <f>(tiTL(Tfji6<:
(illumination) was adopted by the Christian Church as
the name for the new birth of baptism; that the Christian
usage of placing a seal on the forehead came from the same
source; that baptism itself after a time was called a mystery
( fiva-LTQpLov ) ; that the sacred cakes and barley-drink of
the Mysteries became the milk and honey and bread and
wine of the first Christian Eucharists, and that the occasional
1 See Hatch, op. cit., pp. 290 sq.


sacrifice of a lamb on the Christian altar ("whose mention
is often suppressed") probably originated in the same way.
Indeed, the conception of the communion-table as an altar
and many other points of ritual gradually established them-
selves from these sources as time went on/ It is hardly
necessary to say more in proof of the extent to which in
these ancient representations "things said" and "scenes
enacted" forestalled the doctrines and ceremonials of

"But what of the second group above-mentioned, the
"things shown"? It is not so easy naturally to get exact
information concerning these, but they seem to have been
specially holy objects, probably things connected with
very ancient rituals in the past — such as sacred stones,
old and rude images of the gods, magic nature-symbols, like
that half-disclosed ear of corn above-mentioned (Ch, V.
supra). "In the Temple of Isis at Philae," says Dr. Cheet-
ham, "the dead body of Osiris is represented with stalks
of corn springing from it, which a priest waters from
a vessel. An inscription says: 'This is the form of him
whom we may not name, Osiris of the Mysteries who sprang
from the returning waters' [the Nile]." Above all, no doubt,
there were images of the phallus and the vulva, the great
symbols of human fertility. We have seen (Ch. XII) that
the lingam and the yoni are, even down to to-day, commonly
retained and honored as holy objects in the S. Indian
Temples, and anointed with oil (some of them) for
a very practical reason. Sir J. G. Frazer, in his lately
published volumes on The Folk-lore of the Old Testament,
has a chapter (in vol. ii) on the very numerous sacred stones
of various shapes and sizes found or spoken of in Palestine
and other parts of the world. Though uncertain as to the
meaning of these stones he mentions that they are "fre-

1 See Dionysus Arcop. (end of fifth century), who describes the
Christian rites generally in Mystery language (Hatch, 296),


quently, though not always, upright." Anointing them with
oil, he assures us, "is a widespread practice, sometimes by
women who wish to obtain children." And he concludes
the chapter by saying: "The holy stone at Bethel was prob-
ably one of those massive standing stones or rough pil-
lars which the Hebrews called masseboth, and which,
as we have seen, were regular adjuncts of Canaanite and
early Israelitish sanctuaries." We have already mentioned
the pillars Jachin and Boaz v/hich stood before the Temple
of Solomon, and which had an acknowledged sexual signifi-
cance; and so it seems probable that a great number of
these holy stones had a similar meaning.^ Following this
clue it would appear likely that the lingam thus anointed
and worshipped in the Temples of India and elsewhere is the
original xp^o-to^ ,- adored by the human race from the very
beginning, and that at a later time, when the Priest
and the King, as objects of worship, took the place
of the Lingam, they also were anointed with the chrism of
fertility. That the exhibition of these emblems should be
part of the original 'Mystery'-rituals was perfectly
natural — especially because, as we have explained already,^
old customs often continued on in a quite naive fashion
in the rituals, when they had come to be thought indecent
or improper by a later public opinion; and (we may say)
was perfectly in order, because there is plenty of evidence to
show that in savage initiations, of which the Mysteries were
the linear descendants, all these things were explained to

1 F. Nork, Der Mystagog, mentions that the Roman Penates were
commonly anointed with oil. J. Stuart Hay, in his Life of Elagabalus
(1911), says that "Elagabal was worshipped under the symbol of a
great black stone or meteorite, in the shape of a Phallus, which
having fallen from the heavens represented a true portion of the
Godhead, much after the style of those black stone images popularly
venerated in Norway and other parts of Europe."

2 J. E. Hewitt, in his Ruling Races of Pre-kistoric Times (p. 64),
gives a long list of pre-historic races who worshipped the lingam.

3 See Ch. XI, p. 171.


the novices, and their use actually taught.^ No doubt also
there were some representations or dramatic incidents of
a fairly coarse character, as deriving from these ancient
sources.^ It is, however, quaint to observe how the mere
mention of such things has caused an almost hysterical
commotion among the critics of the Mysteries — from the
day of the early Christians who (in order to belaud their
own religion) were never tired of abusing the Pagans, on-
ward to the present day when modern scholars either on
the one hand follow the early Christians in representing
the Mysteries as sinks of iniquity or on the other (knowing
this charge could not be substantiated except in the period
of their final decadence) take the line of ignoring the sexual
interest attaching to them as non-existent or at any rate
unworthy of attention. The good Archdeacon Cheetham,
for instance, while writing an interesting book on the Mys-
teries, passes by this side of the subject almost as if it did
not exist; while the learned Dr. Farnell, overcome appar-
ently by the weight of his learning, and unable to confront
the alarming obstacle presented by these sexual rites and
aspects, hides himself behind the rather non-committal
remark (speaking of the Eleusinian rites) "we have no
right to imagine any part of this solemn ceremony as coarse
or obscene."^ As Nature, however, has been known (quite

1 See Ernest Crawley's Mystic Rose, ch. xiii, pp. 310 and 313:
"In certain tribes of Central Africa both boys and girls after initiation
must as soon as possible have intercourse." Initiation being not merely
preliminary to, but often actually marriage. The same among Kaffirs,
Congo tribes, Senegalese, etc. Also among the Arunta of Aus-

2 Professor Diederichs has said that "in much ancient ritual it
was thought that mystic communion with the deity could be obtained
through the semblance of sex-intercourse — as in tlie Attis-Cybele wor-
ship, and the Isis-ritual." (Farnell.) Reitzenstein says {op. cit., p. 20.)
that the Initiates, like some of the Christian Nuns at a later time, be-
lieved in union with God through receiving the seed.

3 Farnell, op. cit., iii. 176. Messrs. Gardner and Jevons, in their
Manual of Greek Antiquities, above-quoted, compare the Eleusinian
Mysteries favorably with some of the others, like the Arcadian, the


frequently) to be coarse or obscene, and as the initiators
of the Mysteries were probably neither 'good' nor 'learned,'
but were simply anxious to interpret Nature as best they
could, we cannot find fault with the latter for the way
they handled the problem, nor indeed well see how they could
have handled it better.

After all it is pretty clear that the early peoples saw
in Sex the great cohesive force which kept (we will not say
Humanity but at any rate) the Tribe together, and sustained
the race. In the stage of simple Consciousness this
must have been one of the first things that the budding in-
tellect perceived. Sex became one of the earliest divinities,
and there is abundant evidence that its organs and processes
generally were invested with a religious sense of awe and
sanctity. It was in fact the symbol (or rather the actuality)
of the permanent undying life of the race, and as such was
sacred to the uses of the race. Whatever taboos may have,
among different peoples, guarded its operations, it was not
essentially a thing to be concealed, or ashamed of. Rather
the contrary. For instance the early Christian writer,
Hippolytus, Bishop of Pontus (a.d. 200), in his Refutation
of all Heresies, Book V, says that the Samothracian Mys-
teries, just mentioned, celebrate Adam as the primal or arche-
typal Man eternal in the heavens; and he then con-
tinues: "Habitually there stand in the temple of the
Samothracians two images of naked men having both hands
stretched aloft towards heaven, and their pudenda turned up-
wards, as is also the case with the statue of Mercury
on Mt. Cyllene. And the aforesaid images are figures of
the primal man, and of that spiritual one that is born again,
in every respect of the same substance with that [first]

Troezenian, the ^ginaean, and the very primitive Samothracian: say-
ing (p. 278) that of the last-mentioned "we know little, but safely
conjecture that in them the ideas of sex and procreation dominated
even more than in those of Eleusis."


This extract from Hippolytus occurs in the long discourse
in which he 'exposes' the heresy of the so-called Naassene
doctrines and mysteries. But the whole discourse should be
read by those who wish to understand the Gnostic philos-
ophy of the period contemporary with and anterior to the
birth of Christianity. A translation of the discourse, care-
fully analyzed and annotated, is given in G. R. S. Mead's
Thrice-greatest Hermes^ (vol. i) ; and Mead himself, speaking
of it, says (p. 141): "The claim of these Gnostics was practi-
cally that the good news of the Christ [the Christos]
was the consummation of the inner doctrine of the Mystery-
institutions of all the nations; the end of them all being
the revelation of the Mystery of Man." Further, he explains
that the Soul, in these doctrines, was regarded as synonymous
with the Cause of All; and that its loves were twain — of
Aphrodite (or Life), and of Persephone (or Death and the
other world). Also that Attis, abandoning his sex in the
worship of the Mother-Goddess {Dea Syria), ascends to
Heaven — a new man, Male-female, and the origin of all
things: the hidden Mystery being the Phallus itself,
erected as Hermes in all roads and boundaries and temples,
the Conductor and Reconductor of Souls.

All this may sound strange, but one may fairly say that
it represented in its degree, and in that first 'unfallen' stage
of human thought and psychology, a true conception of the
cosmic Life, and indeed a conception quite sensible and ad-
mirable, until, of course, the Second Stage brought
corruption. No sooner was this great force of the cosmic
life diverted from its true uses of Generation and Regenera-
tion,' and appropriated by the individual to his own private
pleasure — no sooner was its religious character as a tribal

1 Reitzenstein, op. cit., quotes the discourse largely. The Thrice-
greatest Hermes may also be consulted for a translation of Plutarch's
Isis and Osiris.

2 For the special meaning of these two terms, see The Drama of
Love and Death, by E. Carpenter, pp. 59-6 1.


service^ (often rendered within the Temple precincts) lost
sight of or degraded into a commercial transaction — than
every kind of evil fell upon mankind. Corruptio optimi
pessima. It must be remembered too that simultaneous
with this sexual disruption occurred the disruption of
other human relations; and we cease to be surprised that
disease and selfish passions, greed, jealousy, slander, cruelty,
and wholesale murder, raged — and have raged ever since.
But for the human soul — whatever its fate, and whatever
the dangers and disasters that threaten it — there is always
redemption waiting. As we saw in the last chapter, this
corruption of Sex led (quite naturally) to its denial and re-
jection; and its denial led to the differentiation from it of
Love. Humanity gained by the enthronement "and deifi-
cation of Love, pure and undefiled, and (for the time
being) exalted beyond this mortal world, and free from all
earthly contracts. But again in the end, the divorce thus
introduced between the physical and the spiritual led to
the crippling of both. Love relegated, so to speak, to
heaven as a purely philanthropical, pious and 'spiritual'
affair, became exceedingly dull; and sex, remaining on
earth, but deserted by the redeeming presence, fell into mere
"carnal curiosity and wretchedness of unclean living."
Obviously for the human race there remains nothing, in
the final event, but the reconciliation of the physical
and the spiritual, and after many sufferings, the reunion of
Eros and Psyche.

There is still, however, much to be said about the Third
State of Consciousness. Let us examine into it a little

1 Ernest Crawley in The Mystic Rose challenges this identification
of Religion with tribal interests; yet his arguments are not very
convincing. On p. s he admits that "there is a religious meaning
inherent in the primitive conception and practice of all human rela-
tions"; and a large part of his ch. xii is taken up in showing that

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Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 19 of 25)