Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

. (page 6 of 25)
Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 6 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

carried down into the underworld by the evil powers of Dark-
ness and Winter. And in Greece there was a yearly cere-
monial and ritual of magic for the purpose of restoring
the lost one and bringing her back to the world again.
Women carried certain charms, "fir-cones and snakes and
unnamable objects made of paste, to ensure fertility;
there was a sacrifice of pigs, who were thrown into a deep
cleft of the earth, and their remains afterwards collected
and scattered as a charm over the fields."^ Fir-cones
and snakes from their very forms were emblems of male fer-
tility; snakes, too, from their habit of gliding out of their
own skins with renewed brightness and color were sugges-
tive of resurrection and re-vivification; pigs and sows by
their exceeding fruitfulness would in their hour of sacri-
fice remind old mother Earth of what was expected from
her! Moreover, no doubt it had been observed that
the scattering of dead ilesh over the ground or mixed
with the seed, did bless the ground to a greater fertility;
and so by a strange mixture of primitive observation with
a certain child-like belief that by means of symbols and

1 Quoted from Sahagun II, 2, 3 by A. Lang in Myth, Ritual and
Religion, vol. ii, p. 102.

2 See Gilbert Murray's Four Stages of Greek Religion, p. 29.


suggestions Nature could be appealed to and induced to
answer to the desires and needs for her children this sort
of ceremonial Magic arose. It was not exactly Science, and
it was not exactly Religion; but it was a naive, and perhaps
not altogether mistaken, sense of the bond between Nature
and Man.

For we can perceive that earliest man was not yet con-
sciously differentiated from Nature. Not only do we see
that the tribal life was so strong that the individual seldom
regarded himself as different or separate or opposed to the
rest of the tribe; but that something of the same kind
was true with regard to his relation to the Animals and
to Nature at large. This outer world was part of him-
self, was also himself. His sub-conscious sense of unity
was so great that it largely dominated his life. That
brain-cleverness and brain-activity which causes modern
man to perceive such a gulf between him and the ani-
mals, or between himself and Nature, did not exist in the early
man. Hence it was no difficulty to him to believe that
he was a Bear or an Emu. Sub-consciously he was wiser
than we are. He knew that he was a bear or an emu, or
any other such animal as his totem-creed led him to fix his
mind upon. Hence we find that a familiarity and com-
mon consent existed between primitive man and many
of his companion animals such as has been lost or much
attenuated in modern times. Elisee Reclus in his very in-
teresting paper La Grande Famille^ gives support to the
idea that the so-called domestication of animals did not
originally arise from any forcible subjugation of them by
man, but from a natural amity with them which grew up
in the beginning from common interests, pursuits and affec-
tions. Thus the chetah of India (and probably the puma
of Brazil) from far-back times took to hunting in the
company of his two-legged and bow-and-arrow-armed

1 Published originally in Le Magazine International, January


friend, with whom he divided the spoil. W. H. Hudson^
declares that the Puma, wild and fierce though it is, and
capable of killing the largest game, will never even to-day
attack man, but when maltreated by the latter submits to
the outrage, unresisting, with mournful cries and every
sign of grief. The Llama, though domesticated in a sense,
has never allowed the domination of the whip or the bit, but
may still be seen walking by the side of the Brazilian
peasant and carrying his burdens in a kind of proud com-
panionship. The mutual relations of Women and the
Cow, or of Man and the Horse- (also the Elephant) reach
so far into the past that their origin cannot be traced. The
Swallow still loves to make its home under the cottage eaves
and still is welcomed by the inmates as the bringer of good
fortune. Elisee Reclus assures us that the Dinka man on
the Nile calls to certain snakes by name and shares with them
the milk of his cows.

And so with Nature. The communal sense, or sub-
conscious perception, which made primitive men feel their
unity with other members of their tribe, and their obvious
kinship with the animals around them, brought them also so
close to general Nature that they looked upon the trees, the
vegetation, the rain, the warmth of the sun, as part of their
bodies, part of themselves. Conscious differentiation had
not yet set in. To cause rain or thunder you had to
make rain- or thunder-like noises; to encourage Vegeta-
tion and the crops to leap out of the ground, you had
to leap and dance. "In Swabia and among the Transyl-
vanian Saxons it is a common custom (says Dr. Frazer)
for a man who has some hemp to leap high in the
field in the belief that this will make the hemp grow tall."^

1 See The Naturalist in La Plata, ch. ii.

2 "It is certain that the primitive Indo-European reared droves
of tame or half-tame horses for generations, if not centuries, before
it ever occurred to him to ride or drive them" (F. B. Jevons, Introd.
to Hist. Religion, p. iig).

3 See The Golden Bough, i, 139 seq. Also Art and Ritual, p. 31.


Native May-pole dances and Jacks in the Green have
hardly yet died out — even in this most civilized England.
The bower of green boughs, the music of pipes, the leaping
and the twirling, were all an encouragement to the arrival
of Spring, and an expression of Sympathetic Magic, When
you felt full of life and energy and virility in yourself you
naturally leapt and danced, so why should you not sympa-
thetically do this for the energizing of the crops? In every
country of the world the vernal season and the resur-
rection of the Sun has been greeted with dances and
the sound of music. But if you wanted success in hunt-
ing or in warfare then you danced before-hand mimic dances
suggesting the successful hunt or battle. It was no more
than our children do to-day, and it all was, and is, part of a
natural-magic tendency in human thought.

Let me pause here for a moment. It is difficult for us
with our academical and somewhat school-boardy minds
to enter into all this, and to understand the sense of (un-
conscious or sub-conscious) identification with the world
around which characterized the primitive man — or to look upon
Nature with his eyes. A Tree, a Snake, a Bull, an Ear of
Corn. We know so well from our botany and natural his-
tory books what these things are. Why should our minds
dwell on them any longer or harbor a doubt as to our perfect
comprehension of them?

And yet (one cannot help asking the question): Has any
one of us really ever seen a Tree? I certainly do not think
that I have — except most superficially. That very pene-
trating observer and naturalist, Henry D. Thoreau, tells
us that he would often make an appointment to visit
a certain tree, miles away — ^but what or whom he saw when
he got there, he does not say. Walt Whitman, also
a keen observer, speaks of a tulip-tree near which he some-
times sat — "the Apollo of the woods — tall and graceful,
yet robust and sinewy, inimitable in hang of foliage and


throwing-out of limb; as if the beauteous, vital, leafy crea-
ture could walk, if it only would"; and mentions that
in a dream-trance he actually once saw his "favorite trees
step out and promenade up, down and around very curi-
ously."'^ Once the present writer seemed to have a partial
vision of a tree. It was a beech, standing somewhat
isolated, and still leafless in quite early Spring. Suddenly
I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and up-turned
finger-tips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming
through them far into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots
plunged in the earth and drawing the same energies
from below. The day was quite still and there was no
movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree
was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast
being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the
life of Earth and Sky, and full of a most amazing

The reader of this will probably have had some similar
experiences. Perhaps he will have seen a full-foliaged Lom-
bardy poplar swaying in half a gale in June — the wind
and the sun streaming over every little twig and leaf,
the tree throwing out its branches in a kind of ecstasy
and bathing them in the passionately boisterous caresses
of its two visitants; or he will have heard the deep
glad murmur of some huge sycamore with ripening seed clus-
ters when after weeks of drought the steady warm rain
brings relief to its thirst; and he will have known that
these creatures are but likenesses of himself, intimately
and deeply-related to him in their love and hunger
longing, and, like himself too, unfathomed and unfathomable.

It would be absurd to credit early man with conscious
speculations like these, belonging more properly to the
twentieth century; yet it is incontrovertible, I think, that
in some ways the primitive peoples, with their swift sub-
conscious intuitions and their minds unclouded by mere
^ Specimen Days, 1882-3 Edition, p. iii.


book knowledge, perceived truths to which we moderns
are blind. Like the animals they arrived at their percep-
tions without (individual) brain effort; they knew things
without thinking. When they did think of course they
went wrong. Their budding science easily went astray.
Religion with them had as yet taken no definite shape;
science was equally protoplasmic; and all they had was
a queer jumble of the two in the form of Magic. When
at a later time Science gradually defined its outlook
and its observations, and Religion, from being a vague sub-
conscious feeling, took clear shape in the form of gods
and creeds, then mankind gradually emerged into the stage
of evolution in which we now are. Our scientific laws
and doctrines are of course only temporary formulae, and
so also are the gods and the creeds of our own and
other religions; but these things, with their set and
angular outlines, have served in the past and will serve
in the future as stepping-stones towards another kind of
knowledge of which at present we only dream, and will lead
us on to a renewed power of perception which again
will not be the laborious product of thought but a
direct and instantaneous intuition like that of the animals
— and the angels.

To return to our Tree. Though primitive man did not
speculate in modern style on these things, I yet have no
reasonable doubt that he felt (and jeels, in those cases
where we can still trace the workings of his mind) his
essential relationship to the creatures of the forest more
intimately, if less analytically, than we do to-day. If
the animals with all their wonderful gifts are (as we
readily admit) a veritable part of Nature — so that they
live and move and have their being more or less sub-
merged in the spirit of the great world around them — then
Man, when he first began to differentiate himself from them,
must for a long time have remained in this 5«6conscioiis


unity, becoming only distinctly conscious of it when he was
already beginning to lose it. That early dawn of dis-
tinct consciousness corresponded to the period of belief
in Magic. In that first mystic illumination almost every
object was invested with a halo of mystery or terror or
adoration. Things were either tabu, in which case they
were dangerous, and often not to be touched or even looked
upon — or they were overflowing with magic grace and in-
fluence, in which case they were holy, and any rite
which released their influence was also holy. William Blake,
that modern prophetic child, beheld a Tree full of angels;
the Central Australian native believes bushes to be the
abode of spirits which leap into the bodies of passing
women and are the cause of the conception of children ; Moses
saw in the desert a bush (perhaps the mimosa) like a flame
of fire, with Jehovah dwelling in the midst of it, and he put
off his shoes for he felt that the place was holy; Osiris
was at times regarded as a Tree-spirit^; and in inscrip-
tions is referred to as "the solitary one in the acacia" —
which reminds us curiously of the "burning bush." The
same is true of others of the gods; in the old Norse
mythology Ygdrasil was the great branching World-Ash,
abode of the soul of the universe; the Peepul or Bo-tree in
India is very sacred and must on no account be cut
down, seeing that gods and spirits dwell among its branches.
It is of the nature of an Aspen, and of little or no practical
use,- but so holy that the poorest peasant will not disturb
it. The Burmese believe the things of nature, but especially
the trees, to be the abode of spirits. "To the Burman of
to-day, not less than to the Greek of long ago, all nature
is alive. The forest and the river and the mountains are
full of spirits, whom the Burmans call Nats. There are all
kinds of Nats, good and bad, great and little, male and
female, now living round about us. Some of them live

1 The Golden Bough, iv, 330.

2 Though the sap is said to contain caoutchouc.


in the trees, especially in the huge figtree that shades half-
an-acre without the village; or among the fern-like fronds of
the tamarind."^

There are also in India and elsewhere popular rites of
marriage of women (and men) to Trees; which suggest
that trees were regarded as very near akin to human
beings! The Golden Bough- mentions many of these, in-
cluding the idea that some trees are male and others fe-
male. The well-known Assyrian emblem of a Pine cone
being presented by a priest to a Palm-tree is supposed
by E. B. Tylor to symbolize fertilization — the Pine cone
being masculine and the Palm feminine. The ceremony
of the god Krishna's marriage to a Basil plant is still cele-
brated in India down to the present day; and certain trees
are clasped and hugged by pregnant women — the idea no
doubt being that they bestow fertility on those who em-
brace them. In other cases apparently it is the trees which
are benefited, since it is said that men sometimes go naked
into the Clove plantations at night in order by a sort of sex-
ual intercourse to fertilize them.^

One might go on multiplying examples in this direction
quite indefinitely. There is no end to them. They all
indicate — what was instinctively felt by early man, and is
perfectly obvious to all to-day who are not blinded by
"civilization" (and Herbert Spencer!) that the world out-
side us is really most deeply akin to ourselves, that it is
not dead and senseless but intensely alive and instinct
with feeling and intelligence resembling our own. It is
this perception, this conviction of our essential unity with
the whole of creation, which lay from the first at the base
of all Religion; yet at first, as I have said, was hardly a
conscious perception. Only later, when it gradually became

1 The Soul of a People, by H. Fielding (1902), p. 250.

2 Vol. i, p. 40, vol. iii, pp. 24 sq.

3 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 98.


more conscious, did it evolve itself into the definite forms
of the gods and the creeds — but of that process I will speak
more in detail presently.

The Tree therefore was a most intimate presence to the
Man. It grew in the very midst of his Garden of Eden. It
had a magical virtue, which his tentative science could
only explain by chance analogies and assimilations. At-
tractive and beloved and worshipped by reason of its
many gifts to mankind — its grateful shelter, its abounding
fruits, its timber, and other invaluable products — why should
it not become the natural emblem of the female, to
whom through sex man's worship is ever drawn? If
the Snake has an unmistakable resemblance to the male
organ in its active state, the foliage of the tree or bush is
equally remindful of the female. What more clear than
that the conjunction of Tree and Serpent is the ful-
filment in nature of that sex-mystery which is so potent in
the life of man and the animals? and that the magic
ritual most obviously fitted to induce fertility in the tribe
or the herds (or even the crops) is to set up an image of
the Tree and the Serpent combined, and for all the tribe-
folk in common to worship and pay it reverence. In the
Bible with more or less veiled sexual significance we have
this combination in the Eden-garden, and again in the
brazen Serpent and Pole which IMoses set up in the wilder-
ness (as a cure for the fiery serpents of lust) ; illustrations
of the same are said to be found in the temples of Egypt
and of South India, and even in the ancient temples of Cen-
tral America.^ In the myth of Hercules the golden apples
of the Hesperides garden are guarded by a dragon. The
Etruscans, the Persians and the Babylonians had also
legends of the Fall of man through a serpent tempting him
to taste of the fruit of a holy Tree. And De Gubernatis,^

1 See Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism, by Thomas
Inman (Triibner, 1874), p. 55.

2 Zoological Mythology, vol. ii, pp. 410 sq.


pointing out the phallic meaning of these stories, says "the
legends concerning the tree of golden apples or figs
which yields honey or ambrosia, guarded by dragons, in which
the life, the fortune, the glory, the strength and the
riches of the hero have their beginning, are numerous
among every people of Aryan origin: in India, Persia, Russia,
Poland, Sweden, Germany, Greece and Italy."

Thus we see the natural-magic tendency of the human
mind asserting itself. To some of us indeed this tendency
is even greater in the case of the Snake than in that of the
Tree. W, H. Hudson, in Far Away and Long Ago, speaks
of "that sense of something supernatural in the serpent, which
appears to have been universal among peoples in a prim-
itive state of culture, and still survives in some bar-
barous or semi-barbarous countries." The fascination of
the Snake — the fascination of its mysteriously gliding move-
ment, of its vivid energy, its glittering eye, its intensity
of life, combined with its fatal dart of Death — is a
thing felt even more by women than by men — and for
a reason (from what we have already said) not far to seek.
It was the Woman who in the story of the Fall was the first to
listen to its suggestions. No wonder that, as Professor Mur-
ray says,^ the Greeks worshiped a gigantic snake (Meili-
chios) the lord of Death and Life, with ceremonies of ap-
peasement, and sacrifices, long before they arrived at the
worship of Zeus and the Olympian gods.

Or let us take the example of an Ear of Corn. Some peo-
ple wonder — hearing nowadays that the folk of old used
to worship a Corn-spirit or Corn-god — wonder that any
human beings could have been so foolish. But probably
the good people who wonder thus have never really looked
(with their town-dazed eyes) at a growing spike of wheat.^

1 Four Stages of Greek Religion, p. 28.

2 Even the thrice-learned Dr. Famell quotes apparently with ap-
proval the scornful words of Hippolytus, who (he says) "speaks


Of all the wonderful things in Nature I hardly know any
that thrills one more with a sense of wizardry than just this
very thing — to observe, each year, this disclosure of the Ear
within the Blade — first a swelling of the sheath, then a trans-
parency and a whitey-green face within a hooded shroud, and
then the perfect spike of grain disengaging itself and spiring
upward towards the sky — "the resurrection of the wheat
with pale visage appearing out of the ground."

If this spectacle amazes one to-day, what emotions must
it not have aroused in the breasts of the earlier folk, whose
outlook on the world was so much more direct than ours
— more 'animistic' if you like! What wonderment, what grat-
itude, what deliverance from fear (of starvation), what cer-
tainty that this being who had been ruthlessly cut down and
sacrificed last year for human food had indeed arisen
again as a savior of men, what readiness to make some
human sacrifice in return, both as an acknowledgment
of the debt, and as a gift of something which would no doubt
be graciously accepted! — (for was it not well known that
where blood had been spilt on the ground the future
crop was so much more generous?) — what readiness to
adopt some magic ritual likely to propitiate the unseen
power — even though the outline and form of the latter
were vague and uncertain in the extreme! Dr. Frazer,
speaking of the Egyptian Osiris as one out of many
corn-gods of the above character, says^: "The primitive
conception of him as the corn-god comes clearly out in
the festival of his death and resurrection, which was cele-
brated the month of Athyr. That festival appears to have
been essentially a festival of sowing, which properly fell at
the time when the husbandman actually committed the seed

of the Athenians imitating people at the Eleusinian mysteries and
showing to the epoptas (initiates) that great and marvelous mystery
of perfect revelation — in solemn silence — a cut cornstalk {rtdepiafikvov
ar&xov)." — Cults of the Greek States, vol. iii, p. 182.
^ The Golden Bough, iv, p. 330.


to the earth. On that occasion an effigy of the corn-god,
moulded of earth and corn, was buried with funeral rites
in the ground in order that, dying there, he might come to
life again with the new crops. The ceremony was in fact a
charm to ensure the growth of the corn by sympathetic
magic, and we may conjecture that as such it was practised
in a simple form by every Egyptian farmer on his fields long
before it was adopted and transfigured by the priests in
the stately ritual of the temple."^

The magic in this case was of a gentle description; the
clay image of Osiris sprouting all over with the young green
blade was pathetically poetic; but, as has been suggested,
bloodthirsty ceremonies were also common enough. Hu-
man sacrifices, it is said, had at one time been offered
at the grave of Osiris. We hear that the Indians in
Ecuador used to sacrifice men's hearts and pour out
human blood on their fields when they sowed them; the
Pawnee Indians used a human victim the same, allow-
ing his blood to drop on the seed-corn. It is said that
in Mexico girls were sacrificed, and that the Mexicans
would sometimes grind their (male) victim, like corn, be-
tween two stones. ("I'll grind his bones to make me
bread.") Among the Khonds of East India — who were
particularly given to this kind of ritual — the very tears
of the sufferer were an incitement to more cruelties, for
tears of course were magic for Rain.^

And so on. We have referred to the Bull many times,
both in his astronomical aspect as pioneer of the Spring-
Sun, and in his more direct role as plougher of the fields, and
provider of food from his own body. "The tremendous mana
of the wild bull," says Gilbert Murray, "occupies almost
half the stage of pre-Olympic ritual."^ Even to us there
is something mesmeric and overwhelming in the sense of

1 See ch. xv infra, p. 5.

2 The Golden Bough, vol. vii, "The Corn-Spirit," pp. 236 sq.

3 Four Stages, p. 34.


this animal's glory of strength and fury and sexual power.
No wonder the primitives worshiped him, or that they
devised rituals which should convey his power and vi-
tality by mere contact, or that in sacramental feasts
they ate his flesh and drank his blood as a magic symbol and
means of salvation.



It is perhaps necessary, at the commencement of this chapter,
to say a few more words about the nature and origin of
the behef in Magic. Magic represented on one side, and
clearly enough, the beginnings of Religion — i.e. the instinc-
tive sense of Man's inner continuity with the world
around him, taking shape: a fanciful shape it is true, but
with very real reaction on his practical life and feelings.^
On the other side it represented the beginnings of Science.
It was his first attempt not merely to feel but to under-
stand the mystery of things.

Inevitably these first efforts to understand were very
puerile, very superficial. As E. B. Tylor says^ of primi-
tive folk in general, "they mistook an imaginary for a

Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 6 of 25)