Edward Carpenter.

Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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this, and how far by separation (which is the genius of evo-
lution) each individual creature has become conscious
of the interior nature both of itself and of the other
creatures and of the great whole which includes them all.


Finally, and to avoid misunderstanding, let me say that
Anthropomorphism, in man's conception of the gods, is
itself of course only a stage and destined to pass away.
In so far, that is, as the term indicates a belief in divine
beings corresponding to our present conception of ourselves
— that is as separate personalities having each a separate
and limited character and function, and animated by
the separatist motives of ambition, possession, power,
vainglory, superiority, patronage, self-greed, self-satis-
faction, etc. — in so far as anthropomorphism is the ex-
pression of that kind of belief it is of course destined,
with the illusion from which it springs, to pass away. When
man arrives at the final consciousness in which the idea of
such a self, superior or inferior or in any way antago-
nistic to others, ceases to operate, then he will return to
his first and primal condition, and will cease to need any
special religion or gods, knowing himself and all his fellows
to be divine and the origin and perfect fruition of all.

f;n:?Q'^o a



There is a passage in Richard Jefferies' imperishably beau-
tiful book The Story of my Heart — a passage well known
to all lovers of that prose-poet — in which he figures
himself standing "in front of the Royal Exchange
where the wide pavement reaches out like a prom-
ontory," and pondering on the vast crowd and the mystery
of life. "Is there any theory, philosophy, or creed," he says,
"is there any system of culture, any formulated method, able
to meet and satisfy each separate item of this agitated pool
of human life? By which they may be guided, by which
they may hope, by which look forward? Not a mere
illusion of the craving heart — something real, as real as
the solid walls of fact against which, like seaweed, they
are dashed; something to give each separate personality
sunshine and a flower in its own existence now; some-
thing to shape this million-handed labor to an end and
outcome that will leave more sunshine and more flowers
to those who must succeed? Something real now, and
not in the spirit-land; in this hour now, as I stand and
the sun burns. . . . Full well aware that all has failed, yet,
side by side with the sadness of that knowledge, there
lives on in me an unquenchable belief, thought burn-
ing like the sim, that there is yet something to be



found. ... It must be dragged forth by the might of thought
from the immense forces of the universe."

In answer to this passage we may say "No — a thousand
times No! there is no theory, philosophy, creed, system or
formulated method which will meet or ever satisfy the
demand of each separate item of the human whirl-
pool." And happy are we to know there is no such thing!
How terrible if one of these bloodless 'systems' which strew
the history of religion and philosophy and the political
and social paths of human endeavor had been found
absolutely correct and universally applicable — so that every
human being would be compelled to pass through its
machine-like maw, every personality to be crushed under
its Juggernath wheels! No, thank Heaven! there is no
theory or creed or system; and yet there is some-
thing — as Jefferies prophetically felt and with a great
longing desired — that can satisfy; and that, the root of
all religion, has been hinted at in the last chapter. It
is the consciousness of the world-life burning, blazing, deep
down within us: it is the Soul's intuition of its roots in
Omnipresence and Eternity.

The gods and the creeds of the past, as shown in the
last chapter — whatever they may have been, animistic
or anthropomorphic or transcendental, whether grossly
brutish or serenely ideal and abstract — are essentially pro-
jections of the human mind; and no doubt those who are
anxious to discredit the religious impulse generally will
catch at this, saying "Yes, they are mere forms and
phantoms of the mind, ephemeral dreams, projected on
the background of Nature, and having no real substance or
solid value. The history of Religion (they will say) is a
history of delusion and illusion; why waste time over
it? These divine grizzly Bears or Aesculapian Snakes, these
cat-faced Pashts, this Isis, queen of heaven, and Astarte
and Baal and Indra and Agni and Kali and Demeter
and the Virgin Mary and Apollo and Jesus Christ and


Satan and the Holy Ghost, are only shadows cast outwards
onto a screen; the constitution of the human mind makes
them all tend to be anthropomorphic; but that is all; they
each and all inevitably pass away. Why waste time over

And this is in a sense a perfectly fair way of looking at
the matter. These gods and creeds are only projections
of the human mind. But all the same it misses, does this
view, the essential fact. It misses the fact that there
is no shadow without a fire, that the very existence of
a shadow argues a light somewhere (though we may not
directly see it) as well as the existence of a solid form which
intercepts that light. Deep, deep in the human mind there is
that burning blazing light of the world-consciousness—
so deep indeed that the vast majority of individuals are
hardly aware of its existence. Their gaze turned outwards is
held and riveted by the gigantic figures and processions
passing across their sky; they are unaware that the
latter are only shadows — silhouettes of the forms inhabit-
ing their own minds.^ The vast majority of people have
never observed their own minds; their own mental forms.
They have only observed the reflections cast by these.
Thus it may be said, in this matter, that there are three
degrees of reality. There are the mere shadows — the
least real and most evanescent; there are the actual
mental outlines of humanity (and of the individual), much
more real, but themselves also of course slowly changing;
and most real of all, and permanent, there is the light "which
lighteth every man that cometh into the world" — the
glorious light of the world-consciousness. Of this last it
may be said that it never changes. Every thing is
known to it — even the very impediments to its shining.
But as it is from the impediments to the shining of a light
that shadows are cast, so we now may understand that

1 See, in the same connection, Plato's allegory of the Cave, Republic,
Book vii.


the things of this world and of humanity, though real in
their degree, have chiefly a kind of negative value; they
are opaquenesses, clouds, materialisms, ignorances, and the
inner light falling upon them gradually reveals their negative
character and gradually dissolves them away till they
are lost in the extreme and eternal Splendor. I think
Jefferies, when he asked that question with which I have
begun this chapter, was in some sense subconsciously,
if not quite consciously, aware of the answer. His fre-
quent references to the burning blazing sun throughout
The Story of the Heart seem to be an indication of his real
deep-down attitude of mind.

The shadow-figures of the creeds and theogonies pass away
truly like ephemeral dreams; but to say that time spent
in their study is wasted, is a mistake, for they have
value as being indications of things much more real than
themselves, namely, of the stages of evolution of the human
mind. The fact that a certain god-figure, however gro-
tesque and queer, or a certain creed, however childish, cruel,
and illogical, held sway for a considerable time over
the hearts of men in any corner or continent of the world
is good evidence that it represented a real formative urge at
the time in the hearts of those good people, and a definite
stage in their evolution and the evolution of humanity. Cer-
tainly it was destined to pass away, but it was a step, and
a necessary step in the great process; and certainly it
was opaque and brutish, but it is through the opaque
things of the world, and not through the transparent,
that we become aware of the light.

It may be worth while to give instances of how some early
rituals and creeds, in themselves apparently barbarous
or preposterous, were really the indications of important
moral and social conceptions evolving in the heart of
man. Let us take, first, the religious customs connected
with the ideas of Sacrifice and of Sin, of which such in-
numerable examples are now to be found in the modern


books on Anthropology. If we assume, as I have done
more than once, that the earliest state of Man was one
in which he did not consciously separate himself from
the world, animate and inanimate, which surrounded him,
then (as I have also said) it was perfectly natural for
him to take some animal which bulked large on his hori-
zon — some food-animal for instance — and to pay respect to
it as the benefactor of his tribe, its far-back ancestor
and totem-symbol; or, seeing the boundless blessing of
the cornfields, to believe in some kind of spirit of the
corn (not exactly a god but rather a magical ghost) which,
reincarnated every year, sprang up to save mankind
from famine. But then no sooner had he done this than
he was bound to perceive that in cutting down the
corn or in eating his totem-bear or kangaroo he was slaying
his own best self and benefactor. In that instant the
consciousness of disunity, the sense of sin in some undefined
yet no less disturbing and alarming form would come in.
If, before, his ritual magic had been concentrated on the
simple purpose of multiplying the animal or vegetable
forms of his food, now in addition his magical endeavor
would be turned to averting the just wrath of the spirits
who animated these forms — just indeed, for the rudest sav-
age would perceive the wrong done and the probability of
its retribution. Clearly the wrong done could only be ex-
piated by an equivalent sacrifice of some kind on the part of
the man, or the tribe — that is by the offering to the totem-
animal or to the corn-spirit of some victim whom these
nature powers in their turn could feed upon and assimi-
late. In this way the nature-powers would be appeased,
the sense of unity would be restored, and the first At-one-ment

It is hardly necessary to recite in any detail the cruel and
hideous sacrifices which have been perpetrated in this
sense all over the world, sometimes in appeasement of
a wrong committed or supposed to have been com-


mitted by the tribe or some member of it, sometimes in placa-
tion or for the averting of death, or defeat, or plague,
sometimes merely in fulfilment of some long-standing
custom of forgotten origin — the flayings and floggings and
burnings and crucifixions of victims without end, carried
out in all deliberation and solemnity of established ritual.
I have mentioned some cases connected with the sowing
of the corn. The Bible is full of such things, from
the intended sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham,
to the actual crucifixion of Jesus by the Jews. The first-
born sons were claimed by a god who called himself
"jealous" and were only to be redeemed by a substitute.^
Of the Canaanites it was said that "even their daughters
they have burnt in the fire to their gods";- and of the
King of Moab, that when he saw his army in danger of
defeat, "he took his eldest son that should have reigned
in his stead and offered him for a burnt-offering on the
wall!"^ Dr. Frazer* mentions the similar case of the
Carthaginians (about B.C. 300) sacrificing two hundred chil-
dren of good family as a propitiation to Baal and to
save their beloved city from the assaults of the Sicilian
tyrant Agathocles. And even so we hear that on that
occasion three hundred more young folk volunteered to
die for the fatherland.

The awful sacrifices made by the Aztecs in Mexico to
their gods Huitzilopochtli, Texcatlipoca, and others are
described in much detail by Sahagun, the Spanish mission-
ary of the sixteenth century. The victims were mostly
prisoners of war or young children; they were numbered
by thousands. In one case Sahagun describes the huge Idol
or figure of the god as largely plated with gold and
holding his hands palm upward and in a downward
sloping position over a cauldron or furnace placed below. The

^ Exodus xxxiv. 20.

2 Deut. xii. 31. ' 2 Kings iii. 27.

* The Golden Bough, vol. "The Dying God," p. 167.


children, who had previously been borne in triumphal state
on litters over the crowd and decorated with every orna-
mental device of feathers and flowers and wings, were
placed one by one on the vast hands and rolled down into
the flames — as if the god were himself offering them.^ As
the procession approached the temple, the members of
it wept and danced and sang, and here again the abun-
dance of tears was taken for a good augury of rain.-

Bernal Diaz describes how he saw one of these monstrous
figures — that of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, all inlaid
with gold and precious stones; and beside it were "bra-
ziers, wherein burned the hearts of three Indians, torn
from their bodies that very day, and the smoke of them and
the savor of incense were the sacrifice."

Sahagun again (in Book II, ch. 5) gives a long account
of the sacrifice of a perfect youth at Easter-time — which
date Sahagun connects with the Christian festival of the
Resurrection. For a whole year the youth had been held
in honor and adored by the people as the very image of the
god (Tetzcatlipoca) to whom he was to be sacrificed. Every
luxury and fulfilment of his last wish (including such four
courtesans as he desired) had been granted him. At the last
and on the fatal day, leaving his companions and his wor-
shipers behind, he slowly ascended the Temple staircase; strip-
ping on each step the ornaments from his body; and break-
ing and casting away his flutes and other musical in-

1 It is curious to find that exactly the same story (of the sloping
hands and the children rolled down into the flames) is related con-
cerning the above-mentioned Baal image at Carthage (see Diodorus
Siculus, XX. 14; also Baring Gould's Religious Belief, vol. i, p. 375).

2 "A los niiios que mataban, componianlos en muchos atavios para
llevarlos al sacrificio, y llevabanlos en unas literas sobre los
hombros, estas literas iban adomadas con plumages y con flores:
iban taiiendo, cantando y bailando delante de ellos . . . Cuando
Uevaban los ninos a matar, si llevaban y echaban muchos lagrimas,
alecrabansi los que los llevaban porque tomaban pronostico de que
habian de tener muchas aguas en aquel ano." Sahagun, Historic
Nueva Espana, Bk. II, ch. i.


struments; till, reaching the summit, he was stretched,
curved on his back, and belly upwards, over the altar
stcne, while the priest with obsidian knife cut his breast
open and, snatching the heart out, held it up, yet beat-
ing, as an offering to the Sun. In the meantime, and
while the heart still lived, his successor for the next year
was chosen.

In Book II, ch. 7 of the same work Sahagun describes the
similar offering of a woman to a goddess. In both cases
(he explains) of young man or young woman, the vic-
tims were richly adorned in the guise of the god or
goddess to whom they were offered, and at the same time
great largesse of food was distributed to all who needed.
[Here we see the connection in the general mind between
the gift of food (by the gods) and the sacrifice of precious
blood (by the people).] More than once Sahagun mentions
that the victims in these Mexican ceremonials not infre-
quently offered themselves as a voluntary sacrifice; and Pres-
cott says^ that the offering of one's life to the gods was "some-
times voluntarily embraced, as a most glorious death opening
a sure passage into Paradise."

Dr. Frazer describes^ the far-back Babylonian festival
of the Sacaea in which "a prisoner, condemned to death, was
dressed in the king's robes, seated on the king's throne,
allowed to issue whatever commands he pleased, to eat, drink
and enjoy himself, and even to lie with the king's con-
cubines." But at the end of the five days he was stripped
of his royal robes, scourged, and hanged or impaled. It
is certainly astonishing to find customs so similar pre-
vailing among peoples so far removed in space and time
as the Aztecs of the sixteenth century a.d. and the Baby-
lonians perhaps of the sixteenth century b.c. But we know
that this subject of the yearly sacrifice of a victim

1 Conquest of Mexico, Bk. I, ch. 3.

2 Golden Bough, "The Dying God," p. 114. See also S. Reinach,
Cults, Myths and Religion, p. 94, on the martyrdom of St. Dasius.


attired as a king or god is one that Dr. Frazer has especially
made his own, and for further information on it his classic
work should be consulted.

Andrew Lang also, with regard to the Aztecs, quotes
largely from Sahagun, and summarizes his conclusions in
the following passage: "The general theory of worship was
the adoration of a deity, first by innumerable human
sacrifices, next by the special sacrifice of a man for the male
gods, of a woman for each goddess.^ The latter victims
were regarded as the living images or incarnations of the di-
vinities in each case; for no system of worship carried
farther the identification of the god with the sacrifice
[? victim], and of both with the officiating priest. The
connection was emphasized by the priests wearing the
newly-flayed skins of the victims — just as in Greece, Egypt
and Assyria, the fawn-skin or bull-hide or goat-skin or fish-
skin of the victims is worn by the celebrants. Finally, an
image of the god was made out of paste, and this was di-
vided into morsels and eaten in a hideous sacrament by those
who communicated."^

Revolting as this whole picture is, it represents as we know
a mere thumbnail sketch of the awful practices of human
sacrifice all over the world. We hold up our hands
in horror at the thought of Huitzilopochtli dropping children
from his fingers into the flames, but we have to remember
that our own most Christian Saint Augustine was content
to describe unbaptized infants as crawling for ever about
the floor of Hell! What sort of god, we may ask, did

1 Compare the festival of Thargelia at Athens, originally connected
with the ripening of the crops. A procession was formed and the
first fruits of the year offered to Apollo, Artemis and the Horae. It
was an expiatory feast, to purify the State from all guilt and avert
the wrath of the god [the Sun], A man and a woman, as representing
the male and female population, were led about with a garland of
figs [fertility] round their necks, to the sound of flutes and singing.
They were then scourged, sacrificed, and their bodies burned by the
seashore. (Nettleship and Sandys.)

2 A Lang, Myth, Ritual and Religion, vol. ii, p. 97.


Augustine worship? The Being who could condemn chil-
dren to such a fate was certainly no better than the
Mexican Idol.

And yet Augustine was a ^reat and noble man, with some
by no means unworthy conceptions of the greatness of
his God. In the same way the Aztecs were in many
respects a refined and artistic people, and their religion was
not all superstition and bloodshed. Prescott says of
them^ that they believed in a supreme Creator and Lord "om-
nipresent, knowing all thoughts, giving all gifts, without
whom Man is as nothing — invisible, incorporeal, one God,
of perfect perfection and purity, under whose wings we
find repose and a sure defence." How can we recon-
cile St. Augustine with his own devilish creed, or the
religious belief of the Aztecs with their unspeakable cruel-
ties? Perhaps we can only reconcile them by remember-
ing out of what deeps of barbarism and what night-
mares of haunting Fear, man has slowly emerged — and
is even now only slowly emerging; by remembering also
that the ancient ceremonies and rituals of INIagic and
Fear remained on and were cultivated by the multitude in
each nation long after the bolder and nobler spirits had
attained to breathe a purer air; by remembering that
even to the present day in each individual the Old and the
New are for a long period thus intricately intertangled. It
is hard to believe that the practice of human and animal
sacrifice (with whatever revolting details) should have been
cultivated by nine-tenths of the human race over the globe
out of sheer perversity and without some reason v/hich at
any rate to the perpetrators themselves appeared command-
ing and convincing. To-day [1918] we are witnessing
in the Great European War a carnival of human slaughter
which in magnitude and barbarity eclipses in one stroke
all the accumulated ceremonial sacrifices of historical
ages; and when we ask the why and wherefore of this

1 Conquest of Mexico, Bk. I, ch. 3.


horrid spectacle we are told, apparently in all sincerity, and
by both the parties engaged, of the noble objects and command-
ing moralities which inspire and compel it. We can hardly,
in this last case, disbelieve altogether in the genuineness
of the plea, so why should we do so in the former
case? In both cases we perceive that underneath the
surface pretexts and moralities Fear is and was the
great urging and commanding force.

The truth is that Sin and Sacrifice represent — if you
once allow for the overwhelming sway of fear — perfectly
reasonable views of human conduct, adopted instinctively
by mankind since the earliest times. If in a moment of
danger or an access of selfish greed you deserted your
brother tribesman or took a mean advantage of him, you
'sinned' against him; and naturally you expiated the
sin by an equivalent sacrifice of some kind made to the
one you had wronged. Such an idea and such a practice
were the very foundation of social life and human morality,
and must have sprung up as soon as ever, in the course
of evolution, man became capable of differentiating himself
from his fellows and regarding his own conduct as that of
a 'separate self.' It was in the very conception of a
separate self that 'sin' and disunity first began; and it
was by 'sacrifice' that unity and harmony were restored,
appeasement and atonement effected.

But in those earliest times, as I have already indicated
more than once, man felt himself intimately related not
only to his brother tribesman, but to the animals and to
general Nature. It was not so much that he thought
thus as that he never thought otherwise! He felt subcon-
sciously that he was a part of all this outer world. And so he
adopted for his totems or presiding spirits every possible
animal, as we have seen, and all sorts of nature-phenomena,
such as rain and fire and water and clouds, and sun, moon and
stars — which we consider quite senseless and inanimate.
Towards these apparently senseless things therefore he


felt the same compunction as I have described him feeling
towards his brother tribesmen. He could sin against
them too. He could sin against his totem-animal by
eating it; he could sin against his 'brother the ox' by con-
suming its strength in the labor of the plough; he could
sin against the corn by cutting it down and grinding
it into flour, or against the precious and beautiful pine-
tree by laying his axe to its roots and converting it into
mere timber for his house. Further still, no doubt he
could sin against elemental nature. This might be more
difficult to be certain of, but when the signs of elemental
displeasure were not to be mistaken — when the rain with-
held itself for months, or the storms and lightning dealt death
and destruction, when the crops failed or evil plagues afflicted
mankind — then there could be little uncertainty that he had
sinned; and Fear, which had haimted him like a demon from
the first day when he became conscious of his separation
from his fellows and from Nature, stood over him and urged
to dreadful propitiations.

In all these cases some sacrifice in reparation was the ob-
vious thing. We have seen that to atone for the cut-
ting-down of the corn a human victim would often be
slaughtered. The corn-spirit clearly approved of this, for
wherever the blood and remains of the victim were

Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 8 of 25)