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Pagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning online

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strewn the corn always sprang up more plentifully. The
tribe or human group made reparation thus to the corn; the
corn-spirit signified approval. The 'sin' was expiated and
harmony restored. Sometimes the sacrifice was voluntarily
offered by a tribesman; sometimes it was enforced, by lot
or otherwise; sometimes the victim was a slave, or a
captive enemy; sometimes even an animal. All that
did not so much matter. The main thing was that the
formal expiation had been carried out, and the wrath
of the spirits averted.

It is known that tribes whose chief food-animal was the
bear felt it necessary to kill and eat a bear occasionally;


but they could not do this without a sense of guilt, and some
fear of vengeance from the great Bear-spirit. So they
ate the slain bear at a communal feast in which the
tribesmen shared the guilt and celebrated their community
with their totem and with each other. And since they could
not make any reparation directly to the slain animal itself
after its death, they made their reparation before, bringing
all sorts of presents and food to it for a long anterior period,
and paying every kind of worship and respect to it. The
same with the bull and the ox. At the festival of the Bou-
phonia, in some of the cities of Greece as I have already
mentioned, the actual bull sacrificed was the handsomest
and most carefully nurtured that could be obtained; it
was crowned with flowers and led in procession with
every mark of reverence and worship. And when — as I
have already pointed out — at the great Spring festival, instead
of a bull or a goat or a ram, a human victim was immolated,
it was a custom (which can be traced very widely over the
world) to feed and indulge and honor the victim to
the last degree for a whole year before the final cere-
mony, arraying him often as a king and placing a crown
upon his head, by way of acknowledgment of the noble
and necessary work he was doing for the general

What a touching and beautiful ceremony was that — ^be-
longing especially to the North of Syria, and lands where
the pine is so beneficent and beloved a tree — the mourn-
ing ceremony of the death and burial of Attis! when a
pine-tree, felled by the axe, was hollowed out, and in the hol-
low an image (often itself carved out of pinewood) of the
young Attis was placed. Could any symbolism express more
tenderly the idea that the glorious youth — who represented
Spring, too soon slain by the rude tusk of Winter —
was himself the very human soul of the pine-tree?^ At

1 See Julius Firmicus, who says (De Err ore, c. 28): "In sacris
Phrygiis, quae Matris deum dicunt, per annos singulos arbor pinea


some earlier period, no doubt, a real youth had been sacri-
ficed and his body bound within the pine; but now it was
deemed sufficient for the maidens to sing their wild songs
of lamentation; and for the priests and male enthusiasts
to cut and gash themselves with knives, or to sacrifice
(as they did) to the Earth-mother the precious blood offer-
ing of their virile organs — symbols of fertility in return
for the promised and expected renewal of Nature and
the crops in the coming Spring. For the ceremony, as
we have already seen, did not end with death and lam-
entation, but led on, perfectly naturally, after a day or
two to a festival of resurrection, when it was discovered —
just as in the case of Osiris — that the pine-tree coffin
was empty, and the immortal life had flown. How strange
the similarity and parallelism of all these things to the
story of Jesus in the Gospels — the sacrifice of a life
made in order to bring salvation to men and expiation of
sins, the crowning of the victim, and arraying in royal
attire, the scourging and the mockery, the binding or nailing to
a tree, the tears of Mary, and the resurrection and the empty
coffin! — or how not at all strange when we consider in what
numerous forms and among how many peoples, this same
parable and ritual had as a matter of fact been cele-
brated, and how it had ultimately come down to bring
its message of redemption into a somewhat obscure Syrian
city, in the special shape with which we are fa-

Though the parable or legend in its special Christian form
bears with it the consciousness of the presence of be-
ings whom we may call gods, it is important to remember

caeditur, et in media arbore simulacrum uvenis subligatur. In
Isiacis sacris de pinea arbore caeditur truncus; hujus trunci media
pars subtiliter excavatur, illis de segminibus factum idolum Osiridis
sepelitur. In Prosperpinae sacris caesa arbor in efi&giem virginis
formamque componitur, et cum intra civitatem fuerit illata,
quadraginta noctibus plangitur, quadragesima vero nocte com-


that in many or most of its earlier forms, though it dealt
in 'spirits' — the spirit of the corn, or the spirit of the Spring,
or the spirits of the rain and the thunder, or the spirits
of totem-animals — it had not yet quite risen to the idea
of gods. It had not risen to the conception of eternal
deities sitting apart and governing the world in solemn
conclave — as from the slopes of Olympus or the recesses
of the Christian Heaven. It belonged, in fact, in its
inception, to the age of Magic. The creed of Sin and
Sacrifice, or of Guilt and Expiation — whatever we like to call
it — was evolved perfectly naturally out of the human mind
when brought face to face with Life and Nature) at
some early stage of its self-consciousness. It was essen-
tially the result of man's deep, original and instinctive
sense of solidarity with Nature, now denied and belied
and to some degree broken up by the growth and con-
scious insistence of the self-regarding impulses. It was
the consciousness of disharmony and disunity, causing
men to feel all the more poignantly the desire and the
need of reconciliation. It was a realization of union
made clear by its very loss. It assumed of course,
in a subconscious way as I have already indicated, that the
external world was the habitat of a mind or minds simi-
lar to man's own; but that being granted, it is evident
that the particular theories current in this or that place about
the nature of the world — the theories, as we should say,
of science or theology — did not alter the general out-
lines of the creed; they only colored its details and gave
its ritual different dramatic settings. The mental attitudes,
for instance, of Abraham sacrificing the ram, or of the
Siberian angakout slaughtering a totem-bear, or of a modern
and pious Christian contemplating the Saviour on the Cross
are really almost exactly the same. I mention this because
in tracing the origins or the evolution of religions it is
important to distinguish clearly what is essential and
universal from that which is merely local and temporary.


Some people, no doubt, would be shocked at the compari-
sons just made; but surely it is much more inspiriting and
encouraging to think that whatever progress has been
made in the religious outlook of the world has come about
through the gradual mental growth and consent of the peo-
ples, rather than through some unique and miraculous event
of a rather arbitrary and unexplained character — which
indeed might never be repeated, and concerning which
it would perhaps be impious to suggest that it should
be repeated.

The consciousness then of Sin (or of alienation from
the life of the whole), and of restoration or redemption
through Sacrifice, seems to have disclosed itself in the human
race in very far-back times, and to have symbolized itself
in some most ancient rituals; and if we are shocked
sometimes at the barbarities which accompanied those
rituals, yet we must allow that these barbarities show
how intensely the early people felt the solemnity and im-
portance of the whole matter; and we must allow too
that the barbarities did sear and burn themselves into
rude and ignorant minds with the sense of the need of
Sacrifice, and with a result perhaps which could not have
been compassed in any other way.

For after all we see now that sacrifice is of the very
essence of social life. "It is expedient that one man
should die for the people"; and not only that one man
should actually die, but (what is far more important) that
each man should be ready and willing to die in that
cause, when the occasion and the need arises. Taken
in its larger meanings and implications Sacrifice, as con-
ceived in the ancient world, was a perfectly reasonable
thing. It shotdd pervade modern life more than it does.
All we have or enjoy flows from, or is implicated with, pain
and suffering in others, and — if th^re is any justice in
Nature or Humanity — it demands an equivalent readiness
to suffer on our part. If Christianity has any real


essence, that essence is perhaps expressed in some such
ritual or practice of Sacrifice, and we see that the dim
beginnings of this idea date from the far-back customs
of savages coming down from a time anterior to all recorded



We have suggested in the last chapter how the conceptions
of Sin and Sacrifice coming down to us from an extremely
remote past, and embodied among the various peoples
of the world sometimes in crude and bloodthirsty rites,
sometimes in symbols and rituals of a gentler and more
gracious character, descended at last into Christianity and
became a part of its creed and of the creed of the
modern world. On the whole perhaps we may trace a
slow amelioration in this process and may flatter ourselves
that the Christian centuries exhibit a more philosophical un-
derstanding of what Sin is, and a more humane con-
ception of what Sacrifice should be, than the centuries
preceding. But I fear that any very decided statement
or sweeping generalization to that effect would be — to
say the least — rash. Perhaps there is a very slow amelio-
ration; but the briefest glance at the history of the Chris-
tian churches — the horrible rancours and revenges of the
clergy and the sects against each other in the fourth
and fifth centuries a.d., the heresy-hunting crusades at
Beziers and other places and the massacres of the Albigenses
in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the witch-findings
and burnings of the sixteenth and seventeenth, the hide-
ous science-urged and bishop-blessed warfare of the twentieth
— ^horrors fully as great as any we can charge to the account



of the Aztecs or the Babylonians — must give us pause.
Nor must we forget that if there is by chance a substan-
tial amelioration in our modern outlook with regard to these
matters the same had begun already before the advent
of Christianity and can by no means be ascribed to any
miraculous influence of that religion. Abraham was
prompted to slay a ram as a substitute for his son, long
before the Christians were thought of; the rather savage
Artemis of the old Greek rites was (according to Pausanias)^
honored by the yearly sacrifice of a perfect boy and girl,
but later it was deemed sufficient to draw a knife across their
throats as a symbol, with the result of spilling only a
few drops of their blood, or to flog the boys (with the
same result) upon her altar. Among the Khonds in old
days many victims (meriahs) were sacrificed to the gods,
"but in time the man was replaced by a horse, the horse by
a bull, the bull by a ram, the ram by a kid, the kid
by fowls, and the fowls by many flowers."- At one time,
according to the Yajur-Veda, there was a festival at which
one hundred and twenty-five victims, men and women,
boys and girls, were sacrificed; ''but reform supervened,
and now the victims were bound as before to the stake,
but afterwards amid litanies to the immolated (god)
Narayana, the sacrificing priest brandished a knife and
— severed the bonds of the captives."^ At the Athenian festi-
val of the Thargelia, to which I referred in the last chapter,
it appears that the victims, in later times, instead of being
slain, were tossed from a height into the sea, and after
being rescued were then simply banished; while at Leuca-
tas a similar festival the fall of the victim was
graciously broken by tying feathers and even living birds to
his body.*

With the lapse of time and the general progress of man-

* vii. iQ, and iii. 8, i6.

2 Primitive Folk, by Elie Reclus (Con temp. Science Series), p. 330.

3 Ibid.

* Muller's Dorians Book II, ch. ii. par. 10.


kind, we may, I think, perceive some such slow ameliorations
in the matter of the brutality and superstition of the old
religions. How far any later ameliorations were due to
the direct influence of Christianity might be a difficult
question; but what I think we can clearly see — and what
especially interests us here — is that in respect to its main
religious ideas, and the matter underlying them (exclusive
of the manner of their treatment, which necessarily has va-
ried among different peoples) Christianity is of one piece
with the earlier pagan creeds and is for the most part a
re-statement and renewed expression of world-wide doctrines
whose first genesis is lost in the haze of the past, beyond all
recorded history.

I have illustrated this view with regard to the doctrine of
Sin and Sacrifice. Let us take two or three other
illustrations. Let us take the doctrine of Re-birth or Regener-
ation. The first few verses of St. John's Gospel are occupied
with the subject of salvation through rebirth or regenera-
tion. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the
kingdom of God." . . . "Except a man be bom of water
and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
Our Baptismal Service begins by saying that "forasmuch as all
men are conceived and born in sin ; and that our Saviour Christ
saith. None can enter into the kingdom of God except he be
regenerate and born anew of water and the Holy Ghost"; there-
fore it is desirable that this child should be baptized, "received
into Christ's Holy Church, and be made a lively member of the
same." That is to say, there is one birth, after the
flesh, but a second birth is necessary, a birth after the
Spirit and into the Church of Christ. Our Confirma-
tion Service is simply a service repeating and confirming
these views, at an age (fourteen to sixteen or so) when the
boy or girl is capable of understanding what is being

But our Baptismal and Confirmation ceremonies com-
bined are clearly the exact correspondence and parallel


of the old pagan ceremonies of Initiation, which are or
have been observed in almost every primitive tribe over
the world. "The rite of the second birth," says Jane
Harrison,^ "is widespread, universal, over half the savage
world. With the savage to be twice-born is the rule. By
his first birth he comes into the world; by his second he
is born into his tribe. At his first birth he belongs to his
mother and the women- folk; at his second he becomes
a full-fledged man and passes into the society of the
warriors of his tribe." . . , "These rites are very various,
but they all point to one moral, that the former things are
passed away and that the new-born man has entered upon
a new life. Simplest of all, and most instructive, is the
rite practised by the Kikuyu tribe of British East Africa,
who require that every boy, just before circumcision,
must be bom again. The mother stands up with the boy
crouching at her feet; she pretends to go through all the
labour pains, and the boy on being reborn cries like a babe
and is washed."-

Let us pause for a moment. An Initiate is of course one
who "enters in." He enters into the Tribe; he enters into
the revelation of certain Mysteries; he becomes an asso-
ciate of a certain Totem, a certain God; a member
of a new Society, or Church — a church of Mithra, or Diony-
sus or Christ. To do any of these things he must be
born again; he must die to the old life; he must pass
through ceremonials which symbolize the change. One
of these ceremonials is washing. As the new-born babe
is washed, so must the new-born initiate be washed; and
as by primitive man (and not without reason) blood was
considered the most vital and regenerative of fluids, the
very elixir of life, so in earliest times it was common to
wash the initiate with blood. If the initiate had to be born
anew, it would seem reasonable to suppose that he must first

1 Ancient Art and Ritual, p. 104.

2 See also Themis, p. 21.


die. So, not unfrequently, he was wounded, or scourged,
and baptized with his own blood, or, in cases, one of
the candidates was really killed and his blood used
as a substitute for the blood of the others. No doubt
human sacrifice attended the earliest initiations. But later
it was sufficient to be half-drowned in the blood of a Bull as
in the Mithra cult,^ or 'washed in the blood of the Lamb'
as in the Christian phraseology. Finally, with a growing
sense of decency and aesthetic perception among the
various peoples, washing with pure water came in the
initiation-ceremonies to take the place of blood; and our
baptismal service has reduced the ceremony to a mere
sprinkling with water.^

To continue the quotation from Miss Harrison: "More
often the new birth is stimulated, or imagined, as a death
and a resurrection, either of the boys themselves or of
some one else in their presence. Thus at initiation among
some tribes of South-east Australia, when the boys are
assembled an old man dressed in stringy bark-fibre lies
down in a grave. He is covered up lightly with sticks and
earth, and the grave is smoothed over. The buried man
holds in his hand a small bush which seems to be grow-
ing from the ground, and other bushes are stuck in the
ground round about. The novices are then brought to the
edge of the grave and a song is sung. Gradually, as the
song goes on, the bush held by the buried man begins
to quiver. It moves more and more, and bit by bit the man
himself starts up from the grave."

Strange in our own Baptismal Service and just before the
actual christening we read these words, ''Then shall the
Priest say: O merciful God, grant that old Adam in
this child may be so buried . that the new man may
be raised up in him: grant that all carnal affections may

1 See supra, ch. iii. p. 43.

2 For the virtue supposed to reside in blood see Westermarck's
Moral Ideas, ch. 46.


die in him, and that all things belonging to the Spirit may
live and grow in him!" Can we doubt that the Australian
medicine-man, standing at the graveside of the re-arisen old
black-fellow, pointed the same moral to the young in-
itiates as the priest does to-day to those assembled be-
fore him in church — for indeed we know that among
savage tribes initiations have always been before all things
the occasions of moral and social teaching? Can we doubt
that he said, in substance if not in actual words: "As
this man has arisen from the grave, so you must also arise
from your old childish life of amusement and self-gratifi-
cation and enter into the life of the tribe, the life of the
Spirit of the tribe." "In totemistic societies," to quote
Miss Harrison again, "and in the animal secret societies that
seem to grow out of them, the novice is born again
as the sacred animal. Thus among the Carrier Indians^
when a man wants to become a Lulem or 'Bear,' however cold
the season he tears off his clothes, puts on a bear-skin
and dashes into the woods, where he will stay for three or
four days. Every night his fellow-villagers will go
out in search parties to find him. They cry out Yi!
Kelulem (come on, Bear), and he answers with angry growls.
Usually they fail to find him, but he comes back at last him-
self. He is met, and conducted to the ceremonial lodge,
and there in company with the rest of the Bears dances
solemnly his first appearance. Disappearance and reap-
pearance is as common a rite in initiation as stimulated
killing and resurrection, and has the same object. Both
are rites of transition, of passing from one to another." In
the Christian ceremonies the boy or girl puts away
childish things and puts on the new man, but instead of
putting on a bear-skin he puts on Christ. There is not so
much difference as may appear on the surface. To be iden-
tified with your Totem is to be identified with the

1 Golden Bough^, III, p. 438.


sacred being who watches over your tribe, who has given
his Ufe for your tribe; it is to be born again, to be washed
not only with water but with the Holy Spirit of all your
fellows. To be baptized into Christ ought to mean to be
regenerated in the Holy Spirit of all humanity; and no
doubt in cases it does mean this, but too often unfortunately
it has only amounted to a pretence of religious sanction given
to the meanest and bitterest quarrels of the Churches and
the States.

This idea of a New Birth at initiation explains the
prevalent pagan custom of subjecting the initiates to se-
rious ordeals, often painful and even dangerous. If one
is to be born again, obviously one must be ready to face
death; the one thing cannot be without the other. One
must be able to endure pain, like the Red Indian braves;
to go long periods fasting and without food or drink,
like the choupan among the Western Inoits — who wanders
for whole nights over the ice-fields under the moon, scantily
clothed and braving the intense cold; to overcome the
very fear of death and danger, like the Australian nov-
ices who, at first terrified by the sound of the bull-
roarer and threats of fire and the knife, learn finally
to cast their fears away.^ By so doing one puts off
the old childish things, and qualifies oneself by firmness
and courage to become a worthy member of the society

1 According to accounts of the Wiradthuri tribe of Western Aus-
tralia, in their initiations, the lads were frightened by a large fire
being lighted near them, and hearing the awful sound of the bull-
roarers, whDe they were told that Dhuramoolan was about to burn
them; the legend being that Dhuramoolan, a powerful being, whose
voice sounded like thunder, would take the boys into the bush and
instruct them in all the laws, traditions and customs of the com-
munity. So he pretended that he always killed the boys, cut them
up, and burnt them to ashes, after which he moulded the ashes into
human shape, and restored them to life as new beings. (See R. H.
Matthews, "The Wiradthuri tribes," Journal Anthrop. Inst., vol. xxv,
1896, pp. 297 sq.)


into which one is called.^ The rules of social life are taught
— the duty to one's tribe, and to oneself, truth-
speaking, defence of women and children, the care of cattle,
the meaning of sex and marriage, and even the mysteries of
such religious ideas and rudimentary science as the tribe
possesses. And by so doing one really enters into a new
life. Things of the spiritual world begin to dawn. Julius
Firmicus, in describing the mysteries of the resurrection of
Osiris,^ says that when the worshipers had satiated them-
selves with lamentations over the death of the god then
the priest would go round anointing them with oil and
whispering, "Be of good cheer, O Neophytes of the new-
arisen God, for to us too from our pains shall come

It would seem that at some very early time in the history
of tribal and priestly initiations an attempt was made to
impress upon the neophytes the existence and over-
shadowing presence of spiritual and ghostly beings. Perhaps
the pains endured in the various ordeals, the long fastings,
the silences in the depth of the forests or on the mountains
or among the ice-floes, helped to rouse the visionary faculty.
The developments of this faculty among the black and
colored peoples — East-Indian, Burmese, African, American-
Indian, etc. — are well known. Miss Alice Fletcher, who
lived among the Omaha Indians for thirty years, gives
a most interesting account^ of the general philosophy of
that people and their rites of initiation. "The Omahas
regard all animate and inanimate forms, all phenomena,
as pervaded by a common life, which was continuous with
and similar to the will-power they were conscious of in

1 See Catlin's North-American Indians, vol. i, for initiations and
ordeals among the Mandans.

2 De Err ore, c. 22.

Online LibraryEdward CarpenterPagan & Christian creeds : their origin and meaning → online text (page 9 of 25)