Why did Zeus sleep with Persephone?

Zeus seduces Persephone in a cave by turning himself into a dragon or serpent.

Zeus seduces Persephone in a cave by turning himself into a dragon or serpent.

This is a great question. And it leads us to the problems of ancient myth. Persephone is a vegetation and underworld goddess that hails from several different strands of traditions. Some scholars believe that she is Mycenaean in origin, but her appearance in the Orphic mystery rites probably descends from an Egyptian source. The cross cultural ties between Mycenae and Egypt are probably more prolific than understood. So once again when looking at the various stories of Persephone be aware that they are an accretion of several different forms and sources.

In the Orphic tradition Persephone was seduced by Zeus in a cave guarded by dragons and gave birth to Zagreus, who is often compared with Dionysus. Orpheus and Dionysus are often homologous in their functions, and Dionysus repeatedly shows up on the Orphic gold plates found buried with the initiated dead.

According to the story, Zeus impregnates Persephone before Hades abducts her. She gives birth to Zagreus/Dionysus, who is then torn into pieces by the Titans and his body parts are thrown into the river. Athena retrieved his heart from the river and gave it to Zeus. Notice how similar this is to Osiris being killed and his body being cut up into pieces and thrown into the river where Isis retrieves his phallus. While the retrieved body parts are different, their functions in the separate cultures are similar, as the heart/phallus was a symbol of life and birth.

Furthermore, the name Zagreus refers to a hunter, and this god-hunter held keys to life and death. This may correspond to the constellation Orion, the great hunter, who was Osiris in Egyptian tradition, Dumuzi in Babylonian tradition, and probably represented Orpheus and Mithras as well. The hunter catches wild animals, which is symbolic of the crude mortal human who has not received apotheosis or divine blessings. Lucius is turned into an ass and can only return into human form by being initiated into the mysteries of Isis. Gilgamesh, Heracles, and Orion all rape or destroy and must go through a series of labors which always ends with the secrets of rebirth. This is a strong theme of hero cults associated with some form of rebirth.

It may be that Zeus impregnates Persephone as a way for the Greeks to acquire the funerary aspect of this goddess. Zeus, through the rape of Persephone, makes an Egyptian source turn into a Greek custom.

Again this is speculative, but it is these kind of connections that inform the origins of the myth.

Is Hercules part of Roman or Greek Mythology?

The greatest Greek Hero was Heracles, who performed twelve labors to obtain immortality.

The greatest Greek Hero was Heracles, who performed twelve labors to obtain immortality.

Heracles was not invented by the Greeks. He was inherited by the Greeks. Half of his labors descend from Mycenaean or Minoan times, implicating a Heracles like figure with a series of labors in the days before Greece was founded. Gilgamesh is a Near Eastern Heracles.

The Greeks adopted the Hero/Labor cycle and transformed it into something substantively Greek. So in that sense Heracles is Greek. Hercules is the Roman adaptation of the Greek Heracles. Though I suppose you could argue that the earliest Romans also had a Heracles like figure in their history, though nothing is known about it if there was. (Or maybe it is right in front of us.)

Quote from my book Mythos and Cosmos:(pages 300–01)

Heracles was the greatest of Greek heroes, and depictions of his exploits are repeatedly found on Greek vase paintings and art. He was known from the earliest times in Greece, and the numerous mythic motifs about our hero inform us that there lies a far greater context behind his story. There were also numerous and sometimes competing traditions about this Greek figure. Diodorus Siculus identified three separate heroes named Heracles. Servius claimed that there were four separate Heracles, Cicero counted six, and Varro identified forty-four (Smith 401). Herodotus tells us that the original Heracles hailed from Egypt and says that according to the Egyptian tradition, Heracles was one of twelve deities descended from the original eight gods who created the universe (2.43-5). Diodorus claimed that when Osiris went to accomplish his labors he left the government of Egypt in the hands of this primordial Heracles (Smith 401). Remarkably, Pausanias, Tacitus, and Macrobius all confirm that Heracles hailed from Egypt (Smith 401).

To say the original Heracles is Egyptian entirely misses the point. Herodotus also travels to Phoenicia, where he discovers a temple dedicated to the Phoenician Heracles and inside which were two curious pillars, one made of gold and the other of emerald (2.44). Herodotus discovered a similar temple in Tyre dedicated to the Thasian Heracles (2.44). Different sources show that there was a Heracles figure hailing from Crete, Carthage, Libya, India, and even from amongst the Germanic Celts (Smith 401). Several Greek myths derive from the famous labors of Heracles. Theseus performs a series of labors in order to inherit kingship and was known as the Athenian Heracles, Bellerophon was the Corinthian Heracles, and Alcathous was the Megarian Heracles (Nilsson 211-3). Even the Israelites had a Heracles figure in the Biblical Samson.

Details within the myth show the Greeks did not create the story of Heracles—they inherited it. Heracles’ mortal mother’s name is they inherited it. Heracles’ mortal mother’s name is they Mycenaean. King Eurystheus is also Mycenaean, and the kingdom to which he belongs is a Mycenaean city. The localized traditions of our hero in Tiryns descend from Mycenaean times, and the first five labors Heracles performs all take place in the northeastern Peloponnese. The seventh labor, capturing the Cretan Bull, originates in either Mycenaean or even Minoan times (Nilsson 217). In other words, the entire cycle attributed to Heracles is not Greek. Martin P. Nilsson writes, “This idea is pre-Greek. The inference to be drawn from this fact is that a cycle of Labors was already formed and provided with its natural and logical end in the Mycenaean age” (214).



Independence Day in the U. S. is Worth Celebrating

And here is why:

About the Declaration [of Independence] there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

— Calvin Coolidge, July 5, 1926

Excerpt from The Heavenly Shepherd: Celestial Archetypes Behind Orion and Jesus

It is curious to note that Jesus Christ never wrote his teachings down. He taught by telling oral stories. Of course, most of his audience could not read or write so speaking in parables turns out to be the best form of teaching to non-literate peoples. Something is deeply amiss in this practical assessment, however, for Christ himself explained to his disciples “Unto you it is given to know the mystery [μυστήριον] of the kingdom of God, but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables” (Mark 4:11). This statement suggests that the oral stories Jesus told were a metaphor for a mystērion, a secret revealed only to the acolytes who had been ritually initiated. The very word mystery held deep liturgical connotations central to ancient religious practices.

Numerous scholars have scoffed at the notion of secret rituals behind the Christian message, but oral and semi-literate cultures are orthopraxic. In such cultures the “word of God” turns out not to be the written word but rather the spoken and enacted word. Centuries of literate biblical exegesis seems to have blurred the reality that non-literate peoples must perform their religious beliefs as the only real way of conceptualizing them. Why are rituals not prominent in the surviving texts? Problematically, ritual initiation was sacrosanct and there were terrible taboos against writing about sacred liturgies. Clement of Alexandria insists that the most sacred things of deity were kept oral and could never be written down (Lundwall 70). The center of ancient religious practice was never textual. If this was true for early Christianity then the reality is rituals were not only a necessary part of the new religion but most likely the foundation of its very ethos—a part that never makes it into the New Testament.

Of what might these ritual initiations consist of? There is a curious scene in the gnostic text of The Acts of Saint John where Jesus gathers his disciples right before his crucifixion and performs a ritual. The disciples surround Jesus in a ring dance while Jesus himself sings, “Grace danceth. I would pipe; dance ye all. . . . The Whole on high hath part in our dancing. And whoso danceth not, knoweth not what cometh to pass. . . . A way am I to thee wayfarer. Now answer thou (or as thou respondest) unto my dancing. Behold thyself in me who speak, and seeing what I do, keep silence about my mysteries” (Acts of John 95-96). Jesus performs an initiatory song and dance and declares that the heavens take part in the dancing. Furthermore, the grace Jesus offers from the cross is contained in a dance! Somehow this ritual dance held esoteric information for Jesus calls his dance a mystery. One scholar observes of this scene, “This strange chorea mystica, this ecstatic cult dance, . . . is as ancient as the form of the dance mystery itself. In the Mimaut Papyrus we read: ‘Come to me, Thou who art greatest in heaven, . . . to whom heaven was given for a dancing round.’ Enraptured by hymn and dance, the mystai circle through the gates of initiation” (Pulver 174-75).

A very similar scene is found in The Acts of Saint Thomas where this apostle sings about Sophia who makes “signs and secret patterns, proclaiming the dance of the blessed Aeons” and who is herself surrounded by seven bridesmaids who are performing a ring dance around her (Barnstone ed. 467; Backman 16). Lucian states that dance and initiation were wed in every single Greco-Roman mystery tradition, and I have shown that these choral dances allowed neophytes to reenact the passage through the heavens of the pagan cosmos (Lundwall 225-40). Indeed, Sophia’s seven attendants represent the heavenly spheres and in numerous apocalyptic texts the initiate must pass through seven gates guarded by singing and dancing hymnologi (Lundwall 231). The gates of initiation are therefore heavenly gates that lead to the heavenly throne room.

The orthodox and literate Christian will object to these gnostic sources, but these texts find a remarkable parallel in the New Testament book of Revelation. Gottfried Schimanowski notes that in chapters 4 and 5 of that book we are introduced into a heavenly liturgy where the anointed ones, clothed in white garments and wearing gold crowns, circle the heavenly throne while singing hymns.  The purpose of this “ring dance” is “to draw the earthly community into the heavenly praise of God, a liturgy that is closed with the ‘Amen’ sung by the inner circle before the heavenly throne. . . . the liturgy of the throne scene serves to recreate the experience of a ritual of worship common to heaven and earth” (Schimanowski 82). The structure of this song and dance is parallel to the gnostic texts, including a group of seven attendants circling the throne and guardians of the cosmic order proclaiming “Amen” (Revelation 4:5, 5:14)

Dante ascends to Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. Surrounding the heavenly throne is a chorus (ring dance) of angels. Dante was drawing from very old cosmological and religious tradtions.

Dante ascends to Beatrice in The Divine Comedy. Surrounding the heavenly throne is a chorus (ring dance) of angels. Dante was drawing from very old cosmological and religious tradtions.

This cosmic scene may actually depict an early Christian ritual. By modern interpretation the book of Revelation speaks of end-time events. This kind of eschatology does not speak of the end of the world, however, but the culmination of cosmic time. The ultimate end of all things is determined at the very center of the universe that lay at God’s throne. Apparently, one can get there through proper initiation that includes a choral dance. The Good News was not just a written text that spoke of the grace of God, it was a liturgical dance that revealed the mysteries of God.

Although modern Christianity no longer has anything close to a choral dance as part of its liturgy, several writers of the early Church indicate that just such mystery dances had existed. Clement hints at this connection in his Stromata where he writes, “Therefore we raise our heads and our hands to heaven (during prayer) and move our feet . . . . In this way we reach blessedness and deliverance from the chains of the flesh which our soul despises” (Backman 22; italics mine). Backman insists that the phrase “move our feet” is a technical term for dancing (Backman 22). Epiphanius (fourth century CE) hints at the same tradition when he describes the Christian festival held on Palm Sunday, “Rejoice, be glad and leap boisterously thou all embracing Church! For behold, once again the King approaches . . . once again perform the choral dances . . . let us dance the choral dance before the pure Bridegroom as befits the divine bridegroom” (Backman 24).

Saint Gregory offers another picture of early Christian ritual when he describes a cultic dance, “He who had done everything preserved and prescribed by Providence in its secret mysteries, reposes in Heaven in the bosom of the Father and in the cave in the bosom of the Mother (Christ Jesus). The ring-dance of the angels encircles him, singing his glory in Heaven and proclaiming peace on earth” (Backman 22). Gregory states that there were secret mysteries in the Church which included a cave. The word initiate signifies a ritual entry into the earth. In the Greco-Roman mysteries initiation often took place underground in a hypogeum or cave. This sacred precinct was overseen by a goddess whose womb represented the regions of the underworld where the secrets of rebirth were found. In early Christianity the heavenly matriarch was displaced by the Church, and in Saint Gregory’s comment it is Jesus Christ himself who takes the role of the goddess of rebirth. The one who learns the secrets of resurrection is surrounded by a chorus of angels who are wards of the heavenly realm. For Gregory, this was a tradition that dated back to the resurrected Adam, who performed ring dances with the angels as they were “raised up to heaven” (Backman 22).

In many regions of biblical criticism high walls have been placed between the gnostic and pagan mysteries and the practices of the earliest Christians. Proper interpretation of the pagan mystery initiations is also impossible as there are no original written sources that describe them. Most of what we get actually comes from later Christian writers who criticize them. In a point of high irony we do find a second century pagan critic of Christianity named Celsus who discloses one piece of interesting information from early Christianity. Celsus writes, “Now Christians pray that after their toil and strife here below they shall enter the kingdom of heaven, and they agree with the ancient systems that there are seven heavens and that the way of the soul is through the planets” (95). According to Celsus the early Christians ascended to heaven through the seven planetary spheres. Gnostic texts appear to show this ascent was ritually performed in a secret dance that mimicked the heavenly journey. Part of this imagery appears in Revelation where the chosen priests of god and the seven guardian spirits perform a ring dance around the heavenly throne.

Once again we are dealing with circumstantial evidence. This is the only kind of evidence one can obtain when dealing with an artifact of history that was never written down. The truth is the book of Revelation may not be an oddity of Christian tradition, but its central ideology connected with its own version of the mysteries. Indeed, Margaret Barker explains in The Hidden Tradition of the Kingdom of God that the word evangelion translated as “good news” really meant “reveal” signifying the revelation that came from the holy of holies or heavenly throne room (77-79). Further, the book of Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that actually identifies itself as a book of scripture “because it is the only one that carries the curse on those who alter it” (88; Revelation 22:18-19). Barker asserts that this self-identifying book of scripture “suggests it was already accepted as Scripture, even before John gave it a written form and its explanation” (88) and that the book of Revelation turns out to be the principal book in the New Testament “best fitted [for] the religious and cultural context of Jesus’ ministry” (83). Nor was this material necessarily an adaptation of pagan material into Christian form. These cosmic mysteries had existed all along within the Jewish faith. In the Old Testament Isaiah is endowed to be a prophet only within the heavenly throne room (Isaiah 6). Ezekiel takes a cosmic journey through the heavens as he is given his own keys of leadership (Ezekiel 1-2). The very founding of Israel occurs only when Jacob encounters the ladder of heaven, passes a guardian angel, and sees the face of god in the “House of God” (Genesis 28:12-17, 32:24-30).

Jacob dreams of a ladder ascending into heaven at the spot called The House of God and Gate of Heaven where he sees the face of the Lord and is given the Covenant of his people.

Jacob dreams of a ladder ascending into heaven at the spot called The House of God and Gate of Heaven where he sees the face of the Lord and is given the Covenant of his people.

What are we to make of this? Whatever the religion of Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, the writers of the Testaments lived in a different conceptual world that was rooted in a cosmological relationship between heaven and earth. This world was not accessed by texts but by rituals. This was all changing by the time of Jesus, where the old cosmological models were slowly being turned into the mechanical spheres of Greek astronomy. This happened with the advent of writing and fully literate consciousness. Science as we recognize it was being born from the fertile world of textual thought. And so was religion. We have forgotten that fantastic cosmos the pre-literate world had imbued upon all of its cultural artifacts. It was this older cosmology that underwrote the theologies of rebirth long before that new star shone in the heavens announcing a resurrecting god. In the context of biblical studies, perhaps the greatest gift from this god was not the secrets of rebirth—but finally a religion of the book.

Prehistory, Megaliths, and Open Questions about Stonehenge

Before the melting of the glaciers during the last Ice Age, sea levels were nearly 400 feet lower than they are today. This means of course that vast stretches of additional coastline were exposed and utilized by this land’s occupants. This also means that structures would have been built on these lands, structures long swallowed up by the slow yet steady rising sea tides. The encroachment of the sea took numerous centuries to unfold, but one may wonder if oral traditions had kept alive the locations of some of the more famous settlements and temples that were now known to be below the sea. Being that the rising ocean levels occurred worldwide, one may also hypothesize that these memories may have helped to develop the ubiquitous flood myth shared around the globe.

As evidence of ancient occupation on this prehistoric shoreline, a 30,000 pound stone monolith dating to about 8,000 BCE was recently discovered off of the coast of Sicily.  No one knows what it was used for, but its existence shows that standing stones of considerable size were being employed at this date. The construction and movement of such stones also implies complex social organization. Additionally, a Stone Age settlement has been discovered on the sea floor in the English Channel dating to at least 6,000 BCE, showing that what is now sea was once inhabited by peoples who were building, organizing, and creating communities well before the supposed “birth of civilization” recorded in our textbooks as occurring sometime around 3,500 BCE with the first established villages and small cities in Mesopotamia. The complex stone ring at Gebekli Tepe dating to at least 8,500 BCE proves that complex building as well as sophisticated social and religious organization existed millennia prior to our outdated models of human cultural evolution.

Remains of a stone ring temple located in modern day Turkey and dating to 8,500 BCE.

Remains of a stone ring temple located in modern day Turkey and dating to 8,500 BCE.

One must remember that many of the earliest stone shrines in Mesopotamia and in Egypt are actually built after models of the nomadic tent. Tent cities leave no trace, and we assume that an ancient nomadic caravan was more interested in catching game and finding berries than in anything else. This assumption is grossly misplaced. One is reminded that when the Lakota Sioux journeyed with their teepees during the Spring, while catching game and collecting berries, they were actually following the sun’s entrance into specific Lakota constellations which had analogical representations on the ground. When the sun entered one constellation, the Lakota migrated to a mountain or hill which was the earthly representation of that group of stars.

Nomadic clans carry with them complex social, philosophical, cosmological, and religious constructs which organize their society. The megalithic rings, clay brick ziggurats, and stone pyramids are new architectural wonders predicated on very old cosmological ideas. We also assume that the nomadic tent predated these grand structures, but when we find giant monoliths and stone temples dating thousands of years before our ziggurats and pyramids, we are given pause to think that the nomadic clan may not be the prototype of civilization, but an afterthought of more complex social forms that had existed millennia prior. The conception of linear history is a product of literacy. Linear progression in history is a projection of a modern evolutionary model. These constructs are metaphysical projections which may or may not have relevance for the monolith builders of 10,000 years ago.

It is now clearly understood that megalithic rings had their architectural precursor in Neolithic wood henges. The structures are called Rondel Enclosures, and hundreds have been found throughout Europe dating to nearly 5,000 BCE. One of the most famous of these henges is the Goseck Circle, constructed in 4,900 BCE within the traditional Rondel design: concentric rings and mounds of earth with wooden palisades holding two or three openings. The openings of the Goseck Circle have been shown to be aligned with the solar cycle and allowed for the measurement of a solar calendar and most likely a lunar one as well.

Typical Neolithic circle predicated on an established architectural design, including a series of ditches, mounds, and wooden palisades. Openings or gates have been shown to be aligned with celestial phenomena.

Typical Neolithic circle predicated on an established architectural design, including a series of ditches, mounds, and wooden palisades. Openings or gates have been shown to be aligned with celestial phenomena.

At least by 4,000 BCE this design had dispersed itself into ancient Britain. Perhaps the most famous stone circle in present day England is known as Stonehenge, first constructed from wood around 3,000 BCE, but then rebuilt with massive stones at about 2,600 BCE. Yet Stonehenge is a late model. Far to the north in Scotland is the Orkney Complex built at least 1,500 years before Stonehenge was constructed. Orkney is a Neolithic masterpiece, with one writer noting:

This is the temple complex of the Ness of Brodgar, and its size, complexity and sophistication have left archaeologists desperately struggling to find superlatives to describe the wonders they found there. “We have discovered a Neolithic temple complex that is without parallel in western Europe. Yet for decades we thought it was just a hill made of glacial moraine,” says discoverer Nick Card of the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology. “In fact the place is entirely manmade, although it covers more than six acres of land.”

Once protected by two giant walls, each more than 100m long and 4m high, the complex at Ness contained more than a dozen large temples – one measured almost 25m square – that were linked to outhouses and kitchens by carefully constructed stone pavements. The bones of sacrificed cattle, elegantly made pottery and pieces of painted ceramics lie scattered round the site. The exact purpose of the complex is a mystery, though it is clearly ancient. Some parts were constructed more than 5,000 years ago.

Orkney shows a massive building program incorporating multiple temples, buildings, walls, shrines, kitchens, and pottery making tools. Surrounding this complex was a sophisticated network of farms and villages interlinked by sacred space and liturgy, for most archaeologists agree that Orkney is a ritual center of some sort, though what was believed or worshipped is a complete mystery.

In the ancient world different sites were linked together. This contextual network is very different from our modern notions of sacred space, where worshippers go to “their church corner” where they worship within their tradition. Other churches have their own traditions. There may be similarities or differences, but the worshipping space is immobile and set. The idea of a pilgrimage is foreign to most modern church goers, unless it means going to some national or amusement park. Not so in the ancient world, where different sites represented different loci between heaven and earth, and where different yet related deities could influence the cosmic balance for those performing the necessary rites. Migration and pilgrimage are often blurred, as in the case of the Lakota whose Spring journey was both.

Every year tens of thousands of Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This pilgrimage is called the Hajj, and every faithful Muslim must make this journey at least once in their lifetime. Such notions belong to the ancient world, where different sacred sites were linked to together forming a network of belief and trade.

Every year tens of thousands of Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This pilgrimage is called the Hajj, and every faithful Muslim must make this journey at least once in their lifetime. Such notions belong to the ancient world, where different sites were linked together forming a network of sacred space, belief, and trade.

As such, what was once thought of as individual mounds and henges are now seen as connected in a network of sacred “zones.” It has now been revealed, for example, that Stonehenge was part of a massive landscape of standing stones. The original Stonehenge was not a solitary ring in the middle of the prairie, but was connected with colossal avenues of stone which in turn pointed to other related henges. Some scholars believe that the natural landscape was also part of this ritual cosmography, where hills and rivers also represented heaven-earth correspondences. We are dealing with a much greater cosmovision than most recently thought of, as well as a far more connected and complex society who were as sophisticated as any other people, but who were rooted in the Neolithic and Mesolithic cultures and techniques of the day.

Reflecting upon these connections has led me to propose a new theory to one of the great mysteries of Stonehenge. Stonehenge was originally a wooden henge, much like the Rondel Enclosures found throughout ancient Europe. Over the course of 1,500 years the site was rebuilt several times, and large standing stones eventually took the place of standing timber.

Eventually large rocks replaced the original standing timers. Curiously, there are several different kinds of rock utilized in the ground plan, with the larger standing Sarsen stones made of sandstone or sedimentary rock, and the inner “u-ring” of smaller stones made of dolerite or igneous rock.

The outer concourse of standing stones are called Sarsens and are made of sandstone or sedimentary rock. There is an inner semi-ring of stones called bluestones. These stones are made of various kinds of dolerite, which is an igneous rock formed by the cooling of lava. The rock is a kind of “fire-stone.” Recently the exact origin of these stones was discovered. These multi-ton rocks were quarried 160 miles away in Wales and transported to the site. (There are still a few geologists who insist that the blue stones were not transported by humans but by glacier drift.) The skill and labor required to transport the multi-ton stones from so far away has everyone asking, “For what purpose were they needed?” There are no definite answers.


Stonehenge was rebuilt replacing wooden timers with large standing stones. Curiously, there are several different kinds of rock used, with the large Sarsen stones being made of sandstone or sedimentary rock, and the inner u-ring of smaller stones being made of dolerite or igneous rock.

This graphic shows the  different kinds of rock utilized in the ground plan of Stonehenge.

The exact ritual or cosmological uses of the site are unknown. We would be remiss to think that the site was not used for rituals within a deep cosmological worldview. Ancient oral religion and cosmology cannot be separated. My own theory as to why the bluestones needed to be transported to the site is one of resonance. Nicholas Campion has pointed out that bronze was used even after the discovery of the much stronger iron because bronze held a symbolic equivalence with the sun. It was the “cosmic resonance” of the material that was prized over its utility. Meanwhile, Schwaller de Lubicz also provides a stunning insight when he mentions that in some Egyptian temples limestone was used in the outer walls but granite was used for the inner sanctuaries.

While granite is stronger, and again we might think of the sheer utility of the building material, ancient oral minds were always considering the types and functions of the materials they were using. Granite is also an igneous rock, and one sees in the Egyptian cosmovision that each temple was a recreation of the world, where sedimentary rock was the outer “watery” world of chaos and the central shrine was the created order of the sun god Ra. Granite was a fire rock indicative of this symbolism.

This is no idle speculation. One is reminded that when Rome was founded a trench was dug circumscribing the city. While in most textbooks we are told that this trench defined the defensive wall that was to be built, in truth the trench held a completely symbolic value as a sacred boundary between the cosmic watery chaos and the new cosmic order of the established city. In the Near East and in Egypt cities were models of the cosmos and were established upon symbolic rules that had descended from prehistory. Many temples were built also as representations of the cosmos, with the waters of chaos signified outside the temple walls and the temple shrine itself representing the ideal established order and the realm of the gods. In the Hebrew temple the holy of holies was constructed as a cube where the fiery throne of Yahweh lay. Beneath the altar was the Well of Souls representative of the apsu, or underworld waters. Here was a symbolic representation of the cosmos. It is no coincidence that Pythagoras insisted that the center of the universe was a fiery cube, or that the Egyptian dead had to sail through the dark underworld waters and arise through several lakes of fire to find eternal life.

So it is with Stonehenge. At least this is my proposal. The bluestones were igneous rocks and they held a cosmological resonance to the overall metaphysical scheme of the temple. The inner ring of bluestones was the realm of fire, the created order, and the domain of the gods. They may have also been linked with similar temples or rites that were located and practiced 160 miles away from where the stones originated. In other words, the bluestones were an absolute symbolic requirement that in some way linked the builder’s vision with heaven and earth and to other sites with similar connections. As one journeyed through the avenue of stones and entered the sanctuary they were making a “cosmic voyage” through the heavens, represented itself by the building materials, landscape features, and connections to other sites.

This theory still does not tell us what they were practicing. It simply provides a functional theory for the absolute necessity of the building material being used. There is a specific reason that the builders transported several-ton-stones nearly 200 miles for the sites’ construction. That reason is, in my view, symbolic resonance with a cosmographic scheme. The builders were reproducing a picture of the heavens in the stones of the earth.

Ancient Temples, Mercurial Tombs, and Strange History

On April 28, 2001, I stood at the south end of a grand avenue laid with stone. I was thirty miles north of Mexico City, at an ancient site known as Teotihuacan, a word that variously translates to “the place where the gods were born,” or “the place of those who know the road of the gods,” or even “the place where men became gods.” The “road of the gods” is an interesting epithet, as the grand road that traverses the city was known as “The Great Way of the Dead,” or even “Way of the Stars.” Some scholars have suggested that the road was an earthly replica of the Milky Way, and that the entire city itself “reproduced on earth a supposed celestial plan of the sky-world where dwelt the deities and spirits of the dead” (qtd. in Hancock and Faiia, 25).

Picture taken from atop the so called Pyramid of the Moon at the north end of the Avenue of the Dead. Here the entire city layout of Teotihuacan can be seen. To the right the large structure is the Pyramid of the Sun, and just south of it is the Temple of the Plumed Serpent.

Picture taken from atop the so called Pyramid of the Moon at the north end of the Avenue of the Dead. Here the entire city layout of Teotihuacan can be seen. To the left the large structure is the Pyramid of the Sun, and just south of it is the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Photo by author.

According to Aztec tradition this city was built by the earliest ancestors. The emperor Montezuma would often make pilgrimages here. The largest structure, the Pyramid of the Sun, was not only the supposed birthplace of the gods, but also the primeval mound from which creation was made—the axis-mundi or navel of the world. The city itself appears to have been founded sometime in the 2nd century BCE and grew to an approximate population of over 150,000 people. Such population size makes this settlement a major metropolis in the ancient world.  Truthfully, almost nothing is known about the originators of the city; their ethnicity, language, culture, and religion has been lost behind the veil of forgotten history. The city appears to have been abandoned after apparently several invasions where the city was sacked, sometime around the early 6th century CE.

The third largest pyramid in the world, this structure measures 233.5 feet in height by 733.2 feet in length, with a volume of about 41,842,000 cubit feet of material. Called the Pyramid of the Sun by later peoples, its original name given by its architects is unknown. Photo by author.

The third largest pyramid in the world, this structure measures 233.5 feet in height by 733.2 feet in length, with a volume of about 41,842,000 cubit feet of material. Called the Pyramid of the Sun by later peoples, its original name given by its architects is unknown. Photo by author.

At the south end of the Way of the Dead lies the smallest pyramid-structure named the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. The Aztecs called this deity Quetzalcoatl, a name that means “feathered serpent.” This translation is inexact, as the the term coatl is derived from co, serpent, and atl, water. A more exact translation of his name may therefore be “Plumed Water-Serpent.” Quetzalcoatl is the supreme deity of the Aztec and Mayan pantheons. He was a great being who brought civilization to man. He created the calendar, introduced corn and agriculture, and was the inventor of the arts. Like King Arthur, this mythic hero is lost to history, with some scholars suggesting that there might have been an historical figure from which the later legends were based.

The deity itself appears to be a representation of the cosmic process of becoming through the amalgamation of opposites. He is composed of the base materials of the earth (water-serpent) and has the plumed feathers of the heavens (the quetzal was a bird whose bright green feathers not only represented flight, but also transcendence and the heavenly sphere.) According to the earliest known myths, Quetzalcoatl refused human sacrifice and was kind and benevolent. Yet, during a drunken bout had intercourse with his sister. As penance, the deity immolated himself in fire, and his body was reborn out of the ashes as the planet Venus.

Quetzalcoatl is a sort of phoenix, who represents the process of birth out of the ashes of death. Indeed, his name also has a secondary meaning: “precious twin.” This twin was a deity named Xolotl and was represented by a dog. This dog was a representation of Venus as the evening star, and Quetzacoatl was, among other things, a representation of Venus as the morning star. These twins represented the heavenly cycles of birth and death, and both deities figure large in Mesoamerican underworld mythology. Xolotl is the guide of the dead. He also protects the Sun as it journeys through the underworld. He is a sort of counterpart to the Egyptian Anubis, who was also the dog-headed “Opener of the Ways” through the underworld for the Egyptians. Interestingly, in Hindu mythology, when the Pandavas descend into the underworld they are also accompanied by a dog.

Quetzalcoatl really represents a “scale of being,” with one end being gross matter, and the other end being the heavenly realms. He is mortal and immortal. He is light, and through his twin, also dark. According to one scholar, he is “a kind of ladder with man at the center, but extending downward into animal, water, and mineral; and upward to the planets, and life-giving sun, and the god creators” (Burland, Nicholson, and Osborn 210).


The head of the Plumed Serpent at the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Called by the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl, and by the Mayan, Kukulkan, this deity apparently represented the twin nature of being: mortality and immortality.

The head of the Plumed Serpent at the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Called by the Aztecs, Quetzalcoatl, and by the Mayan, Kukulkan, this deity apparently represented the twin nature of being: life and death, mortality and immortality, light and dark. He was central to the Mesoamerican cosmovision, and with his twin, Xolotl, represented all the processes of becoming. Photo by author.

More remarkably, in May of 2011, archaeologists discovered a hidden tunnel buried beneath the entrance to the Temple of the Plumed Serpent that extended to the subterranean heart of the pyramid structure. During excavation, archaeologists discovered large amounts of liquid mercury contained in vessels that had been buried in a side chamber.

In 2011 archaeologists discovered a tunnel beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, running from the entrance to the subterranean center of the pyramid. It is believed that this tunnel system, including side chambers, leads to a royal tomb.

In 2011 archaeologists discovered a tunnel beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, running from the entrance to the subterranean center of the pyramid. It is believed that this tunnel system, including side chambers, leads to a royal tomb.

No one knows what the liquid mercury was used for. The leading theory suggests that it symbolized a lake or body of water in the geography of the netherworld that the dead had to surpass.

Tunnel running underneath the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. Several artifacts have been found, including vessels containing liquid mercury.

Tunnel running underneath the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. Several artifacts have been found, including vessels containing liquid mercury.

This curious discovery reminds me of the ancient tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. This tomb has not been opened, but archaeologists certainly know of its existence. In 1974 a farmer discovered an underground pit filled with terracotta figures. These were representations of the soldiers who would accompany the emperor into the afterlife. It is estimated that there are 8,000 life size statues of these soldiers, with 130 real-sized chariots and 520 horses.

The Terracotta army of the first emperor of China, buried at his royal tomb.

The Terracotta army of the first emperor of China, buried at his royal tomb.

The emperor’s tomb lies underneath a giant mound. Archaeologists have yet to open it. There is, however, a description of it recorded in a 2nd century BCE history penned by Sima Qian and entitled Records of the Grand Historian. In this account we read:

Craftsmen were ordered to make crossbows and arrows primed to shoot anyone who enters the tomb. Mercury was used to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze and Yellow River, and the great sea, and set to flow mechanically. Above were representation of the heavenly constellations, below, the features of the land. Candles were made from fat of “man-fish,” which is calculated to burn and not extinguish for a long time. (Wikipedia, Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor)

Once again mercury is used to represent waters in a tomb. In this instance, according to the biographer, the waters being represented were the terrestrial waters of China. One wonders if this would be the only symbolism, as in most ancient tombs the symbolic representations on walls and ceilings deal with the landscape, not of this world, but of the netherworld. No one can know for sure until the tomb is opened. Problematically, soil samples taken from the tomb reveal high levels of mercury, a natural poison to the potential archaeologists digging at the site. The Chinese government has prevented any excavation on the tomb itself, and through the foreseeable future, the lost tomb of the first emperor will remain a mystery.

The burial mound of the first emperor of China. Surrounding the mound is the "necropolis," including pits of terracotta warriors. The tomb proper has not been excavated.

The burial mound of the first emperor of China. Surrounding the mound is the “necropolis,” including pits of terracotta warriors. The tomb proper has not been excavated.

There is another connection between the mercurial tombs of Mexico and China: how little anyone really knows about them. As already mentioned, the people who built Teotihuacan are a complete enigma. It has been said that less than 15% of archaeological excavation has been done in Mesoamerica. This estimate is credible. In Santiago Tuxtla, Mexico, I climbed a large mountain called Hill Vigia. From the vantage point of this vista I saw endless miles of rolling hills, mounds, and forests. What is not noticed is that pretty much the entire landscape is overgrowth on top of an ancient civilization.

In Santiago Tuxtla, the surrounding hills and forests grow atop an ancient civilization.

In Santiago Tuxtla, the surrounding hills and forests grow atop an ancient civilization.

Nobody really understands the depth of this truth (pun intended). Everywhere I drove throughout the outback of Mexico I would see large mounds covered in trees and grasses. These mounds were all buildings untouched by the excavator’s hands. It is said that when the Spanish conquistadors entered Teotihuacan, they were utterly unaware that it was a city, for the great pyramids and temples were all covered with forest. So it is that in San Lorenzo, we drove around unsuccessfully looking for the Olmec museum, only to run into an eight year old boy who told us that his barn had more artifacts than the museum. We followed him to his farm where he charged us a couple pesos to look inside his chicken coup. He was right, for there, lined up in rows were some of the most impressive statuary we had ever seen. The boy said his father digs them up all the time while plowing his fields.

A mound in a field is actually an ancient building. Such mounds are found throughout the Mexican outback.

A mound in a field is actually an ancient building. Such mounds are found throughout the Mexican outback. Photo by author.

Boy shows us his barn filled with Olmec statuary. The boy said his father dug up artifacts all the time, while plowing his fields. Photo by Dan Lundwall.

Boy shows us his barn filled with Olmec statuary. The boy said his father dug up artifacts all the time, while plowing his fields. Photo by Dan Lundwall.

In Calakmul, on the border of Guatemala, we explored an ancient Mayan city, where only a half dozen buildings had been partially restored. A mass of tumbling stones spread out for a thousand yards in each direction, indicating a once thriving establishment had entirely succumbed to the equatorial jungles. It was here that I came across a tree literally swallowing an ancient stone stela. No better image could be taken of the literal evaporation of history, eternally ebbing underneath the growth of the incessant and forgetful present.

A stone slab, eight feet tall, is being swallowed by a tree. In equatorial regions, the jungle overgrows everything, breaking down stone, mortar, clay, and wood, and erasing the marks of ancient civilization. Were it up to me, I would put this picture on the cover page of every book dealing with ancient history, as it is a reminder of how little we actually know. Photo by author.

A stone slab, eight feet tall, is being swallowed by a tree. In equatorial regions, the jungle overgrows everything, breaking down stone, mortar, clay, and wood, and erasing the marks of ancient civilization. Were it up to me, I would put this picture on the cover page of every book dealing with ancient history, as it is a reminder of how little we actually know. Photo by author.

From the grand staircases of wondrous pyramids, to the cryptic whispers of heaven-earth correspondences, we are dealing with times, peoples, cultures, and imaginations that are both radically different and radically the same as ours. The curious parallels in pantheons, the dog psycho-pomp of the underworld, and the mercurial tombs across continents suggest a link between cultures and consciousness. The ever stretching of history that fades into a mist on the horizon reminds us that despite all that we know, and think we know, there is more to discover about our past than perhaps will be discovered in our future. Such a sternward journey is worthy of the greatest explorers of our species. What treasures will be found beneath root and hill? Many seek for gold. But the true treasure is the hidden revelation about the eternal self.

History of Mind, History of Self

In 1894 the eminent A. H. Sayce acquiesced, “We are but just beginning to learn how ignorant we have been of the civilized past, and how false our ideas have been regarding it” (Simpson 1). A century later, and with ten-thousand-score additional history books, we find ourselves in about the same position. The ancient past, from several points of view, remains inscrutable.

What makes the observation of Sayce so interesting is its timing. He wrote this statement just a few decades after Darwin published The Descent of Man. Darwin’s ingenious biological theory of evolution was greedily applied to the consciousness and intelligence of the human species. As a result, all of human history was engulfed in the idea of cultural evolution. Suddenly, vast stretches of time were economized not only within the idea of linear time, but also within linear consciousness.

World History is written from a sociological point of view. Most of the ancient past has been put together by the theories of the modern present.

World History is written from a sociological point of view. Most of the ancient past has been put together by the theories of the modern present.

And the results have been disastrous. Nothing has done more damage to our own historical consciousness then the misapplication of Darwinian theory to history. Many history books might get many of the facts right, but the organization of those facts are ultimately modern projections onto the material. The resultant picture is a highly skewed and often grotesquely ignorant picture of humanity—past and present.

A few decades ago, the ever controversial Martin Bernal pointed out that the materials with which we have to work with when organizing our ideas of history are so sparse that debates over ancient history “should not be judged on the basis of proof, but merely on competitive plausibility” (Berlinerblau 72). For what is to be called “proof” amongst so little surviving material? Of course Bernal’s own construction of the past has been blasted by numerous scholars, leaving one critic to lament, “Yet the same critique of [Bernal’s competitive plausibility] can be directed at these scholars, a state of affairs which demonstrates how utterly problematic research in ancient history can be” (Berlinerblau 73). This same scholar notes that history is made up of vast amounts of mostly irrecoverable data, “our awesome lack of knowledge about the ancient world imprisons us within a discourse of plausibilities, not probabilities” (Berlinerblau 73). Sturt Manning sums up the situation simply, “It seems a depressing reality unless one simply chooses to ignore it” (qtd. in Berlinerblau 73).

But why ignore vast stretches of nothingness when one can use it to underwrite any idea that serves the present? It was the Nazi application of evolutionary theory on society that created the path to the “final solution.” Millions were burned in the ovens, because, as history explained to them, this was best for the future. What irony. Then again, it was the Aztec application of astrological theory (historical evolution in a different sense) that underwrote the historical consciousness that codified the endless bath of bloody corpses.

Every social movement has an historical construction that supports it. The point is, those historical constructions are very often predicated upon an ignorance that is both vast and surprising. As it must be, for ancient history is just beyond our best attempts to reconstruct it. All those thousands of pottery shards, figurines, bone piles, and archeological debris can tell us a great deal about methods and modalities, but they cannot tell us about the real thoughts and imaginations of their creators.

Constructing history upon these pieces is like understanding a dramatic play only by reading its prop list: “Act 1, Scene 1; a table center stage with a plate of eggs and a dagger nearby.” How do we interpret this? Well, Marx would tell us that the small quantity of egg has produced the dagger; and what we are seeing is the beginning of a revolution. Frazier might see the dagger as a sacrificial implement for a fertility ritual, and that the eggs are really the analogical object of exotic secret rites. Freud would tell us that, … well, … isn’t it obvious.

All the more complicated if not comedic does the interpretation become when reading the next set of data: “Act 1, Scene 2; several pillars marked with geometric forms surrounding a mound. A donkey pulls a casket. Left stage is a barrel of fish.” Hmmm. Marx: “The peasant has been killed by the oppressive state and his body is being dragged to the burial mound by his lowly beast of burden.” Frazier: “Here is the sacred temple of the fish god who reinvigorates the season of spring through the sacrifice of his dead body being pulled by an ass.” Freud: “The casket is the vagina succumbing to the virulent donkey who drags it upon the upright phalluses of the state. Fish are exuberant procreators, and the barrel of fish is the promise of sex, indeed, the absolute necessity of sex, standing by the burial mound which is also the swollen womb of the mother.”

You get the point. History is a sociological construct. And the farther one goes back, the more modern sociology is applied. I am not saying that all history is sheer fabrication. Only parts of it. And sometimes the parts overcome the whole.

When it comes to the ancient past there are generally three overarching views which interpret the prop lists of history. First, there are the Howlers. These are people who believe that everyone in the past was a “howling barbarian,” borrowing a phrase from the prestigious Richard Atkins, who declared that the builders of Stonehenge were intellectual primitives. Despite a great deal of deconstruction on this view in the past few decades, the truth is that this worldview is so steeped into our modern historical consciousness that we no longer notice it in our own thinking. Ancient man was primitive. Modern man is not. We can prove it: pottery-shards versus iphones!

Comparing ancient pottery with modern microchips is only comparing the evolution of technology. It is not comparing the evolution of the mind or of consciousness. Few people understand the difference.

Comparing ancient pottery with modern microchips is only comparing the evolution of technology. It is not comparing the evolution of the mind or of consciousness. Few people understand the difference.

Few people seem to understand that such a comparison is a false one, and that, in the broad sense, scientific and symbolic thought does not evolve. Rather, it is rooted in the very nature of consciousness, and is attached to the culture and language of society; it is only the latter that evolves. The mathematician Giulio Magli comments that the idea of evolution of a primitive mind to a modern one is a “ridiculous and fundamentally sloppy hypothesis” (4). The historian of science Giorgio de Santillana concurs, “The point is this: that what we observe as ‘primitive’ conditions are, with very few exceptions [. . .] only what is left of the rise and fall of past higher cultures; what appeared to be a universal steady state of superstitions from which thought grows is only the common denominator to which decaying civilizations run in the end” (10).

The second common view of history is the Romantic view. Like the primitive ideology of the Howlers, the Romantics believe that “simple” culture is better culture, and that ancient men and women were more in tune with the landscape, with mother earth, and with their own souls. This is a “Romantic Savage” view of ancient woman, and it has reached such daring heights that it now asserts that ancient matriarchies were peaceful, and in the words of one scholar, as a result, there was no warfare for over three thousand years!

The problem with such thinking is manifold. There is no such thing as “simple” culture. Ancient history was full of violence, and ancient cultures often practiced human sacrifice, ritualized prostitution, and rampant slavery. There were no carbon emissions from factories or automobiles in the ancient past. That’s true. But ancient civilizations deforested entire landscapes, burning stumps as they went. And whatever time the shaman had to meditate upon the earth (which itself is funny, for the shaman’s primary stewardship was to be a guide into the next world, away from all things of the earth) was trumped by the mass of humanity stuck in one perpetual and monotonous state—described in the words of the historian Tacitus, “Toil, toil, toil!” The Romantic view is also “a ridiculous and fundamentally sloppy hypothesis.”

The third historical viewpoint can be called history as written by the Conspirators. With these people, the aliens built the pyramids, and the megalithic rings, and all ancient technology. Why? Because, like the Howlers, the Conspirators believe that ancient man could have done no such thing by themselves. This ideology is nothing more than a neo-mystical Darwinian view of the self and its relationship with cosmos. Not even the “mother-ship” can save us from ourselves.

All three viewpoints: the Howlers, the Romantics, and the Conspirators, are wrong. And being this kind of wrong has modern implications. Each one of these views produces a set of metaphysics by which we live. And that metaphysics creates an image of the self. We are, according to these views, either the apex of civilization, or the victims of civilization, or the cosmic riff-raff who got its best ideas by stealing them from other-worldly civilizations. The dignity of our identity, which has always been individual, infinite potential, is curtailed by the poverty of our historical conceptions, which remains collective and finite projections.

Read more in my upcoming book: Mythos and Cosmos, Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age.


Easter and the Feminine Divine

Mary and the Midwives, by Lynde Mott. A modern re-imaging of the Mother of God attended by two personas, one who carries burdens and the other who gives unconditional service. This tripartite aspect of motherhood  culminates in the central image of the divine principle of creation: Mary gives birth to the salvation of the world.

Mary and the Midwives, by Lynde Mott. A modern re-imaging of the Mother of God attended by two personas, one who carries burdens and the other who gives unconditional service. This tripartite aspect of motherhood culminates in the central image of the divine principle of creation: Mary gives birth to the salvation of the world.

This week comes the celebration of Easter. This Christian holy day is the archetypal summit of the year, where rebirth and resurrection are venerated in the mystery of Jesus Christ’s awakening from the tomb. In Christian orthodoxy, Easter is known as pascha, the Greek and Latin term referring to the Jewish Passover. The Apostle Paul uses this word as a title for Christ, “For Christ our Passover lamb [pascha], has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5.7). By the end of the first century CE early Christians had reinterpreted the Exodus story and the Passover ritual as a prototype for the sacrifice of Christ.

The word “Easter” itself, however, is Old English, from Ēastre or Ēostre, a title derived from an old English month now known as April. Christian Easter is celebrated on the first Sabbath after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. This holy-specific day most often occurs in April and is representative of the most fertile time of the year, when Sun, Moon, and Earth are all in their phases of rebirth and awakening.

Easter is therefore the day of resurrection, in heaven and on earth. And this heaven-earth relationship is only an archetypal symbol for the heaven-earth awakening that occurs in the soul of God, or in the spirit and breath of each mortal man and woman. In Christian rite and belief, every soul will arise like the Sun, Moon, and Earth, to a new immortal dwelling.

Despite this traditional context, historically, Easter had feminine roots. Significantly, the old English month of Ēostre was itself named after a goddess whose rites of rebirth were celebrated at the same time among the early inhabitants of Britain and Northern Europe. Ēostre was a Germanic goddess whose name is cognate with the Proto-Germanic austrōn, meaning dawn or to shine. This deity belongs to a long line of female divinities who are goddesses of the dawn, and are found in various forms throughout Indo-European cultures as beings who bring light and life to the world.

The Germanic Eostre, Goddess of the Dawn and of Life. Source for our word "Easter."

The Germanic Eostre, Goddess of the Dawn and of Life. Source for our word “Easter.”

For thousands of years before Christianity the divine being who brought forth resurrection was represented as a goddess. Inanna, Isis, Cybele, and Demeter are beings with the divine stewardship over rebirth. The Japanese Amaterasu is a goddess of the dawn who also brings light and life to the world. While these deities were seen as the powers behind the fertility of all things on earth, they also held stewardship over the mysterious cosmic principle of heavenly life. In the Greco-Roman mystery religions, the resurrection of the initiate was promised via the gifts and boons of the goddess.

This should make sense as in fact it is only woman who can bring forth life from her womb. In many respects, the rites of rebirth analogized the tomb with the womb, so that those going into the beyond could be reborn by a Heavenly Mother whose womb was the cosmic precinct of immortality.

Egyptian Mysteries

This was certainly the case in ancient Egypt. It is often assumed that the process of resurrection in the Egyptian scheme was overseen by Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld. The mysteries of Osiris place this god center stage, for his death and rebirth are the main theme of the mystery play. The truth is, however, the entire drama of rebirth is not overseen by the god but by the goddess, whose womb is the deus ex machina which saves the climactic action from complete oblivion. Repeatedly in the funerary texts and vignettes the major characters of the liturgical pageant show up performing all their prescribed duties: Osiris is killed and rises, Anubis guides, Thoth records, Horus aids and fights, Atum, Re, or some other version of the solar god breathes new life into the dead, etc. Never far away from all these scenes, however, is a representation of the Mother Goddess who oversees the entire operation from beginning to end and is the key to cosmic rebirth.

It is actually Isis and Nephthys who always appear by the lion couch where Osiris lies, and it is their power which helps raise him from the state of death. In Egyptian myth, Isis and Nephthys are really dual personifications of the Mother Goddess, one representing the heavenly mother and the other the earthly one (Nibley, Message 163). Meanwhile, in the twelve divisions contained in the book That Which is in the Underworld the solar god is always accompanied by a figure called “lady of the boat” who is the true guide through the darkness leading the envoy past each obstacle and gate which inhibits progress (Budge, The Gods 207). Each boat in the underworld is adorned with symbols of the various manifestations of the Mother Goddess, including symbols representing Hathor, Maat, and Isis, all who are absolutely essential for the journey’s success.

Isis and Nephtys are twin aspects of the Mother Goddess and were central to the drama of Egyptian rebirth.

Isis and Nephtys are twin aspects of the Mother Goddess and were central to the drama of Egyptian rebirth.

Isis remains central to the resurrection drama. When the Egyptian boat is at its darkest, deepest, and most treacherous juncture in the netherworld only Isis can tow it across the dry sand and to safety (Nibley, Message 416). It is Isis “whose mouth is the breath of life, whose sentence drives out evil, and whose very word revives him who no longer breathes” (de Lubicz, Temples 39). A papyrus dating from the time of Khufu speaks of Isis as the true ruler of the Pyramids (Adams 30). She is the “Mother of God” who raises the dead to the celestial heights: “The Divine Sothis, the Star, the Queen of Heaven” (Adams 30).

“To be reborn in resurrection, the king must enter again into his mother’s womb,” writes Hugh Nibley. “The sarcophagus in which he lay was called mw.t, which also means ‘mother,’ and was designed to represent the embracing arms and wings of the starry sky-mother [Nut]” (Message 119). As the deceased lies in his coffin he is swallowed by the mouth of Nut in the west and reborn from the womb of Nut in the East; the entire gestation cycle is celestial.

The essential role of the Mother Goddess in the process of Egyptian rebirth explains the essential difference between her imagery as Nut, the Sky Mother, and the imagery found in other mythologies where the mother goddess is terrestrial, such as Gaia, the Earth Mother. In the latter example the mother goddess is analogized with the fertile ground which receives the solar semen and whose womb swells with the pregnant produce of nature. As all material forms, however, are only reflections of celestial archetypes, the true womb of the universe must remain heavenward.

Nut was the Heavenly Mother in whose womb the dead were reborn. The sarcophagus was a symbol of Nut.

Nut was the Heavenly Mother in whose womb the dead were reborn. The sarcophagus was a symbol of Nut.

 Greco-Roman Mysteries

What is true of Egyptian myth and rite in this regard is also true for the later Greco-Roman mystery cults, as Jane Ellen Harrison makes clear: “The mysteries of Greece never center round Zeus the Father, but rather round the Mother and the subordinate son” (Mythology 49). While Olympian gods are approached with prayer, praise, and presents, the Mother Goddess “is approached by means that are magical and mysterious” because she possesses the mysteries (Mythology 49).

Further, Hera, Demeter, Athena, Aphrodite, and Artemis represent different aspects of the one Mother Goddess (Mythology 49). In the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, the Mother Goddess is identified by many names, including: Mother of the Gods, Minerva, Venus, Diana, Proserpina, Ceres, Juno, Bellona, Hecate, and others (Vermaseren 10). Whatever her title, name, or station, she is always understood to be both queen of heaven and the underworld, of life and death and of the mystery of rebirth (Vermaseren 10). In Roman times “the performance of her rites remained in the charge of orientals, not Romans, a dispensation carefully maintained by the Roman Senate throughout the Republic; under the direct control of the State the cult of the Goddess was to be kept in the proper channels” (Vermaseren 11).

The oracle at Delphi was dedicated to Apollo only in later times; the oracle center first belonged to the goddess Themis (Vermaseren 14) who was the steward of the gate of heaven. At Delphi there was a sacred rock known as the omphalos, or navel of the world, as well as a mysterious cleft descending into the earth which represented the nexus between worlds. Here the seekers of knowledge from the other world descended into the cave of the Goddess, for she kept the ultimate secrets and possessed the navel and nexus of creation.

The Oracle at Delphi has an interesting parallel to the school of Parmenides. Parmenides is the father of Greek philosophy. He declared his authority to teach via a vision he had in which he ascended to heaven and was met by aids and stewards of the heavenly word, all of who were  female. At the apex of the world, Parmenides himself is taught by the Goddess (Kingsley 49).

Meanwhile, all the mystery cults held the divine Mother as central to the mystery of rebirth. Cybele was the Heavenly Mother of the Attis cult. She was not only the Queen of Heaven but also the Queen of the Underworld and the wife of Hades (Vermaseren 129). Demeter and Persephone fulfill the same role at Eleusis, while Harmonia fills in at Samothrace. Mother-Goddess imagery is absent in Mithraism, an all-boys club, but the Attis Mysteries were utilized by priests of Mithraism for the initiation of women so they too might receive their afterlife rewards (Weston 159). Demonstrably, in the Greco-Roman mysteries, female priestesses were stewards of the matriarchal rites and always attended the mystai performing various roles as they aided the initiate on his quest.  This fact also parallels the sister/daughters of Osiris who lift him out of the clutches of death and the sister/daughters of Oedipus who guide him to the mystery grove at Colonus.

Virgin Mary_005

Demeter and Persephone were the central deities in the Elysian Mysteries. They provided the path and the power for rebirth in the next world.

Christian Mysteries

Rebirth was also symbolized by the male principle. Human life requires both semen and an egg. Osiris, Dumuzi, Attis, Dionysus, and Orpheus are all male deities of rebirth. In the Christian mythos, the male principle dominated to the exclusion of the goddess who had filled the role of salvation and rebirth for centuries.

But this exclusion of the female presence for salvation took many centuries to fulfill. From the earliest days of Catholicism the form of the Mother Goddess was kept alive within the cult of the Virgin Mary. Jesus was God and was to be worshiped. But Mary was the Mother of God and was to be venerated. As Joseph Campbell makes clear: “The Virgin Mary has been called a co-savior in her anguish and suffering, which was as great as the suffering of her son. She also brought him into the world, and her submission to the Annunciation amounts to an act of salvation, because she acquiesced to this saviorhood” (Campbell, Goddesses 187).

The Virgin Mary took the role of the Mother Goddess in Catholic Christianity.

The Virgin Mary took the role of the Mother Goddess in Catholic Christianity.

The centrality of the Virgin Mary in Catholic Christianity was not a Catholic invention. This was a hold over from many centuries of worshiping a goddess who was key to the cycle of rebirth. Speaking of the role of the ancient goddess, Joseph Campbell writes:

She gives birth to us physically, but She is the mother too of our second birth—our birth as spiritual entities. This is the basic meaning of the motif of the virgin birth, that our bodies are born naturally, but at a certain time there awakens in us our spiritual nature, which is the higher human nature, not that which simply duplicates the world of the animal urges, of erotic and power drives and sleep. Instead there awakens in us the notion of a spiritual aim, a spiritual life: an essentially human, mystical life to be lived above the level of food, of sex, of economics, politics, and sociology. In this sphere of the mystery dimension the woman represents the awakener, the giver of birth in that sense. (Goddesses 6)

It is easy to see how the veneration of the Virgin Mary was a natural byproduct of the religiosity from the public at large. For numerous generations, oral peoples recognized the essential presence of the feminine divine in the birth of both deity and dignity. Christians often forget the close affinity the early Church had with the feminine principle. There is a reason for this lack of memory, as again Joseph Campbell hints, “Orphic imagery is the foreground to Christian imagery, and the mythology of Christianity is far more firmly rooted in this classical [Greco-Roman] mystery religion that it is in the Old Testament” (Campbell, Goddesses 185).

If Christianity were solely a product of Judaism, than the veneration of Mary must be seen as idolatrous; as indeed it is by Protestants. Yet, while the earliest Christians were all Jews, the expansion of Christianity was due to the converts from the Greco-Roman world at large. In the Greco-Roman mysteries the initiate was given a ritual endowment learning the secrets for the next world. He was often accompanied by female priestesses who would guide him to a garden reprieve after his terrible initiatory ordeal. The whole process was indicative of death and rebirth as overseen by the goddess.

We do not find any of this imagery in the Old Testament. Indeed, while uncomfortable for many Christians to hear, the Old Testament is empty of any reference to resurrection or rebirth until perhaps the very late book of Daniel, where the dead turn into stars: “Those who are wise [the knowledgeable ones] will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, [will be] like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan. 12.3). Hardly orthodox Judaism. However, this is the exact teaching of the Greco-Roman mysteries.

Problematically, such a vision may have also come from Judaism. If there was a doctrine of rebirth in early Israelite religion, then perhaps the closest one may come to such a teaching would be within the cult precinct of the goddess or the grove. There is strong evidence that in first temple Judaism fertility was venerated, not under the auspices of Yahweh, but with his consort Asherah, the goddess of rebirth. By the time of the Babylonian exile she had been exiled from the religion and dropped from all the texts. Egyptian Jews, however, maintained a temple to the Queen of Heaven, and early Christian Jews, according to Margaret Barker, may have imported this tradition into the new faith, flowering in the cult of the Virgin Mary.

Asherah, West Semitic goddess, wife of El, also identified as wife of Baal, and in southern Palestine, also the wife of Yahweh. There is strong evidence for a female deity venerated in first temple Judaism.

Asherah, West Semitic goddess, wife of El, also identified as wife of Baal, and in southern Palestine, also the wife of Yahweh. There is strong evidence for a female deity venerated in first temple Judaism.

Whatever the complexities of the divine feminine among the Old Testament Jews, the imagery does show up among the New Testament Christians. Remarkably, at the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus is only attended by females. It is only Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (Matthew 27.56) who, after his crucifixion, anoint him on the day of his resurrection (Mark 16.1) and are thus the first to see him rise from the sepulcher, which also happens to be in a garden (John 19.41).

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, moreover, there is a peculiar band of women who always stand witness of the crucifixion, while in the Gospel of John this band of female attendants is replaced by three Marys: Mary Magdalene; Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and her sister, also named Mary (John 19.25); a unique picture as the Mother Goddess is not only represented by two sisters but also by three women who represent youth, motherhood, and old age. At Eleusis, the Mother Goddess was represented by Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate (Freke and Gandy 58). Dionysus was also represented by three female attendants; when a new sanctuary of Dionysus was founded “three priestesses called maenads would go there to establish the cult. Each one of them would assemble one of the three women choirs that helped celebrate the Mysteries” (Freke and Gandy 58).

It is a supreme curiosity that at the crucifixion of the Savior none of the twelve apostles are present, and the whole affair is overseen by a retinue of female attendants. There is one obscure reference in John 19.26 where the mother of Jesus is at the cross, attended by a “disciple, standing by, whom [Jesus] loved.” Christian tradition believes this “beloved disciple” to be John the apostle, but this conclusion is circumstantial. This unidentified disciple remains unspecified, and belongs in the background with the soldiers and priests. It is only Mary and the women who attend to the crucified Jesus. Even so, at the resurrection none of the apostles are present, and the first to witness the true day of Easter was a woman or group of women to whom the knowledge of life after death was first given.

In the Gospels, it is only Women who aid and witness the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In early Catholic iconography, they are often portrayed as co-participants in the drama of rebirth.

In the Gospels, it is only Women who are in the foreground and who aid and witness the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In early Catholic iconography, they are often portrayed as co-participants in the drama of rebirth.

The Gospels are a far cry away from modern Protestantism, who would crowd these scenes with popes, priests, apostles, and kings. Protestantism lost something essential when it exiled Mary from all of its iconography and symbolism. This male dominated ethos was never part of the original revelation that is Christ, and in the Gospels we are poignantly reminded that it is the Mother who stands as the central image around the dying and resurrecting Jesus.

However these roles, images, and models have changed over the centuries, the essential principle of rebirth lies within the womb. The closest thing to deity on earth is motherhood. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; the God that Christians worship. Perhaps on this day Christians should also remember the divine hand of womanhood, for in this mortal realm, this is the closest thing we have to the celebration of life.





Earth, Sun, and Soul: The Hidden Cosmology that Underwrote the Scientific Revolution

In almost all textbooks we are told that Nicolas Copernicus introduced to the world the idea of a heliocentric or sun-centered universe. We are also told in these texts that Copernicus arrived at his thesis through careful observations of the sky, and was one of the great thinkers who introduced to the world the scientific method of deriving theory from observation. Copernicus was an intellectual giant in his time, but many of our modern assumptions about him are projections from modern narrative.

Nicolas Copernicus (1473 - 1543 CE) theorized a heliocentric or sun-centered universe.

Nicolas Copernicus (1473 – 1543 CE) theorized a heliocentric or sun-centered universe.

Copernicus loved cosmology and astronomy, and had mastered basic cosmological theory early in life at the University of Krakow. He had learned all about the geocentric cosmos of Aristotle and Ptolemy. He also learned that there were problems with it. There were many slight errors throughout Ptolemy’s tables when compared to actual observations. In Krakow Copernicus met Albert Brudzewski, a professor of astronomy who was deeply skeptical of the geocentric system. Copernicus followed the teachings of Brudzewski and started a life long pursuit of astronomical studies.

Despite his passion, Copernicus graduated in law and medicine, and lived a professional life of administrator and physician for his uncle at the Prince-Bishopric of Warmia’s castle at Heilsberg. During his career, he always kept up his cosmological studies. He met the astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara who was also testing Ptolemies theories. Copernicus became the assistant to Novara de Ferrara, and together they performed what may have been Copnericus’s first actual astronomical observation to test certain aspects of the Ptolmeic model. In March of 1497, at the age of 24, Copernicus observed the occultation of the star Aldebaran by the Moon, and helped show that the distance of the Moon from the Earth is the same whether the Moon was full or in phase. According to the Ptolemaic model, the epicycles of the Moon would have produced variations in distance.

In 1500 Copernicus also observed a lunar eclipse caused by the shadow of the Earth over the Moon when the Earth lay between the Sun and Moon. The occultation of Aldebaran and the lunar eclipse are the two observations we know he made before he started posing his heliocentric theory. It is clear that these observations in and of themselves were insufficient to prove such a system, or even hypothesize such a system. It should also be clear that there was a community of astronomers who were pushing the Ptolemaic model from every direction, and the work of Brudzewski and Novara de Ferrara must have been highly influential for Copernicus himself.

What is less known is the fact that during his education, Copernicus was calculating his hypothesis of the sun-centered sky primarily from texts and not scientific observations—these would come later. Copernicus collected manuscripts containing the works of Pythagoras, Aristarchos, Cleomedes, Cicero, Pliny, Plutarch, Plato, Philolaus, and Heraclides. He scoured libraries and book collections as he traveled throughout Europe performing his clerical and administrative duties as canon.

Sometime in the first decade of the 1500’s he had a good grasp of his heliocentric theory, but as yet no real idea how to prove it. He published his masterwork, De Revolutionibus in 1543, the year of his death.  Why did it take him so long to publish his work? Copernicus spent over 30 years trying to pin down the mathematical and geometric proofs for his heliocentric model, but never succeeded. In fact, despite brilliant research and thinking, the heliocentric model of Copernicus was a rewritten form of Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmos, with cycles and epicycles of all the planets. Copernicus even added to the number of epicycles in his model, making his new system a little more cumbersome than the old. Copernicus was a perfectionist, and he spent many years working on his tables and observations to make sure what he observed fit his theory. In the end, he could not get the math to fit the model, and he knew it.

The Heliocentric Model put the Sun in the center of the Universe. This novel cosmology would change how everyone thought of God, Self, and the Universe.

The Heliocentric Model put the Sun in the center of the Universe. This novel cosmology would change how everyone thought of God, Self, and the Universe.

This is not a criticism. The genius of Copernicus was tenacity and will. When scientific cosmology is heavily influenced by an empowered religious culture, to change a scientific hypothesis may require more than scientific acumen, but also a great deal of moral courage. He broke out from standard convention and dared to think differently than the accepted norm. This alone should have put him in the history books. But it is clear that his primer for his heliocentric theory was not his astronomical observations, but his preformulated theory. Where did he get that? As already noted, he got it from the influence of his contemporaries, but especially from the writings of ancient texts. In fact, Copernicus admits as much in his own words:

I therefore went to the trouble of reading anew the books of all philosophers on which I could lay hands to find out whether someone did not hold the opinion that there existed other motions of the heavenly bodies than assumed by those who taught the mathematical sciences in the schools. And thus I found first in Cicero that  Hiketas had held the belief that the earth moves. Afterwards I found Plutarch [it is actually psuedo-Plutarch] that others have also held this opinion. But others hold that the earth moves; thus Philolaus the Pythagoriean held that it revolves round the Fire in an oblique circle like the sun and moon. Herakleides of Pontus and Ekphantus the Pythagorean also suppose the earth to move, though not in a progressive motion, but after the manner of a wheel, turning upon an axle about its own center from west to east. (Koestler 207)

Copernicus was convinced that the ancients had known secrets that had not been passed down. This was actually common belief throughout Europe from the days of the Renaissance. One of the ancient thinkers he cites is Heraclides of Pontus, who was a student of Plato. What is known for certain is that Heraclides asserted that the earth rotates on its own axis, just as Copernicus had read. Heraclides also believed that the planets of Mercury and Venus rotated around the sun on epicycles, anticipating the system of Tycho Brahe some two thousand years later (Gottschalk 81-2). Furthermore, several late writers attribute a heliocentric theory of the heavens to Heraclides, but no known fragment or early source explicitly states the case; we must assume that either later theories and ideas were placed upon Heraclides’ science or that there was another tradition that has been lost from our sources.

More compellingly, the Pythagorean Philolaus is cited by Copernicus as one of the early Greek philosophers who believed in a heliocentric system; in fact, the Copernican system was originally called Philolaica after this Greek philosopher (Kahn 26). The problem with the cosmological system of Philolaus is that he makes the Earth orbit not the sun, but a central Fire; all the planets including the sun revolve around this central Fire. In other words, there is a second sun around which the heavenly spheres rotate and from which our own sun receives its light. Aristotle in his On the Heavens articulates this strange cosmology:

As to [the earth’s] position there is some difference of opinion. Most people—all, in fact, who regard the whole heaven as finite—says it lies at the center. But the Italian philosophers known as the Pythagoreans take the contrary view. At the center, they say, is fire, and the earth is one of the stars, creating night and day by its circular motion about the center. [. . .] The Pythagoreans [. . .] hold that the most important part of the world, which is the center, should be most strictly guarded, and name it, or rather the fire which occupies that place, the “Guard-house of Zeus” (qtd. in Temple, Crystal 271)

The System of Philolaus has all the planets AND the Sun moving around a Central Fire; the true source of light for the cosmos.

The System of Philolaus has all the planets AND the Sun moving around a Central Fire; the true source of light for the cosmos.

Many scholars have wrestled over this idea attributed to Philolaus. It is clear that these early Greek thinkers were using mathematics and understood the Earth to be moving in a circular orbit (unlike Aristotle and Ptolemy). Yet disappointingly, the system described by Philolaus does not seem to correspond to any kind of real scientific observation, leaving most commentators on this teaching to acquiesce, “despite the presence of some genuine technical knowledge [. . .] the system of Philolaus taken as a whole seems less like scientific astronomy than like symbolical speculation” (Kahn 26).

This disappointment derives from strictly modern cosmological thinking. This central fire of Philolaus belonged to a very old cosmovision that predated the Greeks. This Central Fire or second sun is the heaven above the heavens and the source of all material manifestation. It is the apeiron; the realm above the fixed stars, the heavenly abode beyond Plato’s cave, the super celestial region of Orphic cosmology. It is called the Guardhouse of Zeus, and this designation was also known by other names: “the Hearth of the Universe, [. . .] the Tower or Watch-tower of Zeus, the Throne of Zeus, the House of Zeus, the Mother of the Gods, the Altar, Bond and Measure of Nature” (Heath 164). And further, “In this central fire is located the governing principle, the force which directs the movement and activity of the universe” (Heath 164). Pindar assigns to this archetypal region of the cosmos the home of immortals and the blessed dead: “But, whosoever, while dwelling in either world, have thrice been courageous in keeping their souls pure from all deeds of wrong, pass by the highway of Zeus unto the tower of Cronos, where the ocean-breezes blow around the Islands of the Blest” (Sandys 25).

Ancient funerary stele showing the deceased holding a drinking cup. Two doves with laurels are overhead. The doves symbolized the soul, and with the sprigs were an image of rebirth. In the Greco-Roman mysteries those who had been initiated ascended to the Islands of the Blessed.

Ancient funerary stele showing the deceased holding a drinking cup. Two doves with laurels are overhead. The doves symbolized the soul, and with the sprigs were an image of rebirth. In the Greco-Roman mysteries those who had been initiated ascended to the Islands of the Blessed.

We are breaching into yet another religious vision of eternity. The Central Fire was the home of the gods and the Blessed Isles where all the good souls dwelt. It empowered the universe. Its light gave the power to the Sun in the sky, for according to the Pythagoreans, the Sun’s light was only reflected light, receiving its luminescence from the true hearth of the universe. This was neither a geocentric nor heliocentric system, at least in purely spacial terms. It was a mythogenic system with one foot planted in celestial mechanics and the other foot pitched deep into the ontology of the soul. This was the cosmology of the mystery endowments of Greece and Rome, as the Roman Emperor Julian hints:

Some say then, even though all men are not ready to believe it, that the sun travels in the starless heavens far above the region of the fixed stars. And on this theory he will not be stationed midmost among the planets but midway between the three worlds: that is, according to the hypothesis of the mysteries. [. . .] For the priests of the mysteries tell us what they have been taught by the gods or might daemons, whereas the astronomers make plausible hypotheses from the harmony that they observe in the visible spheres. It is proper, no doubt, to approve the astronomers as well, but where any man thinks it better to believe the priests of the mysteries, him I admire and revere, both in jest and earnest. And so much for that, as the saying is. (qtd. In Leisegant 202)

This Sun in the heavens was not midmost the planets (interestingly, even in the geocentric system of Aristotle and Ptolemy the Sun was at the center of all the planets); the Sun of this system was at the center of the three tiered cosmos. It was the true center of life, the source of life, the cause and being of life.

Such grand metaphysics was a result of an ontological cosmos that sought to explain more than spacial logistics, but the essence and origin of all things. This was the cosmology that the geocentrists rejected, describing the universe in purely physical terms. Ironically, this spatial, clockwork universe was adopted by the Christians to underwrite their theological cosmovision. And even more ironically, it was the cosmology that Copernicus would use to counter the geocentric universe. It was a metaphysics that conceived the microcosm every bit as important as the macrocosm, and perhaps could be described as the “Hubble Deep Field of the Soul.”

Behind a pinprick of dark space the Hubble Telescope captured an image of countless galaxies extending to the bounds of known space. The image is called The Hubble Deep Field, and suggests that behind every point in the sky lies an infinite cosmos.

Behind a pinprick of dark space the Hubble Telescope captured an image of countless galaxies extending to the bounds of known space. The image is called The Hubble Deep Field, and suggests that behind every point in the sky lies an infinite cosmos.

All cosmologies are philosophies. Even in our hyper-materialist era of positivists and cosmological nihilism, the Big Bang remains a religious cosmovision because it is a metaphysics predicated on social values of its own. The center of the universe has shifted yet again within its confines; specifically there is no center, for it is a relativistic universe through and through. But perhaps the cosmology of Philolaus is not done yet. For the cosmology of Philolaus is first and foremost archetypal, and it speaks to Man’s central role in the transcendent function of creation. As such, the Central Fire has a correspondence in the spark of life in the soul of all living things. Perhaps science will come around again to this cosmology, in a different dress and with different rhetoric, but with the same ideological perspective?

Copernicus published his magnum opus in 1543, the year of his death. His courageous vision opened the doors to further speculation and experimentation. Men like Kepler and Galileo would pick up this torch and further explore the universe with a new vision of the mind. Significantly, both Kepler and Galileo would err in their speculations as well. Kepler believed that the distance of the planets could be described within the geometric relationships of the platonic solids. Curiously, he placed the entire solar system within the figure of the cube representing the planetary sphere of Saturn. Pythagoras, by the way, identified the Central Fire as a cube.

Kepler also figured the mathematical formulas for the planetary movements, and rewrote centuries of cosmological perspective by showing that the planets did not move in circles but in ellipses. Galileo attempted to prove the heliocentric theory using sea tides. Unlike Kepler, who rightly theorized that the tides were caused by the Moon, Galileo believed they were caused by the Earth’s motion as it orbited the Sun. Another failed attempt. But he also used a telescope, pointing at Jupiter, and discovered that it had several moons of its own. Then he discovered that the Earth’s moon was roughly textured, the planets looked different than stars, and that the Sun had spots. All of these anomalies served to weaken the geocentric cosmos, with its perfects spheres, circles, and cycles.

I write more of this cosmology in my forthcoming book, Mythos and Cosmos, Mind and Meaning in the Oral Age, due to be published in the summer of 2015. 


Cindertree: The Yin and Yang of Cosmic Creation

The Cinderella tale common in most households is one of the most pervasive narratives in human culture and across global geography. Types of this story exist as far back as 2000 BCE in the Sumerian Inanna texts (Anderson 39-41). Classic Greek historians, such as Sappho (600 BCE) and Herodotus (fifth century BCE), recount historical legends with all the elements of the Cinderella tale (Anderson 27-29). In 1893, Marian Roalfe Cox published a 600 page volume recounting 345 different variants of the Cinderella narration across the globe and throughout history. This work provides the foundation for Cinderella categorization and research.

Cinderella by Edward Burne-Jones, 1863, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Cinderella by Edward Burne-Jones, 1863, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The common rendering of the Cinderella tale in popular culture descends from a 1697 French version written by Charles Perrault (Dundes, ed. 14-21). Perrault wrote an anthology of vernacular folktales, and in many instances, as in his version of Cinderella, modernized them by adding elements (the glass slipper is a Perrault invention) and moral themes (his tale makes Cinderella the pinnacle of grace–Cinderella forgives her cruel sisters and marries them off to lords of the court). This version of Cinderella has become mainstream in modern times, and subsequent versions (such as the films Slipper and the Rose, Ever After, Disney’s Cinderella, Maid in Manhattan, and so forth) are based on Perrault’s own adaptations.

Perrault’s version of Cinderella, however, omits a host of images, symbols, and themes found in earlier variants. While the scope of this paper cannot address most of these omissions, it will focus on one central image common in worldwide renditions of the story: the tree. Different versions of the story are here examined, but for the purposes of space the Cinderella-like events which occur in these stories are often left out. Nevertheless, each of these tales share the essential Cinderella elements: a poor yet beautiful girl is inflicted with trials, oft times by a stepmother and cruel sisters, and/or sometimes with a descent into the underworld, and through a divine boon, usually given by a tree or representative of the tree (such as a bird), the girl is transformed into a princess, is given a new identity, and marries a royal figure. This marriage takes place oft times after a further trial, such as the fitting of a garment or shoe. As stated, the fulcrum of these versions spins around the image of a tree.

Image from the film, Into the Woods, 2014

Cinerella by the Tree. Image from the film, Into the Woods, 2014

As far back as the Inanna texts, it is the image of the tree (in this case the huluppu tree or date palm) which takes the place of the fairy queen or godmother, dispensing gifts and jewels to the distraught princess-to-be. Through the help of this tree, Inanna is able to ascend into the world of light and marry Dumuzi, the prince, but only after a series of Cinderella-like trials. Another and later version by Sappho recounts the tale of Doricha, which is a near copy to Herodotus’ Rhodopis, whose essential elements are summarized in Graham Anderson’s Fairytale in the Ancient World as follows:

A girl called Rhodopis was a slave in the household of Iadmon son of Hephaestopolis (‘Firegodville’) in Samos. She was taken to Egypt by Xantheus (‘Goldman’) where she was given her freedom by Charaxus (‘Seabream’/’Vinepole’) of Mytilene. There she worked as a courtesan and while she was bathing in Nacratis an eagle carried her shoe to the Pharaoh; after finding it was hers by testing it on all the women in the country, he married her. As a thank-offering she gifted a collection of iron ox-roasting spits to Delphi. (28)

In this ancient version, it is a Vinepole which gives gifts and boons to Rhodopis, just as the huluppu tree did for Inanna. Also an eagle delivers the identifying item to Pharaoh. Curiously, the Vinepole is also associated with the sea. This account is similar to the version given by the first Greek prose writer, Pherecydes of Syrus (sixth century BCE) who writes of a wedding between Zas (Zeus) and Chthonie (underground-girl). Zas gives Chthonie a robe associated with a winged-oak tree, and beautifully embroidered with images of earth and ocean, which the dirty and ragged Chthonie puts on, and after her marriage, transforms into Ge or Mother Earth (Anderson 38).

Moreover, in the earliest known European variant of the Cinderella tale, written down by Giambattista Basile and entitled Cat Cinderella, the protagonist is given a magic date from a date tree which miraculously grows delivering to her gifts, including new and beautiful robes glittering like the sea. Furthermore, the tree gives her a new name: she is no longer known as Cat Cinderella, but as Zezola. With this new identity and her heavenly robes, she enamors the king, who seeks to marry her, but must first match her with her lost slipper (Dundes, ed. 3-13).

Still further, the earliest known Western European tale (twelfth/thirteenth century CE) is titled Le Fresne (Ash-tree girl). In this version an infant girl is left with a ring and brocade (as tokens) near an ash tree (her protector). She is raised in a nunnery and becomes a beautiful young girl. A traveling prince meets and falls in love with her, but he must marry a royal. On his marriage night (to another woman) Fresne enters his room as a chambermaid and leaves her brocade on the bed. The mother of the Prince recognizes the brocade as belonging to royalty, and Fresne’s true identity is revealed and she marries the prince.

One interesting connection with this variant of the story is the name of the girl as ash-tree. Cinderella’s name comes from the root cinder, meaning ash, and has most often been associated with the ash of the hearth. However, as Anderson notes of Fresne, “… this is not the ash of the fireplace, but the ash tree; the two are, however, liable to confusion throughout Germanically-related languages and in that context a confusion may have arisen” (Anderson 42). Thus, the “cinder” in Cinderella is not only linked to the hearth, but may be principally lined to a particular tree.

Finally, in Harold Bayley’s Lost Language of Symbolism, Vol. I, Bayley recounts variants of the Cinderella story where Cinderella herself is a tree. In some of the these stories she is named “Maria Wood,” “Maria Wainscot,” and “Princess Woodencloak.” Bayley writes “According to these variants, a wooden sheath is fitted around Cinderella’s body, or an oak-tree log is hollowed out so as to form a petticoat, and Cinderella gets in and out of her wooden sheathing at will” (229).

In all of these versions, from the Sumerian, to the Greek, to the earliest European episodes, the girl who plays Cinderella is directly related to a tree. As stated, Anderson even suggests that the name Cinderella derives from the ash tree itself. In any case, this tree acts either as her protector, her fairy godmother, and/or her boon and giver of gifts, and in every case is associated with giving the Cinderella character a new identity. This new identity comes via a new glittering wardrobe associated with oceans, heavens, and even the tree itself. In many of these stories glorious, bejeweled shoes, or slippers are also given, and provide the key for the marrying king or prince. Furthermore, as part of her new identity, sometimes the tree literally gives the Cinderella character a new name (as in the case of Zezola).

There are as many interpretations of the Cinderella tale as there are versions of it. These interpretations tend to congregate around psychological analysis. Thus, Bruno Bettelheim, in his Uses of Enchantment, gives a Freudian interpretation of the story, naming Cinderella and her two step-sisters a type of competition for the parents’ attention and the conflict arising between them as the conflict between child and parent (238). The hearth (from which he derives Cinderella’s name) is associated with the mother, and to live in it is to hold onto and return to the mother persona (248). Further, Bettelheim interprets the shoe or slipper as the vagina, and that Cinderella’s proper footing into it at the king’s request an act of growing into puberty (265).

In another psychological attempt at interpretation, Marie von Franz uses a Jungian approach, suggesting that the death of Cinderella’s mother and the re-emergence of a helping animal or figure (such as the tree) is the loss of the mother archetype re-emerging in a different form. “Therefore the mother’s death is the beginning of the process of individuation,” von Franz writes, “…the daughter feels that she wants to be a positive feminine being, but in her own form, which entails going through all the difficulties of finding that” (Dundes, ed. 207). With this understanding the tree becomes the emerging archetype which leads to individuation.

Yet these specific interpretations miss the very long and ancient traditions of the tree, which have always been used as an emblem of the cosmos itself. In ancient mythology the tree was in fact called the “Cosmic Tree,” “World Tree,” or the “Tree of Life.” Eliade traces the ancient and mythic image of the Cosmic Tree to every continent on the globe. He writes:

The most widely distributed variant of the symbolism of the Center is the Cosmic Tree, situated in the middle of the Universe, and upholding the three worlds as upon one axis…. It may be said, in general, that the majority of the sacred and ritual trees that we meet within the history of religions are only replicas, imperfect copies of this exemplary archetype, the Cosmic Tree. Thus, all these sacred trees are thought of as situated in the Center of the World. (Eliade, Images 44)

According to Eliade the Center is the mythological space that is the sacred point of orientation for a society–its axis-mundi. Thus, as von Franz cites, trees are planted at the center of all old German, Austrian, and Swiss villages (von Franz 13). The sacred center is the point in which a “break-through from plane to plane [heaven and earth] has become possible and repeatable” (Eliade, Sacred 30). The Tree also represented the point of creation, the place where all energies meet to transform thought into form. In this light, the Cosmic Tree was also compared to the “Divine Egg, Hidden Seed, or Root of Roots”, the “Pillar or Pole” and the “Cosmic Mountain or primeval mound” (Cook 9).

Norse World Tree surrounded by waters.

Norse World Tree surrounded by waters.

The tree in all the variants of the Cinderella tale listed is the cosmos, whose gifts of jewels and other boons (such as the jeweled slipper) is akin to clothing the fairytale princess with the robust grandeur, fertility, and majesty of a paradisaical Eden. And Cinderella is in fact an image of the renewed earth arising from the underworld of winter, of an ice age, of desolation. Her shoes are a clear key to this understanding, for the Earth has always been the footstool of the gods: “Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool…” (Isaiah 66:1). No clearer connections could be made than that of the Greek version where Zas (Zeus) clothes Chthonie with the new robes of a glittering sea and a winged tree and gives her a new name, Ge, or Mother Earth.

These are no idle comparisons. In Bayley’s analysis he gathers numerous descriptions of the new garments given to the Cinderella character in a wide variety of tales. These new robes are described as “sea-coloured”, “dark blue covered with golden embroidery,” “like the waves of the sea,” “like the sea with fishes swimming in it,” and the “colour of sea covered with golden fishes” (212). Furthermore, her shoes are also often described as “blue glass” like the sea, or as brilliant as the “Sun,” or sometimes pearl-embroidered (226).

In all these descriptions the image of the cosmic waters is apparent, and as already stated the cosmos was represented by the tree. But in ancient mythology the Cosmic Tree never stood alone, but was always associated with deep waters. The World Tree of the Egyptians, Norse, Greeks, Cuna Indians, and numerous Native American and African tribes was always surrounded or planted near a river, spring, or ocean whose waters were linked to the tree. In fact, this mythological cosmology was built into ancient temple structures all over the world. Lundquist writes that ancient temples are “often associated with the waters of life that flow forth from a spring within the building itself… or as having been built upon such a spring” (Parry, ed. 98). This is so because the temple is most often associated with either the primordial hillock or the Cosmic Tree, both of which rise out of the waters at the primal cosmogonic moment. According to Varner this practice dates as far back as the megalithic age. Varner notes that a well or water source is found many times in stone circles and that the standing stones of circles are themselves symbolic representations of trees (Varner 14).

Wherever we look in myth the Cosmic Tree and the waters are wedded. Thus, when the Cinderella figure is made to put on robes like the sea, or slippers bejeweled with pearls, immediately a cosmic connection between heaven and earth is made. Indeed, numerous cosmogonies of the ancient world cite that whenever a new earth is created it rises from the waters. This is the imagery in Genesis, not only at the creation, but after the deluge, where the waters above and below co-mingle and Noah must build an ark from trees to survive the deep. Curiously, Noah sends forth a bird who discovers the first dry land to appear and brings back, clutched in its beak, a twig from an olive tree. Here too, the tree gives the gift of life, and here too the tree is connected with the cosmogonic waters.

Furthermore, in ancient cosmologies, the earth was a place of polarities and oppositions. Every seed must grow from decay and darkness just as every fish, in some manner, must swim upstream. Likewise, the earth itself repeatedly descends into the underworld of winter and rises again, re-robed and re-named, in spring. These cycles in nature are not just dependent upon each other, rather, they are wholly interdependent with each other. In ancient Hindu, the word for this relationship is yajma, which denotes the cosmic sacrifice which creates a new cosmos: even the sun, which brings all life and light to the world, does so only by burning off its corona, or shedding forth its rays in the act of yajma. For the Chinese, this understanding is revealed in the yin and yang symbol: life and death and light and darkness are apart of one great whole.

This is important to note because the life cycle of all living things on earth is itself revealed in the name “Cinderella.” As previously noted, cinder means ash, and seems to provide a double-entendre of both the ash tree and the ash produced by the burning of a tree. The “ella” of this name, according to Bayley, comes from the Greek Ele, which means “shiner or giver of light” (192). Bayley continues, “Ele is the root of Eleleus, one of the surnames of Apollo and Dionysus. It is also found in Eleuther the son of Apollo, in Helios the Sun, and in Selene the Moon” (192). The Finnish Cinderella is named Clara, meaning “to shine” or “brilliant to the sight.” The Jewish name is Cabha, meaning “aurora” (192). And ancient Hellespont takes its name from Helle, “to shine forth.” In Greek myth Helle was a maiden who fled her cruel mother-in-law and fell into the sea and drowned (192).

The name “Cinderella” conveys the double meaning of ash and tree, but also a further double meaning of the light that is produced by the ash and the tree. The light produced by the tree is seen in her glorious robes of the sea. The light produced by the ash is another matter, and provides a subtle complexity to this character. One cannot escape the double wardrobe of Cinderella. Before she is given her new glittering robes she is usually found in dirt and rags. Bayley again cites numerous instances where her clothing as a lowly housemaid reflects the “cinder” of her name. She is often robed in mouse skins, ass skins, or cat skins (225).

It is curious indeed that the mice in numerous Cinderella tales appear repeatedly. Sometimes the mouse provides Cinderella’s clothing; oft times the mouse is an animal helper, or transforms to pull a golden coach. Strangely, the mouse is associated with ancient gods of light. For example, the mouse was sacred to the sun god Apollo: white mice were usually kept in his temples and Smintheus, the Mouse, was one of Apollo’s appellations (Bayley 224). Furthermore, the mouse was sacred to Horus, the Egyptian god of light, and Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, is often seen with his foot upon a mouse (Bayley 225). Just so, Christ’s triumphal ride into Jerusalem is upon an ass, mindful of another form of Cinderella garment, just as her cat skins hale back to ancient Egypt where the lowly hearth cat was always associated with light (Bayley 225).

These relationships have never been fully explained. Why are the lowliest creatures often associated with the greatest beings of light? Perhaps a bridge fording this dichotomy is provided in the Cinderella tale by the image of the bird. In Inanna, Rhodopis, Cat Cinderella, and a host of other versions, it is the bird which brings gifts from the tree to the Cinderella character. In The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, birds are explained as the symbols of the soul and are most often found perching in the branches of the World Tree (87-90). Additionally, they are the prime connectors between Heaven and Earth, causing the transformation and creation of cosmos by brooding upon the waters (such as in the Genesis accounts of the Creation and Flood). In each of the Cinderella tales listed, a bird comes to Cinderella’s aid only when she is in the pit of the underworld, or in the form of the housemaid, wearing the mouse skins of the pauper girl. Hence, the birds which bring Cinderella her boons, and sometimes her glittering sea robes, are the universal messengers of cosmos who are the transforming agents of the ash: transmuting hearth to tree, dark depths to gleaming sea. Yet what activates the birds communication between heaven and earth is the lowly state: the mouse skins, ass skins, and cat skins are the footings of the noble robes and the new name. In cosmogonic myth, they are the “foundation stone” upon which creation is hung. Seen in this sense the birds are the universal energy, the world soul, which engender growth from decay.

Aschenputtel, a Germanic Cinderella, whose fairy godmother is a tree, and birds are her messengers.

Aschenputtel, a Germanic Cinderella, whose fairy godmother is a tree, and birds are her messengers.

Of course, one cannot ignore the obvious fact that the great beings of light in ancient mythology are also great beings of virtue (Apollo, Horus, Ganesha, and Yahweh being prime examples). Their associations with lowly animals–mouse and ass skins–provide evidence for the source of their virtue. They are the humble, gracious, lords of light, shining forth because they have themselves descended into the depths. Light cannot shine without darkness, and gods of light shine because they comprehend the lowest states of being. Cinderella is just such a character, and in this role as neophyte, she transforms from lowly yet humble soul into the royal bride of Heaven by which she shines forth in gleaming robes. In fact, these robes can be worn by none else: truly it is only the meek which shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

Cinderella is an ancient and ubiquitous tale. It’s associations in classical myth are overabundant with cosmological motifs. The primal image suggesting a cosmological interpretation is the Cosmic Tree which in numerous versions provides the boons to the Cinderella character. Associated with this tree are deep waters, birds, and lowly animals, all part of the cosmogonic process for both the Earth and for the individual soul; Cinderella is a representation of both. As Chthonie she is literally Earth, and in so many variations the image of Earth reborn and enfolded in gleaming sea robes under the branches of the World Tree. As individual soul, she is the being of light who descends below all things so she can ascend above all things. She is the caretaker of the ash, which is another way of saying she is the tender of the flame. Ultimately, it is the flame of cosmos, above and below, which accounts for her destiny as courtesan of the Sun and bride of the Bridegroom. Truly she is both ash and tree.

Works Cited

Anderson, Graham. Fairytale in the Ancient World. London, UK: Routledge, 2000.

Bayley, Harold. Lost Language of Symbolism: An Inquiry into the Origin of Certain Letters, Words, Names, Fairytales, Folklore, and Mythologies, Vols. 1 and 2. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company, 1912.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. By John Buchanan-Brown. London: Penguin Group, 1996.

Cook, Roger. The Tree of Life: Images for the Cosmos. London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd. 1979.

Dundes, Alan, ed. Cinderella: A Casebook. Madison, Wisconsin: UP Wisconsin, 1988.

Eliade, Mircea. Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1991.

–. The Sacred and the Profane, the Nature of Religion: the Significance of Religious Myth, Symbolism, and Ritual within Life and Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1957.

Parry, Donald, ed. Temples of the Ancient World. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1994.

Varner, Gary R. Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Meaning, and Mythology of Holy Wells & Waters. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2002.

Von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996.