Heart, Fire, and Sky: Creation and Renewal within the Cosmic Soul

The New Fire Ritual of the Mexica was a re-enactment of their creation myth. According to this myth the previous world age had ended in a cataclysmic flood: “there was water for 52 years and then the sky collapsed” (Hancock 16). In the midst of this desolation the Mexica gods gathered to reignite the fires of life and begin a new age. Two gods, Tecciztecal and Nanahuatzin stood before the sacred fire, Tecciztecal retreated before the scouring heat of the flames, but Nanahuatzin “made an effort and closed his eyes, and rushed forward and cast himself into the fire” (Hancock, qtd. 16-17). Nanahuatzin was consumed but also transformed through self-sacrifice into the Fifth Sun, which restored light and harmony to the world below.

According to the Mexica cosmovision, every 52 years human sacrifices were made in similar fashion to re-ignite the cosmic fire and stave off world cataclysm. The sacrificial victims were often 52 years old (Read 125). The time leading up to the 52 year mark was filled with insecurity and fear (Read 125). In preparation for the New Fire ritual, “all fires were extinguished, all wood and stone statues of gods kept in people’s homes cast into the water, and all cooking utensils and fire implements thrown away. Everything was swept clean and all rubbish disposed of” (Read 125). All things of the previous order were discarded. Darkness descended upon Mexica civilization in cosmic re-enactment of the end of the previous age: “Everywhere people perched on rooftops in the darkened valley; no one was touching the ground. All watched for the fire to be sparked above on an isolated mountaintop called Uixachtlan” (Read 125).

This mountain was known as the Hill of the Star (Jenkins 82). The star in question is actually a star cluster known as the Pleiades. The priests performing the ritual did so only when the Pleiades reached its zenith at midnight. Were the Pleiades to reach the zenith before or after midnight all believed the world would end (Jenkins 83). At the moment of the Pleiades zenith a sacrificial victim was laid upon an altar on the Hill of the Star and his heart was cut out (see figure 1). In his gaping chest a new fire was built that consumed his flesh. The new fire was started by a fire drill which image is the Mexica representation for the ceremony itself. The victim’s heart was fed back into the flames and once his entire body was consumed a faggot from this fire was taken and distributed throughout “all the regions of Mexica dominion” to rekindle the fire of civilization and to birth a new age (Read 126). The ritual ended with feasting and celebrating, and more human sacrifices, as the communal fires were rekindled from the sacrificial heart bathed in the starlight of the Pleiades.

Aztec Sacrifice

Fig. 1 Aztec Heart Sacrifice

The New Fire ritual is complex and subject to diverse interpretations; according to Read, no theory is sufficient to explain adequately the phenomenon (Read 128). Read herself explains the ritual in terms of a cosmic meal: “Death necessarily is accentuated in an eating environment such as the Mexica’s, because for one thing to eat, another must die” (Read 136). As the Mexica must eat from the resources of nature so also nature required sustenance from the Mexica, allowing a “dynamic exchange to occur in what is an ecological balancing act” (Read 136). In this view, the idea of human sacrifice is an ecological exchange: the cosmos feeds the community and therefore the community must feed the cosmos.

Read’s thesis focuses on the biological cycle of eating a meal: harvesting, eating, excrement. Read compares this cycle with the human sacrifice of the Mexica where the victim is harvested, eaten (by the cosmos) and whose remains are consumed leaving the ash of sustenance. It is an intriguing idea, but it clearly de-emphasizes the essential elements of the ritual: the heart, the new fire, and the Pleiades. All three of these features correspond not only to a Mexica cosmovision about creation and renewal, but to an entire, world-wide body of myth and ritual which also share these three key features. While space does not allow for an in-depth examination of these world-wide “coincidences”, a brief synopsis of some of them will show that the heart, the fire, and astral alignment, in this case with the Pleiades, are all synonymous images reinforcing an idea basic to ancient ritual–not an ecological exchange or biological meal–but a grand cosmology dealing with properties that can only be termed “soul.”

The whole complexity of the New Fire ritual can be symbolized by one salient image: the heart. In the ancient view, the heart was the nexus of all physiological processes, and it appears that ancient cultures understood it’s function of circulating and oxygenating the blood (Young 4-6). The heart creates life, not from ex-nihilo, out of nothing, but from a pumping action that causes the blood to flow throughout the four corners of the body. Blood whose nutriment has been used is renewed with the flame of life by cyclically reentering the chambers of the heart. The heart therefore, was the sacred center which both created and renewed the life of man.

The heart as symbol, however, was not a metaphor for tissue and blood. The heart was a referent for the processes and relationships which existed above (macrocosm) and below (microcosm). Furthermore, these vast realms of above and below were not divided, but as shall be seen, intrinsically connected. The New Fire ritual must be understood in these terms.

Heart as Macrocosm
The grand scope of the cosmos was often represented by the image of a heart (see figure 2). This is so because the human heart had a celestial correlation–an astral heart that served the exact same purposes. This astral heart was generally thought to be the sun. Like the human heart, the sun pumped a celestial blood (universally symbolized as fire) throughout the four corners of the world. It pumped this life-giving fluid through its four revitalizing chambers or cardinal points (equinoxes and solstices) or by its circulatory ascent to the apex of the grand arch of the sky (zenith). Thus the astral heart also created and renewed life over cycles of time. Indeed, its heartbeat was time: days, years, and world ages.


Fig. 2 In the Kabbalah, the heart was the connection between the macrocosm and microcosm.

Curiously, the Mexica performed their New Fire rite in conjunction with the Pleiades and not the sun, and this is unique amongst so many ritual cosmologies. Perhaps, however, there is another understanding to be had, and as John Jenkins ingeniously observes, by performing the New Fire ritual in November when the Pleiades reached its zenith at midnight, the Mexica could track the true astral alignment they were supposedly reckoning: the sun-Pleiades conjunction which occurred exactly six months after the New Fire ritual (Jenkins 82-84). This conjunction cannot be seen because the light of the sun obscures the entire stellar background, yet it occurs like clockwork nevertheless, and was central to the Mexica zenith-cosmology (Jenkins 83).

Whatever the solar connection, it is clearly seen that the Pleiades zenith and/or its solar conjunction symbolized the heart of the sky continuously pumping the fecundating solar fire into the world, renewing its spin or energy around its center. The New Fire ceremony, therefore, is a rite completely transfixed upon the image of the zenith heart. We cannot ignore the importance that zenith cosmology has in ancient ritual. On the subject Mircea Eliade writes:

Let us dwell for a moment upon this mythological image of the zenith which is at the same time the Summit of the World and the ‘Center’ par excellence, the infinitesimal point through which passes the Cosmic Axis (Axis Mundi)…. A ‘Center’ represents an ideal point which belongs not to profane geometrical space, but to sacred space; a point in which communication with Heaven or Hell may be realized: in other words, a ‘Center’… where the planes intersect, the point at which the sensuous world can be transcended. (Eliade 75)

Many rituals around the world coincided with the New Fire ritual at least in this fact: they were performed on days of equinox, solstice, or zenith, and represented a ritualized renewal of life utilizing the solar fluids (symbolized by fire) which were produced by a pole or fire drill (symbolizing the Center). James Frazer in his Golden Bough records numerous such rituals throughout Europe where cosmic orientation, the extinguishing of lights and fires in the community, re-lighting those lights with a sacred flame, and starting that flame in many cases by a fire drill, or upon a pole or tree around which a wheel was turned letting friction ignite the flames, were performed to renew earth and sky (Frazer 246-293). These ritual elements can be seen across cultures (see figures 3-5).

Fig. 3 Mayan Fire Drill

Fig. 3 Mayan Fire Drill


Fig. 4 Hindu Cosmic Drill

Fig. 4 Hindu Cosmic Drill


Fig. 5 Egyptian Fire Drill

Fig. 5 Egyptian Fire Drill

By comparison, the Mexica fire drill can be nothing but an image of this axis-mundi, the cosmic pole or tree around which the universe flows and beats. It cannot be coincidence that the Mexica priests placed the fire drill in the place where the human heart had been. What better representation of connecting earth and sky by placing a pole between the hearts of each? The literal fire drill the priests used to rekindle the earthly flame was therefore a representation of the “Center”, above and below, around which the cosmic flames were produced.

Heart as Microcosm
Wherever we see zenith-solar cosmology we could say it is heart-cosmology. As Aristotle observed, the heart is the first organ to form in the embryo. It is the “prime mover of life” from which all things flow (Young 15). The heart is a cosmic center. This notion is to be understood literally. If the heavens have a heart, then the heart of man must contain the heavens.

We are dealing here with a highly metaphysical and mythological paradigm. It begins with the notion that man and the universe are intrinsically bound, especially through the heart of each. Paracelsus, writes:

Man is heaven and earth, and lower spheres, and the four elements, and whatever is within them, wherefore he is properly called by the name of microcosmos, for he is the whole world…know then that there is also within man a starry firmament with a mighty course of planets and stars that have exaltations, conjunctions and oppositions. The heart is the sun; and as the sun acts upon the earth and upon itself, so also acts the heart upon the body and upon itself. (Young 12)

This poetic idea is no idle metaphor, but an essential paradigm of ancient thought. The heart of man was the seat of life which produced a fire that revealed the gods and the cosmos within him. The heart of man was analogous to the sun, that orb which brings light, heat, and fecundation to the earth. Without the sun there is no life; therefore no firmament. Likewise, without the heart there is no life, no vital spark, no soul. Thus it is the human heart that brings the cosmos into view. The one does not feed upon the other, they in fact form a symbiotic relationship comparable to the covalent bond between atoms that share electrons. The cosmos is the hydrogen producing firmament, man is the oxygen breathing heart, together they form the waters of life.

Jacob Needleman remarks upon the same idea using different terms:

In this understanding [of the ancient cosmos], the earth is inextricably enmeshed in a network of purposes, a ladder or hierarchy of intentions. To the ancient mind, this is the very meaning of the concept of organization and order. A cosmos–and, of course, the cosmos–is an organism, not in the sense of an unusually complicated industrial machine, but in the sense of a hierarchy of purposeful energies. (Needleman 18)

This is a strange metaphysics to the modern mind, primarily because we view the cosmos differently than ancient man. The modern view sees the universe as interactions between torrential, impersonal powers through vast, profane space. This cosmovision holds no room for man; in this scheme of things he is viewed as a speck of dust with no purpose nor participation in cosmos at all. He is nothing. But this understanding is a recent invention, not accepted by the cultures of antiquity. Ancient man was a prime participant of the cosmos. He was a fulcrum point of “purposeful energies” placing him in the center of creation. Why? Because the anthropomorphic cosmos pumped its celestial fluids throughout all space until it too filled the heart of man. Man knew his encounter with cosmos when he felt a “burning” in the heart.

This concept is elegantly portrayed in a Sufi text called The Wisdom of the Throne, where cosmic paradise was termed the qalb, a word meaning heart, and whose earthly correlation was the heart of the faithful man. The text reads: “The heart of the man of true faith is the Throne of the Merciful,” and “…the heart of the man of true faith is the House of God” (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee 511). Here, the heart of man and the Throne of the Merciful are synonymous terms. It could be written: “The heart of the man of faith is the Heart of the Cosmos.” Again, this is to be taken literally.

An old Muslim tradition about Abraham also illustrates this idea and curiously shares many of the elements of the New Fire myth and ritual. Because Abraham would not submit to the idols of Namrūd he was tied to a pole (the fire drill) and set ablaze. In this story, however, the fire does not consume Abraham. Sarah, the king’s daughter, was curious and went to see if Abraham had burned. Coming to the great pyre she perceived Abraham was alive, sitting in the flames and in the heart of an orchard, which flames sent blossoms to the world below. Wanting to enter into this fiery realm Sarah asked how it could be done? Abraham responded, “Just repeat after me: ‘Whoever has God’s name in his heart and on his tongue will be unhurt.’” Sarah repeated the phrase and entered (Tvedtnes, Hauglid, and Gee 461-462; see figure 6).


Fig. 6 Abraham in the Cosmic Heart

In the Mexica myth, Nanahuatzin is immolated in a cosmic fire, and like Abraham is not slain, but transformed into the macrocosmic heart, the Fifth Sun, sending life (blossoms) to the world below. Nanahuatzin accomplishes this feat because in fact his heart is humble and saintly, unlike Tecciztecal, who is proud and boastful. There is something of Abraham in Nanahuatzin, and vice versa. Just as in the Sufi text, there is something of the faithful man in Abraham and Nanahuatzin. What is their common link? All have access to the heart of the cosmos, and therefore are enabled to bring about renewal of the cosmos, because their own microcosmic hearts are in tune, purified, saintly, burn with the fluids flowing from the heart above.

Anciently, the images of fire and heart through which man is connected with the cosmos keep showing up no matter where we look. Thus, in ancient China the heart’s element was fire, and it controlled the shên, the spirit or “divinely inspired part” that reveals the knowledge of all things (Young 7). In the Upanishad of the Embryo in India the heart is termed an “inner fire” that is the “seat of breath” (Young 9), and the source of life. In Kabbalah tradition, the heart of cosmos is the “vital sparks” which fill all worlds, nations, and creatures (Matt 31, 152). Paracelsus and the old alchemists all represented the heart as the center of the microcosm, source of life and renewal, and portrayed as a burning sun (Hall 151). Additionally, man’s heart was also shown with the universal tree rooted in it, revealing its relation to the great macrocosm above, (see figure 7). In Judeo-Christian literature, the word of god, or the logos, which procured illumination, is revealed as a burning in the heart (Jeremiah 20:9 & Luke 24:32). In Christian tradition, the logos is felt because of the sacrificial act of Christ, who, like Abraham, was tied to a post (again the fire drill), and who, like the Mexica sacrificial victim, had his heart pierced. Christ’s act of atonement thus allowed for his own energies to burn in the hearts of the believers (See figure 8).

Fig. 7 Heart and Microcosmic Tree

Fig. 7 Heart and Microcosmic Tree


Fig. 8 Christian Heart Bathed in the Fire of the Holy Spirit

Fig. 8 Christian Heart Bathed in the Fire of the Holy Spirit

Finally, this imagery and symbolism is also found in ancient Egypt, though in reverse terms. According to the Egyptian paradigm the soul of man, upon mortal death, enters the underworld facing challenges which test its very essence. In fact, no soul could endure the challenges unless, like both the Muslim and Christian traditions, it had been ritually purified in mortality by being initiated, and having God’s word written upon the heart. Without such preparation the soul would be outcast into darkness. This drama is portrayed in the Book of Caverns in a curious likeness to the Mexica New Fire ritual. Here, enemies of the sun whose souls cannot endure the cosmic flame have their hearts torn out and blood spouting from their chests (Schoch 106). The Book of Caverns reads: “O you who have fallen, without soul, into the Place of Terror….O you upside down ones, the bloodstained ones, whose hearts have been torn out, in the Place of Terror” (Lubicz 135). Schwaller de Lubicz interprets this passage as a sacred science wherein “the vital organs of the anthropocosmos” are related to “cosmic influences and human organs” (Lubicz 136). In other words, for the soul of man, represented by the Egyptians as the heart, to enter into Paradise, his heart must already be filled with the cosmic fluids, “be pure of heart”, and thereby enabled, like Abraham, to endure the cosmic flame. If he cannot his heart is torn asunder and cast into the “Place of Terror” where darkness and destruction await. This representation is also shown in the Book of the Dead, where the ib was weighed in the scales of cosmic judgement.

In all these traditions the heart of man is a cosmic entity which is the source of life, a place of burning, a receptor for intelligence, the logos, consciousness, and divinity. In other words, a receptor for what Needleman calls a “hierarchy of energies” in which both man and cosmos participate: each share the same heartbeat in an act of cosmic harmony. Simply put, Christ’s atonement is an exchange of soul, just as is Nanahuatzin, Abraham, or the Mexica sacrificial victim.

Problematically, the English language gives us only one word for heart, though even brief introspection recalls that this word has multiple meanings. One’s heart is an organ, but the word is also used in terms of a state of being or a state of action: “You have no heart!” or the opposite, “You have such a big heart!” In ancient Egypt there were two words for “heart”: haty was a term meaning the physical heart, and ib, was the word for the spiritual, emotional, heart-soul (Young 112). In all the traditions above, the heart of man is seen as his soul, and it is man’s soul that shares in the vital energies pumped out from the cosmic heart; just as it is man’s soul that shares in the cosmic nature itself: immortal, eternal, the flame of life.

The New Fire ritual is a creation of an axis-mundi linking the points of the axis to the heart of man and to the heart of the sky. The heart of man is not just a pumping, fleshy, organ, but a “microcosmos” analogous to the sun radiating microcosmic energies–energies of life. The Pleiades is not just a star cluster, but when bound with the zenith and solar conjunction, is the cosmic heart from which flow macrocosmic energies–these too are energies of the soul. Thus, the Mexica’s sacrificial heart is an ecological exchange of soul enacted on a cosmic stage.

Principally, man’s participation with cosmos was always displayed through a ritual re-enactment of cosmic processes: creation, renewal, and orientation to the sky and ground. In turn, cosmic processes were symbolized by the actions of the beating heart; it sent out life giving energies and returned them so that it might renew its potency through fire. This is exactly what the New Fire ceremony represents: it is a creation of cosmos through the sacrifice of a heart, the renewal of a cosmic age by the re-igniting of flame, and a re-orientation of cosmos under the light of the Pleiades. But ritual is always a two way street. And where the Mexica performed their ritual as an act of cosmic prolongation, they too saw it as an act of microcosmic creation. By re-enacting the acts of the gods, they were preparing themselves to become like the gods and to enter into their realm (Read 147).

So, like Abraham, the Sufi faithful, the Egyptian initiate, the enlightened Christian, or the Chinese shên, the Mexica were circulating soul, incorporating the cosmic flames into their souls and at the same time extending their vital energies (heart and microcosmos) to the realm above. According to this cosmovision, balance was preserved in both realms.

De Lubicz, R. A. Schwaller. Sacred Science: The King of Pharaonic Theocracy. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1988.

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

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. New York: Gramercy Books, 1981.

Grof, Stanislav. Books of the Dead: Manuals for Living and Dying. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

Hall, Manly P. Man: Grand Symbol of the Mysteries, Thoughts in Occult Anatomy. Los Angeles, CA: The Philosophic Research Society, 1972.

Secret Teachings of All Ages: Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic & Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy. Los Angeles, CA: The Philosophic Research Society,

Hancock, Graham and Santha Faiia. Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the Lost Civilization. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.

Jenkins, John Major. Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company Publishing, 1998.

Matt, Daniel C. The Essential Kabbalah. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995.

Needleman, Jacob. A Sense of the Cosmos: Scientific Knowledge and Spiritual Truth. New York: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2003.

Read, Kay. “The Cosmic Meal,” Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1998.

Schoch, Robert M. Voyages of the Pyramid Builders: The True Origins of the Pyramids from Lost Egypt to Ancient America. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003.

Tvedtnes, John A., Brian M. Hauglid, and John Gee, editors. Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham. Provo, UT: BYU, Foundations for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2001

Young, Louisa. Book of the Heart. Westminster, MD: Doubleday, 2003.

Myth and Migration

There are three theories as to how similar myth constructs are found throughout the world. The first is the theory of Diffusion, or the belief that a myth complex originated in one time and place and spread outwards through human contact. As Joseph Campbell explains, “The archaeology and ethnography of the past half-century have made it clear that the ancient civilizations of the Old World–those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete and Greece, India and China–derived from a single base, and that this community of origin suffices to explain the homologous forms of their mythological and ritual structures” (Primitive Mythology, 202). While this has been established for the Old World, similarities between its myth-ritual complexes and those found in the Americas are not explained through diffusion. Most American scholars reject the idea of cross cultural contact between hemispheres before the melting of the last Ice Age. Campbell continues, “With respect, to the New World there is still raging a violent, and even cantankerous scholarly conflict of opinions” (Primitive Mythology 203).

As a counterpoint to the theory of diffusion, some scholars believe in Convergence, as explained again by Campbell in his Atlas of World Mythology, “anthropologists now commonly hypothesize an alternative explanation covered by the mystical term convergence, denoting an independent, apparently accidental development of similarities between separate cultures “(The Sacrifice 18-9). Scholars arguing for convergence suggest that pure environmental factors may explain the creation of similar myth constructs around the world. They note that plants and animals that migrate into a new region take on different and specific characteristics of other plants or animals in the same environmental region. If this can happen to plants and animals, why not to human thinking? These parallels, however, are not homologous. Overlaying biological functions onto metaphysical productions by analogy is not a sufficient methodology for separating similarities in myth-ritual systems between the hemispheres.

A third theory explaining similarities between myths around the world is called Parallelism or Inventionism. Campbell defines this theory as “a term denoting the independent development of similar elements or traits in several cultures from a common element” (The Sacrifice 28). More than accidental coincidence or sole environmental factors, Parallelism between myths is a product of the autonomous creation of images within the psyche.  “Myth, like a dream, is an expression of the human imagination thus grounded in realities of the psyche and, like a dream, reflecting equally the influences and necessitites of a specific social environment, . . . which, in turn, is linked to a landscape” (The Sacrifice 28).

For Campbell, these three theories were not antonymous to each other, but co-existed. All three processes were in play.  While Joseph Campbell promoted the psychological theory of myth, he turned out to be a  die-hard diffusionist. Campbell makes his diffusionist arguments throughout his published works. Perhaps the best place to read his thoughts on the subject come from his Primitive Mythology (pages 202-15); Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Vol. 2, Part 1, The Sacrifice (pages 14-30); and the entire book The Flight of the Wild Gander.

In his Primitive Mythology, for example, Campbell cites Leo Frobenius, who convincingly argued that the planting villages of equatorial America were extensions from a Polynesian cultural zone. Thus, the hunting culture in early America “which had been carried into the continent from north-eastern Siberia, across [the] Bering Strait, and spread downward vertically from Alaska to Cape Horn–must have been struck horizontally by sea voyagers from Polynesia and cut through, as by a wedge” (204-5). And citing Frobenius, “In out study of Oceania it can be shown that a bridge existed, and not a chasm, between America and Asia. It would be a contradiction to all the laws of local culture of Oceania for us to assume that the Polynesians called a halt and turned back at Easter Island. And from Hawaii, furthermore, an often traveled bridge of wind currents leads to the Northwest Coast” (qtd. in Primitive Mythology 205).

Campbell wrote this fifty years ago. The dynamics of the diffusion debate have not changed in that time. European and South American scholars are more open to diffusion processes, while North American scholars remain entrenched against it. All similarities between the Old World and the New are explained away by this latter group through environmental or mental processes. It does not appear that this academic entrenchment will end anytime soon.

As for me, I agree with Campbell. All three processes—Diffusion, Convergence, and Parallelism—are part of the network of complex myth-ritual systems around the world. While the environment and psyche  contribute to similarities in cultural products, the principle of Occam’s Razor often encourages diffusionist explanations. The entrenchment of academia against diffusionism is really just a high wall standing between us and our lack of knowledge of ancient history.


Oedipus: Sophic versus Mantic

In a recent post I explained the connections between cosmology and eschatology. These connections have been severed in modern thinking, but always lurk in the background as a person’s cosmology is more than a scientific and mathematical model of the universe, but is rather the operating frame of a person’s worldview. I briefly compared a believing Christian and atheist’s worldview to make my point.

The comparison between the believing Christian and the secular scientist, while modified, turns out to be the central theme of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. I have already pointed out the inherent contrast between Oedipus the tyrant and the Oedipus of the old sacral order. Yet the real contrast rests between Oedipus the Sophic (from sophoi, meaning wisdom, and specifically knowledge gained from logic, reasoning, and observation–i.e. our skeptical scientist) and Tiresias the Mantic (the Greek mantic meaning prophetic, oracular, revelatory–i.e. our faithful believer). The tension between these two attitudes was fully alive in fifth century Athens.

The  Sophists were  a group of intellectuals that were deconstructing the old religious traditions, not so much in order to find some new, greater truth, but for money. Protagoras concluded that he was wasting his time trying to sound the secrets of the universe in a short lifetime, burned his books in the marketplace, and turned to teaching rhetoric, achieving the immortal fame of being the first man to make a hundred minas at the trade” (Nibley, Ancient 246-247). The first named Sophist appears to be Protagoras who lived in Athens in the early fifth century BCE and who is the very man who coined the phrase “man is the measure of all things.” His works were agnostic and by the end of his life he was exiled from Athens for his impiety.

No matter, the Sophist school was by then thriving and roving scholars for hire were roaming about the countryside selling knowledge of any sort, but especially the skill of rhetoric. Intellectualism was in the air as a cadre of philosophers sought to describe the world based off reason and observation as opposed to religion and myth. This all sounds very modern to us, and in fact the Sophists thought themselves very modern. However, when we read Sophic thought we find ourselves planted in what appears to us as a great deal of metaphysical gibberish, with the universe being created by the four central elements of fire, air, water, earth, and with Mind and Spirit lurking behind the scenes as primal causes. The intellectual and cosmological schemes of the Sophists were highly metaphysical, but rooted in academic and rhetorical training, as opposed to the oracular priesthood.

When Oedipus sends for Tiresias to help in finding the murder of Laius, Oedipus voices a wonderful dialogue which itself is conflicted between sophic and mantic thinking: “O Tiresias, master of all the mysteries of our life,” Oedipus begins, “all you teach and all you dare not tell, signs in the heavens, sings that walk the earth! Blind as you are, you can feel all the more what sickness haunts our city. You, my lord, are the one shield, the one savior we can find” (OK 340-346).

Oedipus concedes that within the mantic mainframe is a power which transcends human awareness. Oedipus is seeking for a revelation. Unfortunately, Oedipus seeks a different sort of knowledge than the kind Tiresias provides. Like so many moderns, Oedipus seeks a shortcut; what he really wants is a quick answer to a very complex mathematical puzzle. He knows that he must collect data, interview suspects and witnesses, compile clues, and using reason and wits alone solve the puzzle. But all this is laborious and time consuming and our tragic hero is very impatient. So, much like Faust, who has solved all riddles using the sophic method and finding it insufficient and laborious, Oedipus tries to cheat on his own methodology by applying to the mantic ways. “Rescue yourself, your city, rescue me–rescue everything infected by the dead. We are in your hands. For a man to help others with all his gifts and native strength: that is the noblest work” (OK 355-358).

How ironic that Oedipus addresses the final frontier of sophic knowledge beyond which he cannot pass and therefore must resentfully rely on the mantic for salvation. “Rescue everything infected by the dead,” he pleads, for death is the greatest riddle, who, for the sophic, even with “all his gifts and native strength,” has absolutely no solution. Oedipus does not see the paradox, but Sophocles does. He makes Tiresias a revelator of a different sort of knowledge.

Strictly speaking, Tiresias is not interested in the complex mathematical puzzles of the sophist, with its hyper-fixation on meaningless knowledge. Our old prophet not only knows that Oedipus murdered Laius, but that this answer belongs to the wrong question. Ten thousand times has he seen the end of the sophic way, he foresees the fate of Oedipus as he foresees the fate of Faust–the fate of the Age of Reason disconnected from the divine spirit and the “mysteries of our life”–plague upon civilization is always the final result. “How terrible–to see the truth when the truth is only pain to him who sees!” is his only response (OK 359-360). The Greek word phronein Fagles translates as “to see,” punning on Oedipus’s future blindness. The word itself however means to know, to understand, to be wise, and thus the LOEB edition translates this phrase as “how dreadful it is to know when the knowledge does not benefit the knower!” (LOEB 355). While another scholar translates it as “Being smart can only be disastrous to a man who doesn’t know where his cleverness is taking him!” (Nibley, Ancient 345).

Here is the great theme of the play; the theme in which the play is transfixed. From beginning to end in Oedipus the King Sophocles uses Oedipus as a theatrical mask representing an intellectual movement that sought to separate cosmology from eschatology in order to finally come to some sort of precise science and reason. “Let’s have done with it!” seems to be the exasperation of the sophist who cannot figure out any of the mysteries which religion was supposed to address and in which the sophist no longer has time for. Let us live our lives with the things we can touch, smell, and hear; but more importantly, spend our money on. In this sense, Oedipus the King is a very modern play.

Judges, Part II: Gideon

Gideon is another antitype of the Israelite religious hero. In another chapter of Jewish history the Midianites threaten to overrun Israel. An angel (living by a tree) seeks out Gideon and promises him victory if he leads his tribe against the foreign host. Gideon declares that he is from the tribe of Manasseh (the least of the tribes) and that he is from the poorest family in the tribe and he is the poorest member of his family (Judges 6.15). In other words, Gideon is the last person anyone would suspect as a tribal chief let alone a military hero.

The Lord shows Gideon a couple of signs and this highly hesitant protagonist relents and leads the Israeli army against the Midianites. But God cautions Gideon, saying that he leads too many men into battle and if they are victorious they will take the credit and not give it to the Lord (7.2). So God tells Gideon to take his army to the waters, and every soldier who gets on his hands and knees to drink will be exiled from the military campaign, while every soldier who kneels and drinks with his cupped hands will accompany Gideon to the battlefield. Through this winnowing, Gideon’s army of 10,000 is reduced to 300 soldiers.

Through stratagem Gideon defeats the Midianites. He arms each of his soldiers with a horn and a pot containing a lamp. His army of 300 men enter and spread throughout the Midianite encampment during the night. At a given signal, each man breaks his pot revealing his lit lamp, and then blows his horn. The sleeping Midianites awake confused and alarmed and mistake each other as the enemy, and thus they slay themselves whilst Gideon’s men retreat. The Midianites are defeated and Gideon, the least of all the warriors, overcomes a massive enemy host without raising a single sword.

There are both religious and literary themes throughout this tale. The interesting thing to me, however, is that it parallels the episode of Samson and his 300 fox-tails in curious ways. Later, another war chief named Samson will battle the Philistines by lighting 300 foxtails on fire and sending them through the ripe fields burning them down. In response, the Philistines gather an army and march against Samson, who uses the jawbone of an ass to slay 1,000 warriors. Defeated, the Philistines retreat, while Samson, thirsty from a hard days work, seeks out water when a hollow within the jawbone opens pouring forth water (Judges 15.19).

Curious images to be sure, but the fact that Gideon procures 300 men at the waters and then sends them out into the fields with lit lamps is to close a coincidence to Samson’s escapade that includes 300 burning foxes in the fields and a miracle at the waters. What are we to make of these parallels?

No explanation is forthcoming. These images may be allusions to some military strategy used in antiquity. They may be allusions employed in the secret myth and cult of the Israelite temple order. They maybe shorthand for cultural or linguistic idioms whose original meanings have been long lost behind the veil of history. In the least, we can see that Old Testament history is not constructed like literate histories, but have contained within them oral historical patterning. Mythic motifs are employed within historical narrative to create an oral history easy to remember. Repeated motifs of the inexplicable 300 helpers in the fields with their fires belong to oral tradition. Perhaps this tradition was already lost when the literate scribes first wrote it down?

Judges, Part I: Deborah

According to traditional accounts, Israel was led by a series of judges after the deaths of Moses and Joshua (approximately 1200 to 1000 BCE). The Hebrew word shofetim translates as “judge” or “magistrate” but in earlier times meant something closer to “chief.” The Biblical judges were a series of tribal chiefs each ruling over their own clan. Each of these chiefs arose to power not through divine right or bloodline, as in the case of kings, nor through priesthood lineage, as in the temple priests from the tribe of Levi. On the contrary, these tribal chiefs came to power based off of their strength, wit, or through divine intervention. They are thus more closely aligned with the Greek tyrants than the Hebrew prophets.

Clear demarcations on political and religious rule in early Judaism are obscured by the narrative of Deobrah found in Judges chapters 4 and 5. According to the text, “Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time. And she dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Beth-el in mount Ephraim: and the children of Israel came up to her for judgement” (4.4-5).

According to our text, the Israelites faced a formidable foe in Hazor where a general named Sisera led a Canaanite host of 900 chariots against Israel. Deborah calls forth Barak to lead the Israelite forces against the Canaanite army. Barak declares he will only go to war if Deborah accompanies him.

We are left with a series of interesting relationships and questions. Is Deborah the tribal chief or is Barak? Deborah is clearly called a prophetess. The fact that she dwelt under the tree of Deborah proves that she was the head of a religious cult or order. Cult sanctuaries were located by trees and in groves, and often the idea of “tree” and “cult image” were synonymous. In Judges 3.7 we read “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgat the Lord their God, and served Baalim and the groves.” The word for groves is asheroth, who is the wife/consort of Baal (and many scholars believe also to be the wife/consort of Yahweh.)

In any case, the fact that Deborah dwells by a tree in a grove shows that she is part of a cult precinct. She is specifically labeled as head of that order. She has so much prestige that Barak, the assumed military chief of the tribe, will not engage the enemy without this woman at his side. We have here a representation of a matriarchal priesthood which is foreign to traditional readings of the patriarchal Jewish tribal and religious hierarchy. From whence did it come and where did it go? No one really knows.

The story finishes in fine fashion, as Deborah and Barak route the Canaanites and Sisera flees for his life. He comes upon a tent and a woman, who promises him safety and nourishment but who instead kills him with a tent peg (or beating stick, depending on how one reads the Hebrew). Here we have the most fierce opposition to Israel since Pharaoh led his armies against Moses. In ancient days, a chariot was like an Abram’s tank. 900 chariots is an invincible force against which Israel has no hope for success. Yet victory is theirs, led by a woman prophetess on the front lines and ratified by the slaying of the enemy general by a woman on the back lines.

The story of Deborah is a brief glimpse at the power of women in Biblical history. For a brief moment two women rose to eminence and glory by their wits and strength. No man had or could accomplish what they had done. In the the case of Deborah, she held actual religious and political authority as a chief in Israel.

Old Testament Posts

When 2014 began I made a goal to read the Biblical Old Testament by the end of the year. It’s been many years since I’ve put this text in front of me for a serious study. Once again I am reminded that “reading” and “studying” are two different things, as I have already had to reset my goal: here it is the end of May and I have just finished Deuteronomy, but only after skipping Leviticus and Numbers. I spent three months in Genesis alone.

As I read the text I cross reference my reading with some valuable scholarly commentaries I have collected over the years. While this might not be for everyone, I will list here some very interesting reads which help explicate Old Testament culture, language, philosophy, and religion:

  1. Man is Not Alone, by Abraham Heschel
  2. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, by John Walton
  3. Lost World of Genesis One, by John Walton
  4. The Bible and the Ancient Near East, by Cyrus Gordon and Gary Rendsburg
  5. Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, Vol. 1 & 2, by Theodore Gaster
  6. Old Testament Parallels, by Victor Mathews
  7. How to Read the Bible, by James Kugel
  8. Occidental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell
  9. The Five Books of Moses, by Robert Alter
  10. A History of the Jews, by Paul Johnson

Of course I am not reading all of these in conjunction with my Old Testament study this year. I have read all of these and I use them as study aids and cross reference material as I read the Old Testament. #1 is a beautifully written philosophy of religion written by an acclaimed Jewish scholar. #2 through #6 are excellent study aids which give context to Hebrew culture and language and their surrounding cultural milieu throughout the Near East. #7 and #8 are excellent overview’s of the Biblical text. #9 is one of the best literary analysis of the Pentateuch I have ever read. #10 is a great overall and general history of the Jews.

There are of course many more books one could read, but the most important is the Old Testament text itself. I grew up on the KJV of the Bible. It is poetic but clunky at times. I read this version, but on verses I want to study I also cross-reference the NIV and the RSV versions. If I am picky, I also look up the Hebrew and Greek forms of the verses from various websites and my Strong’s Concordance.

Being that I have put this as a focus for the year, several of my posts will relate to this study. Next year I have in mind to pick up some wisdom texts such as the Analects of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching, and cross reference those with wisdom texts in other religions.