Orion the Hunter and Heavenly Shepherd

Cosmos & Logos: Volume II, August 2016

Cosmos & Logos: Volume II, August 2016

This is an excerpt from the article The Heavenly Shepherd: Approaches to a Resurrection Story, in the 2016 edition of Cosmos & Logos.

The Greek Orion was known as the great hunter, and in the most popular Greek telling of this myth Orion boasted that he could slay any animal on earth. Ge (the earth-mother) was offended at Orion’s brash boast and sent up a giant scorpion that stung his foot. Orion died from the wound and was immortalized in the stars as a constellation. The scorpion is the constellation Scorpius, and the two constellations oppose each other in the sky so that as Orion sets below the horizon in the west Scorpius rises in the east. While adapted by the Greeks, this story did not originate in Greece. In China, Orion was a great warrior who was in constant conflict with his younger brother represented by the stars of Scorpius. In Egypt, Plutarch informs that when Osiris was buried in his coffer at sea the sun was passing through the Scorpion (On Isis and Osiris 13). The death of Osiris appears to be an allusion to the setting of Orion as the sun rises in Scorpius.

The myths of Orion are astronomical. The Greek Orion is constantly associated with Helios, Delos (the land of Sun), Eos (the Dawn), and Scorpius. Yet these astronomical associations are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In another Greek telling of the myth Orion served as the huntsman of King Oinopion of Chios. Orion raped the king’s daughter and as punishment the king blinded and exiled him. Orion traveled across the sea to the house of Hephaestus who gave him an assistant named Cedalion. This assistant climbed upon the back of Orion and served as his eyes as the pair traveled east towards the house of the sun. It was with the dawn that Orion regained his sight. Critically, Cedalion was one of the two Cabeiri (ancient underworld gods) who administered the secret rites of the Samothracian mysteries (Kabeiroi, theoi.com). These mystery rites promised initiates some form of blessed afterlife.

Orion and Cedalion

Orion is blinded and must find his way to the House of the Sun to regain his sight. Orion has a guide named Cedalion who aids him.

While not all ancient writers agree, one tradition definitely associated the Cabeiri with the Greek Dioskouroi, the guides of the dead represented in the two principal stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. Diodorus Siculus relates in his Library of History that when the Argonauts were sailing to the underworld their ship was caught in a great storm. Orpheus was the only person aboard who had been initiated into the mysteries of the Cabeiri, and so he prayed to these gods to abate the storm. At that moment the stars of Gemini appeared overhead and the storm dissipated saving the ship. For this reason, the Caberi (and the Dioskouroi) were known as the gods of sailors and seamen who had power over the stormy sea (4.48.6). This pre-Christian account shows an anointed figure named Orpheus calming the seas from a boat. As is pointed out below, this anointed figure not only had power over the seas but was a savior figure of rebirth and was also analogized with the constellation Orion.

Oral and semi-literate people use the stars as a memory theater to encode their beliefs. In the days that these tales were written Orion rose in the east with the sun at summer solstice. Orion is not a zodiacal constellation. Gemini is, and the two stars Castor and Pollux were right above the horizon before sunrise and “received” the sun at summer solstice (see Figure 5). In ancient traditions around the Mediterranean, the place in the sky where the sun breached on the days of solstice represented a gate of the dead (Lundwall 310-12). Castor and Pollux become a stellar marker that on the one hand announces the summer sailing season, and on the other hand represents an esoteric theology. These stars become the celestial gate that leads to the netherworld. This motif is worth exploring.

Castor and Pollux the Greek Dioskouroi, savior figures associated with calming seas and guiding the dead.

Castor and Pollux are the Greek Dioskouroi, savior figures associated with calming seas and guiding the dead. They were the two stars that received the sun at summer solstice.

The Dioskouroi are the twins Castor and Pollux. One is mortal and the other immortal. They are the offspring of Zeus and are often associated with mystery initiation. Castor, the mortal, is slain while in a tree perhaps signifying the passage of the soul within the axis-mundi. Pollux weeps at his brothers’ death and promises to share his immortality with him. Thenceforth, Castor and Pollux alternate days in the underworld. These stars sit right above the Milky Way and Orion.

Walter Burkert, in his book Greek Religion, identifies these twins as preeminent saviors (213). In Sparta, the Dioskouroi were an integral part of initiations where an encounter with death was involved (213). Their special symbol was the dokana, “two upright supports connected by two crossbeams” (213). This symbol can be seen in the icon for the constellation Gemini. This symbol probably has reference to “a gate in a rite de passage” (213). Modern classicists look to prehistoric tribal initiations as the source for this rite de passage, but the truth is the ultimate initiation is through the celestial gate. The Dioskouroi were the guides that led to one of these gates. It is no coincidence that Gemini is placed in the sky where the ecliptic meets the Milky Way.

The symbol of Castor and Pollux representing a gate. This gate is the gate of heaven.

The Greek Dokana The symbol of Castor and Pollux representing a gate. This gate is the gate of heaven.

The ecliptic is the path of the planets, and anciently the Milky Way was the blessed path of souls. If one’s soul were to rise in the afterlife to the Milky Way it had to pass through a gate. Scorpio and Gemini/Taurus are the two gates in the sky that link the ecliptic with the Milky Way. They thus become associated with the Twin Mountains in Babylonian astrology and the two dominant motifs in the Orion myth.

The dokana of the Dioskouroi may in fact be the very image of the celestial gate. While the symbol is generally shown complete, at times each twin carried one half of this sign when they were separated (O’Neill 245). This is an exact parallel to the Roman tablet called tessera hospitalits. The tablet was parted in two and rejoined when their possessors were reunited. It is a type of symbolon employed by the Greeks where one can verify the veracity of another by matching the token that has been parted. Indeed, John O’Neill suggests that the Greek dokana may relate etymologically to the word token (245). More interestingly, O’Neil points out that in the Chinese stellar charts, at the location of Taurus and Orion in the Greek scheme, resides two constellations called T’ien-tsieh meaning Heaven-tally. The two star groupings are mirror images of each other and in the shape, ironically, of the divided Greek dokana. Their name is related to the Chinese character tsieh meaning a stamp:

“This character and its signification must come from the ancient practice of stamping a knot of bamboo, and then splitting bamboo and stamp down the middle, in order to give one half to an envoy or traveler, as a token, which verified itself on subsequent comparison with the other half, which had been retained. Thus were passports given at the Chinese frontier barriers.” (247)

It is well known that the Dioskouroi were not only initiates at Eleusis but astral guides: “[they] were seen as guiding lights for those hoping to break out of the mortal sphere into the realm of the gods” ( Burkert 213). This is why one was mortal (Castor) and one was immortal (Pollux). They reveal the twin aspects of every human soul doomed to mortal flesh but destined for a new astral garment of immortality. It is the same theme that keeps popping up with other mystery heroes who generally have one mortal and one immortal parent. This aspect must also explain the dokana which is a symbol of the twin natures of humankind. Indeed, when mystery initiates approached the gate of initiation they had to give a proper exchange of information, provide the proper spells, words, dances, and tokens with the gate keeper and guardian. This ritual action was nothing more than uniting two halves of the dokana in an analogical process of reuniting the mortal twin with his immortal half.

Orion and Cedalion become a personified dokana, where Cedalion leads the mortal Orion to the immortal realm of the sun. Indeed, the Dioskouroi were linked with Orion at the celestial gate where the ecliptic meets the Milky Way and where souls had access to the heavens. This explains the presence of Scorpio in the Orion myth, for Scorpio was also a gate of the dead (Gottschalk 99, Beke 17-27). The dead descended into the dark regions of the underworld from the Scorpion gate, just as we see Gilgamesh entering the netherworld guarded by scorpion men (EG 9.32-43). Orion loses his mortal life at Scorpio but regains his immortal heritage on the other side of the Milky Way where his constellation dwells at the cosmic sea from which the dead could arise anew.

Meanwhile, the savior figure Orpheus appears to have represented Orion himself. The Orphic rites promised the initiated a blessed existence in the afterlife. Dionysus was the god of the Orphic rites, and Orpheus-Dionysus are homologous underworld gods who guide the dead in the netherworld. In a vase painting held at Basel, Orpheus is shown playing his lyre and holding a scroll signifying the rites of the mysteries within a tomb of an old man. “What must be called the Orphic hope for the afterlife could hardly be expressed more clearly” writes Walter Burkert, “it is the song of Orpheus, contained in a book, which guarantees quiet happiness for the dead” (Burkert 85-86). Meanwhile, Dionysus repeatedly appears in the Orphic gold plates found buried with the initiated dead. Here, Dionysus presides over the journey of the dead (Cole 200) and is both gatekeeper and judge of the deceased (Cole 211).

More important, in Robert Eisler’s Orpheus the Fisher, Eisler shows that the mythic figure of Orpheus originated as a hunting and fishing figure. Eisler notes that the sacred fish housed in the sanctuaries of Apollo in Lycia were called orphoi, meaning fish, and that the name Orpheus means fisher (14-15). Dionysus himself was called Halieus, the Fisher, and Zagreus, a name not only signifying a Great Fisher but also a Great Hunter (15). Orpheus caught game in his fishing nets. Additionally, Orpheus is often portrayed surrounded by animals who he not only catches with his nets but entices with his music. In this context, as Eisler notes, Orpheus is Eunomos or Euphorbos, the “herdsman” or “good shepherd” (18). Eisler cannot help but to explain, “Orion corresponds mythically to Nimrod, the ‘mighty hunter before the Lord’ of the Bible. Around this constellation we find—and this can hardly be a casual coincidence—all the requisites of Orphic mythology” (25).

Orpheus the Fisher

Orpheus was a god who promised a blessed afterlife if one had been initiated and knew the way through the next world. Orpheus was both the Fisher and Good Shepherd.


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).



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.

The Great Flood: Reflections on Immortality

When Gilgamesh descends into the underworld to discover the secrets of eternal life he finds the only mortal to have been given this godly gift. This figure is Utnapishtim, and his name connotes “the far Distant One” who dwells at the “confluence of the rivers.” These are not terrestrial waters, but celestial waterways that swirl through the cosmos in specified stellar riverbeds where souls travel finding their eternal fate. Upon meeting the only mortal who knows how to obtain immortality, Gilgamesh asks the paramount question of the epic, “How does one obtain eternal life?”

The answer Utnapishtim gives is one of the most curious responses in all of ancient myth. Utnapishtim replies, “I will reveal to you a secret of the gods.” And then this immortal who dwells on far distant shores relates a flood story. Literally, Utnapishtim tells a story so very close to the biblical account of Noah. As the Mesopotamian version is much older, we can only conclude that the biblical tradition is a hand-me-down from much older and foreign sources.

Clay cylinder seal depicting the Babylonian culture hero Utnapishtim who survived a great flood and was granted immortality.

How does the flood story answer the question of eternal life? It makes no sense. Indeed, scholars have written it off as extracurricular nonsense; a story interjected, out of place, and told for its own sake. This response remains the official, academic take.

Yet, a curious parallel is found in Chapter 175 of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  In this portion of the funerary text the deceased descends to the underworld to find the secrets of eternal life. And those secrets are contextualized within a flood story. Here is Raymond Faulkner’s translation:

O Thoth, what is it that has come about through the Children of Nut? They have made war, they have raised up tumult, they have done wrong, they have created rebellion, they have done slaughter, they have created imprisonment, they have reduced what was great to what is little in all that we have made; show greatness, O Thoth!—so says Atum. Shorten their years, cut short their months, because they have done hidden damage to all that you have made. I have your palette, O Thoth, I bring your inkspot to you; I am not among those who have done hidden damage, and none work harm on me.

Thus says Ani: O Atum, how comes it that I travel to a desert which has no water and no air, and which is deep, dark, and unsearchable? [. . .] [Atum Replies:] You shall be for millions on millions of years, a lifetime of millions of years. I will dispatch the Elders and destroy all that I have made; the earth shall return to the Primordial Water, so the surging flood, as in its original state. But I will remain with Osiris, I will transform myself into something else, namely a serpent, without men knowing or the gods seeing. [. . .] I have made what appertains to his place in the Bark of Millions of Years, and Horus is firm on his throne to found his establishments. (BD Chpt 175)

This chapter entitled “for not dying again” opens up to a grim scene. The people of the earth have become corrupt; everywhere they commit rebellion and slaughter. The population of the earth does “secret damage” or evil acts done in darkness and exacted on all living things. This is exactly the same world depicted in the Hebrew account, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6.5). In the biblical tale God vows to wipe the population out with a great flood. The wickedness of the world and God’s vow to destroy it survives in Greece, where the same scene is portrayed in Homer’s Illiad, “when Zeus flings down his pelting, punishing rains—up in arms, furious, storming against those men who brawl in the courts and render crooked judgements, men who throw all rights to the winds with no regard for the vengeful eyes of the gods—so all their rivers crest into flood spate, ravines overflowing cut the hilltops off into lonely islands” (16.457-63).

Of the Egyptian text, it should be noted that other translators have taken this same passage and have replaced the flood imagery with the waters of creation. Instead of a great flood that destroys the wicked and through which the deceased must pass, the waters become the liquids of fiat lux, the birthing waters of the world which recreate and renew the deceased. Yet, in these translations the wicked world and the Bark of Millions of Years remain.

So which is it: are the waters through which the Egyptian dead descend the mythic flood waters or the waters of creation? Complicating this issue (and the different translations) is the fact that most world flood myths are told in the context of their respective creation stories. The waters of the flood were meant to be the waters of a new creation. This is certainly how the Bible treats the two parallel events. Read Genesis closely and you will see that the biblical flood is a reproduction of the biblical creation.

Earth is created by dividing the waters above from the waters below (1.6-7). The flood occurs when the waters above and the waters below commingle (7.11). Creation begins when the “Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (1.1). Noah sends forth a dove upon the face of the waters (8. 9-11). Creation congeals when the first dry land emerges from the waters (1.9). The dove returns to Noah with an olive leaf, indicating that the first dry land has appeared from the waters (8.11). Vegetation, animals, and man appear on earth (1.11-12, 20-27). Noah lands and releases all manner of life upon the earth (8.16-19). God commands Adam and Eve to multiply and replenish the earth (1.28). God commands Noah to multiply and replenish the earth (9.1).

Curiously, in the Egyptian funerary texts the coffin of the deceased is treated as a boat, “towed by ropes through the waters of the cosmic sea, which is represented by drenching the coffin with water as it is pulled through narrow passages from one chamber or world to another” (MJSP 154). Furthermore, “In the Amduat, the name given throughout to the successive fields of the duat (underworld) is simply n.t, meaning ‘body of water,’ […]” (MJSP 156). Moreover, these underworld waters are always considered to reside in the heavens (MJSP 347); for the crews which tow the boat through the cosmic waters are none other than the Imperishable Stars (circumpolar stars) and the Unwearying Stars (the seven planets) (MJSP 154). Sailing through the underworld is a journey through the cosmos, an idea firmly entrenched in the Egyptian cult as there are over 370 specific astronomical terms employed within the funerary texts (HM 73).

Osiris in His Ark

In the Egyptian scheme, the deceased sails through the next world in a boat. The underworld is depicted as a series of lakes or waterways. The funerary boat was the ark of the dead that delivered its occupants to the fields of immortality.

I am reminded of that remarkable find in the Xinjiang region of China where a series of Caucasian mummified corpses were discovered in an ancient graveyard. The mummies dated as far back as 2000 BCE and each of the deceased was buried inside a boat.

In the Xinjiang region of China an ancient graveyard was found. The bodies had been mummified due to the arid climate and chemical makeup of the sand. Each of the deceased was Caucasian and was buried inside a boat.

In the Xinjiang region of China an ancient graveyard was found. The bodies had been mummified due to the arid climate and chemical makeup of the sand. Each of the deceased was Caucasian and was buried inside a boat. Depicted here is one of the small boats, inverted, next to an oar that was planted over the boat like a grave marker.

The archetype of the heavenly journey in a boat was remarkably wide spread. I am also reminded of that old book of poetry reciting the lore of the ancient Celts and called the Book of Taliesin. The book appears to have been composed by the 14th century, but many of the poems are recognized as being from the 10th century if not earlier.

In one passage from our archaic book we read a conversation between two interlocutors, one is Gwyddnaw, the priest or hierophant whose name signifies the leader of the boat, “from Gwydd, presence, attendance, and Naw, an old term for a ship” (Davies 245). The other is a neophyte seeking admittance into the Bardic mysteries. The neophyte must enter a coracle, or ark, and literally sail across the waters to an island where the initiation takes place. Our poem has our hierophant declare “To the brave, to the magnanimous, to the amiable, to the generous, who boldly embarks, the ascending stone of the Bards will prove the harbor of life! It has asserted the praise of Heilyn, the mysterious impeller of the sky; and, till the doom shall its symbol be continued” (Davies 250). The initiate responds, “Though I love the strand, I dread the wave: great has been its violence–dismal the overwhelming stroke. Even to him who survives, it will be the subject of lamentation” (Davies 250). To which Gwddnaw assures, “It is a pleasant act, to wash on the bosom of the fair water. Though it fill the receptacle, it will not disturb the heart […]. As for him who repented of his enterprise, the lofty (wave) has hurried the babbler far away to his death; but the brave, the magnanimous will find his compensation, in arriving safe at the stones. The conduct of the water will declare thy merit” (Davies 250-251).

This initiation takes place by the crossing of cosmic waters, as is now familiar to us, whose purpose is to land upon the mooring place upon the garden island where the initiate is taken from his coracle and received “at the stones” (probably a megalithic ring) in an embrace and conducted to his “father” and acknowledged a “complete Bard of the highest order” (Davies 252). The Bard is given a new name, Dedwydd, “one who has recovered intelligence” or one who “has been brought back into the presence” (Davies 252). A curious title as it is synonymous with the Greek Εποπτης, the name that describes the person who has been initiated into the greater mysteries of Eleusis.

In the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh must be led by Utnapishtim, who, like our Gwyddnaw, is the leader of the ark which sails between worlds. Osiris, too, is placed in an ark and led to his place of destiny. This brings to mind a series of flood and ark stories which all have correspondences whose import has never been satisfactorily explained. Clearly the Biblical Noah is such a chief figure, whose ark saved his family from a worldwide flood, though according to one old tradition the entrance into Noah’s ark was “esteemed a passage to death and darkness” (Davies 231); in other words the ark was a representation of the underworld. How could this be if it is the ark that is saving the human race from the world wide flood? It all makes perfect sense, however, if one understands the worldwide flood to be death itself which consumes all human flesh and whose spirits are consigned to the dark, foreboding deeps of the netherworld unless they are initiated within the boat, coracle, ark, or ship whose guide (Utnapishtim, Osiris, Noah, or Gwyddnaw) and his retinue lead the deceased to holy and blessed fields.

Dionysus is also said to have been placed within an ark (Brown 80); while in the Homeric hymn dedicated to this god Dionysus first appears, as if out of nowhere, “by the sand of an empty sea, how it was far out, on a promontory, how he was like a young man, an adolescent” (Boer 9). Like many of our mystery saviors Dionysus emerges from the sea. Moreover, the journey of the ship over the “divine sea” or the ark through the underworld is an image we find with numerous mythological heroes who have sailed the celestial axis of the ancient cosmos and have inherited lordship. A brief list of such ark-floating figures includes: Gilgamesh, Sargon, Osiris, Noah, Moses, Cyrus, Tammuz, Karna, Dionysus, Adonis, Jason, Perseus, Romulus, Siegfried, and Lohengrin, or the Knight of the Swan. Surprisingly, Oedipus himself is also depicted sailing in a chest or an ark on a Boeotian cup of the first century BCE (Edmunds 18), representing a portion of the Oedipus myth that has been lost. Remarkably, one possible etymology for the city of Thebes (Thebai) is tebah, a box or chest, itself a representation of the ark (Brown 194). Nor can we ignore the fact that in the Isis and Eleusis Mysteries, an ark or chest was carried by the procession of initiates which contained the secret tokens of the initiation which in turn symbolized eternal life.

Painting by Alexey Tyranov. Moses is saved from death and delivered to inherit kingship in an ark. There are numerous mythic heroes who do the same, and at least one tale, that of Sargon the Great, predates the biblical account while replicating all the major themes in the ark pericope.

Painting by Alexey Tyranov. Moses is saved from death and delivered to inherit kingship in an ark. There are numerous mythic heroes who do the same, and at least one tale, that of Sargon the Great, predates the biblical account while replicating all the major themes in the ark pericope.

The ark is the mystery precinct or temple where the initiation took place. Moreover the ark is a representation of the cosmos through which the journey is made. More specifically, the ark crossing the waters is an image of the deceased sailing through the underworld on his quest for eternal life, for it is only in the underworld that the secrets of resurrection and immortality are kept (Zimmer 84).

In other words, the answer Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh may not be so strange after all. We have forgotten the uses to which myth was put. In the oral cult the myth of the flood may have been adapted to the journey through the cosmic waters of death, that consumes all the earth in time. Yet the deceased, placed in the appropriate ark, might find new and dry land upon which to land, in the next world.

Such are the turns of myth.

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

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.

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.





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.

What’s Down with Jonah? A Fishy Tale

If you have ever attended a Sunday School class delving into the cryptic pages of the Old Testament, then you have certainly heard of the story about Jonah. Primary teachers love this story, and schools of protestant children, darting to and fro in uniform waves of faithful learning, can tell you all about the prophet who was swallowed by a fish.

Jonah and Fish

Noah and the “Great Fish”

If you have never heard the story, it goes like this:

God tells a man named Jonah to call the city of Nineveh to repentance. They are sinning in Ninevah, you see, and if they do not change their ways the entire city will be destroyed. Jonah, a Hebrew, has no desire to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria and sworn enemy to Israel. Such a mission seems like suicide. So Jonah says “no way dude.” Knowing Yahweh is not to be taken lightly, Jonah perceives that his refusal will not get him off the hook. So what does he do? He does the only thing a pragmatic Hebrew without a death-wish would do, he flees from God. Jonah travels to the city of Joppa and books passage on a ship heading for Tarshish. Tarshish is probably somewhere in present day Spain, and so quite literally Jonah books a trip to the other side of the world (in his day the East end of the Mediterranean Sea was the end of the world.)

Well, things do not go well for Jonah. A great storm comes up and nearly sinks the ship. The crew wants to know who it is that is cursed on board, for surely some sin has brought such a fierce and unexpected storm. Jonah admits he is running away from the Hebrew God, and after much deliberation Jonah is thrown overboard. At that moment two things happen: the storm dissipates, and a great fish swallows Jonah.

In the belly of the fish, Jonah descends to the bottom of the world where he repents (by singing a hymn) and is reborn as a prophet. Jonah is spit out near Nineveh and he calls the city to repentance. To his surprise, the city repents! This actually makes Jonah angry, for now he does not look like a true prophet who foretold the destruction of the city. This is the whole point of the story. God can transcend any “word” or “prophecy” by his divine will. God also seeks true and repentant followers, whether gentile or Jew.

Theological points aside, what are we to do with Jonah and the Great Fish? Generations of believers have believed this episode as literal history, forgetting that Jonah probably descends from an oral tradition. Oral minds fashion a different kind of history by creating narrative templates that are easily remembered; then historical data is poured into those templates. Oral history is therefore not like literate history, with the latter’s preoccupation with details and footnotes and facts (no matter how gerrymandered they are). Oral history places historical events within universal themes and memorable motifs usually associated with the cosmology or cult of the society.

So, was Jonah really swallowed by a fish? Of course the literal interpretation is obscene, and it is quite amusing to see how early Christian Bishops sought to explain this story. One suggested that the Great Fish was already dead when Jonah fell into it, and therefore he could not be dissolved in the stomach acids of the fish. Another suggested that “Great Fish” was the name of a boat that God had sent to pick Jonah up. While another suggested that “Great Fish” was the name of an inn where Jonah snoozed after his passage across the sea. Meanwhile, the Hebrew text specifies “Great Fish” and not “whale.” Whales actually cannot swallow a thing the size of a human being as their gullet is too small. And so it is that many writers have spent gallons of ink trying to identify a species of fish that could actually swallow a man and keep him alive in its belly for three days.

One of the great things about being a comparative mythologist is one can see the forest from the trees. (The downside of course, is you can also miss some of the trees whilst looking at the forest, but I’ll save that topic for another post.) As such, a comparative mythologist can see patterns in the landscape where others have focused on a particular lichen on one trunk.

The first true curiosity in this story is the city of Joppa where our fleeing prophet departs. Jonah, who is commanded to help save a foreign city, takes sail from Joppa and is swallowed by a sea monster. Joppa is the exact place where Perseus slays a great sea monster whilst saving a princess and her city. Perhaps this is just tangential, but it also turns out that Heracles also departs from Joppa during his Labors and is then swallowed by a great fish, wherein he stays for three days! Too coincidental?

The city of Joppa aside, the “Great Fish” is another curiosity. In an enigmatic scene found on an ancient Greek vase, we see Jason of Argonaut fame being disgorged by a “Great Fish” upon the shores of the underworld garden.

Jason and Dragon

Jason and the “Great Fish”

This scene depicts an episode in the Jason myth that has not survived in the written record. Jason is being disgorged by a “dragon,” but the fact that he is released in the underworld known to be at the “end of the sea,” suggests the creature is a “sea serpent.” Here, at the edge of the world, resides the Golden Fleece. Standing next to Jason is Athena, who holds in her hand a dove. Athena is often associated with her owl, but in this scene she holds a different bird. It is an interesting contrast, as the dove in Greek art is most often associated with Aphrodite. For the Greeks, the dove was a symbol of both physical and spiritual love.

Because pure love was thought to be eternal, the dove also symbolized the eternal part of one’s being, i.e. the soul. In some Greek funerary urns the dove appears in the underworld where the deceased is drinking from the Fount of Memory. In other cultures the dove represented resurrection as it carried fresh sprigs for its nest at Springtime. This is certainly how the symbol is employed in the Noah story. The dove becomes a symbol of rebirth; its depiction with Athena, who is aiding Jason in the underworld, is well deserved. The final analysis appears to be that Jason is being reborn, and of course the underworld is the only place where that could happen. The Heracles myth follows suit, for his journey in the fish leads him also to the underworld where he seeks the secrets of rebirth.

This excursion into the symbol of the dove is of interest to our Old Testament tale simply because the name of Jonah means dove. Literally, Jonah is the dove that descends and is reborn from the underworld. The motifs are intact and consistent, and whether the Old Testament author borrowed from a pre-existing cultic milieu of imagery and theme, or whether this mise-en-scene already belonged to Hebrew culture, is irrelevant. The images of fish, dove, and underworld remain coherently attached to the oral cosmology of the age.

 All of this is made clear in Jonah chapter 2. Jonah is in the fish and descends to the bottom of the sea.

And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, [and] thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. […] I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars [was] about me forever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. (2.2-4,6-7)

The highlighted phrases are worth noting. In Hebrew, the word for belly can also signify “womb.” The word translated as “hell” is actually Sheol, or the Hebrew underworld. The phrase could thus be translated “from the womb of the underworld.” The belly of the fish is just such a place. Noah is cast into the deep and at the bottoms of the mountains. This is imagery of the underworld. In ancient cosmology the universe was three tiered: heaven, earth, and underworld. The underworld was not just the realm of darkness and death (it was that), but really it was the generative matrix from which living things came. It was the dark soil that sprouted the seed. So, when you died, you did descend into horrifying darkness, but in many traditions the underworld was the source of all life and therefore the realm where one could learn the secrets of eternal life.

It turns out the Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife until very late (post Exile period). At least, that is what the scholars tell us; this because there are no surviving sources that would inform us otherwise. It does not matter. Jonah is an 8th century BCE prophet, though the book of Jonah probably was not written until the 6th or 5th century BCE. In either time frame the cosmology of the story of Jonah, i.e. descending to the underworld to be reborn, is intact. The only question becomes, does the story implicate any belief in an afterlife? Technically speaking, the answer is “no.” Jonah’s rebirth is one of office and purpose. He goes into the underworld a fleeing man and reemerges from the underworld a powerful prophet who speaks directly in the name of God. His rebirth, therefore, is an initiation into the office of a seer.

But the cosmology is central to the ordination of this prophet. It is truly fascinating to find that both the Talmud and Midrash reveal that when Jonah is in the belly of the whale he is actually said to be underneath the altar of the temple. In the above cited hymn, Jonah prays for deliverance by orienting himself towards the temple. Indeed, two images remain prominent in Jonah’s ordination song: the underworld and the temple. This is appropriate as in fact there was thought to be a chamber or chasm underneath the altar in the Hebrew Holy of Holies where the abyss of the underworld resided. This cavern or abyss was called the “Well of Souls.” The Talmud’s depiction is to the point, for only under the temple altar was there a passage to the secrets an ordinations of life and death.

Well of Souls 3

The “Well of Souls” underneath the Temple altar.

The other bookend to this tale is the city of Nineveh. By tradition, Joppa appears to be the home of a sea creature who consumes men (the myths of Perseus and Heracles as examples).  Meanwhile, the name Nineveh translates as “The House of the Fish.” The city is sometimes signified by a glyph of a fish in a basin. The tutelar goddess of Nineveh was Nînâ, a fish goddess, and a leading god of Nineveh, Ea (Enki) was often depicted with a fish robe. Of even greater import is the fact that priests in Nineveh (and throughout Assyria) often donned fish robes in imitation to the deity who had power over the deep. On one cuneiform tablet we are also told that individuals being initiated into the priesthood of these deities would “ritually” descend into the underworld where they would behold the “altars amid the waters” belonging to Anu, Bel, and Ea (the gods of heaven, earth, and underworld).

Jonah and Fish_002

Assyrian priests in their fish garment.

Fish imagery associated with a priestly order is widespread. Vishnu appears as a fish when he saves Manu from the Great Flood. In fish form, Vishnu also reveals to Manu all of the Vedas and sacred knowledge of the gods; thus Manu is initiated into the priesthood of Vishnu. Priests of Osiris were forbidden to eat fish, for it was believed that the gods could turn into fish, and some goddesses held the title “Chief of the Fishes.” Jesus Christ is also represented by a fish. He is the “fisher” of men and serves loaves and fishes to the masses. It seems all pastoral imagery, but in Christian iconography the fish is often associated with the Eucharist, and at least one Church Father, Tertullian, describes new Christian initiates as “little fishes.”

The entire story of Jonah takes on a sympathetic theme with priestly initiation. It is a story written in irony, as so many Old Testament tales are. It was common knowledge that Assyrian priests and priestesses were associated with the fish, and that they also analogically descended into the underworld as part of their priestly rites. Jonah is called to be a prophet and refuses. He flees, but is in turn swallowed by a fish, descends to the underworld, and is initiated as a prophet. Jonah has just been endowed with a priestly ordination in imitation of the priests and peoples he was to preach. Yahweh has taken the place of Ea and has trumped Nînâ, and sends to Nineveh his own priest initiated on their  own terms.

Christians use the Jonah story as a type of Christ. Then again, Christians use everything in the Old Testament as a type of Christ. I suppose the Jews cannot complain too much, as all the early Christians were Jews; of course Jewish scripture would be co-opted into the new religious order. What seems to be forgotten by both Jews and Christians alike, however, is the close affinity much of the imagery in the Old Testament has to the old cosmology and cult of the Temple order. In the latter case, Christ was a fish, because he was a High Priest. His name means “Anointed,” and this because he was ordained to tread through the spheres of cosmos to bring about resurrection. Much like Ea and Osiris, Jesus is the god of the underworld waters who promises rebirth and immortality to his initiates. Embedded in the Jonah tale are many of these associations, even if they had already been obscured by the time the tale had been written.

The Celestial Ascent of Elijah

In 2 Kings 2.1-12, an account is given where the prophet of Israel named Elijah (meaning “My God is Yahweh”) ascends to heaven on a fiery chariot pulled by celestial horses. Elijah does not taste of death, but is translated into heaven.

Only one other figure in the Old Testament ascends to heaven without tasting death–Enoch. Enoch’s name means “The Initiated One,” and the only reference to this figure in the text is an obscure passage which states, “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5.24). In non-canonical texts associated with Enoch this prophet also ascends to heaven. In fact, the heavenly ascent appears to be the prerequisite of entering heaven without tasting of death.

In all the available Enoch lore thus found two things stand in common: 1) Enoch ascends to the heavens, learns their secrets, and enters the heavenly Holy of Holies or Throne Room. In some passages, Enoch is given the title “Son of Man,” a euphemism for divine heritage, and in the words of Margaret Barker, divine theosis or divinization. 2) All the imagery of the Enoch texts compare the heavenly ascent to a heavenly temple, and the ascent through the heavens can often be assimilated with the chambers in the earthly temple as they were modeled from a heavenly design.

It is this temple and cosmological context that frames the action of celestial ascent. The ascent of Elijah probably follows suit, as this portion of the Old Testament text probably follows a liturgical mise en scene associated with the old Hebrew temple cult. While Enoch and Elijah are the only Old Testament prophets to ascend to heaven without tasting death, other key prophetic figures also find themselves on a heavenly journey. Ezekiel is the most prominent figure, as he makes a tour of heaven. Ezekiel’s tour is also associated with the temple complex. The founder of Israel is Jacob who begins his journey towards kingship by seeing a ladder set in heaven. On top of the ladder was Yahweh, who gives Jacob the great covenant of the fathers during this heavenly vision. This hales back to a prior scene where God shows up to Abraham and gives him the original covenant, and does so while comparing his future offspring to the stars. In non-canonical sources, Abraham also journeys through the stars as part of this covenant.

The heavenly journey as part of the prophetic calling is not a creation of Israel or of Biblical tradition. The Israelite people inherited this tradition, they did not create it. In Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Mediterranean traditions, kings, shamans, priests, and prophets all made this heavenly tour. Such a tour was essential to oral cosmology, which saw the source of all true being as emanating from the sky. In order to obtain the right to rule, such royal and august figures analogically journeyed to the stars through ritual to obtain their divine mandate. It is quite surprising to find that all the early Greek masters did the same thing. Parmenides, Pythagoras, Heraclides, Plato, and Cicero all relate some form of the heavenly journey associated with their right to teach, obtain true reason, rule the city, or obtain the right to immortality.

The celestial ascent of Elijah is not biblical fantasy, it is oral cosmology rooted at the foundations of civilization.