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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prehistory, Megaliths, and Open Questions about Stonehenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

 

Science and Religion, A Brief Historical Tour

Science has become a buzz word. It is now used as a sort of universal adhesive to glue “validity” to almost any opinion, as long as it sounds or looks “scientific.”  That is to say, we can look educated; we can sound educated; we can hold certificates of education; we can obtain rank of office requiring education—and none of it means we are truly educated. In modern secular society, what passes for education is not the grit and hard labor of critical thinking, but the veneer of science. Like “religion,” the word “science” has been co-opted by fundamentalists to coerce opinion. This dynamic has been going on for a long time, and is at the root of the narrative to the secular age.

The irony in the debate between science and religion lies in the total misapprehension of means and ends as applied to both. Science and religion are means to an end. Science is an empirical methodology that seeks to answer “How do we do what we want to do?” Religion is a metaphysical methodology that seeks to answer “Why or Should we do what we want to do?” And the corollary: “Is what we want good, beautiful, and true?” Both address the human condition in substantively different ways, but never have they been natural opposites of each other. On the contrary, the technical How and the moral Why are complements of each other, and science and religion are two complimentary methodologies to address human capacity and potential.

So how did they get to be traditional opposites in our cultural understanding? Well it’s simple: Politics. Politics is the methodology of ends, and in the history of the world, it is Politics that has been the natural enemy to Science and Religion.

The overused and highly imaginative narrative that the Catholic Church and its religious sensibilities were the things that sought to destroy Galileo and his scientific sensibilities has been long discredited. Of course, you wouldn’t know it by listening to pop culture, or even the “educated” pop culture. How  quickly we forget that in the days of Galileo the Church was the State and the University was the Church. This fact has huge consequences which the secular world no longer bothers with. In an era where theocracies reign it is easy to show just how blind religion can be. But mixing religion with politics has always been disastrous. Read Jeremiah in the Bible. His whole argument was that the politics of the State was destroying the faith of Israelite religion. His solution was to give up political gamesmanship and desires for world power and live the authentically religious life. And the King and the Priests killed him for it. It’s pretty much the same story with Jesus. And Ghandi. While the story of Galileo is different, the events exist within the same dynamic.

There were many people in the Catholic Church who supported Galileo’s ideas than just opposed them; who worked to rally his insights into the wider cultural arena than suppress them. Galileo’s most strident opponents were the one’s who stood to lose the most if the old cosmology were diminished. They were the professional cosmologists, and in our textbooks they are called “Priests.” No one seems to bother calling them academics, which is exactly what they were, or the arbiters of science, which is exactly what they were defending. It is true, the Pope and several Church committees eventually came down hard on Galileo, accusing him of heresy. It is also true that the Pope in many ways had more political and economic power than the King, and much to lose politically if Galileo’s abrasive charges were left unchallenged. Meanwhile, the various Church committees were zealously defending religious doctrines while secretly dreading the end of tenure.

When there is no separation between Church and State the Church gets all the blame for what the State is doing. Fair enough, but when the State seeks final resolve over the Church, it must have an authoritative basis to gain control, and in the secular world we have been indoctrinated to think that religion is a crutch and science is the cure. In this indoctrination there is never a demarcation between church and religion, which is very telling. In the story of Galileo, the church was a political structure which used religion as its reason for using its power. The downfall of the church was the politicization of its religion. Just as in the days of Jeremiah, it turns out that church and religion were opposites.

The secular world has not overcome this paradox. Indeed, when Science and State are in bed together, the end result is often disastrous.  The Nazi final solution was rooted in scientific argument: intelligence was a biological function rooted in evolutionary processes. If society eliminated the biologically weak, then the new generation would become the ubermensch. Millions would go to the slaughterhouse in the name of scientific progressiveness. The most talented cadre of intellectuals in the world, the German academics, joyfully marched to the tune of the Nazi ideal while donning the accouterments of the new age—lab coats. Droves of American academics fawned over the rise of the National Socialists, declaring that they were the opening act to the new Age of Reason. Only slowly, and with begrudging despair, did they admit they were mistaken, and this not because of the arguments of science, which they had been using the whole time, but because of the ash falling out of the sky.

Of course, there were a great many German and American academics who were opposed to the whole charade, but the entire episode interrupts the meta-narrative of modernism that science and religion are opposed. On the contrary, when a political system seeks ultimate power at any cost, it will use whatever means it can to achieve its ends. In a theocracy, the State uses religion for the sake of its power. In a secular age, the State uses science for the same ends.

The complimentary proposition holds true. Authentic science concerns itself with authentic religion, because how we do a thing is fundamentally linked to why it must be done. Religion is more than ethics, however, but a philosophy of relationships rooted in the “divine self” or human-being as it ought to be. It is not enough to ask, “Should we do this?” We must also ask, “If we do this, how ought it be done?” In a world of dynamic relationships the cold efficiency of science is often insufficient for its own application. Religious morality is a necessary partner to scientific truth. It is one thing to know how to split an atom. It is another thing entirely to split an atom on another’s head.

The modern tensions between science and religion turn out not to be new. This is a critical point that is also skipped in our history books. The meta-narrative of modernity not only pits science and religion against each other, but also places true science as a completely modern and novel idea breaking forth out of countless millennium of religious superstition. It is a self congratulating point of view that simply does not hold.

In the West, according to our histories, true reason begins around 600 BCE when a man named Pythagoras founded a school in Greece. Pythagoras worked out the mathematical relationships in musical tones, and began describing the world not as the forces of arbitrary gods, but by number. It is a marvelous narrative that entirely skips the fact that the school of Pythagoras was closer to a temple cult than a Western academy. Oh, and that the world had been described by number far before Pythagoras, but such descriptions were veiled behind the mythological tropes of the gods. Irony to be sure.

Still, Pythagoras was an intellectual giant. And so were Heraclides, Plato, Erastosthenes, Aristotle, and scores of other Greek intellectuals, all of which would never consider a natural division between science and religion. For them science and religion were synonymous. Like Isaac Newton, arguably one of the greatest minds in human history, and who wrote more on religious subjects than on all of his works on calculus, physics, and optics combined, all were as interested in religion as science. Modern notions sidestep this reality by asserting that while all these men were great intellectuals and laid the foundations for the Scientific Revolution and the modern age of reason, they were also steeped in a religious world that would take centuries to rise out of. If they had been born today, so the thinking goes, they would have sided with the pro-science and anti-religion crowd. This viewpoint is untenable.

A few generations after Pythagoras and Parmenides the Sophists had taken over education. These were the high intellectuals who traveled around Greece teaching the secrets of the universe to anyone who could pay their high fee. The late Sophists were the “Renaissance Men” of Greece: sophisticated, knowledgeable, critical, elitist, and highly condescending to religion. They were the self-anointed culture-bringers who accused all those who disagreed with them as “flat-earthers,” despite the fact that most of them believed in a flat earth. Indeed, their science looks so childish and pithy to us today, with all their talk of hot and dry, breath and winds, earth, fire, air, and atoms. But this was the high science of the times, and creation could be explained by such things without talking about the gods. Our modern science has changed a great deal, but the dynamic between the materialists and the non-materialists has not changed at all.

Men like Anaxagoras, Hippocrates, and Protagoras, were insistent that there was no such thing as the supernatural, and that religion was a crutch and science was the cure. They were not alone in making these arguments; in fact, they were in the majority. Socrates sums up the spirit of the times when he says, “When I was a young man I was wonderfully keen on that wisdom which they call natural science, for I thought it splendid to know the causes of everything, why it comes to be, why it perishes and why it exists” (Phaedo 96a-b). Socrates hoped that the sciences could explain everything. Yet, after Socrates scoured through all the scientific literature he realized that it was all a front, and that the scientists knew about as much of the real nature of things as the country peasant who still believed in satyrs and cyclopes.

Socrates, however, was one of only a few who were holding the line between religion and science. Plato writes that the common opinion among educated academics was that nature produces creation spontaneously without any intervention of the gods, and that all things could be explained by the natural sciences (Sophist 265c, for example). Classical Greece was filled with atheism, and both Socrates and Plato will have none of it. At the very end of Socrates’ life, he scolds the wisest and most knowledgeable scholars of the day, and declares that when it is all said and done, a life lived as promoted by these scholars, a life without authentic religion, is worthless (Gorgias 527b-e). This was not a reflection, but an accusation against the spirit of his times. Like Jeremiah and Jesus, Socrates was sent to his death by the fundamentalists of his age, accused of impiety. Our modern history books labels these authoritative crowds as religious mobs, but in each case the people sending the high thinkers of the age to their deaths are the academically trained intellectuals promoting not only the best politics of the day, but also the best science.

I have spent some time deconstructing the secular side of this argument because it is the argument that is made in secular culture. It is easy to point out religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, but few people seem to understand that such things are not a product of religion, but of human nature, and the secular crowd does not get a pass. It could be said that fundamentalism is the art of obtaining moral authority in conformity. The fundamentalist wants people to think and act as he does, and often puts up strict punishments for any departure from the official path. One must tow the party line or else.

And this is the point. There is a party line, and it need not be religious. Clearly the church committees railing against Galileo were fundamentalists, but so were the Sophists in the days of Socrates. There are two things one CANNOT do on an American university campus: argue with an evangelical that the Bible contains myth and the earth is not seven thousand years old; or question a secular progressive on the hypothesis and methodology of Climate Change. The irony here is, the first will accuse you of impiety and may suggest that your soul is not saved, but the second will actively seek to silence and banish you from campus. While the first reaction is intolerant, the second is far more similar to the methodology of the late church committees censuring Galileo. And no one seems to get the joke.

The tension then, was never between authentic science and authentic religion. The tension has always been between a socio-cultural point of view embedded in human nature: the material versus the spiritual, the profane versus the sacred. This tension is exasperated by the fundamentalism adopted by both sides of this argument as they try to control the other side. Suffering has always been the result. Meanwhile, a true scientists does not disparage religion lest he turns himself into a theologian who despises only his own caricature of religion . Even as a true disciple of faith seeks out scientific progress at every turn of the scriptural page. Culture and politics are the only things that corrode this relationship.

 

Science and Religion, Bibliography

In the past week I have had two associates of mine ask me about my own take on the tensions between science and religion. I know this subject has been discussed thoroughly from multiple points of view, but these intelligent and highly educated associates still grapple with the tensions between these fields of knowledge. And rightfully so.

I thought I would simply add a reflection on the subject I have had over the past few years as I listen to people discuss the interrelation between these two fields of study. I will do this in a couple of posts. This one presents a bibliography of good books to read. And the next post will discuss the nature of science and religion. The last post will discuss cosmology, which has always been a mixture of both.

First off, I have my own bibliography I have studied in this field. There are many other books and essays one can read, but I suggest the following:

1. Science and Religion, by Ferngren (Editor).  This is a recent compilation of essays by leading scholars and historians of science and religion. It is well written and shows the complexity of historical interpretation between science and religion. Highly Recommended.

2. The Logic of Scientific Discovery, by Popper. This is a dense tome but well worth the read. Popper is one of my favorite historians of science, though often he writes to an audience who is already deeply immersed in scientific language and tradition (and, admittedly, is sometimes over my head). Popper shows what science is, its limitations, methodologies, and products. His argument that a thing that cannot be falsified cannot be called science, and his insights on the highly metaphysical nature of cosmology, is worth the price of the book and the labor of the read.

3. Philosophy and the Real World, by Magee. This is an introduction to the ideas of Karl Popper (above) and is a much easier read. So, if you are new to the subject, read this one first.

4. The Measure of God, by Witham. This is a great overview of the different fields of science and how they interact with religion as revealed in the Gifford Lectures, or series of lectures given by leading scholars. It is more of a history of ideas set within the science and religion debate context.

5.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Kuhn. A classic. Kuhn shows that science often evolves very unscientifically, and that the road to scientific consensus is “extraordinarily arduous.” Social, cultural, and philosophical influences walk side by side in the quest for scientific discovery.

6. Darwin, Norton Critical Edition, by Appleman (Editor). So very often the conflict of science and religion falls into the arguments of human identity, and thus biological evolution. This books presents the writings of Charles Darwin, with an absolutely fantastic section of essays from different perspectives about the writings of Charles Darwin. I know this is revealing, but as it turns out, I could not put this book down.

7. The Origins of Scientific Thought, by de Santillana. I read this book twenty years ago and it had a profound influence on me and my view of history. His introductory chapter on the science before the Greeks was the first bit of history writing that challenged everything I had learned about history before the Greeks. I cite him often in my upcoming book Mythos and Cosmos.

If you only have time to read one book, read the first one on the list. If you are interested in the history of science, read the last one on the list. If you are interested in the philosophy of science (which is necessary to understand if one is going to assess it with religion) read any in the middle.

 

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 Questions of Consciousness

Descartes’s radical statement, “I think, therefore I am,” was a recognition that human existence resides in consciousness. One exists as an independent being because one has thought. Consciousness is the great divide, and sentient consciousness magnifies the type of being humankind has become.

But thinking by itself is insufficient for a meaningful life; in the words of Socrates, “the unexamined life is not worth living for men” (Apology 38a). Descartes himself used his maxim “Cogito, ergo sum” as the basis for a methodology to turn opinion into knowledge, to turn an unexamined life into a meaningful one.

While Descartes used his proposition as the starting point for a rational methodology of logical discovery, the question of consciousness and a meaningful life remains the existential basis of being. The Christian philosopher Paul Tillich, in his book The Courage to Be, remarks that every human being lives with three anxieties: the fear of death, the fear of guilt, and the fear of meaninglessness (42-54). These three anxieties can mold an individual worldview, and bend the examination of life into predetermined channels of denial and projection. In other words, one’s fears can lead one into thinking only of the self, fulfilling only self interest, and denying greater realities outside the self. In this state of affairs, not only is the self left unexamined, but also it becomes void and empty. It is a psychological paradox that a life lived only in service of the self is a life filled with meaninglessness.

How does one live an examined life? Socrates would not answer this question; in true Socratic fashion he would leave it for us to answer ourselves. In my view there are two essential questions of being–questions of consciousness. The first is the question of conscience: “Who am I?” The second is the question of suffering: “What is Good and Evil? And how can each lead to suffering?”

These questions are called the great and terrible questions of being. They are great, because they address the essence of one’s identity. They are terrible, because authentic answers require a full self-examination of one’s thoughts, actions, desires, and habits, with a full moral accountability to the other. The “other” is defined as the primary relationships whereby one conceives of the self. Paradoxically, the self is only defined whilst in relationship with something else. Literally, what kind of conscious being we are is defined by how we treat others. For some, the “supreme other” is the open question of the mystery of another being. For others, the supreme other is simply the self projected onto anything else in view. Martin Buber calls this the “I and Thou” relationship, where we treat others as an object, “Hello you, my ability to use,” or as a predicate, “Hello thou, my ability to serve.” In each case the self is defined. And in each case the self enters into a new possibility. In the former, the self ruminates only upon self-interest, and ironically the consciousness of the individual shrinks within the horizon of one’s own predetermined desires. In the latter, the self opens up new horizons of learning. These horizons do not always lead to happy endings. Indeed, the pain of discovering evil, for example, leads many to serving only the self. This is a truly self-defeating paradigm. And a self-perpetuating one.

In my next few posts I am going to explore these two questions of conscience and suffering. Nothing in a blog can be definitive, but I will attempt to ring the bells of awareness in my own soul; after all, blogging for me is part of my examined life.