THERE seems to be a certain propriety in the fact that two of the oldest and most universal cults have been the worship of the stars on the one hand, and of the emblems of sex on the other. The stars, the most abstract, distant and universal of phenomena, symbols of changeless law and infinitude, before which human will and passion sink into death and nothingness; and sex, the very focus of passion and desire, the burning point of the will to live. Between these two poles the human mind has swayed since the eldest time.
With these earlier worships, too, the later religions have mingled in inextricable but not meaningless entanglement. The Passover, the greatest feast of the Jews, borrowed from the Egyptians, handed down to become the supreme festival of Christianity, and finally blending in the North of Europe with the worship of the Norse goddess Eastre, is as is
well known closely connected with the celebration of the Spring equinox and of the passing over of the sun from south to north of the equator--i.e., from his winter depression to his summer dominion. The Sun, at the moment of passing the equinoctial point, stood 3000 years ago in the Zodiacal constellation of the Ram or he-lamb. The Lamb, therefore, became the symbol of the young triumphant god. The Israelites (Exodus xii. 14.) were to smear their doorways (symbol of the passage from darkness to light) with the blood of the Lamb, in remembrance of the conflict of their god with the powers of darkness (the Egyptians). At an earlier date--owing to the precession of the equinoxes--the sun at the spring passage stood in the constellation of the Bull; so, in the older worships of Egypt and of Persia and of India, it was the Bull that was sacred and the symbol of the god. Moses is said to have abolished the worship of the Calf and to have consecrated the Lamb at the passover--and this appears to be a rude record of the fact that the astronomical changes were accompanied or followed by priestly changes of ceremonial. Certainly it is curious that in later Egyptian, times the bull-headed god was deposed in favor of the ram-headed god Ammon; and that Christianity adopted the Lamb for the symbol of its Savior.
[paragraph continues] Similarly, the Virgin Mary with the holy Child in her arms can be traced by linear descent from the early Christian Church at Alexandria up through the later Egyptian times to Isis with the infant Horus, and thence to the constellation Virgo shining in the sky. In the representation of the Zodiac in the Temple of Denderah (in Egypt) the figure of Virgo is annotated by a smaller figure of Isis with Horus in her arms; and the Roman church fixed the celebration of Mary's assumption into glory at the very date (15th August) of the said constellation's disappearance from sight in the blaze of the solar rays, and her birth on the date (8th Sep.) of the same constellation's reappearance 1.
The history of Israel reveals a long series of avowedly sexual and solar worships carried on alongside with that of Jehovah--worships of Baal, Ashtaroth, Nehushtan, the Host of Heaven, etc.--and if we are to credit the sacred record, Moses himself introduced the notoriously sexual Tree and Serpent worship (Numbers xxi. 9, and 2 Kings xviii. 4.); while Solomon, not without dramatic propriety, borrowed from the Phoenicians the two phallic pillars surmounted by pomegranate wreaths, called Jachin and Boaz, and placed them in front of
his temple (I Kings Vii. 21). The Cross itself (identical as a symbol with the phallus of the Greeks and the lingam of the East), the Fleur de Lys, which has the same signification, and the Crux Ansata, borrowed by the early Christians from Egypt and indicating the union of male and female, are woven and worked into the priestly vestments and altar-cloths of Christianity, just as the astronomical symbols are woven and worked into its Calendar, and both sets of symbols, astronomical and sexual, into the very construction of our Churches and Cathedrals. Jesus himself--so entangled is the worship of this greatest man with the earlier cults--is purported 1 to have been born like the other sungods, Bacchus, Apollo, Osiris, on the 25th day of December, the day of the sun's re-birth (i.e., the first day which obviously lengthens after the 21st December--the day of the doubting apostle Thomas!) and to have died upon an instrument which, as already hinted, was ages before and all over the world held in reverence as a sexual symbol.
I have only touched the fringe of this great subject. The more it is examined into the more remarkable is the mass of corroborative matter belonging to it. The conclusion towards which one
seems to be impelled is that these two great primitive ideas,, sexual and astronomical, are likely to remain the poles of human emotion in the future, even as they have been in the past.
Some cynic has said that the two great ruling forces of mankind are Obscenity and Superstition. Put in a less paradoxical form, as that the two ruling forces are Sex and the belief in the Unseen, the saying may perhaps be accepted. To call the two Love and Faith (as Dr. Bucke does in his excellent book on Man's Moral Nature) is perhaps to run the risk of becoming too abstract and spiritual.
Roughly speaking we may say that the worship of Sex and Life characterised the Pagan races of Europe and Asia Minor anterior to Christianity, while the worship of Death and the Unseen has characterised Christianity. It remains for the modern nations to accept both Life and Death, both the Greek and the Hebrew elements, and all that these general terms denote, in a spirit of the fullest friendliness and sanity and fearlessness.
A curious part of all the old religions, Pagan or Christian--and this connects itself with the above--is Asceticism: that occasional instinct of voluntary and determined despite to the body and its senses. Even in the wildest races, rejoicing
before all things in the consciousness of Life, we find festivals of fierce endurance and torments willingly undergone with a kind of savage glee; 1 and during the Christian centuries--monks, mystics, and world-spiting puritans--this instinct was sometimes exalted into the very first place of honor. I suppose it will have to be recognised--whatever absurd aberrations the tendency may have been liable to--that it is a basic thing in human nature, and as ineradicable in its way as the other equally necessary instinct towards Pleasure. To put it in another way, perhaps the ordinary Hedonism makes a mistake in failing to recognise the joy of Ascendancy, and (if it is not a 'bull' to say so) the pleasure which lies in the denial of pleasure. In order to enjoy life one must be a master of life--for to be a slave to its inconsistencies can only mean torment; and in order to enjoy the senses one must be master of them. To dominate the actual world you must, like Archimedes, base your fulcrum somewhere beyond.
In such moods a man delights to feel his supremacy, not only over the beasts of the field, but over his own bodily and mental powers: no ordinary
pleasure so great, but its rejection serves to throw out into relief this greater; no task so stern, but endurance is sterner; no pain so fierce but it wakes the soul to secret laughter. If there is something narrow in the creed of the ascetic on its negative side--that of denial--one cannot but feel that on its positive side, the establishment of authority and kingship, it has a real and vital meaning.
In another mood, however (equally undeniable and important), man acknowledges his delight in life, and gives the rein to his desires to chariot him to the extremest bounds of his kingdom. The kiss of the senses is beautiful beyond all and every abstraction; the touch of the sunlight, the glory of form and color, the magic of sweet sound, the joy of human embraces, the passion of sex--all so much the more perfect because they are as it were something divine made actual and realisable. In such a mood asceticism in any form seems the grossest impiety and folly, and the pursuit of the Unseen a mere abandonment of the world for its shadow.
Are not these two moods both necessary--the great rhythmical heart-beat, the systole and diastole, of the human soul? The one, a going forth and gathering of materials from all sources, the other an organising of them under the most perfect light,
or rather (it may be said) a consumption of them to feed the most perfect flame; the one centrifugal, the other centripetal; the one individual, the other universal; and so forth--each required for the purposes of the other, and making the other possible?
Do we not want a truly experiential view of what may be called Religion--derived from the largest actual acquaintance with, and acceptance of, all the facts both of mundane and extra-mundane consciousness--neither (like some secularists) denying the one, nor (like some religionists) minimising or contemning the other? And is it not possible that in the early Star and Sex worships we have evidence of the attempt of the human mind to establish some such sane polarity?
155:1 These dates have shifted now by two or three weeks owing to the equinoctial precession.
156:1 The date of his birth was not fixed till A.D. 531--when it was computed by a monkish astrologer.
158:1 Note especially the ordeals through which the youth of so many savage races have had to pass before being admitted to manhood.