The Origins of Christianity
by Revilo P. Oliver
Professor of the Classics, Retired; University of Illinois, Urbana
RITUAL AND ARYAN WORSHIP
A RELIGIOUS RITUAL is a fixed sequence of acts (often including speech) performed to make magic by influencing supernatural forces. Most rituals began at a time so remote and among men so primitive that they may antedate our race; their origins and original meanings were forgotten long before the earliest written records, while the rites were perpetuated by a continuing tradition, so that even the function they were thought to serve may have changed drastically as the pattern of the ritual was handed down through innumerable generations. The process may be illustrated by a partial analogy in the development of language. As we all know, many speakers of English today, for example, will say that a man "has shot his bolt," without thinking of how long it takes to reload a crossbow; that he was "taken aback," without understanding the navigation of ships under sail; and that he "curries favor," without having ever heard of Fauvel or knowing what a favel is and without knowing how to curry a horse. Many persons could not think of any connection between a muscular man and a mouse, and rare indeed must be the individuals who think of the Egyptian god Amon Ra when they meet a woman named Mary.
Rituals are a common source of myths, much as one phase of the Germanic celebration of Christmas gave rise to the myth of Santa Claus, who, by the way, is a typically Aryan myth. (To anticipate a point we shall have to make later, ask yourself whether we "believe in" Santa Claus and then, would an observer come to earth, like Voltaire’s Micromégas, from a remote planet conclude that we "believed in" Santa Claus?) As everyone knows, the customs associated with Santa Claus are much older than the Christian coloring that has been given them. And finally we have an aetiological myth to explain the myth, in a story that is now having some success as an alternative to Dickens’ Christmas Carol, a tale by an obscure writer of popular fiction who imagined that Claus was a Roman named Claudius, who was "converted" at the Crucifixion and then became the first missionary to northern countries. In a less literate age, Seabury Quinn’s short story, written for a "pulp" magazine a few decades ago, would probably become an item of popular belief.
A good example of the persistence of ritual may be found in the Thesmophoria, the ceremony that Aristophanes so delightfully parodied in his well-known comedy. It was not an Aryan rite: it was practiced by the indigenous population of Greece when the first wave of Aryans arrived, and there are indications that for a considerable time many or most of the Greeks refused to have anything to do with the cult of the "Pelasgians" whom they had subdued. The purpose of the ritual, so far as we can determine from its performance in historical times, was to ensure that seeds planted in the autumn would germinate in the spring, but we have no idea what spirit or spirits the ritual was intended to placate or stimulate. When the Greeks took up the ritual, they decided, not unnaturally, that it must be associated with Demeter, their goddess of grain, and so they saw in the first day of the three-day ceremony a reference to her descent into the underworld. And suitable aetiological myths were produced. It is likely that the prohibition of pomegranates in the ritual contributed an important part of the myth of Persephone. The sacrifice of pigs certainly produced the myth of Eubuleus. And what was probably only a verbal similarity between the name of the secret cult objects and the Greek word for ‘law and order’ convinced the Greeks that the ceremony in some way commemorated the establishment of civilized society. And in our own time an anthropologist (Professor Agnes Vaughan) has elaborated a "scientific" explanation of the Thesmophoria that is just another aetiological myth.
Rituals are rationally inexplicable. Some, especially the cult dances of primitive tribes, may represent the "methectic collaboration with autochthonic spirits" that warms the minds of some anthropologists, but that explanation, at best, does not take us very far. When, for example, an Arval promises to sacrifice a spotless white heifer to Juno, if the goddess keeps her part of a bargain, why should Juno be interested? Oh yes, the animal is a heifer because Juno is female and her delicacy would be offended by a male offering; it is white, because she is a goddess of the world of light and a black animal would be suited only to a deity of the underworld; and it must be spotless because divinity demands what is perfect and rare. But what conceivable pleasure could Juno derive from watching her votaries banquet on Wiener Schnitzel while the inedible parts of the animal are burned on her altar? (The aetiological myth about Zeus’s mistake is, of course, humorous and in the vein of Aristophanes’ burlesque of the idea.) One can try to imagine explanations of Juno’s odd tastes, but after we have discoursed about totems and theromorphic spirits and the like, we end with the conclusion that is fundamental to all religions: in this instance, the gods are pleased by the sacrifice of an animal because animal sacrifices are pleasing to the gods. Q.E.D.
Primitive rituals are comparatively simple, no more complicated than the action and pattern of a traditional Morris dance, for example. Anyone can learn the ritual by listening attentively to someone who has performed it. No technical expertise is needed to make magic in this way. Even a fairly elaborate series of rituals is no more elaborate than the ritual of a Masonic lodge, for example, which imposes so little strain on mnemonic faculties that a local barber or automobile salesman or tavern-keeper could memorize his way to exaltation as a Worshipful Grand Master or Sublime Potentate, if his finances permitted.
This is a most important point. If we restrict the word ‘priest’ to specialists in the supernatural, a religion of rituals requires no priests. If a priest is just a man who performs a religious rite, then, in such a religion, any person, not an infant or of the wrong sex, may be a priest whenever occasion demands it.
What appears to be the native Aryan worship is therefore entirely feasible.
If we perpend the available evidence for social structure and religious practices of the Aryans when they first appear in history – the oldest hymns in the Rig-veda, the practices of the early Greek cults, the native religion of the Romans, what we can ascertain about the rites of the prehistoric Norse, and a scattering of corroboratory information from such sources as Tokharian and even traces in Hittite – we are driven irresistibly to the conclusion that the early and authentic Aryan religion had no place for professional holy men.
The essentials of native Aryan religious practice may be summarized in a few lines. The head of every household was its priest, who himself performed for his household such rites as the family tradition prescribed, usually or always including some sacra peculiar to the family line, and such other ceremonies as seemed appropriate to him. If wealthy and devoted to some particular god, he might erect an open altar or a modest temple (i.e., structure) to that deity on his own property, and the shrine would descend to his heirs in the usual way. The owner would determine whether other votaries of the god should be admitted to private property.
The tribe or the state was, in a sense, a great family and naturally had its own rites and gods to which it accorded a tribal or national worship. The rites were invariably performed by citizens, never by professionals. And, of course, the community had its own shrines and temples, which might be no more than a plot of ground in an open field or in a forest, but was usually an edifice as simple or elaborate as the community’s prosperity dictated.
The rites were conducted and sacrifices performed personally by persons, selected temporarily or permanently from the citizen body, who devoted to their duties a small amount of time occasionally taken from their normal occupations, and these citizens had no assistants other than a janitor to keep the temple clean and perhaps, if inclined to luxury, a slave or temporary employee to do the more messy jobs of butchering. The Thesmophoria we mentioned above were rites performed by married women, and in Athens the married women, wives of Athenian citizens and necessarily also daughters of Athenian citizens, in each Attic deme selected each year two of their number, financially able to bear the modest expenses, to organize and preside over the ceremonies, in collaboration, of course, with the women elected by the other demes. At Rome, all the great priesthoods were filled by the election or co-option of men (or, where appropriate, women) from the leading families, usually Patrician families. The offices were usually held for life, but were not hereditary, and there were exceptions. For example, the priestess of the Bona Dea in any year was, ex officio, the wife of the presiding magistrate for that year. The priesthoods were high political offices and were sought as honors or for the political power they conferred.
No taint of religious professionalism appears. It is true that one of the flaminates, that of the Flamen Dialis, was hedged about with traditional taboos (the purpose of which had long been forgotten), which severely limited the political and particularly the military careers of the holder of that office: that is why the young Caesar prudently refused it. Late in the Republic some politician raised the constitutional question whether one of the other flamens could be prevented from taking command of an army outside Italy, but in general a Roman priest was a citizen of prominence, and no one ever imagined that he should have any religious qualification for the position, other than a suitable lineage, usually Patrician birth.
If the tribe or state had a specific ceremony for the collectivity, the priest was always, ex officio, the chief of the tribe, the king of the state, or a magistrate who replaced the king if the monarchy had been eliminated. In Rome under Augustus, one of the signs that the state was being gradually and almost surreptitiously converted to a monarchy was that Augustus (and his successors) became the Pontifex Maximus ex officio.
Aryan society doubtless included individuals who claimed some special skill in interpreting omens (one thinks of Tiresias) and religious enthusiasts. Such persons were free to communicate their opinions and might be asked for advice in perplexing situations, but they were citizens, received no emoluments, had no official standing, and could only offer advice which the king or responsible magistrate might or might not see fit to take (it was up to Agamemnon to decide whether he should pay attention to Tiresias’s monitions). There were no professional holy men. No one could gain wealth or grasp power by claiming to be an expert technician of the supernatural.
In short, the evidence supports the conclusion of Professor Hans F. K. Günther: "A priesthood as a more sacred class, elevated above the rest of the people, could not develop amongst the original Indo-Europeans. The idea of priests as mediators between the deity and men would have been a contradiction of Indo-European religiosity."* But there are difficulties.
* Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans, translated by Vivian Bird and Roger Pearson (London, Clair Press, 1967). The question here is treated somewhat more fully in Ganther’s Die Nordische Rasse bei den Indogermanen Asiens (München, 1934) which has not been translated, so far as I know. The parts of Günther’s work that are most open to question are the dating of the cult of Odin and the supposed religious toleration in Iceland, neither of which is relevant here. It may be that here and there he is not sufficiently strict in weighing data favorable to his thesis. It is true that he holds our race in high esteem, and that, I need not say, is considered very sinful today.
Georges Dumézil, a sagacious and distinguished student of Aryan religions, has identified a "tripartite" modality of thought, an instinctive grouping of concepts in units of three, as characteristic of our racial mentality; which appears in everything from our fairy stories and other fiction, in which it is always the third attempt to solve a problem that succeeds, to the grouping of gods in triads, as in the Capitoline trinity at Rome (originally, Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus; later, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) and the two Norse triads (Odin, Thor, and Tyr; Niord, Freyr, and Freyja) which were reduced to the trinity worshipped in the famous temple at Uppsala (Odin, Thor, and Freyr). Dumézil finds this same tripartite pattern in a social organization consisting of warriors, priests, and commoners, thus making a priestly class a native and necessary part of early Aryan society. We may counter this theoretical objection by arguing either that the tripartite thinking did not extend to social organization or that Dumézil has wrongly identified the three elements, which could be king (or equivalent), nobility, and commoners, or even aristocracy, plebeians, and serfs. And there is the solid evidence that the earliest Aryan societies of which we have knowledge show no certain trace of a priestly caste.
The real difficulty is that no societies have been more priest-ridden than India after the Aryan conquest, where a caste of priests achieved an effective monopoly of all religious rites, and Celtic Gaul, where the Druids had virtually unlimited power. In other Aryan societies we find a caste of professional holy men, as in ancient Persia, or a priesthood which, though not hereditary, has attained an ascendancy over the citizens and the state.
So drastic a change seems, at first sight, incredible. It seems most unlikely, a priori, that in India, for example, in a territory that was certainly conquered by the Aryan invaders and ruled by them, and on which they imposed their Indo-European language and presumably the culture it represented so thoroughly that all but the vaguest recollection of what had preceded them disappeared, the Aryan principalities and kingdoms should have developed a religion and a social structure that was "a contradiction" of Aryan religiosity. For this paradox, however, Professor Günther has a reasonable explanation. In all parts of the world, Aryan migrations, so far as we can discern, followed a pattern that must have been determined by our racial peculiarities. An Aryan tribe invades a desirable territory and subdues a much more numerous native population of a different race and is content to rule over them, instead of exterminating them and even their domestic animals, as the Jews claim to have done in Canaan and as the Assyrians may have done in some places. The natives, thus spared by what could be considered a biological blunder, were made subjects, but the majority of them were not enslaved or even reduced to serfdom; they and their native customs were probably treated with a measure of the toleration and protection that the Romans later accorded their subjects. The inevitable result was miscegenation, both biological and cultural. The consequence of the long and intimate association of the dominant Aryans with their subjects of a different race, Professor Günther says, was that "a spirit alien in nature," corresponding to the dilution and hybridization of the racial stock, "permeated the original religious ideas" of the Aryans and "then expressed in their language religious ideas which were no longer purely or even predominantly European [i.e., Aryan]." And he identifies certain elements in our race’s mentality and especially in its religiosity, especially the lack of fanaticism, which made it particularly susceptible to the contagion of alien superstitions. What happened, in other words, was a kind of spiritual mongrelization that, in all probability, largely preceded and certainly facilitated the biological mongrelization.
We may find a small but neat example of this process in the Thesmophoria we have mentioned above. In the Peloponnesus, these rites were practiced by the native population until the Dorian invasion; thereafter, for some centuries, the ceremonies persisted only in the mountain-girt hill country of Arcadia, which the Dorians had not taken the trouble to occupy; but then the Dorian conquerors, including the notoriously conservative Spartans, begin to practice themselves the alien ritual of the Thesmophoria, giving to it a name that was at least partly Greek and associating it with their own religious concepts.*
* There is an indubitable historical basis for this Greek tradition, first reported by Herodotus (II.171). The Greeks, naturally, had no means of knowing whence the Pelasgians (who were white, but of undetermined race) derived the ritual or with what superstitions the Pelasgians had associated it.
The process, so clearly illustrated by the Thesmophoria, probably took place in every territory that the Aryans subdued, and the cumulative effect must have been a religious and cultural perversion that could well have produced in India, for example, even so drastic a change as the eventual subjugation of the conquerors’ descendants to a caste of professional holy men. For an extreme and frightening example of what mongrelization can do to the minds of our race, we have only to consider the Guayakís of South America, who, as is conclusively shown by anthropological and especially anthropometric studies, contain a large admixture of Nordic blood and exhibit a cultural degeneracy noteworthy even among the Indian populations of that continent.†
† See Jacques de Mahieu, L’Agonie du Dieu Soleil (Paris, Laffont, 1974); there is a German translation (which I have not seen), but none in English, so far as I know. Cf. Nouvelle École, #24 (mars 1974), pp. 46 sqq, Pessimists, who assume that the present direction of society in Britain and the United States will continue unchanged and have the courage to extrapolate from it, may see in the Guayakís the prototypes of what is likely to be left of our race two or three centuries hence.
These considerations, and especially our race’s notorious lack of a racial consciousness and its concomitant generosity toward other races, adequately explain a corruption of its native religious tendencies, and accordingly we may accord to Professor Günther’s description of our pristine religiosity a high degree of probability, although the limitations of the available data preclude certainty. We may, however, observe that it is possible to go much farther in speculations that can be no more than suggestive.
L. A. Waddell was a distinguished scholar, although his achievements and reputation have been eclipsed because his pioneer attempt to read Sumerian as an Indo-European language was as mistaken as the work of his numerous contemporaries, who were trying to read it as a Semitic language.* On his misreading of Sumerian, he based an elaborate reconstruction of early history that, despite the great learning shown in it, necessarily collapsed with the failure of its foundation. That does not necessarily invalidate his startling suggestion that the name of the priestly caste that worked its way to power in India, Brãmana is a word derived from Semitic; that the institution of a class of professional priests in Sumeria was the work of the Semites that gradually took over Sumerian society; and that the priestly caste in India was derived from Sumeria.†
* We now know, of course, that Sumerian is neither Indo-European nor Semitic. The race of the Sumerians is uncertain; the possibility that they were Aryan cannot be excluded.
† Indo-Sumerian Seals Deciphered (London, 1925), passim; The Makers of Civilization in Race and History (New Delhi, Chand, 1968 = London, 1929), pp. 386 sqq. If Waddell completed and published the special work promised on p. 399, I have overlooked it. I think it probable that the Sanskrit brãhmana is cognate to the Latin flámen and is therefore Indo-European, but I need not tell anyone even casually acquainted with Indo-European philology, in which everything that is not obvious is extremely obscure, that no etymology of either of the two words is accepted by a majority of students. What is important is not the origin of the word, but of the idea that it represents. Note that there are several related words in Sanskrit that should be carefully distinguished: brãhma (neut.), perhaps best translated as ‘divine’; Brãhma or Brãhman (neut.), the impersonal, unknowable cosmopoietic force that is regarded as the ultimate and only eternal reality; Brãhman (masc.), the creator god who is a member of the Hindu Trinity; Brãhmana (masc.with fem. Brãhmani), a member of the highest and most venerable caste, born holy, and first of the twice-born; Brãhmana (neut.), one of the commentaries on the Vedas, some of which are interesting as showing early stages of the process by which rituals were so complicated and elaborated by interpretation as to make expert assistance desirable even before the rituals were made the monopoly of experts. It is uncertain which of these words should be regarded as the one from which the others were derived.
The etymology is probably wrong, but the suggestion is made the more impressive by the fact that Waddell in 1925 must have been prescient to anticipate that subsequent excavations would prove beyond doubt the presence in the Indus Valley of a relatively advanced civilization that flourished before the Aryan invasion and was very closely connected with the Sumerians so closely that it is possible that the Sumerians came to Mesopotamia from the Indus Valley.*
* Attempts to identify the civilized people of the Indus Valley as Dravidians on linguistic grounds are nugatory; on the most elaborate attempt to do so, see Arlene Zide and Kamil Zvelebil, The Soviet Decipherment of the Indus Valley Script (The Hague, Mouton, 1976). There are extraordinary similarities between that script and the rongo-rongo script of Easter Island and they are too great to be coincidental; from this fact, he who wishes may evoke romantic dreams of what might have been.
This suggests a question that will startle students who naïvely cling to the old notion that race is shown by geography or language.† What was the race of persons who contrived the establishment of priestly castes in ancient India and Persia? That the breathtaking question is not entirely idle will appear from indications that the dominant priesthoods may originally have been racial, especially the following:
The great hero of the priestly caste of Brahmans in India is Parasurãma, an incarnation of the god Vishnu and a great warrior (!), who extirpated the Ksatrias, the Aryan caste of warriors and rulers, by killing each and every member of the "kingly race" twenty-one times – a phenomenal overkill that suggests a Semitic imagination! The blessed event thus described is mythical, of course, but something did extirpate the warrior caste (unless some escaped to become the ancestors of the Rajputs (rãjaputras) as the latter claim), and by the Third Century, at the latest, supposedly Aryan states were ruled by kings who were Sudras, i.e., descendants of the dark-skinned race that the Aryans, and quite possibly their predecessors in the Indus Valley, had subdued and subjected to civilization. It is probable that the ruling caste was destroyed as Aryan aristocracies always are, by miscegenation, war, internal feuds, revolution, and superstition, but the racial animus of the Brahmans’ Saviour and of the Brahmans who devised and perpetuated the story is unmistakable.
† So far as I know, not even the most advanced "Liberals" today would identify as Englishmen everyone who writes a passable English or everyone who lives in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Until fairly recent times, however, historians have blithely assumed that everyone who wrote in Sanskrit, at least before a comparatively late date, was an Aryan, and that everyone who lived in Rome or even in the vast territory of the Roman Empire was a Roman, unless clearly identified as of other nationality and race and this so long as the Empire lasted as a political unit and long after the Romans had become, for all practical purposes, extinct. It is true that very often – even usually – we have no means of knowing the race of an individual who has adopted a civilized name. For example, we would naturally suppose that L. Caecilius Iucundus, the wealthy banker of Pompeii, had been a Roman, if his vanity had not led him to commission the repulsive portrait that shows him to have been some intruder from Asia Minor.
The Magi, also, were an hereditary caste of holy men, who claimed lineal descent from an especially godly clan or tribe in Media. The language of the Magi and their holy books is uncertain: it may have been Aramaic, the Semitic tongue that was the common language of the Persian Empire (including its administration), since Persian was not widely understood by the subjects. As is well known, one of the Magi tried to grab the Persian Empire by impersonating the deceased brother of Cambyses, and when the impersonator was unmasked and killed, it was believed that he had been the leader or agent of a conspiracy of the Magi to take over the Empire, and popular indignation in the capital resulted in the famous Magophonia, which sounds very much like a pogrom, because the religion seems not to have been affected by it. There is no hint of a religious schism, such as that between Catholics and Protestants in Europe, and Darius himself recorded his unaltered piety in extant inscriptions. An alien caste of priests would naturally have enlisted members of the dominant race as accomplices in one way or another, and the latter could have carried on, perhaps with gratification, after their principals or superiors had been massacred. If, for example, all the Catholic priests in Italy today were massacred on religious grounds, we cannot imagine how Italy could remain a Catholic nation; but if the hierarchy and its favorites were composed of aliens – Irish, for example – and they were massacred on racial grounds, the nation’s religion would not necessarily be compromised and might even be stimulated.
It is true that both the Brahmans and the Magi loudly claimed to be ãrya, but it is not inconceivable that they began by using the word in its general meaning, ‘noble, excellent,’ and claiming for themselves the transcendent excellence of their holiness, extending the ambiguous word, by the verbal trickery common to theologians, to a racial signification. Nor would such a supercherie be impossible for clever white men of a different race dwelling among Aryans who exhibited such physical diversity, as in color of hair and eyes, as is taken for granted today. As we all know, many Jews now not only pretend to be Englishmen or Frenchmen or Americans, but, if not betrayed by too grossly alien features and if moderately discreet in their conduct, are actually accepted as such by the general populace, which exhibits the characteristically Aryan disregard of race. A comparable masquerade might not have been impossible in India and Persia.
These remarks, needless to say, are intended to suggest what speculations could be based on some neglected items in our fragmentary information about the early history of Aryan nations. If an hypothesis were based on them, it would pose some startling questions, e.g., was the caste system in India originally based, not on a distinction between Aryans and non-Aryans, but on a distinction between white and dark-skinned races? It would require a reconsideration of all the evidence for the early history of India so drastic that the very prospect would freeze the blood of a modern historian.
The speculations, furthermore, are irrelevant here. No one would contend that Aryans have not been pirates, bandits, and swindlers, exploiting their racial kinsmen; it would be absurd to ask whether they could not also have become professionals in religion!
It will suffice to have indicated the likelihood that our racial psyche, though highly susceptible to alien ideas and superstitions, is innately averse from granting power and influence to professional holy men. This may help us understand some otherwise puzzling episodes in our racial history.
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