The Writings of Revilo P Oliver 1908-1994

The Origins of Christianity

by Revilo P. Oliver

Professor of the Classics, Retired; University of Illinois, Urbana



WHATEVER the origin of professional priesthoods and their claim that a strange expertise is necessary to mediate between their human customers and the invisible supernatural beings that are supposed to have power over nature, that origin was also the beginning of an interminable history of sordid chicanery, fraud, and forgery. The holy man’s prosperity and even his livelihood depend on his ability, or the ability of the caste or professional organization to which he belongs, to convince ordinary mortals that he has powers they do not possess.

In the third of his Dialogues, Renan, speculating about the consequences of the scientific research that, even in his day, was giving governments ever increasing power to control and coerce a populace, noted the inadequacy of religion as a means of social control. The structure of Hindu society, he observed, ultimately depended on the Brahmans’ claim to have supernatural powers, including that of blasting a human being with a glance from their holy eyes. "But no human being has ever been blasted by a Brahman. He is therefore using an imaginary fear to support a mendacious creed." The Brahman’s authority (and income) therefore depended on a bluff. To make his point, Renan simplified his statement by ignoring the prevalent (and non-Aryan) mentality of the masses of polyphyletic India at the time that the Brahmanic superiority was firmly established, but he has made clear by a sharp contrast the problem that confronts all professional priesthoods, whether a class of individuals without formal organization or a body of disciplined professionals directed by a person or central office that has quasi-despotic authority over them.

The Brahmans’ prestige (and income) depended primarily on their theology and their supposed intimacy with, and expert knowledge of, the gods and the means of influencing them. This they augmented with stories about Brahmans, perhaps especially gifted ones (rishis), who, in some distant place or time, had blasted a discourteous person with a glance or impregnated a virgin by focusing his thought on her or resurrected a dead man with an incantation. Those tales edified the gullible, but there were, especially before the days of Brahmanic ascendancy, wicked individuals with materialistic tendencies who might doubt what they had not actually seen, and it was necessary to impress them. Clever and dexterous holy men found ways to do that, and thus was bom the magic for which India acquired a reputation that was no doubt deserved at one time, although our own more adroit magicians regard the techniques as crude and almost childish by their more sophisticated standards. No Hindu fakir could compete with an ordinarily accomplished magician, to say nothing of such experts as Houdini and James Randi.

The only question is the extent of conscious fraud and deception in all religions. It is not a simple question. A well-known religious technique, which has been studied by some very competent anthropologists, is used by the Eskimo shamans. The observers have noted, by the way, that the shamans, although mentally more alert than their tribesmen, are always neurotic individuals, spiritually consumed with envy of men who are admired by the tribe for courage, skill in hunting, the virility that attracts women, or even good luck, so that the shamans are covertly malevolent toward a society that respects qualities they do not possess. They maintain their prestige by using hypnotism on the simple-minded, and by performing the less-demanding tricks of prestidigitation and illusion employed by our stage magicians. A somewhat more sophisticated stunt consists of swallowing a thin bladder that is filled with seal’s blood; at the psychological moment, the shaman ruptures the bladder by contracting his abdominal muscles and vomits up a small flood of blood, thus mightily impressing with his sanctity his open-mouthed and goggle-eyed customers.

The trick is obviously a hoax and the shaman must know it, but some responsible anthropologists report that, so far as they can determine, the shaman actually believes that he is exercising a power given him by supernatural forces with which he communicates in trances. That seems incredible to us at first sight and until we remember that the shamans belong to a race that has a mentality so different from our own that we are illogical if we expect logic from them or try to set limits to what such minds may be able to believe.

Aryans, if sane, do not delude themselves when they use trickery. For example, when the little Fox girls, bored in bed and inclined to mischief, thought of a way to scare their silly mamma, and their adult half-sister shrewdly perceived the revenue-producing virtues of the spirits of the dear departed, they inaugurated one of the most successful and lucrative rackets of modern times, which kept simpletons agog for almost a century, and produced some "Mediums" of really noteworthy ingenuity and dexterity – some, indeed, who imposed on such surprising suckers as Sir Arthur Conan

Doyle and Sir Oliver Lodge when those otherwise intelligent gentlemen were emotionally overwrought. Now it is absolutely certain that all the successful "spiritualistic mediums," from the sub-adolescent little girls whose pranks started the craze to the individuals who are trying today to revive a discredited business, are conscious frauds who exploit the gullibility of the insatiably credulous and the sorrow of the bereaved. There have been psychopathic individuals whose hallucinations convinced them they could communicate with ghosts, but their addled minds lacked the cunning to impose on many persons.

The "mediums," however, leave us with a psychological problem of great importance, since we are dealing with Aryans. About most of the famous spook-raisers there can be no doubt: they were very adroit magicians and competent actors (or, more commonly, actresses) who cynically exploited human credulity and irrationality for profit or for the pleasure of notoriety. But the careers of some make it seem likely that they had a certain perverse sincerity. They knew that they were perpetrating hoaxes, of course, but they evidently had religious convictions and had convinced themselves that they were performing a great and pious service by so deluding others as to instill in them belief in the existence and purposes of the supernatural beings in whose reality the "medium" herself actually believed by an act of faith. Outrageous deceit may, and often does, accompany a sincere faith, paradoxical as that fact seems to a coolly rational mind. And if we do not bear that fact in mind, there is much that we will misunderstand in the history of religions.

There is another factor of very great importance that we must take into account: the hallucinatory power of many botanicals. The investigations of R. Gordon Weston have made it virtually certain that the soma of the Brahmans and the homa (haoma) of the Magi was the sacred mushroom (Amanita muscaria), which is probably the greatest single source of religious experiences, although there are, of course, many others. Incidentally, it may be worthy of note that Weston is of the opinion that the sacred mushroom was not used by the priests at Eleusis in the celebrated mysteries that gave to so many Greeks an assurance of immortality; from a cursory inspection of the records, he thinks that as many as four other hallucinatory drugs may have been used at various times.* Needless to say, the pious phamacopia was always a professional secret of the holy men, wherever it was used, and investigators must depend chiefly on the experiences reported by initiates, often inadvertently, since they were sworn to silence in most cults.

* See Weston’s contribution to Flesh of the Gods, edited by Peter Furst (New York, Praeger, 1972), pp.194 sq. Scores of volumes and hundreds of articles have been devoted to attempts to detemine the nature of the Eleusinian Mysteries from the hints let fall by initiates who were bound by dire oaths not to disclose their experiences, but I do not recall having read one that took into account the probable use of hallucinatory drugs. Recent archaeological excavations have permitted a more accurate description of the sanctuary; see George Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton University, 1961).

The hallucinations induced by such drugs partly depend on the preconceptions of the mind that experiences them; in other words, persons who have ingested the drug see, in large part, what they expect to see, usually accompanied by visual illusions of extraordinary brilliance and often beauty and perhaps auditory illusions that are in some way distorted or intensified. In other words, a person who drank an adequate quantity of soma for the purpose of "elevating his consciousness" to perception of a "higher world" was likely to see gods as he had imagined them, but as part of hallucinations so vivid and intense, surpassing everything in his waking experience, as to seem wonderful revelations of the supernatural. If the soma were administered to him without his knowledge – in a cup of ordinary wine, for example – he would probably see images drawn from his subconscious mind, accompanied, of course, by illusions so vivid that they command the credence of persons who have no knowledge of the psychagogic power of some pharmaca. Now a professional holy man who administers such a potion to his clients must (at least, if Aryan) know what he is doing, but it is quite possible that he, having himself experienced such hallucinations, is himself persuaded of their reality and believes that the sacred mushroom or whatever other hallucinogen he is using does have the miraculous power of disclosing to mortal perception the mirific realities of a supernatural world. He may delude others, himself deluded. In the nature of things, of course, we can never be sure of the hidden thoughts and secret beliefs of any individual, and there are many circumstances in which it would be unjust to assume fraud when other explanations are not unlikely, especially when we have scientific knowledge that makes the world somewhat less mysterious to us than it was to the person whom we are judging.

Until quite recent times, the mysterious potency of the sacred mushroom and similar botanical poisons was the closely guarded secret of certain orders of holy men, who transmitted knowledge of it orally or only in enigmatic or cryptic allusions in writing.* Even today, we have not ascertained how hallucinations are excited in otherwise sane minds by the numerous drugs that are often designated by the offensive neologism "psychedelic."† We only know that they induce in the victim hallucinations that are so vivid that they seem to him as real as, or even more real than, his perceptions of quotidian reality, from which they differ so drastically as to seem supernatural.

* There is thus ample justification for the method followed by John Allegro in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (New York, Doubleday, 1970), although I fear the learned and distinguished scholar sadly overworks some of his etymologies.

† The neologism, if not an ignorant error for psychodeletic, is not only improperly formed, but even more improperly derived from dÁloj, ‘clear, manifest,’ evidently for the purpose of suggesting that fits of insanity "expand the mind’s awareness" or make visible a "higher reality." This hoax naturally pleases, in one way or another, the numerous and diverse gangs that have vested interests in promoting superstitions about a "spiritual world" or in inhibiting rationality in our people.

The delusions frequently include visions of praeterhuman beings, evidently drawn from the subconsciousness of the victim.* In other words, the drugs induce a temporary insanity from which the victim may recover without being aware of what has happened to him, and some of the drugs, at least, if frequently ingested, bring on, by a cumulative effect, a permanent mental alienation. We also know of various psychopathic conditions that involve continuous delusions, less spectacular, it is said, than those evoked by drugs, but more or less permanent, and deform only a part of the mind, so that these forms of madness do not preclude a forced rationality of conduct and are often accompanied by a very high degree of cunning. Persons suffering from these mental diseases or deformations may not seem insane to their contemporaries and may acquire prestige as prophets and the like. While they often employ fraud and deceit, the delusions from which they suffer cannot be classed as intentional.

* In one case, a university student in his mid-twenties, having ingested a synthetic hallucinogen of great potency, lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate, fled in panic down a street until he encountered a middle-aged woman, whom he wildly implored to save him from the demons who were pursuing him. He was said not to have been superstitious when sane, but it is likely that his subconscious mind retained stories about devils and fiends he had heard in his childhood or even later.

We must often remain in doubt about prominent figures in the history of religions, even in recent times. Emanuel Swedenborg was a man of the highest intellectual ability, eminent as one of the greatest and most versatile men of the Eighteenth Century: he wrote Latin verse of exceptional merit; was a mathematician of note; was brilliant as a civil and military engineer; was an influential member of the Swedish House of Nobles and distinguished for his studies in political economy and mercantile theory; was an expert on metallurgy and mining; made discoveries in palaeontology, optics, physics, chemistry that anticipated discoveries made a century after his work in those fields had been obscured by his later activities; and was a pioneer in studying the structure and functioning of the human brain. There was no scientist more distinguished in the Europe of his time. It is true that he had religious interests and tried to ascertain how the brain was controlled by the soul, but this cannot explain why, in 1745, when he was fifty-seven, he was suddenly accosted by various angels, who gave him a Cook’s tour of Heaven and Hell, and introduced him to "God, the Lord, Creator and Redeemer of the World," who gave him a commission to save mankind from the bloody piety of the various Christian sects then still engaged in perpetual war to extirpate heresy. Anyone who reads the nine volumes of his Arcana coelestia and its infernal sequel will be impressed by the ingenuity with which the author uses the theological device of allegorical interpretation no less than by the wild phantasmagoria of his hallucinations. Now Swedenborg, who had a high and evidently deserved reputation for personal integrity, was too famous to have sought notoriety, and neither sought nor obtained profit. So we remain suspended between the three possible explanations: (a) he perpetrated a calculated and brilliant hoax in the hope of ending the religious antagonisms that were still squandering the blood and energy of Europe; (b) he, perhaps inadvertently, ingested some extract of the sacred mushroom or a comparable drug that induced hallucinations he mistook for actual experiences; or (c) his mind, overheated by speculations or debilitated by premature senility, lapsed into one form of insanity.

For men such as Swedenborg, ancient or modem, one must feel sympathy and a certain respect, however we explain their activities, but there are not many of them. Throughout history, with a melancholy consistency, holy men have been imposters and swindlers, differing only, it would seem, in skill and sophistication. But our contemporaries seem to regard mention of that fact as a social impropriety, if not an obscenity.

Perhaps no archaeological find in the Western Hemisphere is more famous than the colossal heads, nine feet high, skillfully sculptured in hard basalt, that were unearthed at La Venta in Tabasco. Commonly assigned to various dates between 800 B.C. and 350 B.C., they enter prominently into every discussion of early navigation from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Mexico and are a prime datum in every theory concerning the race of such visitors to the Western Hemisphere and the cause of their coming; and even apart from such controversies, the heads naturally excite curiosity in themselves. Most of the references to them, however, omit the datum that in the central head a small tube was patiently bored through the basalt from the mouth to a point behind the ear as a speaking-tube for the convenience of a priest, who thus communicated the Word of God to his True Believers, whoever they were.

The promotion of holiness often demanded devices more ingenious than speaking-tubes, and inspired a great variety of mechanical, acoustical, and chemical contrivances. Even our scanty sources on thaumaturgic technology in the ancient world describe some of them. Hero of Alexandria, in his famous essay on mechanics, shows the construction of a number of miracle-making machines, but we know that even more elaborate ones were in use in various temples to show the ways of god to man. Unfortunately, we do not have a description of the apparatus that was used to make gods and other supernatural beings appear on a wide curtain of smoke or vapor, but an optical lens must have been used. Manifestations of divinity were not limited to temples. A common procedure was to take a pious person to the middle of an open field on a moonless night when some deity, such as Hecate, was scheduled to be passing by; the sucker was warned to keep his head covered and not to look on divinity, but he, of course, always risked a glance when the holy man’s concealed accomplice set fire to a falcon or hawk that had been covered with tow and pitch or doused in petroleum; the anguished screaming of the blazing-bird as it flew frantically away always helped instill the fear of god and suitable generosity in the worshipper.

It would be a waste of time to multiply examples of religious techniques in the Classical world amid the first great civilization of our race, but we may mention one measure of its decline. Livy knew from his sources the secret of the miraculous torches that were carried by hysterical females during the Bacchanalian craze, excited by a Greek-speaking evangelist in 186 B.C., but in the Second Century, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and Pausanias mention chemically similar miracles without indicating that they did not believe them to be of supernatural origin. One hopes those authors were not so credulous, but they lived in a century in which both reason and our race were nearing their end in the mongrelized Empire that was still called Roman.

Where the skill to perform miracles is lacking, visual demonstration must be replaced by appeals to the imagination. The arts of oratory and creative writing, with rhetoric nicely adjusted to the comprehension and prejudices of the audience, can produce an effect almost as strong, and have the great advantage that they can body forth in the mind of the hearer or reader marvels that could not be performed on even the most elaborately equipped stage. Nothing is more persuasive than narratives purportedly by eye-witnesses of miracles, preferably supported by theological pronouncements made by a divinely-inspired prophet or by the god himself.

A student of religions must carefully distinguish between myths and the kind of compositions that we may call gospels. Among Aryans, myths do not purport to be history and are not so considered by intelligent adults, whereas gospels purport to be veracious and accurate reports of events that actually happened and of words that were actually uttered.

The Homeric poems are sometimes called "the Bible" of the Greeks. The epithet is grossly misleading. The two epics were indeed the writings that every literate Greek read, but he did not imagine they were history. He knew they were poetry. He knew that the Trojan War had taken place, and he believed – more or less – in the existence of the gods Homer mentions and was willing to believe that the Greek gods had been active, some on the Greek side and some on the Trojan, for he did not have the irrational fanaticism to suppose that the war had been a contest between right and wrong or that there were evil gods. But he knew that Homer had not been present at Troy and had never known anyone who had been. The poet had worked from uncertain and often conflicting traditions, from which he had selected the ones that suited his purpose, and these he had arranged and elaborated with details that were as much his own invention as the hexameters themselves. The epics were beautiful and memorable descriptions of what might have happened, but no one was obliged to believe they were truthful. An intelligent Greek believed the Iliad and Odyssey much as we believe Hamlet or King Lear or The Tempest. They were literature.

The Greeks intelligently understood that all the stories about their gods were myths. No one knew — no one could know what had actually happened. The gods probably existed, and certain traditional rituals and ceremonies were thought to propitiate or please them, and their intentions might be learned from certain oracles; furthermore, persons of extraordinary ability and achievement doubtless enjoyed divine favor and might trace their lineage to heroes, that is, to the children of gods by mortals. But no one could possibly know whether Zeus had abducted Europa or Perseus had slain the Gorgon and rescued Andromeda or Hercules had saved Alcestis from Thanatos. And since no one could know what had happened (if anything!), every poet, every story-teller was free to reshape the story in accordance with his own artistic instincts and his purpose in writing.

The same reasonable attitude appears in the Norse myths. The gods probably exist, and one should perform the traditional ceremonies in their honor, unless one is prepared to take the possible consequences of failing to do so. The Völuspá may well be right and it mirrors our Weltanschauung and essential pessimism, but, after all, no one can be sure that the sibyl was right or has been reported correctly. As for the Rígsþula, one would have to be feeble-minded to suppose that the story of Heimdall was intended to be believed:* it is, on the very face of it, a fantasy on the theme, (probably historical) that the primitive inhabitants of Scandanavia were Lapps, who were subdued by a migration of brown-haired Aryans, who were in turn forced to accept the mild overlordship of a band of blond Nordics. When the skalds recited their verses before a Norse chieftain and retinue of warriors, the listeners, who must have had a high native intelligence,† knew that the skald was inventing a large part of his story about the gods and heroes, and, what is more, many of the episodes were designedly humorous and intended to provoke laughter.**

* Who could seriously believe that a god created mankind by visiting existing households and in some way influencing the offspring of his host and hostess?

† The auditors, most of them illiterate, must have had both memories that retained an enormous oral literature and extraordinary mental agility to understand the skald’s kennings, i.e., the designation of common things by elliptical allusions, many of them invented by the skald as part of his poetic technique. A modern reader, even if he has read a fair amount of Norse literature, is likely to be nonplussed by such expressions as "the brandisher of Gungnir" (=Odin), "the burden of the gallows" (=Odin), "Kvasir’s blood" (=the art of poetry), "Ymir’s blood" (=the ocean), "the speech of the giants" (=gold), the price of the otter" (=gold), and hundreds of similar expressions, Without Sturluson’s description of the art and modern commentaries based on his, we should be hopelessly at sea. But the skald’s audience was delighted by his wit.

** Occasionally we are frankly told that given sagas were "good entertainment" (góð skemmtan) or were recited "for amusement" (til gamans). The question is how many of the episodes that seem so grotesque to us in the adventures of the gods were taken seriously by the audience and how many were what we call "comic relief"?

To the Aryan mind, at least, myths differ toto caelo from gospels: the former are exercises of the imagination; the latter purport to be history.

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