Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dying and Rising Gods by J.M. Wheeler 1890

Dying and Rising Gods by J.M. Wheeler 1890

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One of the most able and notable books of this year is The Golden Bough, a study in Comparative Religion, by Mr. J. G. Frazer, a disciple of Dr. E. B. Tylor and a friend of Professor Robertson Smith. Mr.. Frazer brings to the subject a most extensive acquaintance with savage life, and with the folk-lore and customs of peasantry, those apt illustrations of earlier beliefs. The title is given by the quest upon which Mr. Frazer set out. This was to discover the purport of the strange practice recorded of the priests of Nemi, that each had to slay his predecessor, and be in turn slain by'a successor after first plucking the golden bough. To explain this curious and barbarous custom, which survived into the days of the Roman Empire, he travels over many lands and gathers numerous curious relics by the way. The work is indeed an immense storehouse of information on early beliefs and customs. The explanation in question depends oh that belief in sympathetic magic which I have gone into in my former articles on the Brazen Serpent and Salvation by Similars (Freethinker, Feb. 8, 1885, and Feb. 9, 1890). The priest of Nemi was the Sylvan deity incarnate in a man who it was necessary should be put to death while in the full bloom of his divine manhood, in order that his sacred life, transmitted in unabated force to his successor, might renew its youth, and thus perpetually reincarnate itself ever fresh and young; even as nature does in springtime.

In unravelling the mystery of the priests of Nemi, Mr. Frazer has unravelled many other perplexities of early superstition, and in addition, it seems to me, throws much light on the Christian legends, conclusively showing their savage superstructure.

A large portion of Mr. Frazer's great work deals with the myths which surround the phenomena of vegetation. He says (vol. i., p. 278): "Under the names of Osiris, Adonis, Tammuz, Attis and Dionysus, the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, Phrygians, and Greeks, represented the decay and revival of vegetation with rites which, as the ancients themselves recognised, were substantially the same, and which find their parallels in the spring and midsummer customs of our European peasantry." All these gods were said to have died and risen again from the dead. Of Adonis, he says (p. 280), "At Byblus, the death of Adonis, was annually mourned with weeping, wailing, and beating of the breast; but next day he was believed to come to life again and ascend up to heaven in the presence of his worshippers. This celebration," continues Mr. Frazer, "appears to have taken place in spring, for its date was determined by the discoloration of the river Adonis, and this has been observed by modern travellers to occur in spring. . . . Again, the red anemone was said to have sprung from the blood of Adonis; and, as the anemone blooms in Syria about Easter, this is a fresh proof that the festival of Adonis, or at least one of his festivals, was celebrated in spring."

Adonis, according to Mr. Frazer, represented vegetation in general, as Tammuz (Tammuz is still the hot summer month, July of the Jews), represented the corn spirit.

Of the ceremonies used at the festival of Attis, Mr. Frazer says: "At the spring equinox (March 22) a pine-tree was cut in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of Cybele, where it was treated as a divinity. It was adorned with woollen bands and wreaths of violets—for violets were said to have sprung from the blood of Attis, as anemones from the blood of Adonis—and the effigy of a young man was attached to the middle of the tree. On the second day (March 23) the chief ceremony seems to have been a blowing of trumpets. The third day (March 24) was known as the Day of Blood: the high priest drew blood from his arms and presented it as an offering. It was, perhaps, on this day or night that the mourning for Attis took place over an effigy, which was afterwards solemnly buried. The fourth day (March 25) was the Festival of Joy (Hilaria), at which the resurrection of Attis was probably celebrated—at least the celebration of his resurrection seems to have followed closely upon that of his death."

Anemone Flower

When we know that to this day, in Jerusalem, a figure of Christ is placed on the cross, mourned, buried, and supposed to rise again amid songs of triumph,—for a description of which the reader may be referred to the Church Times of May 11, 1888— can we avoid the conclusion that this ritual is but a continuation of pre-Christian rites.

[Similar ceremonies took place in the worship of Mithras - See Religious Systems of the World, p. 237, 1890. Mr. Robertson says, "There is every reason to conclude that a similar liturgy was gone through in connection with the burial and resurrection of Osiris."]

Mr. Frazer gives numerous instances from all parts of the world of a custom at Easter, May-day or Whitsuntide, of putting, or pretending to put to death, a real or mock king, who in early thought is a man-god. "For we must not forget that the king is slain in his character of a god, his death and resurrection, as the only means of perpetuating the divine life unimpaired, being deemed necessary for the salvation of his people and of the world" (vol i., p. 228). In some cases, as in Babylon, a criminal condemned to death, was mocked, crowned, dressed in kingly robes, scourged and put to death, as substitute for the king. These personages represent the spirit of vegetation. Why then kill him, and above all in spring when his services are most needed? The answer is, the divine life incarnate in a mortal body is liable to the corruption of the medium in which it is enshrined and must hence be detached. As the sun sets in blood in the west before he can rise in the east, and dies in winter to rise again in spring, so must the god of vegetation die ere he can rise again in new glory. The dying and resurrected man-god represents the yearly decay and birth of vegetation. Let it also be noticed that anciently ceremonies were magical charms designed to produce the effect which they dramatically represent, and that customs and ritual are older than the legends which explain them, and the reader may begin to suspect that the Passion Play at Oberammergau may contain links of survival connecting it with the ritual of Adonis and even with the priests of Nemi.

The inference which a Freethinking reader is likely to draw from Mr. Frazer's erudite work is that like other gods, who died and rose from the dead, Christ is but a survival, embodying more primitive ideas and worships, which explain, as no Christian is able to explain, how it is that a god should be put to death. Mr. Frazer does not draw this inference. But let the reader, if at all attracted to the subject, carefully peruse The Golden Bough, which I recommend as the most interesting aud instructive work I have read for many a day.

P.S.—One word on the Golden Bough. The Golden Bough is the mistletoe sacred at our Christmas festival which as Mr. Frazer says, vol ii., p. 366, is "nothing but an old heathen celebration of the winter solstice," even as, I add, Easter is nothing but an old heathen celebration of the vernal equinox". The mistletoe was in my view sacred because it was held to carry over the seed of life from year to year. I do not find this idea definitely expressed by Mr. Frazer, but think it may perhaps commend itself to his notice, and I know no one more competent to give an opinion.

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