The Sacredness of Nature and Cosmic Religion
For religious man, nature is never only natural”; it is always fraught with a religious value. This is easy to understand, for the cosmos is a divine creation; coming from the hands of the gods, the world is impregnated with sacredness. It is not simply a sacrality communicated by the gods, as is the case, for example, with a place or an object consecrated by the divine presence.
The gods did more; they manifested the different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and of cosmic phenomena. The world stands displayed in such a manner that, in contemplating it, religious man discovers the many modalities of the sacred, and hence of being. Above all, the world exists, it is there, and it has a structure; it is not a chaos but a cosmos, hence it presents itself as creation, as work of the gods. This divine work always preserves its quality of transparency, that is, it spontaneously reveals the many aspects of the sacred. The sky directly, “naturally,” reveals the infinite distance, the transcendence of the deity. The earth too is transparent; it presents itself as universal mother and nurse.
The cosmic rhythms manifest order, harmony, pennanence, fecundity. The cosmos as a whole is an organism at once real, living, and sacred; it simultaneously reveals the modalities of being and of sacrality. Ontophany and hierophany meet. In this chapter we shall try to understand how the world presents itself to the eyes of religious man – or , more precisely, how sacrality is revealed through the structures of the world. We must not forget that for religious man the supernatural is indissolubly connected with the natural, that nature always expresses somethin that transcends it. As we said earlier: a sacred stone is venerated because it is sacred, not because it is a stone; it is the sacrality manifested through the mode of being of the stone that reveals its true essence. This is why we cannot speak of naturism or of natural religion in the sense that the nineteenth century gave to those terms; for it is ‘‘supernature” that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspects of the world.
The Celestial Sacred and the Uanian Gods
Simple contemplation of the celestial vault already provokes a religious experience. The sky shows itself to be infinite, transcendent. It is pre-eminently the “wholly other” than the little represented by man and his environment. Transcendence is revealed by simple awareness of infinite height. “Most high” spontaneously becomes an attribute of divinity. The higher regions inaccessible to man, the sidereal zones, acquire the momentousness of the transcendent, of absolute reality, of eternity. There dwell the gods; there a few privileged mortals make their way by rites of ascent; there, in the conception of certain religions, mount the souls of the dead. The “most high” is a dimension inaccessible to man as man; it belongs to superhuman forces and beings. He who ascends by mounting the steps of a sanctuary or the ritual ladder that leads to the sky ceases to be a man; in one way or another, he shares in the divine condition.
All this is not arrived at by a logical, rational operation. The transcendental category of height, of the superterrestrial, of the infinite, is revealed to the whole man, to his intelligence and his soul. It is a total awareness on man’s part; beholding the sky, he simultaneously discovers the divine incommensurability and his own situation in the cosmos. For the sky, by its own mode of being, reveals transcendence, force, eternity. It exists absolutely because it is high, infinite, eternal, powerful. This is the true significance of the statement made above that the gods manifested the different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world. In other words, the cosmos-paradigmatic work of the gods-is so constructed that a religious sense of the divine transcendence is aroused by the very existence of the sky. And since the sky exists absolutely, many of the supreme gods of primitive peoples are called by names designating height, the celestial vault, meteorological phenomena, or simply Owner of the Sky or Sky Dweller.
The supreme divinity of the Maori is named Iho; iho means elevated, high up. Uwoluwu, the supreme god of the Akposo Negroes, signifies what is on high, the upper regions. Among the Selk’nam of Tierra del Fuego God is called Dweller in the Sky or He Who is in the Sky.
Puluga, the supreme being of the Andaman Islanders, dwells in the sky; the thunder is his voice, wind his breath, the storm is the sign of his anger, for with his lightning he punishes those who break his commandments. The Sky God of the Yoruba of the Slave Coast is named Olorun, literally Owner of the Sky. The Samoyed worship Num, a god who dwells in the highest sky and whose name means sky. Among the Koryak, the supreme divinity is called the One on High, the Master of the High, He Who Exists. The Ainu know him as the Divine Chief of the Sky, the Sky God, the Divine Creator of the Worlds, but also as Kamui, that is, Sky. The list could easily be extended.’
We may add that the same situation is found in the religions of more civilized peoples, that is, of peoples who have played an important role in history. The Mongol name for the supreme God is Tengri, which means sky. The Chinese T’ien means at once the sky and the god of the sky. The Sumerian term for divinity, dingir, originally meant a celestial epiphany-clear, brilliant.
The Babylonian Anu also expresses the idea of sky. The Indo-European supreme god, Dieus, denotes both the celestial epiphany and the sacred. Zeus and Jupiter still preserve in their names the memory of the sacredness of the sky. The Celtic Taranis, the Baltic Perkunas, and the proto-Slavic Perun are especially revealing for the later of sky gods into storm gods.
There is no question of naturism here. The celestial is not identified with the sky, for he is the same god who, creating the entire cosmos, created the sky too. This is why he is called Creator, All-powerful, Lord, Chief, Father, and the like. The celestial god is a person, not a uranian epiphany. But he lives in the sky and is manifested in meteorological phenomena-thunder, lightning, storm, meteors, and so on. This means that certain privileged structures of the cosmos-the sky, the atmosphere constitute favorite epiphanies of the supreme being; he reveals his presence by what is specifically and peculiarly his -the majesty of the celestial immensity, the terror of the storm.
There Mote God
The history of supreme beings whose structure is celestial is of the utmost importance for an understanding of the religious history of humanity as a whole. We cannot even consider writing that history here, in a few pages? But we must at least refer to a fact that to us seems primary. Celestially structured supreme beings tend to disappear from the practice of religion, from cult; they depart from among men, withdraw to the sky, and become remote, inactive gods. In short, it may be said of these gods that, after creating the cosmos, life, and man, they feel a sort of fatigue, as if the immense enterprise of the Creation had exhausted their resources. So they withdraw to the sky, leaving a son or a demiurge on earth to finish or perfect the Creation. Gradually their place is taken by other divine figures- the mythical ancestors, the mother-goddesses, the fecundating gods, and the like. The god of the storm still preserves a celestial structure, but he is no longer a creating supreme being; he is only the fecundator of the earth, sometimes he is only a helper to his companion, the earth-mother. The celestially structured supreme being preserves his preponderant place only among pastoral peoples, and he attains a unique situation in religions that tend to monotheism or that are fully monotheistic.
The phenomenon of the remoteness of the supreme god is already documented on the archaic levels of culture. Among the Australian Kulin, the supreme being Bunjil himself created the universe, animals, trees, and man; but after investing his son with power over the earth and his daughter with power over the sky, Bunjil withdrew from the world. He remains among the clouds, like a lord, holding a huge sword. Puluga, the supreme being of the Andaman Islanders, withdrew after creating the world and the first man. The mystery of his remote ness has its counterpart in an almost complete absence of cult; there is no sacrifice, no appeal, no thank offering. The memory of Puluga survives in only a few customs-for example, the sacred silence of hunters returning to their village after a successful hunt. The Dweller in the Sky or He Who Is in the Sky of the Selk’nam is eternal, omniscient, all-powerful, the creator; but the Creation was finished by the mythical ancestors, who had also been made by the supreme god before he withdrew to a place above the stars. For now this god has isolated himself from men, is indifferent to the affairs of the world. He has neither images nor priests. Prayers are addressed to him only in case of sickness. “Thou who art above, take not my child; he is still too young!” Offerings are rarely made to him except during storms. It is the same among many African peoples; the great celestial god, the supreme being, all-powerful creator, plays only a minor role in the religious life of most tribes. He is too far away or too good to need an actual cult, and he is invoked only in extreme cases. Thus, for example, Olorun of the Yoruba, after beginning the Creation of the world, deputed finishing and ruling it to a lower god, Obatala. For his part, Olorun withdrew from human and earthly affairs, and the supreme god has neither temples nor statues nor priests. Nevertheless, he is invoked as a last resource in times of calamity. Withdrawn into the sky, Ndyambi, the supreme god of the Herero, has abandoned humanity to lower divinites. “Why should we sacrifice to him?” a member of the tribe explained. “We do not need to fear him, for he does not do us any harm, as do the spirits of our dead.”‘ The supreme being of the Tukumba is “too great for the common affairs of men.” The case is the same with Njankupon among the Tshi-speaking Negroes of West Africa; he has no cult, and homage is paid to himonly under unusual circumstances, in case of famines or epidemics or after a violent storm; men then ask him how they have offended him. Dzingbe, the supreme being of the Ewe, is invoked only during droughts: “0 Sky, to whom we owe thanks, great is the drought; make it rain, so that the earth will be refreshed and the fields flurish!” The remoteness and passivity of the supreme being are admirably expressed in a saying of the Gyriama of East Africa, which also describes their god: “Mulugu is up above, the ghosts are down below!” The Bantu say: “God, after creating man, no longer cares about him.” And the Negritos repeat: “God has gone far away from us.” The Fang peoples of the grasslands of Equatorial Africa sum up their religious philosophy in a song:
God is above, man below.
God is God, man is man.
Each at home, each in his house.
It is useless to multiply examples. Everywhere in these primitive religions the celestial supreme being appears to have lost religious currency; he has no place in the cult, and in the myths he draws farther and farther away from man until he becomes a deus otiosus. Yet he is remembered and entreated as the last resort, when all ways of appealing to other gods and goddesses, the ancestors,and the demons, have failed. As the Oraons express it: Now we have tried everything, but we still have you to help us.” And they sacrifice a white cock to him, crying, God, thou art our creator, have mercy on us.”
The Religious Experience of Life
The divine remoteness actually expresses man’s increasing interest in his own religious, cultural, and economic discoveries. Through his concern with hierophanies of life, throu discovering the sacral fertility of the earth, and through finding himself exposed to religious experiences that are more concrete, primitive man draws away from the celestial and transcendent god. The discovery of agriculture basically transforms not only primitive man’s economy but also and especially his economy of the sacred. Other religious forces come into play-sexuality, fertility, the mythology of woman and of the earth and so on. Religious experience becomes more concrete, that is, more intimately connected with life. The great mother-goddesses and the strong gods or the spirits of fertility are markedly more dynamic and more accessible to men than was the Creator God. Yet, as we have just seen, in cases of extreme distress, when everything has been tried in vain, and especially in cases of disaster proceeding from the sky-drought, storm, epidemic-men turn to the supreme being again and entreat him. This attitude does not obtain only among primitives. Each time that the ancient Hebrews experienced a period of peace and prosperity, they abandoned Yahweh for the Baals and Astartes of their neighbors. Only historical catastrophes forced them to turn to Yahweh. “And they cried unto the Lord, and said, We have sinned, because we have forsaken the Lord, and have served Baalim and Ashtaroth: but now deliver us out of the hands of our enemies, and we will serve thee” (I Samuel, 12, 10).
The Hebrews turned to Yahweh after historical catastrophes and under the threat of an annihilation determined by history; the primitives remember their beings in cases of cosmic catastrophe. But the meaning of this return to the celestial god is the same in both cases: in an extremely critical situation, in which the very existence of the community is at stake, the divinities who in normal times ensure and exalt life are abandoned in favor of the supreme god. Seemingly, this is a great paradox: the deities that, among the primitives, took the place of the celestially structured gods were like the Baals and Astartes among the Hebrews divinities of fertility, of opulence, of fullness of life; in short, divinities that exalted and amplified life, both cosmic lifevegetation, agriculture, cattle and human life.
These divinities seemed to be strong, powerful. Their religious currency was explained precisely by their strength, their unlimited vital reserves, their fertility. And yet their worshippers-primitives and Hebrews a like had the feeling that all these great goddesses and all these vegetation gods were unable to save them, that is, to ensure them existence in really critical moments. These gods and goddesses could only reproduce and wigment life; and they could perform that function only during normal times; in short, they were divinities who governed the cosmic rhythms admirably, but who proved incapable of saving the cosmos or human society in moments of crisis.
The various divinities who took the place of supreme beings were the repository of the most concrete and striking powers, the powers of life. But by that very fact they had become “specialists” in procreation and lost the subtler, nobler, more spiritual powers of the Creator Gods. In discovering the sacredness of life, man let himself be increasingly carried away by his own discovery; he gave himself up to vital hierophanies and turned from the sacrality that transcended his immediate and daily needs.
Perenniality of Celestial Symbols
Yet we must note that even when the celestial gods no longer dominate religious life, the sidereal regions, uranian symbolism, myths and rites of ascent, and the like, retain a preponderant place in the economy of the sacred. What is “above,” the “high,” continues to reveal the transcendent in every religious complex. Driven from the cult and replaced in mythologies by other themes, in the religious life the sky remains ever present by virtue of its symbolism. And this celestial symbolism in turn infuses and supports a number of rites, of myths, of legends. The symbolism of the Center of the World-whose immense dissemination we have seen-likewise illustrates the importance of celestid symbolism; for it is at a center that communication with the sky is effected, and the sky constitutes the paradigmatic image of transcendence.
It could be said that the very structure of the cosmos keeps memory of the celestial supreme being alive. It is as if the gods had created the world in such a way that it could not but reflect their existence; for no world is possible without verticality, and that dimension alone is enough to evoke transcendence. Driven from religious life in the strict sense, the celestial sacred remains active through symbolism. A religious symbol conveys its message even if it is no longer consciously understood in every part. For a symbol speaks to the whole human being and not only to the intelligence.
Structure of Aquatic Symbolism
Before treating of the earth, we must present the religious valorizations of the waters. There are two reasons for this: The waters existed before the earth. (2) By analyzing the religious values of the waters we shall better grasp the structure and function of symbols. Now, symbolism plays a decisive pan in the religious life of humanity; it is through symbols that the world becomes transparent, is able to show the transcendent. The waters symbolize the universal sum of virtualities; they are fons et origo, “spring and origin,” the reservoir of all the possibilities of existence; they precede every form and support every creation. One of the paradigmatic images of creation is the island that suddenly manifests itself in the midst of the waves.
On the other hand, immersion in water signifies regression to the preformal, reincorporation into the undifferentiated mode of pre-existence. Emersion repeats the cosmogonic act of formal manifestation; immersion is equivalent to a dissolution of forms. This is why the symbolism of the waters implies both death and rebirth. Contact with water always brings a regeneration-on the one hand because dissolution is followed by a new birth, on the other because immersion fertilizes and multiplies the potential of life. The aquatic cosmology has its counterpart-on the human level-in the hylogenies, the beliefs according to which mankind was born of the waters. The Flood, or the periodical submersion of the continents (myths of the Atlantis type) have their counterpart, on the human level, in man’s “second death” or in initiatory death through baptism. But both on the cosmological and the anthropological planes immersion in the waters is equivalent not to a final extinction but to a temporary reincorporation into the indistinct, followed by a new creation, a new life, or a “new man,” according to whether the moment involved is cosmic, biological, or soteriological. From the point of view of structure, the flood is comparable to baptism, and the funeral libation to the lustrations of the newborn or to the spring ritual baths that procure health and fertility.
In whatever religious complex we find them, the waters invariably retain their function; they disintegrate, abolish forms, “wash away sins”; they are at once purifying and regenerating. Their destiny is to precede the Creation and to reabsorb it, since they are incapable of transcending their own mode of being, incapable, that is, of manifesting themselves in forms. The waters cannot pass beyond the condition of the virtual, of germs and latencies. Everything that is form manifests itself above the waters, by detaching itself from the waters. One point is essential here: both the sacrality of the waters and the structure of aquatic cosmogonies and apocalypses can be completely revealed only through aquatic symbolism, which is the only system capable of integrating all of the articular revelations of innumerable hierophanies. This law, moreover, holds for every is the symbolism as a whole that valorizes the various significations of hierophanies. The Waters of Death, for example, reveabheir deeper meaning only to the extent to which the structure of aquatic symbolism is known.
Paradigmatic History of Baptism
Gives birth to a new, regenerated being. This symbolism is admirably expressed by John Chrysostom who, writing of the multivalence of baptism, says: “It represents death and burial, life and resurection. When we plunge our heads into the water as into a sepulcher, the old man is immersed, buried wholly; when we come out of the water, the new man appears at the same time.” As we see, the interpretations reached by Tertullian and John Chrysostom are in perfect accord with the structure of aquatic symbolism. However, into the Christian valorization of the waters there enter certain new elements connected with a “history,” specifically with sacred history. First of all, there is the valorization of baptism as a descent into the abyss of the waters for a combat with the marine monster. This descent has a model-Christ’s descent into the Jordan, which was at the same time a descent into the Waters of Death. As Cyril of Jerusalem writes: “According to Job, the dragon Behemoth was in the Waters and received the Jordan into his jaws. Now, since the heads of the dragon must be broken, Jesus, having gone down into the Waters, bound the Strong One, so that we should have the power to walk on scorpions and snakes.”Next comes the valorization of baptism as repetition of the Flood. According to Justin, Christ, a new Noah.
The Fathers of the Church did not fail to exploit certain pre-Christian and universal values of aquatic symbolism, although enriching them with new meanings connected with the historical existence of Christ. For Tertullian water, “before all the furnishing of the world, quiescent with God in a yet unshapen state. Water was the first to produce that which had life, that it might be no wonder in baptism if waters knew how to give life.
All waters, therefore, in virtue of the pristine privilege of their origin, do, after invocation of God, attain the sacramental power of sanctification; for the Spirit immediately supervenes from the heavens, and rests over the waters, sanctifying them from, Him-self; and being thus sanctified, they imbibe at the ,same time the power of sanctifying. They were wont to remedy bodily defects, now heal the spirit; they used to work temporal salvation, now renew eternal”
The “old man” dies through immersion in water, and emerged victorious from the waters to become the head of another race. The Flood figures both the descent into the watery depths and baptism. “The Flood, then, was Just as an image which baptism comes to fulfill. Noah had confronted the Sea of Death in which sinful humanity had been destroyed, and had emerged from it, so the newly baptized man descends into the baptismal piscina to confront the water Dragon in a supreme combat from which he emerges victorious.”
But in further connection with the baptismal rite, Christ is also placed in parallel with Adam. The parallel Adam-Christ already has a considerable place in the theology of Saint Paul. “By baptism,” Tertullian affirms, “man recovers the likeness of God”. For Cyril, “baptism is not only purification from sins and the grace of adoption, but also antitype of the Passion of Christ.” Baptismal nudity too bears a meaning that is at once ritual and metaphysical. It is abandoning “the old garment of corruption and sin, which the baptized person takes off in imitation of Christ, the garment with which Adam was clothed after his sin”; but it is also return to primitive innocence, to Adam’s state before the fall. “0 admirable!” Cyril writes. “Ye were naked before the eyes of all and felt no shame. Because verily ye bear within you the image of the first Adam, who was naked in Paradise, and felt no shame.”
From these few texts, we realize the direction of the Christian innovations. On the one hand, the Fathers sought for correspondences between the two Testaments; on the other, they showed that Jesus had in truth fulfilled God’s promises to the people of Israel. But it is important to note that these new valorizations of baptismal symbolism are nowhere in contradiction to the universally disseminated aquatic symbolism. Nothing is missing: Noah and the Flood have their counterpart, in countless traditions, in the cataclysm that put an end to a humanity except for one man who would become the mythical Ancestor of a new humanity. The Waters of Death are a leitmotiv of palaeo-oriental, Asiatic, and Oceanic mythologies. Water is pre-eminently the slayer; it dissolves, abolishes all form. It is just for this reason that it is so rich in germs, so creative. No more is baptismal nudity the exclusive property of the Judaeo-Christian tradition; Paradise implies the absence of garments, that is, the absence of attrition, wear. All ritual nudity implies an atemporal model, a paradisal image. The monsters of the abyss recur in many traditions. Heroes, initiates descend into the depths to confront marine monsters; this is a typical initiatory ordeal. To be sure, variants abound in the history of religions: sometimes dragons mount guard over a treasure, sensory image of the sacred, of absolute reality; the ritual victory over the guardian monster is equivalent to a conquest of immortality.'” For the Christian, baptism is a sacrament because it was instituted by Christ. But it none the less repeats the initiatory ritual of the ordeal, of symbolic death and resurrection. We do not say that Judaism or Christianity borrowed these or similar myths and symbols from the religions of neighboring peoples. They had no need to; Judaism inherited both a religious prehistory and a long religious history, in which all these things already existed. It was not even necessary that Judaism should have preserved one or another myth or symbol “awake,” in its integrity.
It was enough if a group of images survived, even though only obscurely, from pre-Mosaic times. Such images and symbols were capable of recovering a powerful religious currency at any moment.
Universality of Symbols
Certain Fathers of the primitive Church had seen the value of the correspondence between the symbols advanced by Christianity and the symbols that are the common property of mankind. Addressing those who denied the resurrection of the dead, Theophilus of Antioch appealed to the signs that God had set before them in the great cosmic rhythms seasons, days, nights. He wrote: “Is there not a resurrection for seeds and fruits?” For Clement of Rome, “day and night show us the resurrection; night sets, day rises; day departs, night comes.”For the Christian apologists, symbols were pregnant with messages; they showed the sacred through the cosmic rhythms.
The revelation brought by the faith did not destroy the pre-Christian meanings of symbols; it simply added a new value to them. True enough, for the believer this new meaning eclipsed all the others; it alone valorized the symbol, transfigured it into revelation. It was the resurrection of Christ that counted, not the signs that could be read in cosmic life. Yet it remains true that the new valorization was in some sort conditioned by the very structure of the symbolism; it could even be said that the aquatic symbol awaited the fulfillment of its deepest meaning through the new values contributed by Christianity.
The Christian faith hangs upon a historical revelation; it is the incarnation of God in historical time that, in the Christian view, guarantees the validity of symbols. But the universal aquatic symbolism was neither abolished nor dismembered by the historical interpretations of baptismal symbolism. In other words: History cannot basically modify the structure of an archaic symbolism. History constantly adds new meanings, but they do not destroy the structure of the symbol. All this is comprehensible if we bear in mind that, for religious man, the world always presents a supernatural valence, that is, it reveals a modality of the sacred. Every cosmic fragment is transparent; its own mode of existence shows a particular structure of being, and hence of the sacred. We should never forget that, for religious man, sacrality is a full manifestation of being. The revelations of cosmic sacrality are in some sort primordial revelations; they take place in the most distant religious past of humanity, and the innovations later introduced by history have not had power to abolish them.
These words were spoken scarcely fifty years ago. But they come to us from very far. The emotion that we feel on bearing them arises primarily from their revealing to us, with incomparable freshness and spontaneity, the image of Mother Earth. The image is found the world in countless forms and variants. It is the Terra Mater or Tellus Mater so familiar to Mediterranean religions, who gives birth to all beings. “Concerning Earth, the mother of all, shall I sing,” we read in the Homeric Hym to Earth, “firm earth, eldest of god, that nourishes all things in the world… Thine it is to give or to take life from mortal men”. And in the Choephori Aeschylus celebrates the earth “who bringeth all things to birth, reareth them, and receiveth again into her womb”.The prophet Smohalla does not tell us in what way men are born of the telluric mother.
But North American myths reveal how things happened in the beginning, in illo tempore. The first men lived for a certain time in the breast of their mother, that is, in the depths of the earth. There in the telluric abyss they led a half-human life; in some sort they were still imperfectly formed embryos.
At least so said the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware Indians, who once inhabited Pennsylvania. According to their mylhs, although the Creator had already prepared on the surface of the earth all the things that men now enjoy.
An Indian prophet, Smohalla, chief of the Wanapum tribe, refused to till the ground. He held that it was a sin to mutilate and tear up the earth, mother of all. He said: “You ask me to plow the ground! Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die, I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men! But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair?” there, he had decided that these first men should remain yet a while hidden in the bosom of the telluric mother, so that they might better develop, might ripen. Other American Indian myths speak of an ancient time when Mother Earth brought forth human beings in the same way that she now produces bushes and reeds.
That human beings are born of the earth is a universally disseminated belief. In a number of languages man is called the earthborn. It is believed that children it come” from the depths of the earth, from caverns, caves, ravines, but also from ponds, springs, rivers. In the form of legends, superstitions, or merely as metaphors, such beliefs still survive in Europe. Every district, and almost every town and village, knows of a brook or a spring that “brings” children; they are the Kinderbrunnen, Kinderteiche, Bubenquellen, and so on. Even the European of today still preserves an obscure sense of mystial solidarity with his native soil. It is the religious experience of autochthony; the feeling is that of belonging to a place, and it is a cosmically structured feeling that goes far beyond family or ancestral solidarity. The dying man desires to return to Mother Earth, to be buried in his native soil. “Crawl to the Earth, thy mother,” says the Rig Veda. “Thou who art I put thee in the Earth!” we read in the Atharva Veda. “Let flesh and bones return again to the Earth!” is solemnly intoned at Chinese funeral ceremonies. And Roman sepulchral inscriptions express fear lest the dead man’s ashes be buried far from home and, above all, the joy of reincorporating them into the fatherland: Hie natus hie situs est.
Laying the Infant on the Ground
This fundamental experiencethat the human mother is only the representative of the telluric Great Mother-has given rise to countless customs. We will mention, as an example, giving birth on the ground, a ritual that is found almost all over the world, from Australia to China, from Africa to South America. Among the Greeks and Romans the custom had disappeared by historical times, but there is no doubt that it existed in a more remote past; certain statues of birth goddesses represented them on their knees, exactly in the position of a woman giving birth on the ground. In demotic Egyptian text- the expression “to sit on the ground” meant to give birth, childbirth. The religious meaning of the custom is easy to see: generation and childbirth are microcosmic versions of a paradigmatic act performed by the earth; every human mother only imitates and repeats this primordial act of the appearance of life in the womb of the earth’. Hence every mother must put herself in contact with the Great Genetrix, that she may be guided by her in accomplishing the mystery that is the birth of a life, may receive her beneficent energies and secure her maternal protection.
Still more widely disseminated is the laying of the infant on the ground. In some parts of Europe it is still the custom today to lay the infant on the ground as soon as it has been bathed and swaddled. The father then takes the child up from the ground to show his gratitude. In ancient China “the dying man, like- the newborn infant, is laid on the ground. be born or to die, to enter the living family or the ancestral family, there is a common thereshold, one’s native Earth. When the newborn infant or the dying man is laid on the Earth, it is for her to say if the birth or the death are valid, if hey are to be taken as accomplished and normal facts.
The rite of laying on the Earth implies a substantial identity between the Race and the Soil. And in fact this idea finds expression in the feeling of autochthony that is the strongest feeling among those that we can detect at the beginnings of Chinese history: the idea of an intimate connection between a country and its inhabitants is a belief so profound that it has remained at the heart of religious institutions and civil law.” Just as the infant is placed on the ground immediately after birth so that its true Mother shall legitimize it and confer her divine protection on it, so, too, infants, children, and grown men are placed on the ground or sometimes buried in it-in case of sickness. Symbolic burial, partial or complete, has the same magico-religious value as immersion in water, baptism. The sick person is regenerated; he is born anew. The operation has the same efficacy in wiping out a sin or in curiqa mental malady. The sinner is laced in a cask or in a trench dug in the ground, and when he emerges he is said to “be born a second time, from his mother’s womb.” This explains the Scandinavian belief that a witch can be saved from eter-nal damnation if she is buried alive, seed is sown over her, and the resulting crop harveted. Initiation includes a ritual death and resurrection.
This is why, among numerous primitive peoples, the novice is symbolically “killed,” laid in a trench, and covered with leaves. When he rises from the grave he is looked upon as a new man, for he has been brought to birth once more, this time directly by the cosmic Mother.
Woman, Earth , and Fecundity
Woman, then, is mystically held to be one with the earth, childbearing is seen as a variant, on the human scale, of the telluric fertility. All religious experiences connected with fecundity and birth have a cosmic structure. The sacrality of woman depends on the holiness of the earth. Feminine fecundity has a cosmic model-that of Terra Mater, the universal Genetrix. In some religions Mother Earth is imagined as capable of conceiving alone, without the assistance of a coadjutor. Traces of such archaic ideas are still found in the myths of the parthenogenesis of Mediterranean goddesses. According to Hesiod, Gaia gave birth Ouranos “a being equal to herself, able to cover her completely” likewise gave birth without the help of gods. This is a mythical expression of the self-sufficiency and fecundity of Mother Earth. Such mythical conceptions have their counterparts in beliefs concerning the spontaneous fecundity of woman and in her occult magico-religious powers, which exert a determining influence on plant life. The social and cultural phenomenon known as matriarchy is connected with the discovery of agriculture by woman. It was woman who first cultivated food plants. Hence it is she who becomes owner of the soil and crops.
The magico religious prestige and consequent social predominance of woman have a cosmic model-the figure of Mother Earth. In other religions the cosmic creation, or at least its completion, is the result of a hierogamy between the Sky-God and Mother Earth. This cosmogonic myth is quite widely disseminated. It is found especially in Oceania-from Indonesia to Micronesia-but it also occurs in Asia, Africa, and the two Amerias Now as we have seen, the cosmogonic myth is re-eminently the paradigmatic myth; it serves as model for human behavior. This is why human marriage is regarded as an imitation of the cosmic hierogamy. “I am Heaven,” the husband proclaims in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad “thou art Earth!” Even so early as the Atharva Veda groom and bride are assimilated to heaven and earth. Dido celebrates her marriage to Aeneas in the midst of a violent storm; their union coincides with that of the elements; the Sky embraces his wife, dispensing the fertilizing rain. In Greece marriage rites imitated the example of Zeus’s secret union with Hera. As we should expect, the divine myth is the paradigmatic model for the human union. But there is another aspect which requires emphasis- the cosmic structure of the conjugal ritual, and hence of human sexual behavior. For nonreligious man of the modern societies, this simultaneously cosmic and sacred dimension of conjugal union is difficult to grasp. But as we have had occasion to say more than once, it must not be forgotten that religious man of the archaic societies sees the world as fraught with messages. Sometimes the messages are in cipher, but the myths are there to help man decipher them. As we shall see later, the whole of human experience can be homologized to cosmic life, hence can be sanctified, for the cosmos is the supreme creation of the gods. Ritual orgies for the benefit of crops likewise have a divine model-the hierogamy of the Fecundating God and Mother Earth. The fertility of the fields is stimulated by an unlimited genetic frenzy. From one point view the orgy corresponds to the pre-Creation state of nondifferentiation. This is why certain New Year ceremonies include orgiastic rites: social confusion, sexual license, and Saturnalia symbolize regression to the condition that preceded the Creation of the World.
In the case of a creation on the level of vegetable life, this cosmologico-ritual scenario is repeated, for the new crop is equivalent to a new creation. The idea of renewal-which we encountered in New Year rituals whose purpose was at once the renewal of time and the regeneration of the world-recurs in orgiastic argricultural scenarios. Here too the orgy is a return to the cosmic night, the preformal, the waters, in order to ensure complete regeneration of life and hence the fertility of the earth and an abundance of crops.
Symbolism of the Cosmic Tree and of Vegetation Cults
As we have just seen, the myths and rites of the Earth-Mother chiefly express ideas of fecundity and abundance. These are religious ideas, for what the various aspects of universal fertility reveal is, in sum, the mystery of generation, of the creation of life. For religious man, the appearance of life is the central mystery of the world.
Life comes from somewhere that is not this World and finally departs from here and goes to the beyond, in some mysterious way continues in an unknown place inaccessible to the majority of mortals. Human life is not felt as a brief appearance in time, between one nothingness and another; it is preceded by a pre-existence and continued in a postexistence. Little is known about these two extraterrestrial stages of human life, yet they are known to exist. Hence, for religious man, death does not put a final end to life. Death is but another modality of human existence. All this, moreover, is ciphered in the cosmic rhythms; man need only decipher what the cosmos says in its many modes of being, and’he will understand the mystery of life. But one thing seems clear beyond doubt: that the cosmos is a living organism, which renews itself periodically. The mystery of the inexhaustible appearance of life is bound up with the rhythmical renewal of the cosmos. This is why the cosmos was imagined I in the form of a gigantic tree; the mode of being of the cosmos, and first of all its capacity for endless regeneration, are symbolically expressed by the life of the tree. We should note, however, that all this does not represent a mere transposition of images from the micro-cosmic to the macrocosmic scale. As a natural object, the tree could not suggest the whole of cosmic life; on the level of profane experience its mode of being does not coincide with the mode of being of the cosmos in all its complexity. On the level of profane experience vegetable life displays merely a series of births and deaths.
Only the religious vision of life makes it possible to decipher other meanings in the rhythm of vegetation, first of all the ideas of regeneration, of eternal youth, of health, of immortality. The religious idea of absolute reality, which finds symbolic expression in so many other images, is also expressed by the figure of a miraculous fruit conferring immortality, omniscience, and limitless power, a fruit that can change men into gods. The image of the tree was not chosen only to symbolize the cosmos but also to express life, youth, immortality, wisdom. In addition to cosmic trees like the Yggdrasil of Germanic mythology, the history of religions records trees of life, of immortality, of knowledge, of youth, and so on. In other words, the tree came to express everything that religious man regards as re-eminedy real and sacred, everything that he knows the gods to possess of their own nature and that is only rarely accessible to privileged individuals, the heroes and demigods. This is why myths of the quest for youth or immortality give prominent place to a tree with golden fruit or miraculous leaves, a tree growing “in the distant land” and guarded by monsters. He who would gather its fruits must confront and slay the guardian monster. This in itself tells us that we here have an initiatory ordeal of the heroic type; it is by violence that the victor obtains the superhuman, almost divine condition of eternal youth, invincibility, and unlimited power. It is in such symbols of a cosmic tree, or tree of immortality or knowledge, that the religious valences of vegetation are expressed with the greatest force and clarity. In other words, the sacred tree or sacred plants display a structure that is not to be seen in the various concrete vegetable species. As we noted before, it is sacrality that unveils the deepest structures of the world. The cosmos appears as a cipher only in the religious perspective. It is for religious man that the rhythms of vegetation simultaneously reveal the mystery of life and creation and the mystery of renewal, youth, and immortality. It could be said that all trees and plants that are regarded as sacred owe their privileged situation to the fact that they incarnate the archetype, the paradigmatic image of vegetation.
On the other hand, what causes a plant to be noticed and cultivated is its religious value. According to some writers, all of the plants that are in cultivation today were originally regarded as sacred plants. What are called vegetation cults do not depend on a profane, “naturistic” experience, connected, for example, with spring and the reawakening of vegetation. On the contrary, the religious experience of renewal of the world precedes and justifies the valorization of spring as the resurrection of nature. It is the mystery of the periodical regeneration of the cosmos that is the basis for the religious significance of spring. Then, too, in vegetation cults the emphasis is not always on the natural phenomenon of spring and the appearance of vegetation but on the prophetic sip of the cosmic mystery.
Bands of young men pay ceremonial visits to the houses of their village and show a green branch, a bunch of flowers, a bird. It is the sign of the imminent resurrection of vegetable life, testimony that the mystery has been accomplished, that spring will soon come. The majority of these rituals take place before the natural phenomenon of spring.
Desacralazion of Nature
As we have said before, for religious man nature is never only natural. Experience of a radically desacralized nature is a recent discovery; moreover, it is an experience accessible only to a minority in modem societies, especially to scientists. For others, nature still exhibits a charm, a mystery, a majesty in which it is possible to decipher traces of ancient religious values. No modern man, however irreligious, is entirely insensible to the charms of nature. We refer not only to the esthetic, recreational, or hygienic values attributed to nature, but also to a confused and almost indefinable feeling, in which, however, it is possible to recognize the memory of a debased religious experience.
A definite example of these changes and deteriorations in the religious values of nature will not be without value. We have taken our example from China, for two reasons. (1) In China, as in the. West, the desacralization of nature is the work of a minority, especially of the literati; (2) nevertheless in China and in the entire Far East, the process of desacralization has never been carried to its final extreme. Even for the most sophisticated men of letters, “esthetic contemplation” still retains an aura of religious prestige. From the seventeenth century, arranging gardens in pottery bowls became the fashion among Chinese scholar. The bowls were filled with water, out of which rose a few stones bearing dwarf trees, flowers, and often miniature models of houses, pagodas, bridges, and human figures; they were called “Miniature Mountains” in Annamese and “Artificial Mountains” in Sino-Anna-mese. These names themselves suggest a cosmological signification; for, as we have seen, the mountain is a symbol of the universe.
But these miniature gardens, which became objects. valued by esthetes, had a long history, or even a prehistory, which reveals a profound religious feeling for the world. Their ancestors were bowls whose perfumed water represented the sea and their cover the mountain. The cosmic structure of these objects is obvious. The mystical element was also present, for the mountain in fie of the sea symbolized the Isles of the Blessed, a sort of Paradise in which the Taoist Immortals lived. So that we have here a world apart, a world in miniature, which the scholar set up in his house in order to partake in its concentrated mystical forces, in order, through meditation, to re-establish harmony with the world. The mountain was ornamented with grottoes, and the folklore of caves played an important role in the construction of these miniature gardens. Caves are secret retreats, dwellings of the Taoist Immortals and places of initiation. They represent a paradisal world and hence are difficult to enter. But this whole complex-water, trees, mountain, grotto which had played such a considerable role in Taoism was only the development of a still older religious idea: that of the perfect place, combining completeness with solitude, and thus perfect because at once the world in miniature and Parasource of bliss and place of immortality. But the Perfect landscape mountan and water – was only the sacred place where, in China, at every returning spring, youths and girls met to intone alternating ritual chants and for amorous encounters.
It is possible to divine the successive valorizations of the primordial sacred place. In the earliest times it was a privileged space, a closed, sanctified world, where the youths and girls met periodically to participate in the mysteries of life and cosmic fecundity. The Taoists took over this archaic cosmological schema-mountain and water- and elaborated it into a richer complex, but reduced to the smallest scale; it was a paradisal universe in miniature, which was charged with mystical forces because apart from the profane world and in contemplation of which the Taoists sank into meditation.
The sanctity of the closed world is still discernible in the covered bowls of perfumed water symbolizing the sea and the Isles of the Blessed. This complex still served for meditation, just as the miniature gardens did in the beginning, before the fashion for them among scholars in the seventeenth century transformed them into art objects. Yet it is worth noting that in this example we never witness a complete desacralization of the world, for in the Far East what is called the “esthetic emotion” still retains a religious dimension, even among intellectuals. But the example of the miniature gardens shows us in what direction and by what means the desacralization of the world is accomplished. We need only imagine what an esthetic emotion of this sort could become in a modem society, and we shall understand how the experience of cosmic sanctity can be rarefied and transformed until it becomes a purely human emotion -that for example, of art for art’s sake.
Other Cosmic Hierophanies
Considerations of space have obliged us to discuss only a few aspects of the sacrality of nature. Many cosmic hierophanies have necessarily been passed over. Thus , for example, we have not been able to discuss solar and lunar symbols and cults, nor the religious significance of stones, nor the religious role of animals, and so on. Each of these groups of cosmic hierophanies reveals a articular structure of the sacrality of nature; or, more precisely, a modality of the sacred expressed through a specific mode of existence in the cosmos. For example, we need only analyze the various religious values attributed to stones to understand what stones, as hierophanies, are able to show to man; they reveal power, hardness, permanence.
The hierophany of a stone re-eminently an ontophany; above all, the stone is, it always remains itself, it does not change and it strikes man by what it possesses of irreducibility and absoluteness and, in so doing, reveals to him by analogy the irreducibility and absoluteness of being. Perceived by virtue of a religious experience, the specific mode of existence of the stone reveals to man the nature of an absolute existence, beyond time, invulnerable to be.
Coming. In the same way a rapid analysis of the many and various religious valorizations of the moon shows all that men have deciphered in the lunar rhythms. It is through the moon’s phases-that is, its birth, death, and resur-rection-that men came to know at once their own mode of being in the cosmos and the chances for their survival or rebirth. It is through lunar symbolism that religious man was led to compare vast masses of apparently unrelated facts and finally to integrate them in a single system. It is even probable that the religious valorization of the lunar rhythms made possible the first great anthropo-cosmic syntheses of the primitives. It was lunar symbolism that enabled man to relate and connect such heterogeneous things as: birth, becoming, death, and resurrection; the waters, plants, woman, fecundity, and immortality; the cosmic darkness, prenatal existence, and life after death, followed by a rebirth of lunar type; weaving, the symbol of the “thread of life,” fate, temporality, and death; and yet others. In general most of the ideas of cycle, dualism, polarity, opposition, conflict, but also of reconciliation of contraries, of coincidentia oppositorum, were either discovered or clarified by virtue of lunar symbolism. We even speak of a metaphysics of the moon, in the sense of a consistent system of “truths” relating to the mode of being peculiar to living creatures, to everything in the cosmos that shares in life, that is, in becoming, growth and waning, death and resurrection. For we must not forget that what the moon reveals to religious man is not only that death is indissolubly linked with life but also, and above all, that death is not final, that it is always followed by a new birth. The moon confers a religious valorization on cosmic becoming and reconciles man to death. The sun, on the contrary, reveals a different mode of existence. The sun does not share in becoming; although always in motion, the sun remains unchangeable; its form is always the same. Solar hierophanies give expression to the religious values of autonomy and power, of sovereignty, of intelligence. This is why, in certain cultures, we witness a process of solarization of the supreme beings. As we saw, the celestial gods tend to disappear from current religion, but in some cases their structure and prestige still survive in the solar gods, especially in the highly developed civilizations that have played an important role in history.
Many heroic mythologies are solar in structure. The is assimilated to the sun; like the sun, he fights darkness, descends into the realm of death and emerges victorious. Here darkness is no longer, as it is in lunar mythologies, one of the modes of being of divinity; instead, it symbolizes all that the god is not, hence the adversary par excellence. Darkness is no longer valorized as a necessary phase in cosmic life; in the perspective of solar religion, it is opposed to life, to forms, and to intelligence. In some cultures the luminous epiphanies of solar gods become the sign of intelligence. In the end sun and intelligence will be assimilated to such a degree that the solar and syncretistic theologies of the end of antiquity become rationalistic philosophies; the sun is proclaimed to be the intelligence of the world, and Macrobius sees in the sun all the gods of the Graeco-oriental world, from Apollo and Jupiter to Osiris, Horus, and Adonis. In the Emperor Julian’s treatise. On the Sun King, as in Proclus’ Hymn to the Sun, solar hierophanies give place to ideas, and religious feeling almost completely disappears after this long process of rationalization.
This desacralization of solar hierophanies is only one among many other similar processes through whose operation the entire cosmos is finally emptied of its religious content. But, as we said, the complete seculariza- tion of nature is a fact only for a limited number of moderns-those devoid of all religious feeling. Despite the deep and sweeping changes that Christianity made in the religious valorization of the cosmos and life, it did not reject them. That the whole of cosmic life can be felt as a cipher of the divinity is shown by a Christian author such as Leon Bloy, when he writes:
‘Whether life is in men, in animals, or in plants, it is Life, and when the minute, the inapprehensiblepoint that is called death comes, it is always Jesus who departs, alike from a tree and from a human being.”