Myths express the shared poetic language of our inner lives, a collective dream symbolism illustrating our central concerns, conflicts, desires and fears. Mythology is a rich store house of humanity’s pre-scientific attempt to gain control and understanding of the forces of life, death, nature, and the cosmos.
Picture a dimly lit cave at 8,000 feet. An enormous skull with a long thighbone forced through behind the cheek rests on a rough-hewn stone altar with a second thighbone alongside. A small band of early human Neanderthals in primitive animal skin clothing appear to be involved in some kind of ceremony. They open a large stone chest. Inside are seven more skulls, stacked neatly so that their muzzles face the entrance of the cave.
Were we able to make sense of the simple singsong language they are intoning, it might go something like this:
Oh Great Bear of the Sky, we honor you and tell our children the story of our relationship with you. We are deeply sorry for killing your children and thank you for sending them to us. Please keep smiling on us Great Bear Spirit..
All the while they are sharpening their small axes and spears, readying for the hunt.
Anthropologists tell us that the earliest evidence we have of spirituality may come from the Drachenloch caves of the Swiss Alps. There, between approximately 110,000 and 50, 000 years ago early humans began enacting rituals that involved the skulls and thighbones of bears. What was this all about?
To answer that question, consider this fascinating phenomenon: as our uniquely human brains were evolving we developed the capacity to contemplate death. Specifically, to be abstractly aware of and have feelings about our own death at some point in the future. This is a unique and powerful mental development.
This ability, further combined with our developing sense of empathy; or being able to imagine how someone or something else feels, meant that we became the first animals to experience guilt and remorse about killing other animals for food.
In other words:
I don’t want to die, I bet the bear doesn’t want to die, but I need to eat so I must kill it – but now I feel guilty, what shall I do?
Ah, the humanity!
One of the effects of this newfound capacity for both abstract imagination and empathy was the creation of metaphysical dilemmas around the conflicts early humans felt. The thought process may have gone something like this:
Where do the bears we kill come from? Surely they are the children of a great parent bear. What if that Great Bear Spirit gets mad that we are killing his children and punishes or kills us? What if he sends no more bears and we have no food or winter coats? How shall we ensure our survival? Perhaps we could let him know we are grateful.
Enter ritual and mythic story telling as away to manage these anxieties and sacralize the killing that made our lives possible.
These bears were eight feet tall- enormous, terrifying beasts. It took a lot of courage to chase, corner and kill an animal like that with stone axes and spears. So it makes sense that the Neanderthals were both scared for their lives, and scared that the source of their survival might not always be available. These kinds of fears would have lived in their bodies and minds, appeared in their dreams, and demanded pacifying strategies both practical and symbolic.
Bear cults existed elsewhere too.
One Japanese myth says that the bear is really a god that can only travel to our world in an animal body – but then can’t get back out. By killing the animal we set the god free to return home. Everybody wins!
Certain tribes enacted elaborate festival-like rituals around this story whenever a young bear would be captured. This baby bear would be treated like a god in a cage for several days while stories were told and rituals enacted—before it was reverentially slaughtered and eaten.
The Cro-Magnon man cave paintings found in Spain and France from around 32,000 to 15,000 years ago also are pre-occupied with the animals of the hunt. Some theories propose that they were created in shamanic trance-states that served a symbolic magical purpose—a way of divining foreknowledge that would be advantageous to the hunters.
We know too that the earliest mythic symbols had to do with the Sun and the Moon, the Earth and the Sky and interesting associations with birds, lions, snakes, bulls and antelope. The Moon dies for three days and then is reborn. Like the snake, it sheds its skin (when in the waning stages) but lives on and grows again. The crescent-shape of the Moon is seen also in the horns of the bull or antelope, and the rays of the morning Sun are like arrows from the bow of a great hunter killing the moon and stars, who are born again when night returns just like the ever-replenished animals of the hunt. The snake crawls on the earth and is related to the Moon, the bird flies in the sky and is related to the Sun. The common yet potent image of an eagle clutching a writhing snake in its claws is a kind of yin-yang symbol joining these polarities.
Now consider Quetzalcoatl. The savior god of South America, he is born of a spiritually impregnated virgin and appears at times as part snake and part bird—a feathered serpent. He is both divine and mortal, partially of the sky (bird), partially of the earth (snake). His symbol is the cross and he ascends into the sky to be with his father at the end of his life, promising to return. Oh, and when depicted as human, he has long fair hair and a beard. Sound familiar?
While the stories, beliefs and rituals may vary from culture to culture, there is a remarkable similarity in many of the symbols and themes that the human psyche struggles with, celebrates and expresses via art and myth.
Myths can also be understood as imaginative symbolic ways of explaining what we don’t understand. They contain our anxiety around the unknown or what is beyond our control. Rituals are often ways of trying to exert magical influence on the outcome of something important. They also attempt to communicate with and petition the invisible mythic powers that we imagine control events. Like parental figures in an unseen realm, keeping these powers pleased with us will ensure that good things happen, but make them unhappy, and big trouble will just as surely ensue.
We cannot overestimate the power this supernatural formulation of cause and effect holds deep in the human psyche.
Think of myths and rituals as having a dual nature. On the one hand they serve the anxiety-managing function described above, on the other they have also to do with a sense of awe at the beauty and mystery of life. This makes sense because our emotional responses to life exist along a continuum from fearful contraction to ecstatic expansion. So on either side of this contraction/expansion continuum we have a mythic face of the unknown and a ritual way of interacting with it.
In other words, we create myth and enact ritual for two reasons:
First: to assuage guilt and anxiety while attempting to create a strategy that might influence what is basically beyond our control.
Second: as a way to enter into expansive, heightened states of consciousness that bring us into a sense of harmony, awe, humility and ecstasy.
Later on I will suggest there is an important place in 21st century spirituality for this second function, yet it is the function we have largely lost touch with in modern society.
As we will discuss in chapter four, the ongoing progress in neuroscience might give us hope that the positive, healing and transformative effects of ritual practices and mythic symbols at the expansive end of the spectrum can be understood and cultivated as a creative, healthy and enriching activity of the human brain. Likewise I think there are good philosophical and spiritual reasons to subscribe to ways of dealing with anxiety and fear of the unknown that don’t require belief in the supernatural. In fact, this may even be a crucial next step in our evolution, one that is necessary for our survival and flourishing.
On a more ordinary note, myths were also pre-scientific ways to explain the world around us, and our relationship to it: Where does the moon go to in the morning, where does the sun sleep at night, why do leopards have spots, what happens when we die, why were there no antelope on the hunt yesterday, why was the harvest so big last year?
But nothing is perhaps as fascinating and ubiquitous as the pre-occupation with blood sacrifice. Indeed, we see in the story of Jesus Christ the culmination of thousands of years of belief in the importance of sacrifice as a way to appease the powers that be. In the agricultural societies that came into being around 15,000 years ago, animal and human sacrifice were commonplace. The rationale was that we must give something back to the earth in exchange for her bounty – and spilling blood upon the soil carried a powerful metaphor for both fertility (menstrual blood) and the relationship between sexual congress and the sowing of seeds in the earth.
Think about it: now we had moved beyond being hunter-gatherers and into cultivating crops and living in larger settlements of people. Our survival was entirely dependent on the cycles of nature and what our wise ones had been able to understand about the relationships between the seasons and the movements of the stars and moon. We personified these forces, imagining that they were behind whether or not we got to continue to live as we did—to farm and eat and survive the winters. These gods must have wanted food as we did and must have wanted gestures of gratitude and devotion from us – so sacrifice continued as a way of expressing these imagined relationships, which were nonetheless powerfully real to our psyches. Women also became more and more central in these cultures—equally valuable as men, because the emphasis was less on the physical rigors of the hunt, but now powerfully connected to the womb-like generative power of the earth. In fact in some of the agricultural societies that practiced human sacrifice, it was men, who were thought less sacred and more disposable, who would be the only candidates for the chopping block!
Animal sacrifice continued through Old Testament times. The Bible even mentions human sacrifice, and God tells Abraham he has to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to let him off the hook at the last minute. In New Testament times there was still animal sacrifice in the Roman temples, and Christ is referred to as the “sacrificial lamb.”
The fascinating thing about the Christ myth is that he becomes a kind of ultimate sacrifice. The one and only Son of God sent to die for our sins. This is the kind of sacrifice in which blood must be shed in atonement. It’s as if the sacrificial lamb (or in this case, the God-man) stands in our place and takes God’s punishment for us. Jesus becomes the lamb and his extremely valuable sacrificial blood washes away the sins of all of humanity—but only if they believe.
Two interesting things are happening here.
First: The problems of both our fear of death and anxiety about sin are supposedly being solved in a final act of cosmic reckoning.
Second: Factored into this metaphysical calculus is the developing compassion of the deity itself.
The New Testament God has evolved from his Old Testament vengeful and jealous demeanor to making this great personal sacrifice on our behalf.
Also: God himself is in some way subject to his own laws. He can’t just say – Oh, OK – I forgive you poor humans all your sins.
He is also somehow held accountable to the necessity of blood sacrifice and has to go to the trouble (in his guise as Holy Spirit) of impregnating the Virgin Mary in order to bring forth a son whose sacred and sacrificial destiny has already been decided.
This truly epic cosmic theater is necessary to balance humanity’s account. So now we have this evolving image of God in relationship with the world in not only this new compassionate, literally self-sacrificing way, but also as a participant who is in some ways just as much bound by proposed cosmic laws as we are.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
This begs an interesting question, which could easily take us into infinite regress: who holds God accountable, and who then holds accountable the uber-god that holds God accountable, and so on?
The logic goes like this: Human beings are sinners. Sinners burn in Hell after they die. Christ’s sacrificial blood literally washes away our sinfulness. He becomes humanity’s ticket into Heaven, but only if we believe in Him.
What is going on here? Do we detect an unbroken lineage of spiritual logic running from the hunter-gatherer cave-bear cults of between 110,000 and 50,000 years ago, through the agrarian rituals of sacrifice some 15,000 years ago all the way to the 2000 year-old Christ story?
Some would say this persistent theme is evidence of a literal “higher truth” of cosmic proportions. I would suggest instead that it evidences two things universal and persistent in the human psyche, namely: moral conflict and existential anxiety.
We cannot overestimate how powerful is the tension that comes from the struggle between our self-aware empathic conscience and our instinctive urges. This moral conflict is part of what makes us uniquely human. Later we will discuss moral development and the important role religion has played in allowing large social groups to cohere.
Combined with an existential fear of the unknown and it’s ultimate representative – death itself, it is moral conflict that becomes the engine driving the magnificent symbolic imagination that dreams up these mythic narratives.
To quote the bard, What a piece of work is man!
Of Virgin Birth and Resurrection
While it is fascinating, the Christ myth is not unique.
As mentioned above, in Southern and Central America there is a mythic figure common to several cultures. He is born of a virgin, ascends into the sky at the end of his time on Earth, promises to return and his symbol is the cross. His name is Quetzalcoatl, which literally translates to “feathered serpent,” and when the Spanish conquistadors landed, the natives thought they might be his second coming, what with how they occasionally represented him with fair hair and beard! The Spaniards for their part noticed that the local religion had striking similarities to their own, but not being well versed in symbols and archetypes their interpretation was that Satan must have implanted a perverted version of Christianity there to try and drive the conquering sons crazy and lead them from the Lord.
In Ancient Greece we find the story of Dionysos, born of the congress of the amorous god Zeus and a mortal woman. One version of the story has Zeus kill the mother and sew the fetus into his thigh until it is ready to be born. Dionysos is the god of wheat and wine and he is killed only to rise again from the dead. His followers perform a sacramental ritual of bread and wine to remember him.
In the Indian chakra system – an ancient map of mind-body psychology, the energy center at the level of the heart is called “Anahata” which means “un-struck.” Think of the physical heart itself as an un-struck drum, one that beats of it’s own accord. In the mind-body iconography of Kundalini yoga, the image we know in modern times as the Star of David is also found at the heart chakra, representing upward flowing and downward flowing sky and earth energy. The horizontal and vertical lines of the cross also meet in the center of the chest.
This leads me to a slightly convoluted association on a “virgin birth.” Follow me here:
The heart represented as an un-struck drum that pulsates with life, a “spiritual” birth that is not preceded by the sex act may symbolically equate to compassion or altruism that is not driven by ulterior motives or self-interest. Could this be symbolic of a spiritual rebirth in the heart—a re-centering of the self in altruistic compassion and beyond mere instinctive selfish impulse?
Consider the Buddha, whose myth says that he is born (after another mysterious spirit-impregnation) from his mother’s right side at the level of the heart. Compassion is an attitude that carries the same feeling-quality as these symbols. I am specifically referencing the chakra system because it is a developmental model; one that suggests that at a certain stage of our spiritual development the birth of authentic and transformative compassion becomes possible. This fits rather nicely with the other developmental models of Piaget and Kohlberg we will consider later.
Perhaps that is the deeper yearning expressed in this collectively dreamed up poetry of the inner life, a yearning for compassionate awakening and altruistic self-actualization, a rebirth in the heart of hearts, a symbolic-signpost pointing toward an evolutionary potential in the real world—that of deepening compassion and love for one-another.
In ancient Egyptian myth, Osiris’ brother Seth killed him to usurp his throne. Osiris’ wife Isis used a spell to bring him back to life long enough to impregnate her with their son Horus. Since Horus was born after the resurrection of Osiris, he is thought to represent new beginnings, and is associated with the new harvest each year. Osiris became known as the god of the dead, Isis as the goddess of the children and Horus as the god of the sky.
Being part human and part divine, having some kind of unusual birth, dying a bloody death and then rising again and even symbols like the cross and sacraments like bread (or grain) and wine are shared by various of these savior figures. These are the great redeemers, sent from beyond to help us to resolve our deep conflict about this peculiar predicament of being human – with an animal body and a spiritual psyche.
This universal archetypal language arises in all cultures to express our human potentials and yearnings as well as our essential conflicts. We need look no further than the common themes between the stories of Christ in the Middle East, Dionysus in Greece, Quetzalcoatl in South America, Osiris in Egypt and even The Buddha in Asia to see these underlying archetypal themes at play.
They are expressed in the local styles and convey the concerns of each particular society. Gods of the hunt, gods of the harvest, a god of the desert and a god of the forest, war gods and gods of peace, gods that express wisdom and sexual ecstasy and compassion and vengeance. As human cultures have evolved so too have our gods, in some ways as an expression of a gradually more humanistic and compassionate worldview, and in some ways as a non-linear expression of culturally diverse idiosyncracies.
From this perspective we can see that our mythologies have been creative expressions of a common deep language reflected upward through particular surface cultural and geographic contexts. I think we must observe that this is a profound psychological and cultural phenomenon. I also propose that it must have significant origins in the brain in ways that we will one day understand, and will explore later on in this book, in terms of fascinating new findings from neuroscience, evolutionary biology and philosophy of mind.
The average American no longer believes in the ancient Greek god Poseidon any more than we believe in ancient Egyptian goddess Nuit. In this way we are all atheists with regard to these gods, but most of us hold one god – that of the Middle Eastern Judaeo-Christian tradition, in a different light.
In the words of Joseph Campbell we might ask:
“What is mythology?
Other people’s religion.
What then is religion?
In the 21st century we might do well to investigate the rich heritage of world mythology and explore it as a kind of spiritual poetry; a rich storehouse of symbolic wisdom that contains both fascinating information about other cultures and times, as well as timeless universal truths about the human condition.
It also has much to tell us about both the evolving psyche and it’s physical counterpart, the most sophisticated and impressive hunk of organic matter that 13.7 billion years of evolution has so far produced—the human brain.