Thursday, March 29, 2007
The Harrowing of Hell
(Crucifixion of Christ by Jan van Eyck)
At the end of March, we now approach one of the most joyous and uplifting religious rituals known to Christians and non-Christians alike: the celebration of Easter, which is the celebration of resurrection from death and rebirth of life.
To the Christian, it is the resurrection of the Son of Man from the dead, leading to his ultimate restoration to a throne in Heaven. To non-Christians, it is a celebration of Spring, of the rebirth of the Earth after its Winter slumber.
Before Easter can occur, however, the gates of Death must be entered and the 'harrowing of Hell' must take place. Christ cannot experience resurrection until he endures the Passion. The god cannot be reborn unless he is crucified upon the Tree of Life.
It is not only the Christian ritual that embodies this ancient Mystery. Dionysus must be torn to pieces by the Titans in order to be reborn, sewn into the thigh of Zeus to become the 'twice-born god'. Persephone, daughter of Demeter, cannot be restored to the Earth unless she goes down into Hades to serve as the consort of the god of the Dead.
I have been pondering the ancient mystery religion of Demeter or Ceres, and how the 'rape of Proserpine' is central to it. Like the Passion of Christ, the 'initiation' of Proserpine' is not a gentle one. It is a rape by the most terrifying entity among the gods, the Lord of Death himself.
Proserpine is the personification of childhood innocence. Plucking flowers with her maiden companions, the Earth itself suddenly opens to swallow her alive. She is deflowered by Death in a cataclysmic act that is as dramatic and awful as that of the Crucifixion.
The role of Mary, mother of God in the Christian mystery is a subordinate one. The role of Demeter, mother Goddess, in the Eleusinian mystery religion is primary. When her child is taken from her, Earth itself suffers. Plants wither, animals and humans become barren... life itself is in a state of suspension. Nothing can prosper until her child is restored to her.
This is a very natural maternal response. Mary suffered silently through her son's Passion according to the Christian scriptures, but Demeter did not 'suffer' the rape of her daughter passively. She went to the Highest authority, Zeus himself, to complain and threaten death to the Earth and all its creatures should her daughter not be restored to her.
Classical mythology in many respects mirrors human realities. Zeus must be a politician and he must plot a course that will satisfy both conflicting sides in this situation. His brother is the Lord of Death and Zeus really cannot command that power. Demeter is Mistress of Earth, and Zeus has no power to control Nature. His role is that of arbitrator in this conflict.
In some Christian traditions, especially those of the Gnostics, the female role in the essential mysteries is a central one. Christ is able to endure the Passion only because his Mother bear witness for him and strengthens him by her presence and her support. Mel Gibson showed this quite clearly in his film about the Passion, and indeed much of his interpretation of the events is based on Gnostic traditions.
As far as the raison d'etre for the Crucifixion is concerned, the classical mystery religions make far more sense than the Christian tale explaining the necessity for the sacrifice. Christians attempt to explain Christ's 'sacrifice' as expiation for the 'original' sins of humanity when in fact, it should have been declared simply to be a natural and necessary act in the cycle of existence. Without Death, there can be no rebirth.
The Christian idea that humanity was cursed with 'original sin' is a Judaic one, and I would submit that Judaism is as far removed from true Christianity as chalk is from cheese. The god of Judaism is a demon-driven master of vengeance, bigotry and incredible, unjustifiable rage and jealousy. The God of Christianity is one who is willing to act as Sacrifice in order to maintain the balance of the universe and to keep the Wheel of Life turning.
In all fairness, however, there are other ancient religions that incorporated a belief in an 'ancient' or 'original' sin. Those who followed the Orphic tradition believed that humanity bore the guilt of the ancient sin of the Titans who murdered and cannibalised Dionysus in the form of Zagreus. The basis for this was the premise that humanity had been created from the ashes of the Titans, blasted in punishment by a bolt of lightning by Zeus for their crime in killing the young god.
Human beings therefore contained both the essence of sin in their Titanic nature and the very essence of the god consumed by the Titans in their Dionysian souls. To purgee the Titanic dross from the gold of their divine heritage was the goal of every Orphic initiate.
Christianity has fewer Judaic roots than the published and accepted 'Bible' would demonstrate. In point of fact, the entire life of Christ displays connections with all the mystery religions in existence at that period, and elements from these traditions can be found throughout the stories that were written about his life, death and resurrection. The theory that Christ may have traveled to India or Tibet and studied Buddhist philosophy certainly is not to be disregarded categorically. Travel even in paleolithic times was widespread and the life of Christ occurred actually in a modern period when Roman rule made international travel fairly easy.
'God is Love' is the premise on which Jesus acted. 'I do this for all humanity', Jesus declared. He was very explicit about that. He did not endorse the concept of a 'special, chosen people' who alone deserved a special gift of salvation. The god of Judaism, on the other hand, committed and endorsed crimes of genocide in order to elevate the position of his precious 'chosen people' over all others. This is not a god that any one can respect or 'follow', in my opinion. Certainly it is not a god who can be respected by any one outside the little circle he purports to favour over others.
There are elements of Judaism, in particular in its mystical traditions such as the Qabbalah that are extremely interesting and powerful and which contain both great wisdom and beauty. Much that is incorporated and enshrined in the 'Bible' and the Talmudic teachings, however, is not for the most part deserving of much respect and it has been responsible for many crimes committed through the centuries.
There are elements of Christianity that are incredibly beautiful as well, but the religion is marred by aspects of the so-called 'Old Testament' that endorses cruelty, bigotry, injustice and even genocide. A true reformation of this religion is long overdue. The life and example of Christ should be the only 'sacred' example for Christians to follow. As far as the 'Old Testament' is concerned, those tales stolen or borrowed by the Hebrews from the ancient people of Sumer, Babylon and Canaan should be restored to their universal form and all else relegated to 'Hebrew history'.
Lest any one think that I am being unnecessarily negative about the practices of Judaism, one need look only at the festival of 'Passover' to see how Jewish celebrations for the most part are based on the triumph of the Jews over others, usually at the point of a sword. In fact, when the 'Angel of Death' 'passed over' the ancient Hebrews, he/she slaughtered all the first born children of Egypt. I cannot imagine how the massacre of innocent children ever could be a cause for celebration. If my own child died in such circumstances when thousands of others perished, I definitely would not create a national or religious holiday based on this. It is the old primitive view that considers only one's own to be 'human' and all others to be less than human. There is no empathy in the Hebrew religion for 'others'. It is extremely unfortunate that Christianity has elevated so much from Hebrew tradition and attributed a sacred character to it.
Contemporary Jews need to take a long, hard look at their traditions and be willing to acknowledge that there can be no justification for any spiritual tradition that gives 'natural superiority' to one ethnic group over another. It is not only Judaism that incorporates racist ideology, of course, but it is one of the few ancient religions incorporating such ideology that has not only survived, but continued to be extremely influential internationally. (I will deal with the 'caste system' in Hinduism in another post in the interest of fairness.)
Although great pains were taken by some of the 'disciples' to trace the lineage of Jesus back to the house of David, his heritage is quite irrelevant. Efforts always have been made to incorporate divine or royal elements in rituals centred on sacrifice, but as the Aztecs demonstrated, it is the treatment given to the sacrificial 'victim' that is important, not the quality of blood that runs through his veins. As a matter of fact, in many cases, the individual who became a hero or god through sacrifice was one whose lineage was suspect. It is the bastard whose father is unknown who can claim to have been fathered by a God.
In most respects, in fact, the life of Christ follows a universal model of the Sacrificed King or God. The entire ritual, from the 40 days of Lent, through Palm Sunday and Holy Week to Easter can be traced back to every ancient mystery religion. Inanna's descent to the Underworld and Dumuzi's fate, the festivals of Osiris and Isis, that of Adonis, Attis and Dionysus, all follow the same basic 'stations'.
As far as the descent into Hell is concerned, although most Christians do not dwell upon this aspect of the Mysteries, the Apostle's Creed specifically incorporates this as an element:
'Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day he rose again from the dead.'
This places the life of Christ squarely into the ancient mould of the god who descends into the Underworld and then emerges triumphant. As in the rites of Dumuzi and Osiris, the mystery is re-enacted annually during Holy Week and Easter. Like the Dionysians and followers of Orpheus, Christians re-enact the sacrificial 'Last Supper' every time Mass is said or Holy Communion celebrated. Like all mystery religions, therefore, the sacrifice of the God is one that occurs again and again. This is another reason that I feel the 'gloss' of 'expiation of original sin' as a basis for the Sacrifice is a spurious one. The fact of the matter is that by participating in the ritual of ancient Sacrifice, each individual is able to see the light beyond the gate of Death a little more clearly and through familiarisation with the ritual of death and resurrection, that ultimate inescapable journey should become less terrifying.
If the universal principle upon which all mystery religions operate were to be acknowledged now, religion would become less of a politicised 'private club'. People from every culture and background could share in these universal rituals.