Sunday, April 1, 2007
The Winnowing Fan and the Palm of Rebirth
Today is Palm Sunday according to Western Christian tradition. It is the one day on which Christ was recognised and adored as a King by humanity in an ancient procession mirrored in all ancient Mediterranean mystery religions. Both a colt and an ass featured in the ritual, and the cloaks of the people as well as branches of palm were strewn in his path as he rode triumphantly through the city.
Less than a week later, he was hanged from a cross. Although Christian tradition does not make any mention of older rituals, the fact of the matter is that the entire 'Passion' of Christ, his death and his resurrection are paralleled in all the ancient mystery religions. Even in places far removed from the Mediterranean and the old Sumerian and Egyptian influences, these rituals were practiced.
If Christ were not acknowledged to be a King or the son of a God (thereby linking heaven and earth), his Sacrifice would be fairly meaningless. After all, crucifixion was a routine act in the period of the Roman Empire. Thousands of crosses lined the Appian Way on certain occasions.
Nor is the torture endured by Christ during his Passion anything extraordinary in terms of ancient practices. During the Festival of Attis, hundreds of individuals tortured and castrated themselves in order to gain eternal life.
What is it within us that drives the human race to reach out towards pain and agony? What is it that prompts us to respond to violence and death?
I watched 'The Passion of the Christ' again today. It is an interesting film in many ways. First and foremost, in my opinion, it is a film about maternal love. Mary is the central character in the drama. It is only through by virtue of HER strength that Christ is able to endure the torment. She witnesses his agony every step of the way and shares in it. When he falls, she is there to help him back to his feet spiritually and emotionally. What mother can bear to endure the terrible suffering of her own child? And yet, what mother would NOT assume that suffering if she could in order to spare her child?
The film reminded me of another ancient mystery tradition, that of the Eleusinian Mysteries. The terrible grief of Demeter at the rape and loss of her daughter was shared by worshippers when they re-enacted that event annually. This predated the story of Christ and yet Christians on the whole have no interest in finding common threads.
I personally believe that the heart of all mysteries is the same and that we come closer to universal wisdom only when we can follow the labyrinth into its centre. This can be accomplished only if we can make a distinction between fundamentals and 'artistic' details and if we can free ourselves from sectarianism and the 'elitist' impulse that infects most religions.
The Christian Churches for the most part would have us believe that Christ was sacrificed for our sins, past, present and future. Like the followers of Orphic tradition, that principle recognises basic evil in humanity even from birth. In the Orphic religion, humanity carried within it the gross nature of the Titans as well as the divine spark of Dionysus. To the Christians, original sin was the legacy of Adam and Eve after the Fall.
Witnessing the 'Passion', an immediate response is to be appalled at the vile nature of fellow human beings who are not only able to cause suffering in others deliberately but to revel in it. There were those who meted out the tortures, professional sadists whose daily occupation was to induce and prolong agony in others. More like the majority, however, there were those who thronged the streets cheering at the spectacle of an innocent man who barely could walk, torn and bleeding, being forced to carry the object of his own death on his bloody shoulders.
Our 'modern' sensibilities have taught us to be appalled by torture and blood, and yet dramatic depictions of serial killers are extremely popular. Contemporary society, while enacting laws to protect human beings from torture still is fascinated by the subject.
I began to think again about the old rituals of Attis, enacted annually as well as the rituals of Dionysus and I wonder if we really are doing ourselves a disservice. In the same way that contemporary Western society seeks to conceal the reality of Death from us, we have tried to distance ourselves from whatever human instincts drive us towards violence and pain.
Life is as much filled with violence and pain as joy and pleasure and no matter how many laws are enacted or how many lessons are taught in schools, when catastrophe strikes, it brings violence and death in its wake.
The ancients were prepared for that. They awakened each dawn with the knowledge that death could be no more than a breath away and they went to sleep at night praying to survive until the next dawn.
We are arrogant now. We think that we control Death and pain somewhat through modern science and medicine but the fact of the matter is that horror is a fact of life still and it could strike at any instant.
We are hypocrites as well, distanced from the foundation of our appetites, able to gratify our desires without having to witness the pain and death that are part of that cycle. Our meat comes to us packaged in steaks and chops without any reference to the great beast who died for a hundred dinners. We eat bread without making it ourselves, sometimes without even being able to identify the shape of the plant that produced it.
The old ritual of Mot and Ba'al wherein Mot was winnowed and ground like grain mirrored an ever-present reality of the agricultural cycle. It had nothing to do with sin or sophistry. It was a ritual based in seasonal realities, in the annual cycle of life, death and rebirth. For most urban dwellers, that cycle is far removed from their lives.
Even the seasons have been lost somewhat. In former times, the Christmas pudding was a symbol of life, filled with the fruits and nuts that were not available during Winter. Now, one can acquire fruit at any season, flown from distant locations throughout the year.
Despite all this, we only deceive ourselves if we believe that we have conquered Nature and the elements. It takes only a tsunami, flood or earthquake to bring a sophisticated city to the ground.
The Passion of Christ and the Crucifixion are filled with truly horrible elements of suffering and death and yet, what is represented there is the indominable spirit of a human being, an example of extraordinary courage and an unswerving dedication to a purpose that transcended this life and this time and space.
The Orphic tradition held that human beings were required to endure the cycle or wheel of life three times before having a chance to be granted eternal existence in 'heaven'. When the follower of Orpheus walked through the gates of death, he would be challenged as to his identity and he would state: 'I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven.'
According to the followers of the Orphic tradition, it is our Titanic nature that revels in torture and destruction and yet, it is only through pain and suffering that we are able to transcend this 'lower nature' of ours. The vehicle through which the soul is liberated from its dross is pain. Without trial and ordeal, there would be no chance to escape the endless cycle.
If one looks at the Passion of Christ in the same fashion, one realises that every character in that drama acted to facilitate the ultimate miracle. The Christian tales tend to portray the soldiers and other instruments of death and torture as hideous creatures but in older mystery religions, ALL participants equally were dedicated to the final result, which was rebirth.
This point of view is shared somewhat by the Gnostic tradition that does not condemn Judas as an ignoble betrayer but as the companion and close friend who fulfilled his role in order to allow Christ to embark upon his ultimate act on this earth.
The role of Judas was one of the most difficult, as was the role of Mary, the mother of Christ. It is easier to endure pain and agony oneself sometimes than to witness the torture and suffering of a loved one.
Perhaps that is the lesson of the Passion in the end, rather like the purpose of the Shi'a re-enactments of the tragedy of Karbala. By responding emotionally to the suffering and torment of the Hero, we ourselves are ennobled. By weeping for Husayn or Christ, we shed some of the dross of that nature within us that is cruel, calculating and selfish.
Human nature is extremely complex. There is a part of us that thirsts for the blood of our enemies and yet there is another part that can weep at the suffering of a total stranger. The ancient mystery dramas took these conflicting impulses and created something that transcended daily life and even death and gave humanity hope for eternity.
Every mystery religion evoked the Light. Every mystery religion required the participant to witness or endure suffering and even death, utter privation in the darkness before finally being allowed to walk towards the Light.
Whatever dark instincts are within our hearts, there still is no doubt that ultimately we do turn our faces towards the Light. Like plants who thrust their way from the darkness and confines of the earth to turn their faces towards the Sun, our hearts and souls forever search for the Light beyond this life.
The ancients knew that Light could not exist without Darkness. In the midst of our technology, surrounded constantly with artificial light, it is easy to forget that our lives are profoundly unbalanced, that some of us never even experience true Darkness. If we never are attuned to the Darkness, how can we appreciate true Light?
Every initiate was required to spend time in a cave before experiencing rebirth. Christ himself was shut into a tomb created from a cave to spend a period in utter darkness, before his rebirth into the Light. I do not believe that, because he did this, we are not required to do it ourselves. Instead, I feel that we need to learn how to endure the Darkness in order to be able to come into the Light with new vision and rejoicing. If that is a terrifying experience, so be it. Birth is a terrifying experience, as is Death. How could Rebirth not be equally so?