The Victorian Charm of the Protong. Part 2

David Sivier
Magonia 88, May 2005

Apart from the demonstrably erroneous nature of the claim that the Passion narrative represents human sacrifice in a real, historic lunar cult, is the highly questionable nature of the proof adduced for it. The theory takes as proof facts, or rather factoids, widely separated in space and time from the centre of the Passion narrative in first century Palestine. For example, there is the statement that Christ was crucified on Friday 13th.

Friday has indeed always traditionally been the date of Christ’s crucifixion, and the belief that it occurred on the 13th is a common piece of contemporary folklore, though it probably arose to explain why Friday 13th is considered unlucky. It’s unlikely, however, that Christ was crucified on a 13th, as the Jewish Passover, during which the events of the Passion unfolded, begins on the 14th of Nisan. Although Friday was declared a day of penance for Christians by the medieval church, and there was a concomitant fear that it was unlucky, the particular fear of Friday 13th is actually no older than the 20th century. In fact the superstition surrounding the supposedly unlucky nature of the number 13 dates only from the 17th century, when it was felt unlucky for 13 people to be present at a meal. [1]
Similarly, Freya was a goddess worshipped by the ancient Germans, not Semites, and Friday and related terms such as Freitag were used only by the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe. To the Romans, the day was dies Veneris, Venus’ Day, while the Hebrew term was different again. Similarly, for Christians, Christ was resurrected on Sunday, not Monday, as the theory states, though because of its place as the day after Easter Day, Monday was declared a holiday by the medieval church.

As for the argument that the thirteen disciples represented the thirteen months of the lunar year, this, and the assertion that Christ’s Passion represented the death of the sun, is also reminiscent of yet another 19th century anthropological theory to account for the origins of religion, Max Muller’s Solar Mythology. Friedrich Max Muller was one of Victorian Britain’s most brilliant Sanskrit scholars and students of Indian religion. A trenchant critic of Tylor’s theory that fetishism was the origin of human religion and anthropological evolutionism, he considered instead that sun worship was the primal religion of humanity. He came to this view through his study of the Vedas, particularly of Agni, the god of fire, and tentatively applied his theory of religions origins in a solar cult to the other, savage, societies found elsewhere in the world. [2]

Muller arrived at his theory of solar origins through his grounding in Sanskrit philology, and he attempted to explain the violent, sensual, ignoble and generally barbarous behaviour of the Greek gods through tracing their origins in the gods of the Vedas, the oldest literature of the Indo-European peoples. For Muller, the mythopoeic conceptions of the gods occurred before the rise of civilisation, before human language could convey abstract notions, so that Dyaus, the supreme god in the Veda, could be understood also as meaning sky, sun, air, dawn, light and brightness, while a number of other words, with different associations, could also indicate the sun. [3]

These linguistic associations led Muller to an allegorical interpretation of the Greek myths. For example, the story of Chronos, Zeus’ father, devouring his children before being forced to vomit the younger god’s siblings back up actually stood for the sky devouring and then releasing the clouds. [4] Nor was the solar cult confined to the Indo-European peoples. Muller later expanded his theory to various extra- European peoples, tracing the origin of various Indian, Polynesian and African peoples back to an alleged solar cult through an analysis of the languages of the tales themselves and the etymology of the terms used for the various gods. [5]

Muller’s pupil, Sir George William Cox, pushed the theory even further, viewing the Indo-European myths as allegories of the contest between sun and night, and comparing the Homeric epics thus interpreted with Christianity: ‘The story of the sun starting in weakness and ending in victory, waging a long warfare against darkness, clouds and storms, and scattering them all in the end, is the story of all patient self-sacrifice, of all Christian devotion. ’ [6]

Unlike Gooch, however, he did not believe that there was ever a human reality at the heart of these myths, and viewed such heroes as Grettir, King Arthur, Sigurd, William Tell, Roland, Beowulf, Hamlet and the Biblical patriarch David as purely mythological figures representing the sun. [7]

Muller’s intellectual opponent with whom he carried on a lively controversy over the origins of human mythology was Andrew Lang, a former Oxford graduate and supporter of the ethnological, rather than philological, origins of mythology and folklore. Lang’s 1887 Myth, Ritual and Religion amassed considerable anthropological information to show that primitive peoples everywhere had similar myths, legends, and customs, and that elements of these had survived in modern peasant lore and the Classical Greek myths. [8] Lang never denied that solar, lunar and star cults and myths existed, but that they had independent origins in the animist stage of human culture. As for the bloody acts committed in fairy tales and legends, Lang viewed these purely as storytelling formulae: ‘It is almost as necessary for a young god or hero to slay monsters as for a young lady to be presented at court; and we may hesitate to explain all these legends of an useful feat of courage as nature myths. ’ [9]

In the end, Lang’s view of the origins of religion and mythology prevailed, partly due to the immense influence of his Myth, Ritual and Religion but largely due to the establishment of the Folklore Society, whose members favoured and who wrote steadily and voluminously to support the evolutionary origin of myth. [10]

As for Christ and His disciples forming a coven of thirteen, this is merely the reading back into Christianity of the religious perceptions that led to the view that witchcraft covens always had thirteen members in the first place. In fact thirteen, representing the total number of Christ and his twelve apostles was considered the ideal number of friars in a community, and the same model was adopted for the number of suffragans under archbishop and monks in a monastery. It has therefore been suggested that the choice of thirteen for the number of witches in a coven was therefore made as a deliberate inversion of the Christian norm. [11] The Middle Ages viewed witchcraft as a satanic parody and inversion of God’s church and the natural order, and the reputed ideal membership of thirteen for a coven was a further parody, in line with the blasphemies of the Black Mass, of the ideal membership of Christ’s fellowship with the Apostles and orthodox Christian religious communities.

In the case of the Grail legend and the Fisher King [left] , although some historians have suggested that the central motif of this story - a genitally wounded king - does indeed come from ancient myth, its ultimate source is Brythonic Celtic, not Semitic. If it does have a mythological origin, then it one from Celtic myth, which has been Christianised to fit the dominant religious culture of Europe at the time. Again, the legend is late, appearing in the 12th century with Chretien de Troyes, who was writing chivalrous fiction. Despite the religious elements, and the claims to be based in history, the legend of the Fisher King appeared 1200 years after the rise of Christianity and was never a part of the religion, however enormously influential it may have been as secular literature.

It is possible to go on and list more of the factual errors, inconsistencies and anachronisms in Gooch’s argument, though this would be missing the deeper, and more important point. At its heart is the assumption that modern folklore represents survivals of lore and knowledge of deep antiquity, and the related belief that humanity passes through a fixed stage of civilisation, inherited from Morgan and the other 19th century anthropologists, of which contemporary primitive, or pre- industrial societies, are survivals.

This view was explicitly stated by Tylor himself in his Primitive Culture of 1871, in which he wrote,’Survivals are processes, customs, opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home, and they thus remain as proofs and examples of an older condition of culture out which the newer has been evolved.’ [12] The reliance on outmoded anthropological theories of mythology as sources for its view of the Neanderthals in City of Dreams was one of the major criticisms made of the book when it was reissued in 1996. [13]

In fact, Gooch is not the only contemporary writer to be convinced that contemporary myths and legends are the remnants of a much older, Stone Age religious system. Adrian Bailey in 1998 advanced the view in his book, Caves of the Sun: The Origin of Mythology, that the original prehistoric religion was a solar cult, which also influenced the Neanderthal cult of the bear through the sun’s apparent retreat in winter into caves in the earth. The book was again heavily dependent on 19th century anthropology and dismissive of the psychological and century interpretations of the origins of religion. [14] John Grigsby, in his Warriors of the Wasteland of 2003, advanced the theory that the original pre-Indo-European, Neolithic religion was that of a dying and rising man/god, which was usurped by the intrusive solar cult. Although Grigsby similarly brought a wealth of information to bear on his subject, his thesis was nevertheless criticised for its reliance on the 19th century theories of Frazer, among others, for its conceptual framework. [15]

Customs survive not as throwbacks
but because they fulfil some function

In fact, the notion that contemporary pre-industrial cultures are survivals from an ancient state of human culture has effectively been challenged by developments in anthropology during the century.

Particularly instrumental in attacking the unidirectional development of cultures through specific phases were Boleslaw Malinowski and Franz Boas. Malinowski based his anthropological theories on his experience of fieldwork amongst the peoples of the Trobriand Islands. Here, he developed a functionalist view of society, considering that no matter how strange a custom or practice was, it survived because it fulfilled a contemporary purpose: ‘Savages aren’t half-rational or irrational, but do things because they work. Customs survive not as throwbacks but because they fulfil some function.’ [16] It’s a view that the probably the great majority of contemporary occultists and New Agers, sharing the belief in the efficacy of magic, would endorse. Nevertheless, it challenges the tendency in some circles to view extra-European cultures as irrational, in contrast to the post-Enlightenment rationalism of contemporary European culture. There are elements of this view in Surrealism, for example.

Although the Surrealists ardently championed the rights of indigenous and subordinate colonial people against the oppression of European imperialism in the Caribbean, French Indo-China and elsewhere, their espousal of the art of primitive, tribal cultures such as those of Black Africa was predicated by the notion that they were much in touch with their subconscious, and by implication, more irrational, than Europeans.

The greatest challenge to the unidirectional view of cultural progress, however, came from Franz Boas. Boas’ fieldwork amongst the Kwakiutl peoples of the American north-west coast led him to attack the doctrine that society moved from a matrilineal to a patrilineal organisation, and the theory of totemism as the origins of human religion. He believed that the positing of a uniform scheme of human development overlooked the uniqueness of individual human cultures. Instead of there being a general sequence of cultural stages amongst humanity, there was instead’a tendency of diverse customs and beliefs to converge towards similar forms, and a development of customs in divergent direction.’ [51]

As a German Jew, he was bitterly opposed to the biological reductionism of the Nazis and the racial interpretation of history, which he saw, along with eugenics, as irremediably dangerous. His book, The Mind of Primitive Man was burned in Nazi Germany and unpopular amongst supporters of apartheid and segregation in the United States because of its assertion that there were no pure races, that racial intermixing did not lead to degeneration, and that Blacks would be perfectly able to fulfil their duties as citizens alongside Whites if the legal restrictions against them were lifted. His views have thus been immensely influential in challenging the racist assumptions of White superiority towards other cultures characteristic of 19th century anthropology.

While his anti-racism is praiseworthy, his emphasis on each culture’s autonomy, and demand that anthropologists should not make value judgements about the societies they studied, unfortunately has led to the extremes of postmodern cultural relativism in which practices or beliefs which are untrue or repellent are nevertheless defended and declared valid because of their part in a particular culture. Hence the postmodern view that relegates science to the position of only one of a number of possible interpretations of the universe, none more true than the others.

Attempts to posit totemism and shamanism as the origin of human religion have similar been questioned because of their coexistence with apparently more sophisticated forms of religious experience. Tylor himself recognised that primitive peoples, ‘alongside their magic, ghosts, totems, worshipful stones, have a very much better God than most races a good deal higher in civilisation.’ [18] It’s a sentiment with which many of today’s occultists would no doubt agree, contrasting the apparent benevolence of primitive religion with the cruelties of Western institutional faiths, particularly Christianity. Nevertheless, it does undermine the claim that totemism is somehow a more primitive, primal form of human religious experience.

The idea of Christ’s passion as a mythological treatment of real, primal human totemic sacrifice similarly becomes untenable. Although the consumption of Christ’s body and blood in the transubstantiated bread and wine of the mass certainly performs some of the functions of the consumption of a totemic sacrificial victim in promoting a social and spiritual solidarity amongst members of the congregation, this does not mean by any means that a real, human sacrifice was necessarily performed and consumed, beyond the theological view of Christ’s crucifixion as a paschal sacrifice before God, though this certainly would not have been the intention of the Roman and Judaean authorities responsible for it.

Furthermore, people do adopt creatures and objects as symbols for themselves, as in mascots and on coats of arms, without these creatures ever being personally consumed by them. Muller himself pointed to his friend, Abeken, whose name meant ‘small ape’ and who therefore had a small ape on his coat of arms, as the possible possessor of a totemic ancestor. He joked, however, that although he had never actually seen him eating an ape, it was probably due to a matter of taste. [19]

Of course, attempts to shoehorn all forms of religion into the pattern of a solar myth, is also open to abuse. It was satirised even during its high point in the 19th century. Sabine Baring-Gould, for example, illustrated its excesses with an essay, originally produced by a French ecclesiastic, which mischievously attempted to prove that Napoleon was the sun god, citing linguistic, historical and figurative parallels with the myth of Apollo. [20]


Similarly, the arguments for the antiquity of shamanism have also been questioned, with scholars pointing out that the Palaeolithic cave paintings of dancing male figures with animal heads could equally be gods, and that the argument for the universality of shamanism across the globe is weakened by the fact that there is not even a commonly agreed definition of the term. [21] Furthermore, as with totemism, shamanism also exists alongside organised religion in some of the societies in which it is found. [22]

Modern anthropology’s rejection of the theory of a uniform, primitive Cro-Magnon culture based on communism, matriarchy and goddess-worship undoubtedly explains why Gooch has looked yet further back into the Palaeolithic, to the Neanderthals, for his utopia. The sheer scantiness of the evidence and its amibiguity makes them an ideal tabula rasa, on to which contemporary scholars can project their own views of their nature.

Much still remains conjectural and the subject of debate. For example, although there are finds of Neanderthal burials, complete with flowers and a sprinkling of red ochre on the dead, as well as jewellery of animal teeth, to suggest that they had a symbolic culture, and so were not the subhuman creatures of earlier views, this view is hotly contested. Its opponents argue that these practices only emerged after the Neanderthals came into contact with the Cro-Magnons, and so were simply copying their practices without truly understanding them, rather than inventing them for themselves. [57]

At present though, recent findings regarding the Neanderthals tend to disprove some of Gooch’s theories. For example, the greater muscular development on Neanderthal skeleton’s right arms suggests they were right, rather than left handed, using that arm to wield the spear in a stabbing motion suitable for hunting animals amongst woodland, rather than throwing them. [58] On the other hand, analysis of Palaeolithic handprints suggest that the Cro-Magnons, by contrast, had a far greater proportion of left-handers than today. Analysis of the chemical composition of Neanderthal bones similarly suggests that they were almost exclusively carnivorous. [59] If true, these findings prove the exact reverse of some of Gooch’s own view of the Neanderthals.

Aside from these specific points, most anthropologists and historians today, following Franz Boas, would baulk at seeing a racial, biological origin for political institutions, and it is mistaken to project distinctly century political structures far back into prehistory, long before these political philosophies and social organisations had arisen. As for the specific examples of left- handers’ political inclinations today, there are serious problems with these.

(Although there is considerable interest in the apparently different cognitive and social skills developed by left and right handers, with the genetic differences between the two being wider than those of human races, it’s problematic whether any of the individuals Gooch cites as left-handers can be described as socialist. Radical Islam of the type promoted by Osama bin Laden strongly rejects the present world order and the dominance of America as an oppressive infidel power, but it also vehemently rejects atheist communism and secular socialism.

In Revolutionary Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini abolished political parties from a belief that they were divisive, and that’all Muslims should be brothers’. In some respects, particularly urban planning, the insistence on restricting legislation solely to what can be expressly supported by the Qu’ran has meant that some Iranian policies resemble the laissez-faire economic policies of the Victorian West, rather than the state interventionism of revolutionary Communist regimes. Supporters of the Iranian Revolution vehemently denounced comparisons of the revolutionary regime with Western political movements, particularly Fascism, and it’s almost certain that bin Laden and the others in al-Qaeda would also reject comparisons with Socialism, Communism or other Western philosophies for the same reason.

As for China being a Communist country, this is also problematic. Although China is a one-party state whose official ideology is revolutionary Marxism, in practice the country follows capitalist economics. As with the other countries of the former Communist bloc, it’s problematic whether Communism in China can outlive the increasingly aging members of the ruling party. In any case, most scholars would point to distinct, obvious political and social causes for the rise of Communism in China, such as the political and economic chaos and corruption of the Kuomintang, rather than crude biological determinism.

Beyond the errors and inadequacies of the theory of Christ’s Passion as the central ritual of a prehistoric lunar cult, rather more profound points can be made generally about fringe religious history and its methods of proof and investigation. The first point is that much fringe speculation, despite its wide ranging use of facts, rather than opening up new ground, really does little more than attempt to propound and defend earlier, discredited theories. Just as the above theory recapitulates elements of Victorian notions of the origins of human religion and society, so Ron Pearson’s theories of the subatomic origin of the spirit world relies on a rejection of Einstein’s theory of relativity in favour of a revived insistence of the existence of the ether. Secondly, global assumptions of a universal religious cult in antiquity are almost certainly wrong.

Any assumptions regarding the nature of a historical event, including its religion, requires as proof directly relevant facts to support it. In the case of the above theory of Christ’s passion, this would ideally be Roman, Greek or Jewish eyewitness reports that such a sacrifice did indeed occur, rather than inference from unrelated myths or legends recorded thousands of years later and further north. There also has to be an awareness of the wider history and origins of the events investigated, and a clear distinction between causes and effects. In the above example, this means an awareness that the belief that witches’ covens had a membership of thirteen was based on the total number of Christ and His disciples, rather than vice versa. Furthermore, any allegorical interpretation of a myth or legend requires high standards of proof directly relevant to the subject of study.

It is immensely easy, simply by a judicious choice of numbers and mythology, to prove an allegorical meaning behind just about any subject one chooses, as Sabine Baring-Gould’s apparent proof that Napoleon was really Apollo clearly demonstrates. In general, unless there is direct evidence that the subject of study was considered allegorical at the time, or consciously used in such a context, allegorical interpretations of specific historical events are probably best avoided.

It also needs stating that when propounding a particular interpretation of history, the researcher needs to consider the academic history of the subject being discussed, and the origins and history of the ideas surrounding it. Professional academic historians, for example, consider previous treatments of their subject in their monographs, and history courses in higher education teach historiography — the theories and philosophies of historical interpretation, and how these have changed over time — as an integral part of the history course, as these may profoundly affect the treatment of a particular historical event or person, including the type of evidence accepted to support the historian’s view of their subject.

The most important point, however, is that biologistic assumptions of the origins of culture or political organisation and views are both wrong, and have been the basis of brutality, oppression and genocide. No matter how well meant, even by liberals keen to rescue their subjects from the images of savagery, like those, which have been characteristic of the treatment of the Neanderthals, such theories should be strenuously rejected.

The recent history of archaeology has shown how there is a place for fringe theorising, and that when this is done well it can make a valuable contribution to the understanding of its subjects. Archaeoastronomy, despite its origins in fringe archaeological speculation, is now academically respectable, and Paul Devereaux’s theories on the Stone Age use of sound to create altered states of consciousness amongst worshippers at sacred sites has similarly been well received, at least in some quarters of academia. To be accepted by academia, however, researchers in the mystical and occult fringe need to adhere to the same rigorous standards of proof and approach, some of whose characteristics are outlined above, that academics use to assess the value of their own views and theories. unfortunately, with the current furore over the Da Vinci Code spawning a plethora of ever wilder pseudo- historical religious speculation, we may have to wait a long time for that.

  1. ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ in J Simpson and S. Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, OUP, 2000, p.61
  2. R. M. Dorson, ‘The Eclipse of Solar Mythology’, in A. Dundes, The Study of Folklore, University of California at Berkeley, Prentice Hall, 1965, p.61
  3. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.62-2
  4. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.64
  5. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.69
  6. G. W. Cox. An Introduction to the Science of Comparative Mythology and Folklore. 1881, cited in Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.72
  7. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.72-3
  8. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.61
  9. A. Lang. Myth, Ritual and Religion, vol.2, p.196, cited in Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.67
  10. Dorson. ‘Solar Mythology’, pp.83
  11. E. Rose. A Razor for a Goat, University of Toronto Press, 1989, p.158-9
  12. E. B. Tylor. Primitive Culture, cited in Bennett, op.cit., p.35
  13. Review of S. Gooch, City of Dreams, Aulis, London 1995, in Fortean Times no. 85, Feb/Mar. 1996, p.61
  14. M. Jay, ‘Caves of the Sun, The Origin of Mythology’ in Fortean Times 117, December 1998, p.56
  15. N. Rooney, ‘Shadows from a Celtic Twilight’, in Fortean Times, 178, December 2003, p.60
  16. Bennet, op.cit., p.65
  17. Bennet, op.cit., p.71
  18. Bennet, op.cit., p.68
  19. Dorson, ‘Solar Mythology’, p.68
  20. S Baring-Gould, ‘A Satire on German Mythologists’, in p. Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914, Jonathan Cape, 1983, p.126-9
  21. Hutton, The Shamans of Siberia. Isle of Avalon Press, Gastonbury, 1993, p. 14
  22. Hutton, op.cit., p.9
  23. S. Mithen, ‘Symbolic Humans Started here’, reviewing J. L. Arsuaga, Neanderthal’s Necklace, John Wiley & Sons, 2003, in Fortean Times, 170, May 2003, p.61.
  24. See, for example, the BBC Horizon programme broadcast January-February 2005 which attempted to reconstruct the Neanderthals and their lifestyle from fossil remains.
  25. See the BBC Horizon programme as above.