In the early hours of 10 February, 2022, last minute changes the bill saw the insertion of clauses that would prevent institutions like schools being able to discriminate against staff and students who are homosexual. Nonetheless, these alterations were rejected in the Senate because the bill still did not address transgender issues, thus the government was concerned transgender staff and students may still be vilified.
Some church groups also rejected the changes because it meant they were not getting what they wanted – the right to discriminate against staff and students on the grounds of gender identity, sexual orientation, and marital status. They argue religions should be allowed to uphold their beliefs, traditions, and values, even if these are prejudicial, because God’s authority should be higher than government mandated laws.
God’s authority in America allows discrimination …
If the Religious Discrimination Bill were to go ahead, one only needs to look at American to see the type of discrimination that could arise. For instance, Hillsong demoted a choir director when it became known they were openly gay. The director’s skills and expertise in leading a choir were never in question, rather, it was a case of not wanted to be seen as supporting LGBTQ+. This is the same Pentecostal church Scott Morrison has affiliations with, which begs questioning the possibility that the Morrison government wants the same sort of discrimination to be legal in Australia?
Castrati, Transgenderism Approved by God’s Authority
Castrati were singers who had their testes and/or scrotum removed before puberty so they produced less testosterone and, in turn, maintained the capacity to sing high notes as adults. The procedure was usually not of the boys choosing, rather poor parents did it in exchange for money and to profit off their child’s gifted singing abilities. The procedures were approved of by the Catholic Church, an institution established on the premise that it is a mediator of God’s authority.
The trend began in the 1500s to enable choirs the flexibility of singing songs with a full range of harmonies. The mutation of boys anatomy was deemed an appropriate solution to fulfil the “need” of producing heavenly melodies. Castrati were “necessary” because women were banned from church choirs. Further, the procedure could be justified using Matthew 19:12 – a Castrato was an eunuch made for the sake of the kingdom of the heavens.
Castrati were popular throughout Europe and highly valued in Vatican choirs. As effeminate men, many adjusted their identity to suit their circumstances, which in some cases involved homosexual relationships. If they could still achieve erections, they could be sort after by affluent women who wanted an affair with a hairless lover who could not impregnate them.
Castrations were made illegal in Italy in 1861, but the practice was not banned by Papal rule till 1903. Italian doctors are reported to have continued making castrati for the Sistine Chapel choir until 1870.
The last Castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), followed the centuries old tradition of being the director of the Sistine Chapel choir. It is unclear if Moreschi’s castration was done purely to preserve his vocal range or if it was done to cure an inguinal hernia. Either way, the transgender-like procedure he went through was never viewed as being a threat to the morality of Christendom. He was nicknamed the “Angel of Rome” and recordings of his work are now on YouTube.
Religious Freedom or Religious Abuse?
Christianity’s history of supporting transgender-like procedures on religious grounds – Castrati and eunuchs – is a poignant backdrop for considering modern issues of gender identity and sexual orientation in modern churches. Essentially, when the purpose of altering a male’s anatomy to make them more like a woman suited their needs, Christianity approved transgenderism. Moreover, effeminate men were glorified for their feminine singing skills and any homosexual behaviours were largely ignored. Fast forward to today, and Christians can be discriminated against for exercising their free will to be transgender and/or homosexual.
When governments banned castrations, were they discriminating against religious traditions? Or were they putting the welfare of individuals above cruel religious practices?
So too, if governments prevent religions from being able to discriminate on the grounds of gender identity, are religious faiths being discriminated against? Or are the freedoms of individuals being protected from cruel religious practices?
Freedom of religion that leads to religious abuse was a prime consideration that lead to the development of human rights. Why have a bill that overrides this aim?
Castrati is not the same as homosexuality …
The common tread between Christians historically supporting Castrati choir directors and contemporary Christians discriminating against homosexual choir directors is that both situations represent practices that are supposedly supported by God’s authority. Discerning what is God’s authority ultimately comes down to which version of the Bible one reads and how it is interpreted. Idiosyncratic issues of what is “God’s authority” regarding gender identity and sexual orientation is nuanced by historical and cultural contexts.
It could be argued that Pentecostalism formed as a reaction against the practices of other Christian denominations and their practices, like Catholic Castrati, who supposedly misinterpreted God’s authority. Then again, it could be argued that churches who accept LGBTQ+ Christians are a reaction against other Christians, like Pentecostalism, because they have misinterpreted God’s authority … the circular arguments are endless. Not all denominations of Christianity are equal, and even within specific churches, Christian attitudes can vary.
So, if the Bible is the official document that defines God’s authority, why are there so many variations? … Dear Australians #2.6: the Bible’s authority …
This blog is part of a series that I hope will encourage deep, thoughtful, respectful discussions about issues relating to the Religious Discrimination bill. If you’d like to be kept up to date, subscribe to receive notifications of new posts by email.
The concept of non-binary genders is relatively new, with the term only being coined a few decades ago. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence to suggest humanity has never neatly fitted into two categories of male and female. While some modern Christians oppose non-binary concepts and transgenderism, there is an extensive history of Christians embracing diversity. For instance, Matthew’s biblical reference to eunuchs implies men without penises were socially accepted, moreover, could be glorified:
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
If you have troubles locating Matthew's comments on eunuchs, its probably because some contemporary Bibles have altered the wording:
Some people are unable to marry because of birth defects or because of what someone has done to their bodies. Others stay single in order to serve God better. Anyone who can accept this teaching should do so.
Matthew 19:12 (CEV)
The above verse was used by some Early Christians to justify self-castration (e.g., Origen), which could be viewed as a crude form of primitive gender re-assignment. While today’s transgender procedures can be conducted without an individual having a religious rationale, it’s good to keep in mind that pretty much everything in bygone eras was done due to spiritual beliefs. Conversely, in the absence of contemporary attitudes in which individuals can have personal reasons for identifying as non-binary and desiring gender reassignment procedures, antiquity’s social acceptance of eunuchs within religion would have been a valid pathway for non-binary individuals.
In contrast to castrated men, women could be glorified or demonised for growing a beard, as was the case in the fourteenth century legend of Wilgefortis.
Wilgefortis’ father tried to marry her off to a non-Christian, however, she prayed to God to prevent this from occurring and, subsequently, grew a beard and was considered too repulsive to wed. Wilgefortis was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by cruxifixction. While demonised by some, others likened her to Christ and prayed to her as a saint.
Christian cults dedicated to venerating Wilgefortis spread throughout Europe. She was particularly popular with women in difficult or abusive marriages. There are several variations of Wilgefortis’ story, however, all focus around the inference of the Latin version of her name, virgo fortis, which means courageous virgin.
The disbanding of Wilgefortis cults coincided with church reformations in the sixteenth century.
From a modern perspective, Wilgefortis was likely to have been non-binary, like the artist mentioned in Dear Australians #2.3: Let’s Talk About Sex. Hirsutism; the term applied to women who grow beards, can be caused by genetics, hormones, or other causes. In the absence of such understandings being known or understood, Wilgefortis was considered a freak of nature and/or a woman blessed by God.
I can just imagine Wilgefortis trying to tell her honest truth – that she was not interested in the man her father wanted her to wed and wanted to remain a virgin. However, given that women had few rights and daughters were considered to be a father’s possession, she had little recourse. Therefore, Wilgefortis did the only thing she could to try to alter the situation by praying to God. Her subsequent “miraculous” growing of a beard is likely to have been because she was a hirsute. From a contemporary perspective, Wilgefortis, being a young girl when her father tried to marry her off, had not yet reached an age for the beard to manifest. Additionally she was probably too young to be interested in sex and/or was asexual.
Our ancestors were superstitious, really superstitious. In the absence of knowledge about chromosomes, hormones, and other biological factors, spiritual theories provided explanations for phenomena that was not otherwise understood. The fact that Wilgefortis was considered a witch by some and a saint by others indicates it all really came down to a matter of belief. Coinciding with lack of scientific knowledge was the enduring perception that there is perfect a “nature” of males and females and failing to meet one of these binaries is sin.
In 1906 a Jesuit priest proposed Wilgefortis never lived and that her legend emerged from a creative interpretation of an artwork of an androgynous looking Jesus. In 1969, when the Catholic Church updated their list of saints, Wilgefortis was stripped of her saintly status.
The “official” rejection of Wilgefortis leads to more questions than it does resolutions. If Christians of the past could be so easily confused and make up stories about a bearded woman, what else has been fabricated? What other miracles and/or answered prayers are nothing but superstitious legends? What other saintly legends are fake? Or, as others have suggested, did the Pope just want to remove evidence of the Church supporting non-binary individuals?
Judaism and Christianity both use the family terms of “husband” and “wife” and/or “groom” and “bride” as symbolic representations of theological concepts. If these labels are interpreted literally, scriptural writings can appear confusing (and sometimes grotesque). Read allegorically, they reveal a whole new dimension of meaning.
Jewish Husband and Wife – Theologically Speaking
The Jews began the trend by likening God to a “husband” with the Israelites being his “wife”; God is the “father” and Israelites the “mother”. Just as real wives were expected to be faithful to their husbands, Israelites were to honour their patriarchal head of the spiritual family.
Ezekiel 16 describes Israelites as being a nation whom God looked after like a King and turned her into a “Queen”. While Isaiah claims Israel was a wife who married too young and was rejected by her husband:
For your Maker is your husband— the Lord Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God.
The allegories of husband and wife follows through to Jews who turned away from God (by worshipping other deities) being condemned as harlots: “You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband!” (Ezekiel 16:32).
Christian Groom and Bride – Theologically Speaking
Christianity, as a continuation of Judaism, maintained the theme of God as head of the family, only with a twist: Christ is the groom and his followers (Christians) the bride. The transference of God as husband to Christ as groom has a logical(ish) sequence that falls in line with trinity theology – God, the Holy Spirit, and Christ are one.
Mark 2:19-20 – And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
John 3:29 – The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.
2 Corinthians 11:2 – I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.
Revelation 19:7 – the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.
Revelation 19:9 – “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
Revelation 21:2 – I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
To creatively fill in the gaps between Judaism and Christianity, the Jews were wed to God when they were young and inexperienced with relationships, subsequently, the newly weds encountered conflicts neither could deal with. A separation was needed. After some time on their own, the husband was sure his bride would reflect upon her behaviour.
As a reassurance that a reunion was eminent, God wrote up a renewal of vows, and made himself into a younger more attractive mate (Jesus). The new covenant (the New Testament) was a modernised version of the old; God didn’t want to admit fault for causing his wife to find another man, but his actions suggested he took on board some of the responsibility.
Full of desire to make the second marriage last forever, the groom insisted upon a long engagement. The proposal was made about 2000 years ago but the Trinity insisted the bride had to be fully mature before taking the final plunge. She’s been quite impatient: “Is it time yet? Is it time yet?” all the faithful Christians have chanted for a couple of millennium. They have fasted and fasted as they await the return of the groom. She is sure this time round it will be a match made in heaven.
Ultimately, only time will tell if the lamb intends to keep his promise or if he has deceived his bride and intends on leaving her at the alter forever …
The cultures Christianity emerged from, (Jewish and Greco-Roman, c.30-100CE), were patriarchal and sexist. While women in some spheres could hold positions of power, the mainstream way of life was men had more authority and women were expected to be submissive. Christianity’s saviour, Jesus, overtly and covertly challenged these gender attitudes.
A clear example of Jesus defying culture norms is in the Gospel story Luke 7:36-50. This chapter details a “sinner” woman, usually presumed to be a prostitute, who anoints Jesus feet with oil and begs for “forgiveness”. Pharisees witnessing the event are shocked that Jesus did not shun her as was expected by a Jew.
The narrative does not explicitly state the woman is a sex worker, however, it is broadly recognised that she was. Why? Because she had her hair out. (Disciple Paul confirms values of the period by implying honourable women should cover their hair or have their heads shaved when praying or prophesying; 1 Corinthians 11:1-6).
In Biblical times there were three types of prostitutes:
Women who made a living by sleeping with men. The reason why some women engaged in this occupation is as varied as today’s sex workers with the exception that women in antiquity did not have access to social security payments or a vast option of employment opportunities (women rarely studied and they weren’t allowed to do “men’s jobs”, like being a tax collector, fisherwomen, soldier, politician, etc.), therefore, being a prostitute was some women’s only option if they did not have a man (father/son/uncle) to financially support them.
Sacred or temple prostitutes. Being a temple worker had associations with performing fertility rites that may or may not have included sexual acts. Such traditions go back to old Babylonian days and were a feature of some Roman cults. While there is conjecture amongst scholars about the types of activities that took place in temples (especially of women’s roles), there is also clear evidence that in some instances, ritualised sex was performed to praise and/or appease deities that people idolised. Israelites despised these traditions and clearly stated in their law that such behaviour was forbidden (Deuteronomy 23:17).
Any woman who had sex outside of marriage could be labelled a harlot. Under Jewish law an adulteress could be stoned to death (John 8:1-11). Men could be stoned for adultery too, however, this was considered to be a lesser crime; wives were a husband’s possession, therefore, if she voluntarily slept with another man his “goods” were damaged, but since a wife didn’t own her husband she did not have the same reprieve if her husband was unfaithful.
(Side note: in Greco-Roman societies males could also be prostitutes. Their clients were usually other men. To engage in male prostitution in a brothel, as a sex worker or client, was looked down upon but was also considered an unremarkable aspect of daily life.)
Luke 7 does not tell us what type of “sinner” the woman was, nonetheless, the Pharisees would have looked down upon her because Jewish scripture denounced harlotry in all forms.
Jews hatred of prostitution had gross misogynistic overtones, as evidenced in Judges 19 where women (daughters and virgins) are depicted as being disposable objects that can be raped and abused without men needing to feel any guilt for their actions (it can be argued that the story is not literal, nonetheless, the symbolic imagery of women being objects at men’s disposal signifies cultural values). Moreover, there is a strong message of male entitlement to women’s bodies. Personally, Judges 19 reminds of contemporary online forums run by Incels (involuntary celibates), but perhaps that’s just me.
From a realistic viewpoint, assuming the woman in Luke 7:36 was a harlot, by any definition, I can’t imagine her experiences were pleasurable, absent of abuse, or born of her freely making life choices. Rather, the manner in which she is described – rushing into the house and begging for reprieve from Jesus – suggests she was in a desperate state, in other words, traumatised. Nowadays we know a lot more about the impacts of sexual trauma, coercive control, and victim responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn compared to 2000+ years ago.
From a contemporary mindset, the Pharisees’ expressions of judgement about the woman’s sexual interactions reflects arrogance and cruelty. Jesus does not address these issues directly, instead he does so indirectly by giving the woman unconditional positive regard and appreciating her endearing qualities as she anoints his feet with oil. Jesus’ compassion confused the Jewish religious leaders.
The story of Jesus’ forgiving the prostitute is juxtaposed with a parable of two people being granted clemency of financial debts, one owes little money, the other a lot. The moral is that whomever is forgiven the larger debt will be more grateful, which is likened to whomever excessively sins will be more grateful for God’s forgiveness than one who has only sinned a little.
A standard interpretation of the passage is that it is the prostitute who had sinned the most, therefore, she will love God more than the Pharisees who had sinned little. I would like to challenge these assumptions by suggesting it was the prostitute who had sinned the least, and the Pharisees’ discrimination, prejudices, harsh judgments, and absence of compassion were the bigger sins. This proposition is supported by Matthew 21:31 “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you”.
Further, I can’t help but wonder if the seven “demons” Jesus expelled from the woman were shame, guilt, embarrassment, self-loathing, stigmatisation, humiliation, and helplessness.
From a trauma-informed lens, Jesus’ act of forgiveness actively rejected victim blaming and the stigmatising behaviours of the Pharisees. The superstitious pretence of the woman’s so-called demons being the cause of her sexual “immorality” is archaic sexism. The society she lived in was the dis-ease that needed curing (Christianity and Disease).
Overall, Early Christianity offered acceptance to females (even “prostitutes”) in a way that other competing major religions did not: Judaism expected women to be pure and faithful to their husbands/father/other male or else they could be stoned to death. The (Roman) Mithras cult was only for men, and the (Greek) Dionysus cult had orgies, as too did the Roman version, the Bacchus cult.
In a sense Christianity subtly evened the gender score cards, at least in theory it did. Celibacy was encouraged for everyone, otherwise sex was only to occur in a marriage bed.
Moving on to Sensible Sexuality
Early Christianity was not necessarily an egalitarian sect, it did, however, provide women with opportunities of autonomy other religions of the time did not. It adopted the Jewish protocols of sexual relations being sanctified in marriage with the added doctrine of forgiveness being offered to sexual acts that occurred “immorally” – the process of confession and forgiveness could be applied to voluntarily and involuntary sexual behaviour – a great advantage of this practice being the enabling of perpetrators to redeem themselves and victims heal.
While Early Christian ideals were rather prudish and narrow there is also a nobility about them. By drawing a firm line in the sand surrounding sexual etiquette they can be commended for helping to put an end to culturally accepted sodomy and stigmatisations of abuse victims.
Christians gave a level of physical autonomy and respect for personal boundaries that was not necessarily present in other spheres of life. I imagine both men and women (who came from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds) may have felt a sense of liberation that enabled them to move around their communities without adverse social expectations to sexually perform in some way.
The problem with what may have been Christianity’s good intentions is that people are complex, we are not all binary and following strict laws is not always practicable. Further, considerations about sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity as discussed in the previous post were not understood 2000 years ago in the same way as they are today.
As Christianity developed, guidelines for sexual behaviours were accompanied by fear tactics that stipulated deviance from binary protocols would result in spending an eternity in hell. To label people as sinners if they do not abide by rigid definitions of male and female, no sex or only sex in marriage, is very severe to say the least.
I view Christian attitudes towards sexual issues as being a bit like mandatory measures taken during Covid-19 epidemics. Initially, harsh rules were implemented like mask-wearing, social distancing, and lockdowns. Without a cure or vaccine, these things were necessary to curb the spread of the disease, then once science caught up they could be eased back again. The “epidemic” Early Christianity was fighting was culturally sustained sexual abuse. They didn’t have a formal #MeToo movement, nonetheless, sexual abuses did occur, potentially on a monumental scale. To fight this “disease” harsh measures had to be implemented, ergo Christian strict sexual guidelines.
Just like mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing does not completely stop the spread of viruses, mandatory celibacy and/or sex only in marriages does not stop all abuse from occurring. We still don’t have a absolute cure for sexual abuse (or Covid) but we are better equipped to deal with it than our ancestors were. We have scientific evidence of non-binary genders, DNA testing can be used help prove rape, and our culture is working towards making the issue of consent better understood by everyone.
Looking back over Church history, I get the impression Christians of all ages struggled with comprehending defining appropriate behaviours and giving consider to individual circumstances. For example, the fourteenth century Christian, Wilgefortis. Her father tried to marry her off to a non-Christian, however, she prayed to God to prevent this from occurring and, subsequently, grew a beard and was considered too repulsive to wed. She was accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death by cruxifixction. While demonised by some, others likened her to Christ and prayed to her as a saint (more about Wilgefortis is written here).
Our ancestors were superstitious, really superstitious. From Wilgefortis being considered a witch or a saint, to women’s sexual behaviours being blamed on demonic possession, attitudes towards gender identity and sexual behaviours have a long history of being influenced by irrational beliefs and spiritual theories that suppose there is perfect “nature” of males and females. Moreover, failing to meet these standards is a sin.
Faith Versus Knowledge
New Testament verses that refer to sexual orientation and gender identity are virtually none existent because, quite simply, these concepts did not exist.
In summary, Christian attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender orientation are best understood in relationship to the historical and cultural roots in which they came from. Christian traditions may be applauded for striving to end traumatic sexual relations in the form of abuse towards women and the sodomising of young males, however, these strict guidelines do not adequately address nuances of human variation.
A key issue that Christian forefathers missed is consent. Common contemporary thought places consent of all parties (whether they are male, female, or other) as being paramount to sexual experiences. The ancient world didn’t think about consent like we do, rather, entitlement, expectations, and cultural norms precipitated behaviours. And without modern criminal investigation techniques, like DNA samples from rape victims, if abuses took place, perpetrators could more easily get away with their crimes. How then could Early Christians create standards in which appropriate sexual protocols were followed? … It is a circular argument that leads back to what should have the greatest authority, the logic of humans (and modern science) or God? … Dear Australians #2.5: God’s Authority …
This blog is part of a series that I hope will encourage deep, thoughtful, respectful discussions about issues relating to the Religious Discrimination bill. If you’d like to be kept up to date, subscribe to receive notifications of new posts by email.
The image of Jesus dying on a cross is a common icon of contemporary Christianity, however, such symbolism is a far cry from how Early Christians depicted their saviour. Evidence in the form of artworks from Early Christian households and catacombs reveal a very different set symbolism to what today’s followers are familiar with. Three examples of lost Christian symbolism include the anchor, peacock, and wand.
Anchor in the the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 2nd Century (Source: Persecution Worldwide)
An anchor suggests being secured to a location, like a boat whose anchor is tied to the shore. It was a metaphor used to infer a Christian needs to secure (anchor) themselves to Jesus Christ, especially when the seas of life are rough and windy. This interpretation is supported by Hebrews 6:19-20 in which anchor is specifically referred to as being “hope”:
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
(Jesus being a High Priest of the Melchizedek order is an issue for another day.)
Sarcophagus of Archbishop Theodoric, marble, 6th century; in the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy.
Ancient legends (which the people of Jesus’ lifetime were familiar with) claimed a peacock’s flesh couldn’t riot. Therefore, the peacock was used as a symbol of Jesus’ immortality. Further, peacocks represent rebirth because each year they lose their feathers and regrow them. Thus the peacock was also a reference to Jesus’ resurrection and annual celebrations of his birth (some sources say peacocks begin regrowing their feathers around December 25 each year, however, I haven’t been able to confirm this information). Coincidentally, symbolising Jesus as a peacock went out vogue around the same time as Christianity became the official religion of Rome.
Early Christian depiction of Jesus performing magic with a wand
Early Christians depicted Jesus as being like a magician who healed people by waving a wand. This symbolism could be a link to Moses’ staff (that he raised to magically part waters). Alternatively, given that Christianity has Greek roots as well as Hebrew, the symbolism could be a transference from Hermes and Athena who both waved wands to perform magic. Either way, the depiction of Jesus with a wand presented an easy to read symbol that denoted magical powers that people living in the first century could understand.
Why the Change of Symbolism?
Christianity did not evolve in a vacuum, it borrowed heavily from the cultures it emerged from, namely Hebrew and Greek. Most people were illiterate, therefore using pre-existing symbols like the anchor, peacock, and wand enabled easy and effective transfer of concepts.
The transformation of Early Christian symbols into alternatives which today’s Christians are more familiar with coincides with Emperor Constantine’s conversion and Christianity becoming the main religion of Rome.
While the essence of Christian faith continued to promote the meanings behind the old symbolism, new iconography that was more appealing to a broader Roman audience developed. In contemporary media studies this is referred to as using codes and conventions that reflect social values.
To the Roman mind, the anchor, peacock, and wand did not evoke the strength of a saviour who was destined to rule the world. To demonstrate Jesus was master of all, He had to be shown as being stronger than pagan Gods. Therefore, the Early Christian’s image of Jesus as a young, shaven, young boy, transformed into a larger than life mature bearded man, not unlike His revivals Jupiter and Neptune. The process of rebranding Christianity from a small fringe sect of believers into a mainstream religion occurred gradually between the 400s – 600s.
Most Christians think of Jesus as being a bearded man. This is not surprising given all the paintings, movies, and other forms of Christian iconography that present him in this manner. Therefore, it often comes as a surprise for people to learn Early Christians had a different image of their saviour, one of a clean shaven youth. To appreciate how Jesus aged and grew a beard, it’s helpful to go back to the basics.
Early Christianity, c.30-313 CE
According to biblical accounts, Christianity began with a person known as Jesus of Nazareth wandering around Galilee talking to crowds. He spoke in metaphors then later explained the symbolic meaning of the parables to twelve devoted followers (Matthew 13:34). Jesus also established some traditions (like blessing bread and wine) and passed on doctrines relating to life on earth and in the afterlife.
After dying on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead, and his disciples were blessed with the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). The disciples then became apostles (Greek for messengers) and wandered the Roman Empire and beyond spreading what was called the Good News.
In some instances, the apostles spoke to crowds, however, this was dangerous because the messages they conveyed were considered to be a threat by some authorities. Further, while some level of religious tolerance existed, failure to honour Roman deities was unlawful. The Jewish community had an exemption from this law and some Early Christians attempted to argue that because Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism they should have the same privilege. However, many were unsuccessful and died as martyrs for refusing to hail Jove, Zeus, Aphrodite, etc.
As an alternative to preaching and practicing the religion in open spaces, Early Christians gathered in private houses. Exactly what took place in these gatherings is unclear. It is generally assumed there was some sort of shared meal (or Eucharist), alongside sharing Jesus’ parables, having theological discussions, and communal prayer sessions.
Churches founded by the apostles and/or affiliates of the apostles were based in Athens, Antioch, Ethiopia, Constantine, Armenia, Milan, and other locations around Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor. Particularly influential Churches were established in Corinth (by Paul), Alexandria (by Mark), and Rome (by Peter). Each Church had an overseer, which in Ancient Greek was called a bishop. The apostles were the first bishops, and they passed on the responsibility of overseeing Churches to others.
One of the original roles of Church overseers was to ensure each developing Christian community maintained a level of unity with others. There was no formal Bible in these humble beginnings, information was mostly passed on through word of mouth, with, of course, supplementary letters that later became part of the New Testament (i.e., the epistles or written communications from overseers to emerging Christian communities, many of which are credited to the apostle, Paul).
The Christian Bible does not contain any detailed account of Jesus’ physical appearance, therefore when Christians started painting his image, they did so in accordance with verbal information or out of their imagination. Potentially the oldest example is in a house Church in Dura-Europos, c.232, modern day Syria.
A fresco painted on the wall of this dwelling depicts the Biblical scene of Jesus healing a paralysed man. The screenshot below taken from a short documentary video shows Jesus as a beardless man.
Early Christains sometimes faced persecution, although this wasn’t necessarily as rampant as some accounts like to give. I imagine the situation was a bit like the number of QAnon believers who get arrested isn’t as high as the actual number of people who follow QAnon theories; similarly, the Early Christians who got persecuted didn’t necessarily experience this because of their beliefs per se, but because they were causing civil unrest. (Please note, I’m not using this example to try to imply any truth or falsity about QAnon or Christianity, it’s just a way of conceptualizing it was rebellious behaviours and stirring up troubles on the streets which led to people like Emperor Nero giving orders for Christian executions.)
On a theological level, some philosophers disagreed with Christianity, like Porphyry of Tyre (c.234–305 CE), wrote treatises Against the Christians. Therefore, considering Early Christians did get a bit of a bad rap, it’s not surprising many tried to stay under the radar.
Emperor Constantine (Reign: 306-37)
Everything changed In 313 CE when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. His personal conversion was recorded as being due to having a vision of a cross in the sky and being told “In this sign conquer”. Subsequently, the Roman army’s standard incorporated the Christian Chi Rho, ⳩. (The Chi Rho comprises of the first two letters of the Greek spelling of Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, superimposed upon one another. X + P = ⳩.)
Constantine’s labarum, with a wreathed Chi Rho from an antique silver medal
With Christianity’s rise to prominence, house Churches gave way to buildings that were funded by the Roman government. Hence, a relationship between Church and State developed.
Constantine ordering a council meeting (the Council of Nicea) to clarify doctrines and unify Christianity. The religion had become fractured with different groups having opposing opinions regarding issues like celibacy (and self castration), the Virgin birth (not everyone believed this was real), and the nature of the trinity (some believed God created Jesus, others believed Jesus always co-existed with God). Once matters were decided, opinions became canonised law. (The underlying assumption was along the lines of, when groups of wise men debated topics their final conclusions are the result of God speaking through them, therefore, must be honoured.) Once Christian canons were formed, anyone who disagreed could be labeled a heretic and sent into exile.
Under Emperor Constantine’s influence, leadership roles within Christianity became more formalised and a ranking system, like that of Roman military, began to develop. Apostle Peter’s leadership, as the overseer of the Church in Rome, was especially honoured. The Bible verse in which Jesus says “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18) justified the successive line of bishops in Rome being distinguished above others. Peter’s lineage was the overseers of overseers, bishops of bishops, in other words, Papal rulership.
The first reference to Roman bishop-hood was Bishop/Pope Siricius (c.334-399), although the title and power wasn’t fully inaugurated till a few centuries later.
Emperor Constantine was the ruler of Rome, and his endorsement of Christianity Romanised beliefs and customs.
Constantine’s cousin and successor, Emperor Julian, tried to revert Rome back to the traditional Gods and Goddesses, for example, by putting funds into restoring pagan temples. However, his efforts were unsuccessful, partly due to having a short reign (361-63). He died due to a spear wound obtained in the interlude of a battle with Persians. It is rumoured the fatal blow was not the enemies (Persians), but a Christian, moreover, a Roman Christian.
Julian was succeeded by Emperor Jovian (363-4), a Christian who detested paganism, thus funds went back into Christian Churches and away from pagan temples.
Emperor Valentinian I (364-75) was the next in line and he too supported Christianity. Valentinian reinstated many Christians into positions of power, like Constantine had done before him. Valentinian also handed the Eastern half of Rome over to his brother, Valens, to rule as co-Emperor while he focused on the West.
Moving on a bit, Eastern Rome became known as the Byzantine Empire and it maintained Imperial authority until 1453 when the Ottoman Empire took control of the capital city, Constantinople. In the West, Rome went through a series of challenges before completely falling in 476. However, this may be viewed as only a political collapse; the role of Bishop in Rome had increased in power by this point, albeit, Papal rulership was not recognised throughout all of Christendom. Many viewed the Byzantine Emperor as head of the Church, and they had a significant say (to say the least) about who sat on Peter’s throne in Rome. Thus, at this point in history it is painstakingly clear that the grass roots of Christianity had subsided and Church leadership positions were held by affiliates of families who were powerful, wealthy, and of nobel status.
Now back to Jesus’ and his beard …
One of the first appearances of Jesus with a beard comes from a Roman catacomb, late fourth century (after Constantine had Christianised Rome). He is depicted with the iconic halo and the Alpha and Omega letters which symbolise his eternal nature from the beginning to end.
Bust of Christ. c. Late 300s. Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla.
Another example of an early bearded Jesus, also from Rome, is the Apsis Mosaic, c.410-17CE. Not only is Jesus a mature man, his grand status is emphasised by gold paint and his stature is larger than those around him. This is a far cry from Early Christian depictions of a modestly cloaked young Jesus who blended in with his peers (see images below for comparison).
It’s speculated that the grand new Jesus look was part of a broader propaganda campaign run by Roman leadership to sway pagans towards Christianity. Like todays internet memes, the craze needed time to build some traction before it really took off. The young looking Jesus still featured in some pieces like Baptism of Christ, all the way up to the late 400s/early 500s.
Baptism of Christ. c.late 400s/early 500s, Mosaic in Arian Baptistry. Ravenna, Italy,
In the Italian mosaic above, Jesus is the young man in the center of the image with a halo around his head; he is submerged in water (the River Jordan), while John the Baptist, on the right, gives him blessings. The dove above represents the Holy Spirit coming down. The figure on the left is usually interpreted as being the personification of the river – in the ancient world it was normal to view bodies of water as gods.
I wonder if the inclusion of a Roman God in a Christian scene was a means of appeasing old laws in the event the government decided to revert back to paganism and insisted Roman Gods were honoured? Alternatively, it’s plausible Christians continued to believe bodies of water had spiritual properties that warranted recognition; the fusion of pagan beliefs with Christianity has many nuances.
As an alternative theory to Early Christians depictions of Jesus being based upon eyewitness accounts, his youthfulness as the main icon of the religion, can be interpreted as symbolic of Christianity being a young religion.
Those in the camp who believe Jesus was always a symbolic character can also note his early appearance was similar to the Greco-Roman God, Apollo:
Apollo of the Belvedere, c. 120–140 CE, Vatican Muesum, Vatican City. (Apollo was associated with healing, medicine, light, truth, music, and much more. Apollo was the son of the Sun God, Helios.)
By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was not so young. It had become a major religion, and the leadership of Rome who were promoting the faith were trying to convert citizens on a grand scale. You could say, the youthful Jesus did not pass marketing promotion standards. Jesus needed to be seen as all powerful, a true rival to his opponents, like Jupiter or Neptune (Zeus and Poseidon in Greek).
Below is an example of one of Jesus’ competitor deities, Neptune. Neptune is the central figure, his divine status emphasized by a halo around his head (halos were standard symbol to differentiate the divine from the earthly). Neptune’s left hand holds a trident pointing upwards to the heavens, while his right holds a fish pointing to the sea. He is riding a water chariot with four houses, to the left is a centaur and to the right a goddess. Surrounding the central image are references to the four seasons, as symbolized by women in various states of dress, and in between are farming duties being carried out by male figures.
Triumph of Neptune, c.200s, Roman mosaic Bardo Museum Tunis
The grand status of Neptune being promoted by sporting a beard may be missed on contemporary audiences, but not so to people of the past. To Greco-Roman citizens, a beard indicated superiority and intellect, hence, Zeus, the supreme God of Olympus, also had a beard. (Zeus was known as Jupiter or Jove to Romans.)
Laurel-wreathed head of Zeus on a gold stater, Lampsacus, c. 360–340 BC
Zeus was ether, earth, sky, and everything, so if he had a beard then surely there was truth in the beauty of a beard? Greek philosophers certainly thought so. This line of thinking prevailed all the way up to the 1700s when universities funded studies to ascertain empirical proof of facial hair being a physical indicator of superiority and intellect. Their hypothesis was not supported, but the fact that it was an academic discussion goes to show how far the impression went.
When Christian artists began portraying Jesus with a beard, it can be presumed they were doing so with the knowledge that the facial hair would be associated with superiority, as opposed to showing a beardless Jesus.
Jesus’ beard raised his image from that of a vibrant young person who mingled with commoners to that of an authoritative, wise man.
Christ Pantocrator, c.500s. Jesus as a saviour with a beard, Saint Catherine’s Monastery,Sinai.
In the above example of an early Christ Pantocrator (i.e., pantocrator means “Almighty” or “all-powerful”) it is interesting to note Jesus is holding a book rather than holding a weapon, like Neptune’s trident or Zeus’ thunder bolt. Conversely, the Book could be viewed as a tool which Jesus metaphorically defeats his enemies (i.e., pagans? Jewish? Muslims?)
Arguably, no Early Christian associated Jesus with an authoritative text because none existed. Jesus was the living Word (John 1:1,14). The Christian Bible was a Roman invention.
The Roman Bible, the Vulgate …
In the later part of the fourth century, Pope Damasus hired a leading scholar of the era, Jerome, to get the job done. Jerome worked tirelessly for years translating Hebrew and Greek writings to produce the first full Old and New Testament in Latin. The Bible was completed in about 400 CE and became known as the Vulgate. It was the only legal version of the Bible for several hundred years.
Jerome’s work involved sorting through a multitude of documents and different versions of the Jesus narrative. Some accounts were completely thrown out and labeled heresy, while what remained became canonized. Jerome’s job description included placing the writings in an appropriate order, however, chapters didn’t have names like today’s Christians are familiar with, that came much later.
Much could be said about Jerome’s work, and he’s certainly received a lot of criticisms over the years. To put it briefly, given the Romanisation of Christianity changed the traditional appearance of Jesus from a young, freshly shaved youth with a wand, to an old man with a beard and book, I don’t hold much faith in the authenticity or authority of said book (although the Vulgate’s description of Moses with horns is pretty cool!)
I am by no means the first person to find it oddly ironic that Jesus nominated Peter, the bishop of Rome, to be the head of the Church. This was more than convenient to Constantine (and his predecessors) who wanted make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, despite a multitude of issues, Jerome’s work is still the backbone of contemporary Christianity.
By the end of the sixth century, depictions of Jesus with a beard were commonplace throughout Eastern and Western Churches. Specifically, the iconography of Jesus holding the Bible in his left hand and giving a blessing with his right was particularly enduring.
Medallion with Christ from an Icon Frame. c. 1100, Byzantine Empire
The transformation of the Early Christian Jesus into the Roman version was more than skin deep. The first believers focused on the Good News of imminent peace on earth. Consequently, they favoured a representation of the Christ as a Good Shepherd who looked after his flock.
The Good Shepherd, c. 300–350, at the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome
The further one moves into Romanised Christianity, the images become more about suffering than prosperity, as notable in depictions of the crucifixion. No Early Christians depicted the crucifixion, this type of imagery did not come into vogue until appropriately 1000 CE.
A crowded Gothic narrative treatment, workshop of Giotto, c. 1330
As a final twist in the beardless versus bearded Jesus saga, in Christ’s lifetime Jewish tradition required men to have beards, however, the Roman fashion was to be beardless. Therefore, as a Jew, you’d expect Jesus had a beard, and it may have been this assumption that lead to facial hair being depicted (or it was a way to appeal to Jews?). But if that is the case, why did Early Christians depict a shaved face? Is this yet another example of Jesus transgressing against Jewish laws?
Symbolic representations have a way of adhering to the cultural values of their creators, and conversely they shape the values of developing cultures. The young beardless version of Jesus says something about the Early Christians that is not present in the Romanised version of a middle-aged, bearded man. It is as though the Romans killed Jesus twice, firstly in the flesh, and secondly in symbolic iconography.
Stewart, A. C. (2011). The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries. By VALERIY A. ALIKIN. The Journal of Theological Studies, 62(2), 732–734. https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/flr062
In response to my open letter to all Australians aimed at raising awareness of the implications of the Morrison government’s legalisation of religious abuse, sorry “Religious Discrimination Bill”, I received a comment stating that Australia was built upon Christian principles and therefore it should continue to do so. Another commenter then accurately pointed out that Australia was secular, not Christian.
Secular politics means our government is supposed to work independently of religious or spiritual matters. Therefore, to have a federal Religous Discrimination bill that overrides all other discrimination acts in each state and territory is a bold move away from nurturing a secular society that is supposed to support all religious and non-religious people equally. I have made my views of Morrison’s apparent biases and hidden agenda to tilt the scales of secularity towards religions very clear, so I won’t flog that horse any more.
Having said that, I think it’s also good to consider the idea of “Christian principles”. Many Australians have some form of Christian heritage, so what are these principles that we supposedly need a law designed specifically to protect them?
Crickey, there so many versions of Christianity: Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodist, Eastern Churches, Latter Day Saints, Reformed Christian, and many more, including Pentecostal. However, on a theological level, all these variations of Christianity involve believing in one God, who is the creator of heaven and earth, a Nazarene dude who lived 2000 years ago is the saviour, and if you just believe in these two things then you’re on your way to heavenly bliss once you’ve kissed this mortal toil goodbye.
But wait, there’s more. To embody these beliefs you need love. You need to love thy neighbours and you need to love enemies. Everything about Christianity after these factors, I would argue, has more to do with traditions, rituals, rules, guidelines, specifications, and cultural values that have been added on to the core principle of Christianity, love.
Love, in the Christian sense, is supposeded to be non-discriminatory. Jesus set the tone for this standard by hanging out with corrupt tax collectors, the bourgeois of fishing villages, ex-prostitutes, and crowds of everyday people. I’m yet to find a convincing Biblical text were Jesus said we should love everyone but discriminate against the gays (yes they existed 2000 years ago, yawn), and the Jews (Jesus was Jewish, why would he discriminate against them, unless the were pompous hypocrites?), women because they have less superego than men, sorry I mean spirit (Freudian appropriation of Greek theology came much later), or any other criteria. As for those foreigners, especially those with a different faith, I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about being a good Surmaritian. But what would I know? I’m not a religious leader nor a pastor. Maybe I’m just too simple and cannot see all the regulations around loving people like some other Christians can?
Perhaps loving everyone is not the core principle of Christianity? I mean, if it were, why would we need to create a legal document that says a person’s religious beliefs need to be protected? Of course, the Religious Discrimination bill isn’t just about Christianity. The next biggest religion in Australia is Islam (I’m skipping over atheism because it’s not a religion; my apologies to the 30% of Australians associate themselves with this group). I’m not a Muslim, however, I’m aware that Islamics have five pillars of faith. They’re kind of like the Christian theological principles of believing in one God, honouring Muhammad (=/≠ Christian’s honouring of Jesus), and maintenance of traditions, etc. Beyond all that, love of Allah is really important and can be shown by loving others.
The next biggest religion in Australia is Buddhism. This has a very non-attachment kind of philosophy, however, paradoxically encourages love in all scenarios. Kind of like love everyone equally but stay non-attached to expectations and rigidity. Buddhism doesn’t have a supreme God that demands to be worshiped but it is open to the idea that spiritual beings are a thing.
The last big religion I’ll mention is Hinduism. It’s the oldest known religion around the world and recognises thousands of Gods and Goddesses. Crudely, it’s each to his own regarding which ones should be worshiped. (I find it fascinating that Zoroastrianism – an ancient Babylon/Persian religion – can be traced back to the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas. And subsequently, Zoroastrianism has links to Judaism and Christianity – stories for another time.) Hinduism places love in the same realm as the divine.
I know I’m super simplifying complex religious beliefs here, but the bottom line is that regardless of deity/ies a religion venerates, love for others is a really important component of all major religions (I suspect a lot of atheists also rank love for others as being important).
The issue of sexual orientation and discrimination is an easy one to get lost on when objecting to the Religious Discrimination bill; however, the fact is, the bill goes much deeper than sexuality. Nuances of giving religious bigots of any faith having the right to to express discriminatory statements of beliefs towards others has far reaching ramifications. For example, I know of a Christian group that claims that in order to enter heaven followers must hate their parents. The leader quotes Luke 14:26:
“If any man come to Me and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.”
To most of the Christian world, the above quote is figurative speech and/or an example of a family system used to symbolise ancient religious hierarchies. To a fundamentalist who interprets the Bible literally, Luke’s words are justification for tearing families apart. I do not wish to give notoriety to a particular religious leader who enforces this doctrine, so I will not mention them by name. Suffice to say, if legislation is passed that overrides other laws, then such people can and will use ancient texts to support their beliefs and discrimination practices. Being discriminated against for being a parent may sound absurd, but this and even stranger beliefs could be upheld if Morrison’s shortsighted bill goes ahead.
The Morrison’s government wants to OVERRIDE ALL OTHER COMMONWEALTH, STATE OR TERRITORY ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAWS!
In other words, if a religious leader wants to claim that it is their belief that all parents are evil, then they can do so as easily as a religious leader can claim homosexuality is a sin. Not all religious beliefs are created equal.
A few days ago, I posted a copy of my Open Letter on my personal Facebook page. In response, an old friend who is a devout Christian sent a personal message in which they said they said they did not agree with everything I said but they had experiences with “crazy Christians”. The correspondence that continued was a wonderful exchange in which it became evident, despite our differing views, we were connected by the common agreement that love for others is what matters above all else. Their words were not empty. “I’ll do what I can to help,” they said.
The term “crazy” is rude and improper. Nonetheless, it aptly captures the problem with Morrison’s Religious Discrimination bill. While most Christians, Atheists, Islamics, Buddhist, Hindu’s, and others would not dream of hurting others through discriminatory and prejudicial practices or beliefs, the fact remains that there are some “crazy” individuals out there who would. Just as there are “crazy Christians” there are “crazy Islamics”, “crazy Buddhists”, “crazy Hindus”, and other “crazy” religious people who take things to a level of radical extremism, sometimes even going so far as to engage in hate crimes. The right to religious freedom should not override other human rights.
Religious freedom cannot be duly considered without also giving due consideration to religious belief. Alternatively, in consideration that love, moreover, non-discriminatory love, is a prime principle of most major religions no new law to protect the freedom of religion is needed. And finally, as a secular society, non-discrimination (aka love) should be the backbone of our laws.
A few years ago, when I temporarily moved from Victoria to Queensland, some of my new friends called me a “Mexican”. Obviously, I wasn’t really a Mexican, it was just a jovial way to acknowledge I was new in town, therefore could be forgiven for not understanding things like Rugby *really* was better than Aussie Rules. Queensland and Victoria are both be part of Australia and share federal laws, however, some state laws differ (like U-turns) and the climates lend themselves to particular cultural normalities (like coffee shops being open at 6:00am in Queensland – at least so I heard, being a native of Victoria I never ventured out that early). Overall, it bemused me that an American reference to Mexicans being aliens when they crossed the border had been appropriated by Australians. That’s the power of Hollywood movies, I guess.
Humans are creative creatures who like to play with word meanings by applying them to new scenarios. Once a phrase like “Mexican” gets shared, accepted, and used by many, it can become part of the fabric of cultural expression. Thus, language is in a constant flux of change and it is through learning experiences like the one just described, that we build up an urban dictionary of figurative phrases. Essentially, all words are symbolic of concepts that enable the creative studio in our minds to form perceptions and determine meaning.
Biblical writers were no different to people of today in terms of the fluidity of their language and the use of colloquialisms to quickly covey information about groups of people. For instance, “Babylonians”.
Looking across Biblical references, it becomes apparent that in some instances “Babylonians” simply means people from Babylonia. In other instances, “Babylonians” is figurative speech that conveys iconic features of Babylonians, much like calling someone new to an area a Mexican, albeit, unlike my Queensland friends, when ancient Hebrews called someone a Babylonian, they meant it as an insult. To understand the inferences, Babylonians need to be seen through the eyes of Ancient Jews.
Babylonia was a civilisation that arose in the Mesopotamian region. The Babylonian era (1895 – 539 BCE) begun around the same time that events with the Biblical Abraham started to pan out. Long story short, Abraham and his tribe left Babylon in search of land that he believed God had promised him. They wandered into Egypt, where they were held captive by the Pharaoh (who he believed he was a descendant of Ra, therefore had divine leadership). The prophet, Moses, ushered Jews out of Egypt and into the promised land of Israel. A slight hiccup occurred because Israel was already occupied by the Caananities (also known as Phoenicians). This was overcome by killing nearly everyone (this happened to many Caananities tribes, hence, there are none left today to tell their side of the story). The Jews were content with their kingdom until the Babylonians decided they should rule the Jewish territories. The conflict was nasty; temples were destroyed and the Jews went through periods of Babylonian captivity and exile. The rivalry was indirectly due to religious ideology; the Babylonians believed their rulers a had divine right rule because their Kings were supposedly descendants of the Gods. However, Jews believed G-d was the supreme Lord, and that He had given governance rights. In other words, both sides believed they had a divine right to leadership privileges. This a common historical theme.
Getting back to how the ancient Jews perceived the Babylonians …
The history of Babylonians and Jewish interactions is highly detailed, suffice to say Jews were Babylonians, in that both groups of people came from Babylon. Despite similarities between the cultures, like both having Semitic languages, patriarchal leadership, and they both lived according to codes of law, the resentment Israelites had towards Babylonians was intense. In comparison, Babylonians may have been more destructive and demonstrated more narcissistic behaviours. However, to depict the Jews as being a peaceful, hippyish community would be a misdemeanour. Hebrews were not opposed to physical combat and, according to Christianity, their religious leaders, the Pharisees and Rabbis, were often corrupted.
In a nutshell, it is not surprising that Israelites rejected Babylonian values and perceived them as aggressive tormentors who oppressed the freedom of others, however, criticisms of Jewish culture can also be made. Interestingly, the split between the two nations came about very early in history. Jewish resentment can be seen in the first mention of Babylon, in Genesis 11 and with what is commonly referred to in Christian traditions as TheTower of Babel.
The Tower of Babylon
In the following, I go through the story of The Tower of Babel verse by verse (various versions), fleshing out symbolic references in a historical context with the overachieving aim of explaining how and why “Babylon” became a derogatory term that could be applied used as an adjective to describe unsavoury behaviours.
Genesis 11:1 – 9 says: “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.”
Conventional interpretations of the above verse usually take the meaning of the passage to be literal. The New Century Version of the Bible even says: “and everyone used the same words”. From a historical point of view, ancient Jews and Babylonians (who were the whole world of Shinar) probably did speak the one language.
In addition to the egocentric literal interpretation of one language being spoken, I suspect the story is more symbolic, as echoed in The Kings James Version: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech”. The whole earth being of one speech, infers it was not necessarily just the same words that everyone used, rather, it was common communication protocols. Communication is not just words, it can also infer mannerisms, intonations, and visual references, physical gestures. Moreover, a person’s ideology can guide their communication style. For example, therapists strive to listen to others with compassion and try to communicate openly so as to build trust and rapport. Whereas, someone with a criminal mindset is more inclined to communicate in a way that facilitates manipulation through coercive tactics.
Getting back to the Tower of Babel, the story depicts things changing when people settled in Shinar, which is a telling sign of Jewish animosity towards Babylonians. Why? Because Shinar is a Babylonian town. The imputation of the ancient Jewish writers is that life before the establishment of Babylonian cities was more a peaceful experience due to a common speech being used amongst everyone.
Genesis 11:3 “And a man said to his neighbour, Come, let us make bricks and bake them with fire. And the brick was to them for stone, and their mortar was bitumen.”
This shared building project being made out of clay bricks is also ominous symbolism. The evolution of building with bricks instead of stone allowed for ease of construction because it was not dependent upon the laborious task of quarrying. Conversely, clay bricks are not as strong as stone. Hence, it can be surmised that the Hebrew authors were saying right from the start that the building project was not made from the most stable substance.
There is no archaeological evidence to suggest humans around the Earth ever spoke the same language. However, from a psychological perspective, at birth all humans have the capacity to speak any language. By a very early age (about 1-3 years) synaptic connections favour whatever vocal and gestural communication a child is exposed to the most. Young children with limited vocabularies can happily play together and share toys. They can even engage in joined activities like building a tall tower out of blocks, however, it is also common for frustrations to arise because toddlers cannot express themselves clearly and each child may be trying to achieve a different building vision. Without mature communication skills (like compromise and patience), irritably can lead to rash behaviour and brick towers falling. From this level of interpretation, the story of Babel is one of human evolution; a descriptor of early civilisation in which communication between people was like that of children in a school yard in which conflicts arose due to communication barriers between peers.
Genesis 11:4 And they said, “Come, we will build up a city for ourselves and a tower whose top is in Heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered on the face of all the Earth.”
The above verse once again hints at the urbanisation in Shinar beginning with people working together. The shift away from communal living is shadowed by grandiose ambition: “let us make a name for ourselves”.
The aim of the tower, to reach heaven, is potentially a reference to a ziggurat, a pyramid-like structure that ancient Babylonians built for religious purposes.
The building of a temple (even if it was not a ziggurat), suggests Hebrew and Babylonian ancestors were once united in religious ideology. The physical building of a temple to the heavens exemplifies the notion that communication confusion was intertwined with the building of religion ideology.
Genesis 11:5-6 “And Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And Jehovah said, Behold, the people is one, and have all one language; and this have they begun to do. And now will they be hindered in nothing that they meditate doing.
The term “children of men” is a symbolic code that suggests humans are the product of a divine race called “men” that doesn’t necessarily mean biological males, but I’ll go over that theology another time. For the moment, I’d like to emphasise that “the people is one” and are “all one language” infers everyone working on the construction of the tower all were united through a Semitic language and a common faith.
Genesis 11:7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.
Here we see humans moving from an egalitarian coexistence into a state of being at odds with each other. As previously pointed out, confounding language so as people cannot understand one another’s speech is not dependent upon dialects. Potentially, the more important aspect of this sentence is the symbolic shift from people understanding one another, to a lack of understanding being attributed to God’s command. But why would God want humans to be unharmonious? Or was it simply a means of expressing human evolution working in accordance to a divine plan? Or is the word “us” a suggestion that the Jews once acknowledged many deities, therefore indicating that the communication confusion was based upon confusion over which deity was to be followed?
Genesis 11:8-9 So the Lord scattered them abroad from that place upon the face of the whole earth, and they gave up building the city. Therefore the name of it was called Babel—because there the Lord confounded the language of all the earth; and from that place the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
To a contemporary English Bible reader, the word “Babel” sounds like it is a reference to babble, as in speech that does not make sense. However, the word “Babel” comes from the Hebrew Bab-ilu (“Gate of God”), which is a reference to the city of Babylon. Contrary to many Christian traditions, The Tower of Babel would be more accurately called The Tower of Babylon.
With the inference of babble being removed from Babel, it becomes even more prudent to interpret the confusion of language as not being dependent upon dialect. Rather, the Tower of Babel is a reference to the establishment of the Babylonian Empire being the beginning of religious conflicts. In terms of whether or not this a true depiction of history, depends upon perspective and keeping in mind that the story is biasedly told by the author/s, ie., the Israelites.
The image of people being scattered due to language confusion while constructing a religious tower, I would argue, needs to be viewed not just in a literal sense, but in the sense that conflict and confusion occurred in the theological construction of a religion. Further, to strengthen the argument, it is worthwhile to consider that the development of “language” often has a sacred history. Alphabets are described in myths as being a gift from them the Gods, words are “spells” as in they can be used for magic, and in Christianity, God is the living Word.
Hence, the story of Babel proposes that everyone on the earth once shared a common faith, further it is a metaphor describing the segregation of people into various religious groups. Following on this train of thought, Genesis 11:6 indicates the belief if everyone on the Earth shared the one faith, the united force would enable anything to be possible. Inadvertently, it appears clear that this did not happen because of the Tower of Babylon, thus, subtle blame is shouldered onto all Babylonians.
Other Biblical References to Babylon
As Biblical stories progress, Jewish hostility towards Babylonians continues and is clearly expressed in verses like Psalm 137:8-9:
O daughter of Babylon, who is to be destroyed, blessed is the one who rewards you as you have done to us. Blessed is the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rocks.
The verse is by no means a literal desire for a woman’s infants to be killed. Rather, “daughter of Babylon” is a reference to ideology that male leaders of Babylon followed, moreover, the leaders who banished and persecuted the Jews. The desire to take “little ones” and dash them against the rocks is a figurative expression of wanting to all those who follow Babylon protocols to be destroyed.
You could possibly even say that the concept of “Babylonians” is like the concept of contemporary “Nazis”; the Nazis were originally a German political party that initiated wars and subjugated many people, however, the term “Nazi” is now sometimes used colloquially to describe any person who behaves in a militant manner (or simply disagrees with you on Facebook).
In summary, there is a long standing animosity between Babylonians and Jews that can be found in the earliest writings all the way through to the Christian-Judaism era. The appropriation of turning a noun that defines a group of people into an adjective that suggests certain behaviours is not unique to Hebrews. Sometimes when it is done the circumstances are relatively benign, like calling someone a Mexican or saying that all foreign languages sound Greek. Other times, it is done with derogatory intentions, like calling a person a Nazi or … a Babylonian.
Media codes and conversations refers to written and symbolic tools used to construct or suggest meaning in media forms and products. Media codes include typography, visual composition, and contextual symbolism. Understanding conventions used by producer needs to be grounded in analysing texts within their cultural and historical contexts. Applying considerations raised by media studies to the Christian Bible is a prudent activity if one wants to understand how the scriptures came to be presented in their current formate. The Bible has passed through numerous eras of media codes and conventions, what follows is a brief overview of highlights and associations issues.
The Christian Bible begins with the Hebrew Bible, which began as an oral tradition in the second millennium before the common era.
The earliest written versions of the Hebrew Bible were created on papyrus or parchment, or even leather scrolls that are dated to be from c.900-c600BCE. Old Hebrew was written right to left in a continuous script that had no vowels, capital letters, or chapter numbers. A complete set of writings consisted of 12-20 scrolls.
In the third century BCE, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek. The work was conducted by scholars in Alexandria, Egypt. The name given to the translation was the Septuagint and it is reported as being the work of seventy-two scholars, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Like Hebrew, the Greek conventions of writing was a continuous script that did not have any punctuation, this writing was called Kione.
The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was a significant development that enabled people of other faiths and Jews who no longer knew the Hebrew language to become familiar with the stories. Some reports praise the translation while others are critical of details being changed such as variations in timeframes and ages of characters. Additionally, there are instances of names of birds being altered. For example, in Leviticus 11:18 the Hebrew Bible says a type of bird but Septuagint specifies a pelican; other Christianised versions say owl, swan, vulture, or other type of bird. (See Bible Hub for variations.)
In the first few decades of the common era, Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – c.50 CE) rewrote the chapters of Genesis and Exodus with an emphasis on allegories and harmonising Jewish and Greek thought. He wrote in the scholarly language of his era, Greek Koine. Philo’s versions of Jewish stories were favoured by Early Christians, many of whom could not speak or read Hebrew. Alternatively, if they did not have access to Philo’s writings, they used the Septuagint. Having said all that, it also needs to be remembered that most Early Christians could not read or write at all, stories were mostly told and retold through word of mouth.
Early Christians referred to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament to distinguish it from the New Testament, that described stories about Jesus. Thus, the Christian Bible is an extension of the Hebrew Bible.
The first Christian writings were letters between Christian leaders and their followers. Most of these are attributed to the apostle Paul, however, whether or not he is the genuine author or a pseudonym is unclear. Once again, Greek Koine was the language used.
Timeline of New Testament events and writings. Created by Renee from various references.
The Christian Gospels differ to other writings in the New Testament because they are not a direct form of communication between people, rather, they are a narrative of the saviour, Jesus Christ.
In Ancient Greek He was known as Iēsūs Christós [Ἰησοῦς Χριστός]. Iēsūs means Son of God and Christós means the Anointed One. There was confusion amongst Romans when they first heard of Iēsūs Christós because they thought Christós was a name, however, in Ancient Greek it was a title that inferred a person was a high priest or initiate. Through the linguistic representation of Christós being applied to all followers in “Christians” it may be inferred that the cult of Christianity did not initially have any formal hierarchical structure; rather, all followers were deemed to be “anointed ones”, a community bound by the premise that they were all “Sons” of God, like Jesus. (The hierarchical structure of Christianity emerged after Constantine Romanised the religion. See Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 5 – Christianity.)
The first Christian Gospel, Saint Mark’s, was written in the first century, in Greek Koine script. Some scholars believe Mark’s Gospel was written by his disciples in Rome, however, it is more probable that it was written in Alexandria, Egypt. Legend has it that Mark travelled to Alexandria where he set up a Church and the Gospel that bears his name was written by his followers several years after his death.
Matthew’s Gospel is credited as being the second narrative about Jesus. Like Mark’s, it was not written by its namesake or by any first hand witnesses. It is generally understood that Matthew’s Gospel was written by a male Jewish scholar, hence, it is in Hebrew. Matthew’s Gospel contains many details about Jesus’ life that are not presented in Marks, for instance, the Star of Bethlehem and wise men who brought gifts to the infant saviour. Such details have strong links to Old Testament symbology.
In Hebrew, the name Jesus Christ is Yeshua Hamashiach. Yeshua means deliverer or saviour and Hamashiach means Anointed One.
The final two Christian Gospels, Luke and John, were written in Greek Koine.
Scholars generally agree that when alive, Jesus spoke Aramaic, the common language of Judea at the time. However, given the descriptions of Jesus’ knowledge Jewish scriptures, it can be presumed he also knew Hebrew. Likewise, stories of Jesus interacting with Gentiles (anyone who is not Jewish) suggest he was familiar with the Greek language.
During the first few centuries of Christianity, writings were copied and collections were gathered at a several locations, most significantly, Alexandria, Egypt.
The convention of writing Christian documents in the codex, parchment that was bound like modern books, began in the second century and completely replaced scrolls in the fourth century.
In recent history, a person hand wrote the bible using a felt-tipped marker and it took them four years, sometimes writing fourteen hours a day to complete. Hence, given the effort involved in producing a bible, it is understandable how precious and special the manuscripts were considered to be.
St Jerome (c.347 – 419/20), a Christian priest, theologian, and historian translated the Bible into Latin, which became known as the Vulgate. Jerome added six additional chapters to the bible which included prayers and stories. The convention of writing in Latin was similar to Old Hebrew and Old Greek, however, some indications of punctuation like spaces between sentences were beginning to be introduced. (For background information about other founders see Who Were the Early Church Fathers?.)
The accuracy in which the Bible was copied and translated is a contentious issue. For instance, did the evolution of grammar impact meaning and symbolism? (See Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, or bow? for an example.) Did Jerome accurately translate the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts into Latin? Or were there anomalies like what occurred with the name of birds when the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek? For instance, Early Christian art suggests the fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden was a fig, however, following the Romanisation of Christianity, the apple began being presented as an apple. An explanation for this change is that the Latin word for evil, malum, is similar to their word for apple, malus. Then there is my personal favourite, Moses being depicted with horns (see Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 12 -Renaissance Artists).
Between c.600-995 the Vulgate, was the only version that Christians were allowed to use.
In the thirteenth century, Stephen Langton (c.1150 – 1228), archbishop of Canterbury, England, divided the Vulgate into chapters, numbered them, rearranged the order in accordance with Jerome’s recommendations several centuries earlier. This development represents a significant shift in technical codes of written language. Spaces between words, capital letters, and the presentation of information in columns were the new norm.
Benedictine monks and nuns were significant producers of hand written copies of the bible and other ancient texts. Elaborate pictures and decorations graced the pages giving rise to the tradition of Illuminated manuscripts (see below).
11th century – Gospel Book with Commentaries, Byzantium, Constantinople. Source: Wikipedia Commons
When Johannes Gutenberg (c1400-1468), a German blacksmith, invented the printing press in the 1440s, the bible was the first book that he published. It was written in Latin, in 42-line columns; it had no title page or page numbers, thus resembling Gothic-style hand written copies.
In 1491 the first pocket-sized bible was produced, which was dubbed the poor man’s bible. It was printed in small font, had a subject index, a summary of the books and their contents, and it was illustrated with woodcuts inspired by Durer’s work. (Durer is the first artist who ever had to contend with copyright issues in printed media.)
In the early 1500s, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) played a significant role in instigating the beginning of the Reformation – a movement of reform arising from accusations that the Roman Church was corrupt. Part of this process was Luther’s translation of the bible into German in 1522. This era also saw a flooding of new iconography that was produced by artists and dispersed via the printing press (for more details see here and here.)
Title woodcut for the 1541 of Martin Luther’s German Bible. Source: Wikipedia Commons
A few years later, an English version of the bible was mass-produced. The main translator was William Tyndale (c.1494–1536) who used Hebrew and Greek references. Tyndale’s translation did not meet a warm reception in England where they were banned and burned. He was accused of deliberately mistranslating scripture and supporting heretical views. For example, he changed the word “priest” to “senior”, “do penance” to “repent”, and “charity” to “love”. Potentially, the most controversial of his word changing was “church” to “congregation”. The Catholic Church had maintained for centuries that there was only one true church, themselves. Therefore, to imply that the church was an invisible structure of people was considered unacceptable. Tyndale was charged with heresy and sentenced to death, he was strangled and burned on a stake – this was often a common fate of anyone who challenged the authority of the Holy Roman Empire.
Despite the initial rejection of Tyndale’s translation, a few decades later, it was referenced, along with Hebrew and Greek, to create the Great Bible that was printed in 1539. Under King Henry VIII, England had split off from Popal rule and was establishing the Church of England. The Great Bible is considered to mark the beginning of Early modern English. Codes and conventions of printed material that we know today are evident in the page layout, numbering of verses, headings, and chapter titles.
The evolution of codes and conventions in the technical production of printing very much coincides with language development and issues of symbolic expression. A Bible printed in 1609 expresses the concerns of people with its title page (which by this stage had become a feature of printed material) that reads:
“THE HOLIE BIBLE / FAITHFVLLY TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH OVT OF THE AVTHENTICAL LATIN / Diligently conferred with the Hebrew, Greece, and other Editions in diuers (different) languages. / With ARGVMENTS of the Bookes, and Chapters / ANNOTATIONS: TABLES: and other helpes, for better underſtanding of text: for diſcouerie (discovery) of CORRVPTIONS in ſome late transſlations: and for clearing CONTROVERIES in Religion”.
Note: During the 1300s to the 1600s “u” was only used in the middle of words, e.g. save was saue; “v” was used for “u” sound, e.g, upon was vpon; and “w” was two “v” joined together so “w” makes a long “u” sound, e.g. new. Printing eventually standardised all of these issues. English is a challenging language to learn because it was developed as a conglomerate of influences from many languages and therefore has a lot of variation in rules which means a lot has to be learned by rote and remembered.
In 1611, the bible was once again produced with an impetus on authenticity by King James who commissioned its production. Its production involved the removal of the chapters which Jerome added in 384 that were considered to be heretical and became known as the Apocrypha (meaning not genuine).
The King James Version of the Bible has become the standard of all modern bibles. While there have been many translations since then, the issues of codes and conventions in its presentation as a media product have become second to the relevance of symbolic codes used in the language.
Alongside changes in presentation formats, the use of figurative speech has also changed dramatically. The retranslation of terms such as “house” into “home” or “household” can have significance repercussions on interpretations. For example, King James Version of Proverbs 14:1 reads:
Every wise woman buildeth her house: but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands.
The Brenton Septuagint Translation written English in 1844 reads:
Wise women build houses: but a foolish one digs hers down with her hands.
The New Living Translation written 1989 – 1996, reads:
A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish woman tears it down with her own hands.
The International Standard Version written in 2011 reads:
Every wise woman builds up her household, but the foolish one tears it down with her own hands
By examining different versions of the Bible (like on Bible Hub) it can be noted that the King James Version and Brenton Septuagint Translation both contain impressions of the tradition figurative speech as it would have been told 2000 odd years ago. On the other hand, versions like the New Living Translation and International Standard Version have been altered in such a way that it appears verses (like above) have been interpreted literally, that is the “wife” or “woman” is not representative of a theological construct, rather, as a real biological female. (Biblical figurative speech is discussed in more detail here and here.)
Given that the Jewish framework of God’s House places “daughters” above “sons” it is not strictly a patriarchal model. Thus, it can be argued that some contemporary interpretations of the Christian Bible are more misogynistic than Early Christianity intended.
Issues could also be raised in the how a “woman” (or “women”) metaphorically pull down their house/home/household via the differing adjectives of plucketh, digs, or tears.
Are contemporary Christian Bibles an accurate replication of the original? Personally, I am amazed at how much has been preserved, nonetheless, it is vital to recognise the impact that the evolution of language, customs, and media production processes have had on the Christian’s Holy Scriptures. The application of media codes and conventions sits somewhere between wanting to maintain a sense of stability so as audiences can connect with what is familiar, and gradual change in accordance with sociocultural values, interests, and technology.
In summary, over the past two thousand years, the Bible has evolved from a document handwritten on papyrus scrolls to a mass-produced book that is organised with features that include, a cover, title page, index, chapters, verse numbers, page numbers, and columed writing. The first editions were created in a combination of Hebrew and Greek Koine script, which were succeeded by Latin. Every translation into another language, including latter versions in German, English, and so forth, have presented many challenges and raise questions about the original authors’ intentions. Contemporary Bibles are now easily accessible in digital forms, which is a far cry from its humble beginnings.
As I’ve said before, the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, but the interpretation of its symbolism is a very human activity, moreover, Bible interpretation is nuanced by cultural and historical contexts of its production.
Dr Roy Murphy provides an insightful discussion about additional Christian writings and Gospels that did not make the final cut of the Holy Roman version of the Bible that can be found here: The Lost Gospels.
The following references is not a complete list of all the sources I used to create this blog series. To include all the reference material I’ve looked at over the past few years would be an exceedingly long list of about a thousand entries. Rather, this reference list is designed more to give a general indication of where others can look if they want to look up some of the key themes that I’ve mentioned. I’ve also listed the sources of images that I used, which are mostly from Wikipedia because that is a reliable source for non copyrighted pictures; I have not relied upon Wikipedia for content.
Dyble, M., Salali, G. D., Chaudhary, N., Page, A., Smith, D., Thompson, J., Vinicius, L., Mace, R., & Migliano, A. B. (2015). Sex equality can explain the unique social structure of hunter-gatherer bands. Science, 348(6236), 796–798. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaa5139
Jackson, L. (1995). Witches, wives and mothers: witchcraft persecution and women’s confessions in seventeenth-century England. Women’s History Review, 4(1), 63–84. https://doi.org/10.1080/09612029500200075
Jordan, C. (1983). Feminism and the Humanists: The Case of Sir Thomas Elyot’s Defence of Good Women. Renaissance Quarterly, 36(2), 181–201. https://doi.org/10.2307/2860868
Kimball, J. (1987). From Eve to Helen: Stages of the Anima-Figure in Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 20(2), 29–40. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24777609
Lupo, K. D., & Schmitt, D. N. (2002). Upper Paleolithic Net-Hunting, Small Prey Exploitation, and Women’s Work Effort: A View from the Ethnographic and Ethnoarchaeological Record of the Congo Basin. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 9(2), 147–179. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20177458
Martín-VelascoM. J. (2016). Greek philosophy and mystery cults (BlancoM. J. G., Ed.). Newcastle Upon Tyne Cambridge Scholars Publis.
Schiebinger, L. (1986). Skeletons in the Closet: The First Illustrations of the Female Skeleton in Eighteenth-Century Anatomy. Representations, 14, 42–82. https://doi.org/10.2307/2928435
Skoglund, P., Malmström, H., Raghavan, M., Storå, J., Hall, P., Willerslev, E., Gilbert, M. T. P., Götherström, A., & Jakobsson, M. (2012). Origins and Genetic Legacy of Neolithic Farmers and Hunter-Gatherers in Europe. Science, 336(6080), 466–469. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41584659
Tralau, J. (2017). Cannibalism, Vegetarianism, and the Community of Sacrifice: Rediscovering Euripides’ Cretans and the Beginnings of Political Philosophy. Classical Philology, 112(4), 435–455. https://doi.org/10.1086/694569
What I have written in this series is true and accurate to the best of my current knowledge. As I learn more, my opinions and viewpoints may change. Others are welcome to disagree with my conclusions. In such cases, I’m interested in hearing information from additional sources that may help to improve and/or expand my understandings.
As many have said, knowledge is power. I feel empowered by what I have learned through my research into occult symbols. Like my interpretation of Durer’s Melancholia, I once felt overwhelmed and crowded by symbols that I thought I *ought* to know. Now, life feels more like a journey of in which I’m free to create my own path opposed to feeling like I need to discover set milestones and met a specific destination. Feelings. They are important.
For many people, my realisation that teachings of love are at the heart of Christianity will be of no surprise. For thousands of years, people have gathered together, praying, given thanks, and practiced Love. For me the journey has been different. I had to dissect ancient symbols from the Bible and elsewhere. I had to pull them all apart, examine their shape, form, colour, texture, and tone, and see what was inside. I needed to check my psychology books and the latest neuroscience studies. I was convinced that I needed to use my mind to work out the riddles and intellectualise the symbols before coming to a firm conclusion of their meaning. But I finally get it, some symbols can only being understood by emotional experience. Love needs to be felt, not intellectualised.
I’ve come to the conclusion that blending Love with the Creative impulse is what matters most in life. The Bible says God is our Creator and that our Creator greatest gift is Love. The Bible also says we are made in his image. Love and Creation. I think my mind could ponder upon these concepts for a lifetime, maybe more.
Throughout my posts, I have been very critical of the Roman Catholic Church. I have used it as the centre piece to explain patriarchal dominance and the damage it can create (especially if blended with religious ideology), but it is by no means the only cult that encourages misogyny that has become a culture. But it is my culture. It was the cult I was raised in. It is what I can speak about with authenticity. (Scholars of other faiths are better positioned to speak authenticity about their experiences and insights, e.g., Sachiko Murata, author of The Tao of Islam.)
Do I feel like my “parents” lied to me about some of the meanings of symbolic gestures, just like my son felt lied to when he found out Santa Claus was not real? Yes, I do feel lied to. Can the Catholic Church ever be trusted? Yes, I think it can. To explain, I need to first tell of an experience I had when working in a government school over ten years ago.
I was required to teach a woodwork class. This was fine, I have university level training in woodwork (which I was required to show the school’s technology coordinator; note, this is the only school in which I have every been asked to prove my qualifications, and I suspect this coordinator never asked the same of male teachers … in fact I know some of the male teachers in the technology department did not have qualifications in woodwork). The class was all boys, 15-16 years olds. In the second lesson, one of them said: “Shouldn’t we be teaching you woodwork?”
“Why?” I asked him. I knew what he was implying but I wanted to see how brazen he was.
“Because you’re a woman and we are males!” He said with confidence, and the whole class burst into laughter.
I was shocked that he could be so blatantly sexist.
The student was reprimanded by the female vice principal. But the problem didn’t stop there. Sexism never stops at just one comment. The boys refused to listen to me. To them, the fact that I had female genitals seemed to equal no brain or skills in woodwork. It was the toughest semester of teaching I’ve ever endured. I began to question my identity and self worth. Was I being true to my femininity by teaching woodwork? I’d asked myself this question while doing my teacher training but seeing as I was within an environment of twenty or so other female woodwork teachers, it was a no brainer. Further, on my teaching rounds and in other brief wood working teaching roles, my gender had not been an issue. Now, however, I would walk into classes almost shaking because I knew if I made any slip ups, like using the drill without pre-checking the last person hadn’t left in reverse then it would not be seen as simple error that anyone could make, it would be seen as an excuse to ridicule me for being female. I had some support from a few male colleagues, but there were also a couple of staff members who were closet chauvinists who sided with the boys.
A few years later, I was offered a position teaching woodwork at a Catholic boys school. I wanted to take it because it was closer to home than my current position (which was at an Islamic school; I loved teaching at the Islamic school but it was 1.5 hours away from my home), but I feared being subjected to the same abuse I’d encountered at the government school, so I told the agency who offered me the position that I didn’t think I could take the position. I was encouraged to go to the interview anyway before completely rejecting the offer. As soon as I entered the school, which was the first time I’d entered a Catholic school since being a teenage student (I left half way through year nine due to bullying issues), I felt a since of warmth that I was not expecting. The vice principal met me with a grin and said: “I heard you’re worried about teaching woodwork to boys. Don’t worry they are used to it, the woodwork teacher you’re filling for is female. If you have any issues, we’ll deal with it.”
I took the position and I’m glad I did. It was one of the most amazing teaching experiences I’ve ever had. All the staff were supportive, not just to me, but to each other. People listened to each other with compassion and every effort was made to ensure I did not experience any sexist attitudes from the students. I was made to feel welcome every day I entered the buildings. Full truth be told, while I was teaching at the school, I was also dealing with an uterine tumour. A few weeks before the end of my contract I was told the tumour might be cancerous. I contemplated keeping the news from my colleagues, but I didn’t. The technology coordinator on more than one occasion had openly mentioned that himself and many members of his immediate family had faced the challenge of overcoming cancerous tumours. He’d also freely said that a workplace was a person’s main social outlet, therefore, if people weren’t able to open with those they worked with, then most of lives were lived in a state of pretentiousness. When I told him of my predicament, he gave me one of the most sincere hugs I’ve ever experienced. Gone were the hierarchal titles of coordinator and teacher, contract worker and permanent staff. It was a human to human interaction of compassion. I’d finished my contact by the time I’d found out the tumour was benign but he was on the list of people I had to tell my good news to. I learned a valuable lesson: love requires openness, authenticity, and vulnerability in order to be shared. (My studies of trauma confirm this to be true, namely, due to Brené Brown work on shame and vulnerability.)
I loved the experience of teaching at an all boys school so much that I looked for more opportunities to do so. For my second time employed at a Catholic boys school I was required to teach art, however, the school did have a female teacher in their technology department. Once again, I felt like I was in a supportive environment. Likewise, in other Catholic schools I’ve worked at that have been co-educational or all girls, I have been met with what my technical mind would describe as trauma-informed environments, albeit they did not call themselves that. Some of the examples of charity and care that I’ve witnessed in Catholic education are so moving they’ll stay with me forever. For example, I witnessed another staff member having a break down to which the leadership went above and beyond to support them, and at a school with a high number of refuges, we were given professional development about the war and Sudanese culture so as us we could better understand the children we were teaching. None of these schools expected or demanded that the students be Catholic, it was all done in the name of love.
If by chance, my writings reach the Vatican, then I hope that the Pope responds with the word “sorry”. The issues I have brought up, such the hidden sexist Aristotelian influence in theology, not allowing women access to an education, and not being forthright about the meaning of symbols, are all things done in the past but the repercussions are still felt today. Forgiveness is an aspect of love. Forgiveness comes after confessions of transgressions. The Catholic Church knows this. Perhaps the Pope has been waiting for someone to confront the Church about its transgressions before apologising?
As most people know, Catholic schools have had a bad wrap because of historical sexual abuse allegations. In my observations this has been taken very seriously, and great efforts to protect children have been implemented. Specifically, in both boys schools that I worked at I saw explicit and implicit efforts made to ensure history did not repeat itself and that, if necessary, those affected were provided support to heal. In other words, learning from the past has occurred. The Catholic Church is not perfect, nor is it a single person or bunch of doctrines, like all religions, it a group of people.
In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI apologised in Australia for historical sexual abuse by priests and clergymen, and in do so, contributed to the improved culture within Catholic schools which I have been privy to observing. In a similar vein, the Australian government has apologised for the abusive treatment of First Nation People; this did not change the past but it has helped to redirect the future in such away that active measures are being to taken to ensure support is offered to heal the collective trauma. The anecdotal evidence is clear, apologies from leadership help set the tone for followers to re-evaluate their own beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and behaviours, and prevent further abuses.
Until the atrocities of the Church’s past are recognised and apologised for, moving ahead is challenging. However, it must be made clear that Christianity and/or the Catholic Church are not necessarily the adverse influence. If an “enemy” must be identified, then that entity is Roman culture, a culture that began as a small cult of people who occupied a very small region of Italy, Rome, in 500BC. Most of Ancient Italy was dominated by the Etruscans; a culture that had values that emulated gender egalitarian. In fact Ancient Greeks of the Classical era were shocked that Etruscan women had as many freedoms as Etruscan men. The Etruscans were a fun loving culture with sincere family values that can still be found amongst contemporary Italians. (My research suggests Greeks adopted patriarchy along with many other beliefs from the Persians; the Mesopotamian region has a long history of patriarchal leadership that stems back to the Sumerian era.)
Over the span of a few hundred years, Roman’s took control of western civilisations by rebranding and reinventing many facets of other cultures. A pinnacle point was when they seized a Phoenician boat (Hebrew’s called the Phoenicians Canaanites), took it apart, then rebuilt it with improved engineering. By doing so they were to able to win water battles against the Phoenicians and decimate Carthage. Winning the wars (called the Punic wars, 264 – 146 BC) gave the Romans leverage and paved the way for them to dominate the Mediterranean region. I’m not sure how to feel about this. The people of Carthage were sacrificing children to their Gods, a practice despised by Romans, Greeks, Hebrews, and many others, including myself. But was it necessary to wipe out a culture that demanded human sacrifices? Or was it possible to persuaded the Carthaginians to stop murdering their babies by another means? Anyway, that’s not what happened, and Roman’s went on to slaughter thousands of people, including Etruscans, Druids, Celts, Gauls, and others who may or may not have practiced human sacrifices.
Whenever the Roman’s took over a populated region, they would take apart all that they considered to be of value. Basically, they’d reverse engineer then put things back together with a Roman touch. They did this to physical objects (like Phoenician boats and Greek architecture) and to conceptual objects, like Greek literature, hence, Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, Poseidon became Neptune, Aphrodite became Venus, and so forth. The Roman versions are not completely equivalent to the Greek; the Greek concepts took on Roman attributes and values, but history doesn’t always make that distinction clear (for example, the myth of Narcissus is often referred to a a Greek myth but it was written by a Roman, Ovid, who studied Greek literature then emulated the style in Latin). Likewise, when Emperor Constantine took over Christianity, the attributes and values of Early Christianity became Romanised.
It is not always easy to pierce through the Roman coating of Christianity; it’s armour is thick but not completely impenetrable. By the way, the tradition of knights, as in Christian knights, with armour and all that stuff, began with Roman equestrian cavalry. Likewise, contemporary ideals of romance also stem from Roman culture, i.e., courting rituals of the Romans were regarded as being perfect, hence, to be “roman”-tic was to behave like a Roman. And, Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, etc.), you guessed it, evolved from the Roman language of Latin.
Roman culture has its merits. Hence, it has endured for over two thousand years. Romans had a knack for reworking the best of cultures, albeit, by adapting and readapting the ideas of others they could be considered professional plagiarisers. Or they could be considered to be innovators, artists or creators who built upon existing knowledge to form new ideas, inventions, and ways of doing things. Whether or not all Roman versions of things are better than the original may come down to matter of opinions and/or a realisation that history is made up of people, and people do not fit into neat categories of absolutes.
The Roman Empire has been crumbling into a slow demise for a very long time – the Western Roman Empire began to fall in 395, sparked by battles with the Visigoths, and Eastern Roman Empire fell in 1453, due to battles with Muslims. The Latin language is a dead but Rome lives on in many other forms
Is it fair of me to lump the majority of patriarchal sins and Christianity’s transgressions upon a a group of people and a culture that has diminished? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe the Roman Empire has finally fallen because the majority of people, people of all genders who have access to education, no longer support Roman values?
It is very difficult for one to leave the cult that they are born into, moreover, the culture that is most familiar to them. About ten years ago, I was fortunate to be able to do a couple of brief visits to Europe as a tourist. High on my priority list was visiting Catholic sites of significance, like the Vatican and various cathedrals. I wanted to see these places even though I’d officially left my Catholicism behind in 1993 when I stopped attending regular mass services. One of the things that stood out for me while traveling was how at “home” I felt in Italy. I have no Italian relatives and apart from a few Italian words that I learned in primary school, technically I have no connection to the country. Therefore, I suspect my bond had something to do with my of awe of the artworks, artefacts, and architecture that I’d appreciated from a far for a very long time. Then and now, I have an uneasy feeling about how they were funded (indulgence revenue), nonetheless, I cannot imagine a world without the masterpieces of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Tintoretto, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Donatello, Titian, and many more. When push comes to shove, I do not wish to see the destruction of Catholicism, but I do hope the Church has the courage to look back upon its past and take steps away from hierarchical doctrines and move towards embracing the core principle of Early Christianity: Love.
At the start of this series of blogs I described my passion for art, history, and psychology that drove me to conduct in-depth research. Now, I must make a final confession. I have had an alternate motive. I have a loved one who is ensnared in a destructive cult. They have been told many lies. Amidst the cult leader’s claims, is that they are teaching the doctrines of Early Christians. The cult does not affiliate themselves with any organised order, however, the characteristics of their leader are recognisable in many Christian cults across time and cultures. This particular cult leader claims their interpretation of Biblical symbolism is more true than any others. I can see how they got it all wrong. History is full of examples of people who have done likewise.
How can this cult leader be judged as a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothings? Simple, their theology and associated doctrines cause harm. They do not put love and healing in the forefront of their teachings. Specifically, they interpret symbols too literally, like blood and disease. They think that to honour God, real blood ties must be broken, and they overlook the role of the nervous system in healing. Further, they interpret the Book of Revelation to be about the end of the world because they do not see that the horseman with a cloak dipped in blood is a cloak dipped in love. The Book of Revelation is not an apocalypse, despite the face value of some of the symbols. When the space between the objects are seen then the Book of Revelation is a document of hope, it prophecies love conquering evil.
Loosing my loved one from my life has turned my world upside down and inside out. In my desire to understand how it happened, I was compelled to reexamine things I thought knew but as it turned out, I did not know as much as I thought I did. Above all, I’ve had to re-examine my beliefs and my faith; moreover, where these came from.
To say one must drink blood the blood of Jesus in order to have salvation, is a curious thing. But when I silence my mind and sit in quiet contemplation, I become consciously aware of the sensation of blood circulating through my body and the functioning of my heart, and then I get this feeling that makes me wonder, how else is one supposed to describe the complexities of love?
A human seeing love is saved and their victory that lasts forever.
Appropriation of Isaiah 45:17 by Renée
To my dear loved one, I dedicate all my research and these writings.
As psychologist Terrence William Deacon says, humans are a symbolic species. Across communication forms we use symbols to convey complex meanings. At an iconic level, symbols are easy to interpret, however, at an advanced level, they are difficult and cannot be understood without education.
Woodcut illustration from an edition of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, 1582
For most of human history, education has been a privilege only few have had access to. Mostly, but not always, it has been men who have dominated systems of learning. Knowledge was hidden from most of the population, and virtually all women, hence it is no surprise that once literacy levels began to increase there was a surge of interest in what was unknown, forgotten, or occult. The learning of hidden symbols has a mystical quality to it, especially when considered in relation to religious examples.
All religions use symbols to explain theology, perform rituals, and express faith; that is simply human nature. At face value, the term occult is benign, as it reflects the notion that complex symbolism is hidden until an initiate is educated to knowledge; however, over the years the word has picked up negative connotations. The Catholic Church has been one of the main players in contributing to the idea that religious practices that use symbols with hidden meanings are evil; although, this appears to be biased because hidden Church symbols are considered to be Holy.
Ultimately, whether or not a religious group, that is a cult, is destructive or beneficial needs to be assessed in accordance with whether or not practitioners are harmed or healed, not the symbols that they use.
It is only in very recent history (the past few decades) that things have really begun to change, especially in terms of most people of all genders having access to basic education. As time progresses, there is probably going to be a lot of hidden knowledge that is unearthed. For example, a lost city of Egypt has recently been discovered near Luxor and new Greek treasures found at the temple of Artemis. Advanced research technologies and access to information via the internet are facilitating a new form of Renaissance, the likes of which we probably cannot fully fathom until several more years into the future.
Humans have a long history of being fascinated with the supernatural, the unseen, the spiritual. The tenants of such beliefs need to be viewed alongside and intertwined with examinations of symbolism. Contemporary psychology research supports the hypothesis that the meaning of any symbol is only as powerful as that which humans give it. And how much power a person attributes to a symbol needs to be assessed in conjunction with their personal beliefs, cultural influences, and historical context.
Trying to interpret symbols out of the historical and cultural context of their makers is to re-tell a new story. Sometimes it is fine to do so, other times it can lead to great error, like mistakingly thinking that Cleopatra really wore a corset (reference: Giambattista Tiepolo The Banquet of Cleopatra, 1743-1744). In modern media studies, awareness of visual communication often comes under the discipline of Codes and Conventions. To put it briefly, these are written and symbolic devices used to convey meaning. Mass media work by specified codes; artists can use mass media codes and conversations or they may invent their own symbolism.
Symbols have the capacity to unite people and evoke a sense of belonging through their shared meanings. Symbols can also confuse and isolate people if they are not privy to the visual code that others are using. On this note, there is an element of fun and intrigue in cracking so-called occult symbolism.
And lastly, sometimes, the meanings of symbols can appear hidden but really, it could just be a question of Can You See the Turtles?
Up until this point, religious institutions had dominated education, with the exception of Germany which mandated some form of state education be provided to boys from the late sixteenth century. In other places around Europe and Australia, state run education was introduced in a piecemeal fashion throughout the 1800s, albeit, initially boys were expected to attend and girls were not. By roughly the beginning of the 1900s education was mostly mandatory for both genders, however, some subjects (like woodwork and advanced sciences) were solely for boys and other subjects (like needlework and cooking) were solely for girls. As for women entering universities, to do so was still an exception thwarted with challenges. Certain fields of study, like medicine, were specifically off limits. For example, in 1900 Italy, Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) had to get written permission from the Pope in order to study to become a doctor.
Montessori was Italy’s first female physician. Her speciality area was children with disabilities and in addition to caring for their physical health, she observed that practical craft and art activities helped them. She went on to study philosophy and psychology, then developed an education system based on her scientific-based observations of child development. Montessori believed that lack of support for children was the cause of delinquency. Further, when children were placed in environments appropriate for their age, they developed as individuals with reduced personality issues and a healthy social conscience. Montessori education continues today and is considered to be a holistic approach that recognises a child’s whole being, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Montessori was nominated for a Nobel prize in three consecutive years prior to her death.
It strikes me as odd that women have long been typecast as natural mother’s and experts in raising children, but when a woman trained professionally in that area, her scientific skills and observations went unrecognised by academia. I wonder if that is because universities have a tradition of being boys clubs?
By the 1900s Aristotle based education had mostly been abandoned, however, not entirely. An ex-priest by the name of Franz Brentano (1839-1917) became a Doctor of Philosophy on account of his thesis about Aristotle. Why is Brentano significant? Because amongst his many students who went on to become renowned in the psychology field was Sigmund Freud. Brentano introduced Aristotle to Freud. Freud then went on to appropriate many of Aristotle’s ideas (see Is Aristotle Overrated?).
In Freud, we potentially see the most obscure and outrageous claims of symbols having hidden meanings. Freud, however, was not creative nor did he demonstrate higher order critical thinking skills when it came to giving new meaning to symbols. Instead, he insisted that all elongated objects were references to penises and all objects with an opening were references to vaginas. Needless to say, his interpretations totally lack research into historical and cultural contexts in which symbols were made. To put it mildly, he was equivalent to an art therapist insisting that a small figure in a corner of the page was indicative of low self esteem without giving regard to the art maker’s intentions of wanting room to move.
Despite obvious flaws in his theories, Freud went on to be the founding cult leader of psychoanalysis. Many of his followers were also interested in occultism and viewed Freud’s explanations of hidden meanings in art, dreams, literature, and other creative expressions to be truisms that had been lost in time. Personally, if Freud was a student in one of my Art history classes, I would fail him.
Food for though: In my casual observations as a teacher, I have noted that people seem to view Montessori as being some airy-fairy, new age education system, and conversely, they view Freud as being a man of science. However, when the theories of child development are compared, there is a lot more evidence to suggest Freud was the ungrounded, airy-fairy one, and Montessori was a practical minded scientist.
The industrial revolution brought new challenges to humans. As machines gradually replaced the work once done by village artisans and commercial agricultural methods reduced the need for small farm crops, both genders became displaced. At the same time, middle class men began objecting to not being able to have a say in political matters. In England, in 1780 only 3% of the population were on the electoral roll. Inspired by the French Revolution (1789), men’s suffrage began, however, it was not successful till late in the nineteenth century, and women over thirty were only given voting privileges in 1918. Comparatively, Australia was more advanced with all men having voting rights in the 1850s and women in 1902.
Alongside occupational and political changes was the phenomenon of more and more people moving from rural areas to the cities. In turn, literacy became an issue, especially if a person wanted a blue collar job. By the end of the nineteenth century, about 60% of the population were literate. Within all the social changes, was the Age of Enlightenment (1715 – 1789), a period marked by a cultural shift from superstitions to rationalisations based on scientific evidence. Thus, feminism emerged.
In the art world, Renaissance standards had given way to Mannerism, Barque, Rocco, and Neoclassicism had started. During this time female artists became more accepted. France led the way, namely through Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) and Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899).
Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun
Le Brun was the daughter of a portraitist painter, Louis Vigée. By the time she was in her early teens, Le Brun was painting portraits professionally, however, she got into trouble at one stage for practicing as an artist without a license, and consequently her studio was seized by authorities. Not realising that they had exhibited the work of a woman, the Académie de Saint-Luc, felt obliged to give her a license.
Le Brun created a name for herself by serving as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette – The last queen of France before the revolution. She created 660 portraits and 200 landscapes.
In 1787, Le Brun created a social scandal with her painting of Self Portrait with Daughter, Julia.
Le Brun, Self Portrait with Daughter, Julia, 1787
Source: Wikipedia Commons
How could such a seemingly harmless painting create a scandal? Answer: a smile. Le Brun’s rendering of her teeth was perceived as an insult to art’s long standing tradition of not showing teeth in a portrait. One critic claimed: “An affectation which artists, art-lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning, and which finds no precedent among the Ancients, is that in smiling, [Madame Vigée LeBrun] shows her teeth.”
Seemingly unperturbed, Le Brun continued to paint portraits with teeth.
The Le Brun scandal highlights the notion that art history has many unspoken rules. Given that such rules are unspoken, they are difficult to identify.
Bonheur’s family background may be described as alternative. Her father was a Saint-Simonian Socialist and he believed all wealth should be shared because all people were equal – except personal property – this was mainly directed to hereditary systems such as royalty. He also believed girls were worth as much value as boys and should be raised the same way. They wanted a society based on love, with no war or class distinctions. The Saint-Simonian philosophy also included the belief that a new saviour would come in the form of a woman.
Like Le Brun, Bonheur’s father was a painter and he taught his daughter. Her favourite subject matter were horses and other animals. In order to work in comfort, Bonheur preferred wearing trousers instead of dresses; to do so required getting a permit or else she would be fined.
Enforcing ideals of femininity and beauty through policed dress codes has a long history. For instance, the hiding of women’s faces with veils became vague in Roman times (before Mohammad established Islam). A thousand or so years later, garments of peasant men and women were very similar, however, when witch-hunt mania took hold pockets were taken out of women’s clothing so as they couldn’t carry around their magic potions.
Some patriarchs assert that male dominance occurred due competence not tyranny, but as illustrated by the case of Rosa Venerini (1656 – 1728), it was tyranny not competence.
Venerini made a profound impact on developing education for women and girls in Italy. She was inspired to teach at a young age when she realised that many young women were ignorant, particularly on matters regarding Christianity. After the death of several family members she spent some time at a convent, however, only stayed a few months. A Jesuit priest, who was her spiritual adviser, convinced Venerini that her calling was to be a teacher not a nun. Venerini first opened a preschool for girls and by the end of her life had established forty schools and was the founder of the fraternity of Religious Teachers of Venerini. Initially, she faced a lot of opposition from clergy who believed it was their job to teach Church doctrine but when they saw the positive effects that educating females was having, they gave her support. Other antagonists weren’t so easy to win over and some teachers got shot at with bows and their houses set on fire. Venerini was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on October 15, 2006.
Venerini’s story is one of great bravery. I wonder how many other women were too afraid to get involved with education because they saw their peers getting shot at with bows and their houses burned? Of course, it was not all men, but the ringleaders most certainly were male.
Source: Catholic Online
In Venice, a woman named Elena Piscopia (1646 – 1684) became the first woman to receive an academic degree from a university, and the first woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy. Piscopia was bilingual in Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew, and she knew how to write music, play the harpsichord, clavichord, harp, and violin, and she was a mathematician. Initially, Piscopia attempted to complete a degree in theology, however, when Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo, the bishop of Padua, learned of this he refused on the grounds that she was a woman and would only allow for her to get a degree in philosophy. Her oral examination required her to speak for an hour in Classical Latin on random topics selected by her assessors from the works of Aristotle; she spoke on Posterior Analytics and Physics. Piscopia was a devout christian and she divided her time between caring for the poor and in education pursuits, either learning or teaching.
It is important to pause upon Piscopia for a moment. Theology is the study of the nature of God. Catholic theology from the time of Constantine onwards was based on Aristotle’s model of men being more spiritually advance, more god-like, than women, who were considered to have a spiritual substance like that of animals (in other words, no intellect). Because of this theology, women were shut out of the discussion about theology. How could women possibly rise up to a rank of equality when there was a potent belief of their so-call inferiority hidden behind an educational glass ceiling? Then again, glass can be seen through, whereas the Aristotelian theology of gender was more like a steel wall that only men were privileged a key to access and see what was on the other side.
Maria Kirch (1670-1720) was a German astronomer who discovered a comet. Approximately 14 percent of German astronomers in the early eighteenth-century were women, however, they were not able to publish their work due to being female.
The second woman in the world to earn the degree of Doctor of Philosophy was Laura Bassi (1711 – 1778). She was an Italian physicist and, therefore, she was also the first woman to have a doctorate in science. At times, she was recognised and depicted as Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. Bassi worked at the University of Bologna where she was the first salaried woman teacher in a university, eventually becoming the first female university professor in the world. When she joined the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna in 1732 she became the first female member of a scientific establishment. Bassi was the mother of twelve children and she published yearly reports on subjects like air pressure. She was an upper class woman, therefore, childcare was more available to her than poorer people.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) was a Italian mathematician and philosopher of natural science. In 1738 she produced a text on calculus that made her famous.
Cristina Roccati (1732 – 1797) was an Italian physicist and poet who earned a degree at the University of Bologna (1751).
In the mid 1450s, about 30% of the population (mostly males) were literate (it was only around 5-10% who received formal education; some learned to read by other means). This figure was a small increase on previous populations.
The cultivating of new ideas via printed material during the Renaissance birthed a movement called Humanism, an outlook that gave appreciation of what it means to be human based on observations and inquiry, as opposed to looking at religion or theology for answers. Its focus on ancient philosophy centred on human ingenuity and creativity, therefore provided a basis for rejecting the rigidity of scholastic (and Aristotelian) education protocols.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was an older member of the Humanist movement, nonetheless, he made an impact in regards to rejecting Aristotle’s ethics and challenged the Catholic church’s values, like the exchange of payment for the forgiveness of sins in indulgences and the creation of lavish architecture that housed expensive paintings and artefacts. Luther pinned a thesis outlining all his grievances against the Catholic Church to the door of a little church in Germany and in doing so gave rise to the Reformation of the Church. For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church had been the only denomination of Christianity, now slowly at first, many people began rejecting the Pope’s authority. After Lutherism came Church of England, Protestants, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and more.
Luther’s impact on the Church was mammoth, he did not, however, push the envelope on gender equality. A Humanist who did speak up for the plights of so-called inferior women was Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546). Elyot challenged the Aristotelian attitude of the feminine in a publication titled: In Defence of Good Women.
Holbein, Portrait of Sir Thomas Elyot, 1532–34
Within this melting pot of change were alterations to the Bible (for full details see History of Christian Bible Publications with References to Media Codes and Conventions). From the 400s through to the 1500s, the Bible was primarily available was the Latin, the Vulgate. The first English translation is credited to William Tyndale (1494 – 1536). Because English , as language, was still forming Tyndale had to invent some words to express ideas, like scapegoat and passover.
By the time the Kind James version of the Bible was printed in 1611, many aspects of the Bible had changed. For example, Moses lost his horns.
The image of Moses coming down from the Mount Sinai with horns on his head, was immortalised by Michaelangelo’s sculpture that was commissioned for the Tomb of Pope Julius II. For thousands of years, most Christians and Jews believed that speaking to God created this fascinating physical transformation, as per the description in the Vulgate that was written by Jerome (c.345 – 420 CE) in the fourth century. However, when renaissance scholars referenced Hebrew manuscripts, they decided this was a mistranslation. Rather than horns, it was concluded Moses came down from Mount Sinai with radiance (Exodus 34:29). The cause of this apparent error was the that in Hebrew word for “horn” was similar to the word for “radiant”.
Michelangelo, Moses, Tomb, 1505-1545
With the benefit of hindsight, the bigger picture of occultism emerging while the Christianity was moving the goal posts of Biblical language is an interesting thing to contemplate. The environment was ripe for wanna be gurus to declare their translations were right and all others wrong, however, it was not that simple. The Roman Catholics (as they became known in order to differentiate them from newer denominations) still held a significant seat of power, and through laws and inquisitions, so-called heretical beliefs could result in a person being imprisoned or put to death. Given this reality of the consequences of disagreeing with the Pope, it’s not surprising that if anyone wanted to explore an alternative belief system they had to do so in secret. Occultism’s tentacles stretched out far into realms of Christian mysticism, the Jewish Kabbalah, the Islamic Sufism, Ancient Religions, Alchemy, and more. Were there groups who turned the Christian cross upside down and prayed to Lucifer? Yes, there probably were. Were there groups who venerated Christ as a being of love and prayed for world peace? Yes, there probably were.
There is little doubt cults of all sorts emerged, led by charismatic leaders, who claimed their interpretations of symbolism, or knowledge of the ancients, or whatever angle they chose to take, was more correct than others. We have plenty of examples of such cults from antiquity through to today. The nuances of human nature include a hardwire desire to belong, and cults achieve this very well.
There is also very little doubt in my mind that one of the approaches the Catholic Church used to suppress more splintering of the Church was to label alternative philosophies as evil or heretical, thus occultism became derogatory. In my opinion, the degree to which any of these were truly evil or true, cannot be measured by doctrines alone. As described in part 2: My personal view is that if a cult prescribes any form of abusive, controlling, or trauma-inducing practices (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually), then it can rightly be defined as a destructive cult. Alternatively, if a group of people who prescribe to a shared belief system encourage positive behaviours like love, non-judgment, kindness, inclusiveness, and trauma-formed healing practices, then it is a positive cult. Within this definition is the capacity for varying degrees of negative and positive traits within cults.
A casual observation of Christianity between about 1450 and 1650 is that men were more likely to be demonised by the Church for their thoughts and beliefs, whereas women more likely to be accused of being witches.
Allegations of witchcraft basically consisted of someone being accused of being involved with supernatural activities that were not approved of by the Church. Ironically, Church history is full of stories about brave men who fought demons and dragons (like St George). But if a woman used their knowledge of herbs to heal, then they were demonised, especially if there was a tragedy like a death in childbirth. Heck, all a woman had to do was give a look of distain and they could be accused of murder, because, you know, a woman eyesight can tarnish mirrors so it’s only logical that their glance could kill someone (see Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest Gender of Them All?). In order to avoid being accused of giving an evil eye, all women needed to do was stay in a perpetual state of happiness and be content in knowledge that their souls were innately inferior to men. To achieve this aim, aspiring to the impossible perfection of the Virgin Mary was encouraged.
By the end of the 1600s, the percentage of people who were literate had risen to about 47% (still mostly males).
The third category, people who explored the potential for Aristotle’s truth without giving defiant allegiance, includes people like Durer, who studied Ancient Greeks with the desire to apply their theories in practical means. His desire to explore mystical symbolism was quite overt, as already mentioned in reference to Melancholia. His representation of Biblical scenes has had profound influence on how the symbolism is interpreted (I touch upon this in Did the Whitehorseman Have a Bow, Bow, or Bow?) Durer is also an often unrecognised pioneer of contemporary iconography, with achievements including the designing of the Times New Roman font which he based upon the mathematical principles of balance and beauty as prescribed by Elucid.
Da Vinci was also driven by a desire to process and conceptualise ancient wisdom, as evidenced in the many sketchbooks he left behind. Further, in his final years, Da Vinci spent hours conversing with the King of France sharing his life time of insights. Michaelangelo also appears to have explored occult wisdom; a small indication of this comes from an entry in one of Da Vinci’s sketchbooks that records a clash the two artists had over how one should interpret Dante’s poetry. In his artworks, Michaelangelo is also reported to have subtly challenged the Church’s refusal to accept scientific knowledge by hiding images of the human brain in some of his works on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, such as Separation of Light from Darkness and The Creation of Adam. Another artist known to be familiar with ancient philosophy, is Raphael, who immortalised the atmosphere of the Renaissance era’s preoccupation with with Ancient Greek in his painting the School of Athens which was commissioned by the Vatican.
Raphael, School of Athens, 1509-11
In addition to deliberately incorporating “hidden” messages into paintings, some artists simply appropriated ancient themes. For example, in Tintoretto’s Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, we see the depiction of of Ariadne blessing a marriage between Venus and Bacchus.
Jacopo Tintoretto, Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, 1576-7
From a contemporary viewpoint, we may believe that Tintoretto was trying to portray an authentic rendition of the ancient stories (note: the Roman’s appropriated Greek stories left, right, and centre – the number of authentic Roman stories is minute once copies of Greek stories that had the character’s names changed to Roman deities have been accounted for). However, when it is understood that Renaissance artists were sometimes simply drawing upon ancient stories for inspiration, not imitation, the significance of storylines alters.
I suspect, Tintoretto did not necessarily give a hoot about the theological significance of ancient symbols. Rather, he was a contemporary man of his era who worked with colloquial interpretations of symbols. In Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne, it can be speculated that the average Venetian knew that Bacchus was the God of wine (Dionysus in Greek) and Venus was the Goddess of beauty (Aphrodite in Greek; Plato tells us there are two Aphrodites but that’s besides the point at the moment; see Psychoanalysis and Castration for tongue in cheek interpretation of Venus’ birth). However, the average Venetian did not necessarily understand that Bacchus/Dionysus and Venus/Aphrodite were personifications of spiritual concepts (see The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts). Rather, Tintoretto, and his contemporaries, potentially had a very shallow understanding of these deities. As such, in an almost mocking fashion, the God and Goddess were appropriated to suit their own culture; Venus symbolised the beautiful Venetian waters and Bacchus symbolised the Venetian culture of festivity – the their annual masquerade carnivals included a lot of drinking! In other words, the painting is a cartuniture, albeit executed with refined artistic skill to create the illusion of perspective and reality. In other words, the colloquial symbolism of the waters of Venice being married to culture of Venice has been personified by Venice and Bacchus.
The personification of nations and bodies of water has links to figurative speech. For instance, homelands being known as motherlands or fatherlands - the masculinisation or feminisation of territories can vary according to historical contexts. Similarly, bodies of water have a mixed history of being referred to by male and female phrases and/or deities.
Another example of the personification of groups of people is that of the Hochgurtel Fountain at the Melbourne’s Exhibition Building (1880). The young boys in the sculpture symbolise Melbourne being a young colony.
Tintoretto’s approach to artistic subjects matters, exemplifies human qualities of humour, irony, and repurposing symbols. To appreciate art, one needs more than a serious stiff upper lip.
Psychoanalysts might view paintings like Bacchus, Venus and Ariadne as being representative of so-called universal symbolism that reoccur across time and cultures. Conversely, an occultist might view the representations of deities as being some sort of “proof” of their enduring significance. However, such mindsets do not capture the creative impulse of appropriation, irony, and playfulness. Two quotes from Picasso aptly wrap up the situation. Firstly, Picasso said “Art lies then tries to convince you its telling the truth”, and “Bad artists imitate, the great artists steal”. Thanks Banksy!
Source: Quote Master
As a final point for consideration on the topic of artists not always creating images with a complete seriousness, Raphael is championed with having painted the face of Heraclitus (centre, foreground figure writing on a piece of paper) to be a likeness to Michaelangelo in The School of Athens. Artists of refined skill and intellectual temperaments can be very witty and sometimes insert secretive elements into their compositions just because they can.
When I began my research by pinning notes along my hallway, I did so with an open mind, therefore, it surprised me when I observed that so many of my paths of inquiry lead back to Aristotle.
Volumes upon volumes could be written about influential men in religion, medicine, politics, and other positions of power being guided or repelled by Aristotle’s so-called wisdom. Like a child who does not want to part with their teddy bear at night, western cultures seem to have clung to that which they have known and is familiar to them for so long.
The tides began to change when Aristotle’s ideas were disseminated beyond the few during the 1500s. In this era three broad categories of people emerged. One being those who continued to support Aristotle’s authority, others who rejected Aristotle’s authority, and then those who explored the potential for Aristotle’s truth without giving defiant allegiance. The first category includes countless academics who followed traditions they’d been taught in places like at the University of Paris (Side note: the first university that resembles today’s structure was established in Spain by an Islamic woman, Fatima Al-Fihri). The second category includes people like Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Isaac Newton.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is most well known for his mathematical skills and his improvements to telescope lenses that enabled him to discover new stars, three moons on Jupiter, the rings on Saturn, and phases that Venus went through. Galileo’s observations supported Copernicus’ theory that the earth rotated around the sun, thereby discrediting Aristotle’s cosmology that claimed the sun and the planets rotated around earth.
From a theological perspective, Aristotle’s cosmology was arguably never meant to be a model of the actual universe. Rather, it was an occult representation of the human being that fell in line with the classical elements. According to Aristotle’s cosmology the earth (the physical body) is the centre, followed by layers of water (life-force or ether), air (soul; can be divided into further layers), fire (spirit or intellect; can be divided into further layers), and celestial fire (aesther or spirit of God). The theology, in its more expanded form, references astrology symbols (see below).
Depiction of Aristotle’s Geocentric Model.
(It’s possible that looking at Aristotle’s model as a human being is what inspired Sömmerring to look for the twelve cranial nerves.)
Source: Achilies and Aritstotle
On many levels, the situation with Galileo is curious. Did he know and understand Aristotle’s model was a theology, not literal? Is that why he put it aside and worked on observing real outer space instead? Or did Galileo, ignorant of Aristotle’s symbolism, just look out into the sky and try to learn more about it because that’s what his passion was? Why did Church leaders insist Aristotle’s model was correct, even when scientific evidence said else wise? Why was maintaining Aristotle’s authority so important to them? Was the Church committed to maintaining Aristotle authority because of its long tradition of doing so through scholastism and works by people like Aquinas that it did not want to loose face? Who in the Church knew that Aristotle’s model was a theology of the human body and who did not? The questioning could go on longer than a Catholic inquisition. However, it was the Church who ran the inquisitions, not the other way around. The bottom line was that the Church disapproved of Galileo’s work and in 1633 he was brought before an inquisition charged with heresy; to spare his life Galileo claimed he didn’t believe his own findings.
René Descartes (1596-1650) demonstrated a sound knowledge of ancient theology in relation to the classical elements:
… we consider, in particular, the nature of the earth, and of all the bodies that are most generally found upon it, as air, water, fire, the loadstone and other minerals.
Rene Descartes, The Principles of Philosophy, 1644, p.15
Hence, it was with a full understanding of Aristotle’s theories and that of the four elements, Descartes broke away from the commonly held assumptions of earth, water, air, and fire. In doing so he came up with apparently new theories of the body, mind, and soul. Then again, upon closer inspection Descartes theorises of different types of thinking, still resonate with some ancient ideas. Plato tells us that the nature of the soul was the most debated topic among philosophers, so perhaps Descartes was just siding with theologies that differed to the Church’s appropriation of Aristotle?
Descartes famously remarked: “[if] I’m thinking, so I exist”, which isn’t too far removed from Plato’s ideas of man’s nous being a conduit that can connect him to celestial forces.
As previously mentioned, both Galileo’s and Descartes’ works were put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
Isaac Newton (1643-1727) respected Descartes rejection of Aristotle and embraced Galileo’s focus on mathematics. In addition to the many scientific studies Newton did, he also had an interest in Biblical symbols. Newton took a scientific approach to the Bible and analysed scripture to identify language patterns, allegory systems, and symbols that he believed were known and applied by all prophets:
The Rule I have followed has been to compare the several mystical places of scripture where the same prophetic phrase or type is used, and to fix such a signification to that phrase as agrees best with all the places . . . and, when I had found the necessary significations, to reject all others as the offspring of luxuriant fancy, for no more significations are to be admitted for true ones than can be proved.
Isaac Newton, Royal Society, 2015, p. 524
Examples of the codes Newton worked out were: Sun = King; Moon = groups of common people referred to as wife; Darkening of celestial bodies = doom for political groups; and Dens and rocks in mountains = temples. Where Biblical texts referred to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Newton claimed it meant Spirit, Water, and Blood. Newton also theorised that somewhere early in Christianity, the writings of prophets had been forged. Specifically, he blamed Arianism and Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.
In his own lifetime, Newton did not make a grand public display of his learnings about biblical symbolism and his research into the early Church. He did, however, do his best to avoid taking priesthood vows, as was expected of men who completed a Masters degree. It could be conjectured that Newton was fortunate to have been witness to the beginnings of the unraveling of religious and educational entanglement.
Freud’s protege, Jung, was a lot more thorough in his research of symbols, their history, and their meaning. At the risk of sounding condescending, I am impressed with how well he understood some symbology, like in the following:
The meaning of the “ministering wind” is probably the same as the procreative pneuma, which streams from the sun-god into the soul and fructifies it. The association of sun and wind frequently occurs in ancient symbolism.
Carl Jung, The Concept of the Collective Unconscious, p.102
In the above quote, Jung’s commentary on air (ministering wind and pneuma) and fire (sun-god) shows an understanding of theologies related to concepts found in the classical elements (see The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts). However, his conclusion that this occurred because of a “collective consciousness” is a mystical explanation that overlooks two obvious points. Firstly, as any gardener knows, the sun and the air (or wind) are significance factors (along with water and earth) that effect life on earth, therefore, the ancients’ use of these principles to symbolise esoteric phenomena is not surprising. The fructification of the air by the sun is a natural phenomenon everywhere around the earth. Secondly, besides over looking the indexical level of the symbolism (see The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics), Jung overlooked the fact that Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Christians shared symbols and concepts (hence the similarities. (The writings of Iamblicus demonstrates this point well in regards to Egypt and Greece ideologies). Jung’s marvelling of crossovers between ancient civilisations is a bit like marvelling over the similarities in culture between England, Australia, and America without identifying historical links.
The greatest point on which Jung’s theories can be falsified is on account of symbols being universal. He overlooked symbols’ ability to adapt and be appropriated by skilled artisans, like Tintoretto, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, and many others. He also overlooked artistic traditions (unspoken rules) and the history of art as a series of progressive movements. Arguably, Jung was so focused on trying to work out the mysteries of the so-called occult that he overlooked education and personal experiences as being foundational aspects of man-made symbolism.
It is also possible that Jung, and his supporters, are so indoctrinated into cultures that support Plato’s theory of so-called universality (i.e., the theory of forms) that their “shadow” prevents them from appreciating the infinite capabilities of human creativity. (Jung claimed the Shadow was the unconscious aspect of the ego that could prevent one from seeing the realities before then; in a nut shell, Jung’s theory of the shadow is an appropriation of spiritual concepts found in Ancient Egyptian theology).
Psychoanalysis neglects recognition that creativity is an activity often blended with humour, wit, irony, puns, and various other quaint qualities. The so-called science of psychoanalysis is based on outdated framework of the mind in which creativity is perceived as being a function located in a specific part of the brain, whilst contemporary findings support it is actually a whole brain activity.
Essentially, creativity is a process in which prior knowledge is deconstructed then reconstructed in a new way. In other words, it is a problem solving process. Depending upon the message one wants to convey, the manner in which symbols, words, and gestures are put together will differ. Contemporary neuroscience explanations of creativity is well presented in the Netflix documentary, The Creative Brain.
Photo Source: Nonnaci
Diagram of Jung’s theory of consciousness : all of Jung’s concepts are appropriations of ancient traditions. For example, the terms Anima and Animus are Latin for soul and spirit (Anima = feminine noun and Animus = masculine noun). Therefore, the original Latin meanings are not the same as Jung’s. Similarly, Jung claims the Shadow is the unconscious aspect of the ego, a concept derived but different to the Ancient Egyptian concept of Shuyet, the shadow self.
There is a strong element of irony in the manner in which Jung took concepts, names, and symbols from a variety of ancient traditions and effectively created a new religion.
Jung’s theories are not without worth, however, they need to be viewed in the context in which they were made: a summary and harmonisation of ancient theology. Moreover, his archetypes are stereotypes of symbology created by our patriarchal forefathers.
A genuine archetype, in the ancient Greek sense of the word, is a prototype; a model that can be built upon and diversified. For example, the first bicycle ever invented has similarities to today’s models but there have been many alterations and improvements. From wooden frames with no peddles through to penny-farthings and motorised e-bikes. Most bikes have some similar features in so much as they have two wheels (some have more) and they enable people to move from place to place at a quicker pace than walking. The point is, there is no universal bike, over the years there has been much diversity and improvements. Further, one also needs to question if a bike can be called an “archetype” in the first place. What did a bike evolve from? A carriage? A chariot? The invention of the wheel? A rock rolling down a hill? Or is a bike more like the evolution of horse? That is the way archetypes (prototypes) are supposed to be; they change. Jung’s theory that archetypes don’t change goes against the grain of human nature, namely, the creative spirit. (I explore this concept in The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology.)
Continuing on a theology level, Abrahamic religions present the symbolic image of the first human as being male (Adam) but elsewhere, like the First Nations people of New Zealand, creation stories depict the first human as female (Hineahuone). If there’s an except to the rule, there is no rule.
People are diverse and our species is constantly evolving. If one wants to dip their toe into Darwinism, one could even ask, what were humans before being human?
My research suggests many of our ancestors perceived a dualistic approach to evolution, i.e., as the physical body ascended from “earth” and “water” and our ethereal essence descended from “air” and “fire” substances. That, however, is a simplistic way to describe and harmonise ancient theology.
To not throw the baby out with the bath water, Jung’s categorisations of archetypes such as ruler, creator, sage, outlaw, explorer, caregiver, and so forth can be of value in certain circumstances. They are relatable, easy to read symbols that have a shared tradition across westernised cultures. They are a language of symbolism that can be used to open up conversations and tease out ideas. The great danger is in taking them to be finite. Moreover, there is the risk that if they are taken as universal truths then they can be used to promote sexism and misogyny, as Jordan Peterson (1962 – ) does.
I do not disagree with everything Peterson says but his conclusions about the meanings of mythological symbolism is a perfect example of how psychoanalytic theories can be detrimental to understanding true history and genders issues. Peterson asserts Jung’s theories of archetypes to be correct and therefore are a means of justifying patriarchal values. I call out some of Peterson’s shallow research practices in No Peterson, Chaos is not a universal feminine trait found across mythology. Even more alarming is Peterson’s mis-telling of myths to support his sexist agenda of promoting the idea that men are naturally supposed to dominate women.
In a YouTube clip in which Peterson is giving a lecture to university students about Egyptian mythology (Jordan Peterson Tells An Old Story About Gods), he states that Osiris ruled Egypt and his partner, Isis, was the Queen of the underworld. He even goes so far as to say Isis is the archetype of a hyena and compares her to the hyenas in Walt Disney’s The Lion King. (FYI, studying ancient theology by watching children’s movies is not an endorsed form of academia.) I suspect, Ancient Egyptians would turn in their graves if they had heard what he was saying. To them, Isis was their much beloved Queen of Heavens and a woman who possessed profound magic and healing powers. She was affiliated with the Pharaoh’s throne, namely because she helped her son, Horus, be a great leader. Conversely, Osiris was Prince of the underworld where he judged the souls of the dead with Anubis, a jackal-headed god who ate the hearts of deceased if they were heavier than a feather.
Throughout the video, Peterson states many eyebrow raising comments which, to my detailed understandings of symbolism through art, indicate a very biased and incomplete view of history and ancient theology. Further, his over emphasis on hierarchies diminishes other life principles, like harmony; at no point does Peterson acknowledge how much the Ancient Egyptians prided themselves on maintaining harmony. While nations rose and fell around them, the Egyptian culture remained stable for about three thousand years. In fact, the Egyptians believed their civilisation was robust and superior to others because they honoured harmony. Peterson’s projection of patriarchal values onto Egyptians symbolism does not reflect what most scholars understand, through the study of hieroglyphs, to be a culture that embraced gender egalitarianism. The further one explores back into the history of Egypt, the more harmony between gender’s can be identified. Conversely, as Egypt became more influenced by other cultures, like Greece, the less gender equality that can be identified (Egypt became Hellenistic following Alexander the Great’s conquering of Alexandria, previously known as Rhakotis or Râ-Kedet).
Peterson’s oversights of theology and history can be further identified by reviewing the writings of Iamblichus of the third century, an Egyptian priest and Neoplatonist. When speaking to a Greek philosopher, Iamblichus explains that the Egyptians understood the Greek’s classical elements, however, where the Greeks arranged the elements of earth, water, air, and fire, into a hierarchy, the Egyptians believed the elements worked in equal proportions, in harmony.
In sum, my assessment of Jungian psychoanalysis is that Jung conducted some thorough research, but he dismissed variables that disproved his hypothesises. Often Jung’s supporters, like Peterson, miss the subtleties of Jung’s research, and in doing so create a situation in which misinformation is shared as being factual. The misinterpretations of Jung’s theories are more alarming than Jung’s theories themselves, ie., Peterson is seen by many to be an authority feature and he has a cult following.
As a final note on psychoanalytic theory, I propose that the “Joseph-Gigolo complex” be brought into formal psychology discussions. It is a condition in which the person believes in the validity of psychoanalytical interpretations of symbolism despite being shown scientific and historical evidence to the contrary. Another key feature of someone, usually a man, with the Joseph Gigolo complex is that they tend to polarise men between the binary qualities of being fundamentally noble and worthy of being selected by God to partner the perfect woman, and father a perfect child, whilst at the same time being entitled to have sex and attention from multiple women at the same time. Men with the Joseph Gigolo complex have misogynistic tendencies; they tend to view women as objects not human beings, ie., they expect females to be like Mary’s or whores.
Perhaps universities could set aside a few hundred thousand dollars to prove the validity of the Joseph-Gigolo complex. Of course, such research groups would have to be run by women because, as we all know, men can get overly emotional and testostical whenever proof of their gender fitting into a Joseph or gigolo category arise.
(Note: this is a satirical commentary inspired by the social media avatar ManWhoHasItAll.)
In my research of so-called occult symbols, it never ceases to amaze me that unlocking hidden codes is as simple as looking up the etymology of words. In many instances, the “hidden” meanings are not hidden at all, rather, it is simply a case of when contemporary mindsets are used to interpret phrases that need to be understood within the time and context in which they were written, confusion arises.
Once literacy issues are accounted for, the synthesis of my research on Early Christianity concludes that it began as a fringe group who opposed other religious orders. Unlike other cults of the time, Christianity did not demand followers had to perform difficult acts of initiation, like the Eleusian, Bacchus, Mithras, Cybele, or Jewish cults (Dr Richard Carrier makes this point well). One simply needed to hear the Word and they could be healed (Luke 6:18-19):
[a large crowd] had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by impure spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
In contemporary speech, “disease” suggests ailments like cancer, eczema, Covid, etc. However, the word was not always a reference to physical symptoms. Originally, to be dis-eased meant to be ill at ease, as in stressed, worried, anxious, or depressed.
early 14c., "discomfort, inconvenience, distress, trouble," from Old French desaise "lack, want; discomfort, distress; trouble, misfortune; disease, sickness," from des- "without, away" (see dis-) + aise "ease" (see ease (n.)). Restricted pathological sense of "sickness, illness" in English emerged by late 14c.; the word still sometimes was used in its literal sense early 17c., and was somewhat revived 20c., usually with a hyphen (dis-ease).
mid-14c., disesen, "to make uneasy, trouble; inflict pain," a sense now obsolete; late 14c. as "to have an illness or infection;" late 15c. in the transitive sense of "to infect with a disease, make ill;" from disease (n.). Tyndale (1526) has Thy doughter is deed, disease not the master where KJV has trouble not (Luke viii.49).
Note: The aforemented William Tyndale (1494 - 1536) translated the Bible into English.
In light of this understanding it is apparent that Jesus Christ healed what we would now call mental health conditions. How did he do this with his magic wand? I’ll cut to the chase: Jesus cured people with Love. Love puts people at ease; Love cures troubled spirits.
Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.
The more people heard the news that love cures, the more crowds came to hear Jesus. Whether or not Mary was a real person is irrelevant in the bigger scheme of the message of love: “Love that was rekindled in Thy womb” (Dante).
If I were to extrapolate upon the premise of Jesus Christ being a figure who preached love as a means of healing, then I would do so through the lens of a contemporary mental health practitioner. Disease begins in the nervous system. If a person is stressed, anxious, or depressed, it correlates with a disruption to their breathing, heat rate, and blood pressure. If sustained, then their parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems become at odds with each other, and in turn can affect digestion, thinking, behaviour, and other variables. Trauma-informed research is increasingly demonstrating that a failure to return to a state of homeostasis can, consequently, lead to physical ailments. Hence, I hypothesise Jesus Christ’s healing capacity relates to curing disease at its core, through a resetting of the nervous system. Trauma-informed care means giving people unconditional positive regard and allowing them the space, resources, and support to process whatever issues they have (this process can vary from situation to situation). In order words, trauma-informed care requires being loving.
Love does not mean an acceptance of non-loving behaviours of others. Love, through a trauma-informed lens means having healthy boundaries. and being prepared to have open discussions - often difficult discussions - with others within a compassionate framework. Further, the practice of self care strategies for therapists and consumers of therapy is paramount to achieving healthy nervous system regulation. My top five favourite trauma gurus are: Brene Brown, Gabour Mate, Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, and Irene Lyons.
In 1216, a Spanish priest called Saint Dominic, set up an order in France that originally was called Order of Preachers, however, is now known as the Dominican order. A key feature of the order is that it is known for its Aristotelian based theology. And it is from the Dominican order in which one of Catholics most well-known theologians and Doctor of the Church was trained, Thomas Aquinas .
Aquinas is credited with cultivating western thoughts, which he did so by embracing Aristotle’s ideas and bringing them into a new era. Aquinas wrote extensively and gave public lectures. Apparently Aquinas could levitate, which, if true, suggests he was not just interested in intellectual philosophies but also the magical arts and/or occultism.
It is through Aquinas that we have clear indications of Christianity’s incorporation of Aristotle’s world views being accepted as fact, right through to his theories of the classical elements (for background information see The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts):
“ … there is order in the use of natural things; thus the imperfect are for the use of the perfect; as the plants make use of the earth for their nourishment, and animals make use of plants, and man makes use of both plants and animals. Therefore it is in keeping with the order of nature, that man should be master over animals”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, c.1270, p. 800
Aquinas’ understanding of the classical elements (or principles) can be further identify when he references a familial system to symbolically describe concepts:
Now the father is principle in a more excellent way than the mother, because he is the active principle, while the mother is a passive and material principle.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, c.1270, p. 1734
And (italic emphasis provided by myself):
Otherwise; I have come to set a man against his father; for he renounces the Devil who was his son; the daughter against her mother, that is, the people of God against the city of the world, that is, the wicked society of mankind, which is spoken of in Scripture under the names of Babylon, Egypt, Sodom, and other names. The daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, that is, the Church against the Synagogue, which according to the flesh, brought forth Christ the spouse of the Church. They are severed by the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And a man’s foes are they of his household, those, that is, with whom he before lived as intimates.
When Constantine legalised Christianity, beliefs pretty much became Romanised. Women were no longer permitted to have leadership roles (like evidence suggests they did in Christianity’s beginnings) and a hierarchical structure like the Roman military emerged., e.g., allegiance to a Pope, Archbishops, Bishops, Deacons, and priests being consolidated; all of these titles were “Father” positions. Amongst the changes, Constantine outlawed male castration, which some priests were doing to help them refrain from sexually immorality (this practice can also be found in other ancients cults that mandated priests had to be eunuchs, such as the Cybele cult).
Other reforms to Christianity brought about by Constantine included the definitive stance on Mary being a Virgin, and discouraging men from marrying (but this was not enforced; that came much later). There was also a lot of debate about the doctrine of the trinity, i.e., whether or not God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were One or if they were three entities. After several decades/centuries of arguing, council meetings organised by Constantine (the Nicaea council) to put an end to the debate. Consequently, it became canonised law that the Trinity as One was the only acceptable Christian belief. From then on, anyone who disagreed was an outcast, moreover, a heretics who would burn in hell (less dramatically, these people were also called Arians). The “us” and “them” mentality of Romanised Christianity was strong.
Outside of the rigid formal Christian structure were monks, friars, brothers, nuns, and mothers. Unlike men, nuns were not permitted to pledge a lifelong commitment to Christ and become “Mothers” until they were over forty. In other words, when they were beyond child rearing age; it was presumed that if a woman was still unmarried at that age then no man wanted her, therefore, they could be Christ’s brides. (Loose connections between Christian covenants and the Roman cult of Vestal Virgins can be made, e.g., higher social status compared to other women.)
Coinciding with the fall of Rome, was the destruction of Alexandria’s library, several pandemics, and other factors. Formal education across Europe dwindled. Throughout the period, often referred to as the Dark Ages (c.476 – 1000CE), education took a back seat. The emergence of the feudal system created a clear divide between the minority who were of noble status, who ruled over the majority, the peasants. Nobility were viewed as having superior status in an almost God-like fashion that is comparable to the Ancient Greek beliefs that people with education deserved to have control over others (as described by Aristotle). The prospect that if everyone was educated, then everyone would be God-like doesn’t appear to have registered being as a possible reality.
In my imagination, a peasant’s life was one of hard labour, every day. Both men and women had to toil the land and work hard just to ensure food supplies were sufficient to stay alive. Education, for both males and females was done at home and/or community setting. Aside from learning a livelihood, learning consisted of things like songs recitals, dancing, herbal remedies, and hearing Bible stories at Sunday church services, albeit the latter were told in Latin and the congregation may have no idea what was being said, but if they were in a Cathedral or their humble village church had pictures on the wall, then their minds could absorb religious iconography like impressions of heaven and hell. Failure to attend Sunday services could result in being imprisoned. There was zero tolerance on missing Church. Even if an emergency arose like cattle giving birth needing assistance, attendance at Church was mandatory; if the cattle and/or foul died then it was considered God’s will.
It is during this period that images of Jesus as a youthful healer waving a wand disappeared. Instead, we start to see a middle aged man with a beard. As shown below, the Byzantine depiction of Jesus was grand and domineering, more like Zeus (or Jupiter) than Apollo.
Byzantine depiction of Jesus, created with mosaics
Formal education, that was required to become a doctor, statesman, or clergyman was only within the reach of 5% of the population (in regions like modern day Italy it was closer to 10%). From the 5-10% of the population who were educated, most were male. And like in antiquity, education was intertwined with religion.
For most of human history, formal education means to be initiated into some form of theology. It is only in very recent times that attempts have been made to make education non-secular.
Boys who were judged to be too weak, vague, indifferent, or other to be of use in the fields or military, may have been sent to monasteries. Beginning as an altar boy, a priest’s assistant, young males could rise through the ranks of Church-based education/indoctrination. It is also from monasteries that the cliched image of monks meticulously and painstakingly created copies of the Bible with illuminated letters emerges. This practice of being in a semi-meditative state while contemplating the “Word of God” through artistry was a form of education. In some cases, women also copied the bible in covenants. (Stay tuned for a blog dedicated to the history of Bible reproductions.)
Example of handwritten Bible, c.1410
Some people who entered Christian orders did so of their own free will, while others had other pressures that forced them. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is amongst the category who entered of his own accord. In fact Aquinas’ family were highly alarmed about him joining what they considered to be a cult. They tried, but failed, to convince him to live a “normal life”. (More about Aquinas soon).
From about the Middle Ages onwards, Church education became more formalised through a system called scholasticism (from the Latin schola which means school). It was a dogmatic, rote-based approach in which students were educated under the guidance of their teacher who was presumed to be authority on all matters. In contrast, ancient Greek schools, like Plato’s Academy, included lively debates about topics and learning was published in dialogues to demonstrate various points of view had been explored. It is almost as though a belief had been formed that there was no longer a need to debate issues because the so-called truth of all matters had been settled, primarily by Aristotle. That is to say, almost all teachings were based upon Aristotle’s lecture notes. (See Is Aristotle Overrated? for more details.) Scholastic education dominated from the Middle Ages through to the scientific revolution of the late Renaissance.
Exactly what peasants and people without a formal education believed is difficult to form conjecture about. It could be speculated that much wisdom about nature, the rhythm of the seasons, and pagan superstitions continued. If so, then this knowledge could be viewed as being hidden from official historical records and accounts for yet another aspect of occultism.
Following Aquinas, Dante Alighieri (1285-1325) is another example of a learned man educated under the influence of Aristotelian ideas. Specifically, he supported Aristotle’s concepts of some men being superior and therefore having divine right to rule:
I am referring to actions, which are regulated by political judgment, and to products, which are shaped by practical skill; all of these are subordinate to thinking as the best activity for which the Primal Goodness brought mankind into existence. This sheds light on that statement in the Politics that “men of vigorous intellect naturally rule over others”.
Dante Alighieri, Monarchy, Book 1, part 3, lines 10-15
Dante’s education history is not well documented. However, it may be presumed he studied at least one scholastic or scholastic-like institution attached to a monastery. He was politically minded and so to hold a political office he had to join a Guild, so he became a pharmacist and joined the pharmacy Guild. Like many men, Dante was also involved with physical battles due to conflict with other powers.
Florence, Dante’s home town, experienced many conflicts relating to politics, religion, and territory. As destiny would have it, Dante finished up on the losing side. Consequently, when he was in his fifties, he was banished and separated from his family. Dante was angry, very angry, especially towards the Church.
Being an intellectual, Dante took pen to paper to express his views through the art of satirical poetry. Dante’s work, like the Divine Comedy, reveals he was well versed in Ancient Greek philosophy. The epic piece contains a myriad of references to characters such as Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hellen of Troy which demonstrate an understanding of the ancient theology behind their namesakes.
Above all, The Divine Comedy, was just that, a comedy. Dante did not use highly sophisticated language to express his views, rather, he wrote in a crude vernacular of Latin, the language of commoners. His aim was to mock the Church’s stance on a number of issues, hence, his books were banned. The fact that the Church later (long after Dante’s death) retracted their objections and embraced him as a golden boy of Christianity is a curious thing.
I am not an expert on Dante, but looking over his work I found one particular verse in The Divine Comedy that struck me as being profound. The line reads: “O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son”.
“O virgin mother, daughter of thy Son,
humble beyond all creatures and more exalted;
predestined turning point of God's intention;
Thy merit so ennobled human nature
that its divine Creator did not scorn
to make Himself the creature of His creature.
The Love that was rekindled in Thy womb
sends for the warmth of the eternal peace
within whose ray this flower has come to bloom.
Here to us, thou art the noon and scope
of Love revealed; and among mortal men,
the living fountain of eternal hope.”
The line is a confusing mixture of symbolic language; “mother” and “daughter” are both described in relation to the “Son”. How could the biblical Mary be both Jesus’ mother and daughter? While pondering this question, I remembered Justin Martyr and his explanation the Jewish custom of using a family structure to represent groups of people (see: Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr). Could this really be? If Leah and Rachel were symbolic of synagogue and church … ? Was Mary … a symbol of the Christian church? Not a church in the modern sense of a physical building but a church in the ancient sense of it being a reference to the soul of a congregation or group of people. I needed more evidence to be sure.
Model of Jewish symbolism using family structure: Father = Godhead, Mother = Church or Synagogue, Daughter = congregation or groups of people, And Son = human beings or individuals.
As I have stated many times throughout my blogs, I do not believe in universal symbolism, however, a reoccurring pattern that I have identified across some theologies (namely, Jewish, Ancient Greek, Christian, and Islam) is that Spiritual realms are commonly referred to as masculine (father), and Soul realms are commonly referred to as feminine (mother). This pattern is tied into gendered languages and does not equate to literal men and women - just as a chair, table, key, dog, cat, boat, etc., are not literally male or female in many languages (e.g., Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Arabic) they can be personified in expressive speech as though they are. Thus, Spirit and Soul aspects in theologies are not literally male or female. Therefore, the Virgin Mary, when viewed as a personification of Soul is not literally a woman, rather, her characteristics are human attributes that anyone can have.
When the Mother of God is understood to be Soul, then it can further be understood why so many Christian theologians (such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Jerome, and Augustine)
referred to Mary as the new Eve. Likewise, Jesus is the new (or last) Adam. Finding
Jewish sources that confirm the allegorical nature of Adam and Eve as personifications of Spirit and Soul is relatively easy. Hence, seeing as Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, it’s not surprising to see the pattern continued.
The other shoe dropped when I learned in bygone eras, daughters were referred to as “virgins” because, you know, according to patriarchal values, a female’s sexual activity is more important than anything else. Therefore, Virgin Mary = Daughter Mother. It is a play on symbology = Mother and daughter are one, i.e., the soul of a church that sheaths its members.
When Dante wrote The Divine Comedy he was an outcast and rebel of the Church. Could it be that through the creative mocking of satirical poetry Dante was revealing a symbolic secret? If so, it may explain why the Church, in a corrupted state that wanted to maintain power over the masses deemed his work heretical. Who should one believe? A man who rose the ranks of politics and was educated in theology, and was subsequently outcast and angry? Or an institution that claimed poor people could enter heaven if they paid the Church enough money?
(The Catholic Church of Dante’s era practiced indulgences – if a Christian sinned (murder, rape, thief, etc.) they could give money to the Church which would supposedly reduce time in purgatory. The practice of indulgences was one of the fundamental issues that caused rifts in the Church and led to the Reformation a few centuries after Dante’s lifetime.)
It has taken many hours of reflection and further research for me to make the final assessment. My conclusion, to put it bluntly, the Virgin Mother belongs in the same realm of possibility as Santa Clause, the tooth fairy, and Mary Poppins.
There is outstanding scientific evidence that stipulates a woman’s ova cannot produce a child without a man’s sperm. Conversely, there is outstanding evidence from multiple sources that both the words “virgin” and “mother” have purely symbolic meanings that have been used in religious text before, during, and after the formation of Christianity.
It’s plausible that two thousand years ago, without knowledge of DNA, X and Y chromosomes, and other practical elements of reproduction, some people believed it was possible for a woman to fall pregnant without intercourse. To justify that belief today is not so easy.
This is my opinion. It is up to each and every individual to decide for themselves if they believe the the Virgin Mother is real or if her appearance has been made to be as grand as the Emperor’s new clothes.
When considering the Virgin Mary’s symbolic status, it’s also prudent to consider Jewish traditions. Judaism honours the “mother” both symbolically and literally as carrying the bloodline of their religion. If a woman is a Jew, then all her children will be considered Jews (in an ethnical sense), regardless of personal beliefs and/or their father’s religious status. Conversely, if a Jewish father marries a non-Jewish woman, then none of their children will be considered to be of the Jewish race, although they could still be Jewish by way of religious practice.
Understanding the Jewish perspective of succession being a matriarchal continuum passed down from mother to daughter explains why the symbolism for their spiritual hierarchy was father-mother-daughter-son. Further, the personification of Biblical characters as being symbolic representations of concepts and/or groups people is evidential in the Bible itself. (Isaac Newton’s commentaries on this topic are particularly noteworthy, see Reading the Symbols of the Apocalypse According to Isaac Newton.)
The first Christians were Jews. Therefore, they it’s reasonable to assume they honoured the spiritual lineage of father, mother, daughter, and son = God (father), Virgin Mary (mother-daughter), and Jesus (son). How then did this symbolism get buried beneath other ideas?
Early Christian sects argued between with each other over many things. One such conflict was whether or not gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could become Christians. Those who supported the mandatory requirement emphasised Jewish beliefs and values in the Jesus narrative, while those who believed anyone could be a Christian did not. Thus, over time the significance of Jewish symbolism used by Early Christians subsided. Of note, Greco-Roman influences overlayed the Jewish (see Did Romans Kill Jesus Twice?: The Beardless Versus the Bearded Jesus).
Speculatively, there have always been leaders within the Christian Church who have known and understood the symbolism of the Virgin Mary through a Jewish lens. Dante appears to have been one of those few.
Symbols are complex, therefore the Virgin Mary was not only a reference to a synthesis of mother-daughter being a reference to a group of people, it transcends to the notion of purity and youthfulness. Inferences which I imagine would have felt most fitting to the the founders of the establishing Christian church.
Painting of the Virgin Mother with Child; original dated to the 5th or 6th century, overpainted in the 13th century
In contemplation of the nuances of the Virgin Mary being the personification of a soul that sheaths Christianity, I am reminded of a time when my son was nearly ten. It was a day in February, an ordinary school day, but we got home in the afternoon he was not his usual cheerful self. Solemnly, he took himself to his bedroom and shut the door. When I went to check on him, I found him sitting on his bed, tears streaming down his face. My immediate thought was that something bad had happened at school, perhaps he’d been bullied. At first he refused to speak and just shock his head in response to my questioning that was along the lines “did you and so and so have a fight?” I then moved into a semi-lecturing mode of the need to express emotions. I told him that I could not help him if I did know what was wrong. I made stabs in the dark about how he might be feeling about his father and I breaking up three months early. He shook his head to all again. I took a deep breath and said “Is it something I have done? If so, please tell me so I can make right.” Amid bursts of sobbing, he let out what was disturbing him:
“I know Santa Claus is not real! Don’t lie to me, I know he’s not real!”
Of all the things my son could have told me, I was not expecting that. I queried if a conversation had come up in the school yard that day which prompted the topic, but my son, once calmer, said that was not the case. For whatever reason, that day, he was ready to confront me. As we talked, my son did an exceptionally good job of articulating exactly how he felt. He told me of the clues he’d picked up on, like conversations he’d over heard and poorly hidden presents he’d spotted under my bed that later appeared as Santa gifts. My son made it overwhelming clear that he was not sad because he knew Santa was not real, he distressed because he didn’t know if he could trust anything I said.
I was caught off guard. My elder daughter had breezed through finding out and accepting there was no Santa Clause. She had a different temperament. She was more dreamy, loved to play make believe. My son, on the other hand, was astute, inquisitive, like an mini-engineer who wanted to know how everything worked. I found myself fumbling as I tried to explain that “everybody” lies to their children about Santa but no harm is meant by it. It was supposed to be fun, a game of sorts, a pretend kind of magic. I told him the lie was done with love, not to hurt him with deception. My son said he did not think it was fun to be lied to. I was in a corner. How could I raise my son to be an honest man if I also taught him it was acceptable to sometimes lie?
I started paying extra close attention to my son and what I said to him from then on. Our relationship had been ruptured. I had to rebuild trust. I succeeded.
The following Christmas, we still went through the tradition of Santa but as my son unwrapped the gifts, he said “Thanks, mum! That’s just what I wanted!” Later the same Christmas Day, he did a better job of pretending Santa was real so as to keep the “magic” alive for his younger cousins. To my surprise, I felt a sense of unease. Without conscious effort, ever so subtly, it dawned on me that I’d indoctrinated my son into the cult of Santa Clause. I tried to convince myself that it was important for children to have the opportunity to have fun, use their imaginations, and believe there were magical beings in the world. To this day, I’m not sure if that’s fitting to contemporary times. I imagine in the past, when the tradition of Santa began (around the fourth century, Turkey), the experience of children waking on Christmas morning to find simple gifts of a handmade nature was quite different to the experience children now have of sacks filled with plastic toys and digital devices.
I was born and raised a Catholic. I was always told the Virgin Mary was a real person. Can I trust anything the Church says if she is not real?
Post edit 9/12/21: The following quote from Vatican News supports the notion that Catholicism has a long tradition of viewing the Virgin Mary as the symbolic “Mother of the Church”.
In 1964 […] Pope Paul VI “declared the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of the Church, that is to say of all Christian people, the faithful as well as the pastors, who call her the most loving Mother’ …
In the humble beginnings of education, people who engaged in active learning were called philosophers (a word that means lover of wisdom). All genders had access to education, albeit men outnumbered women and one usually had to come from a family of status and wealth in order to enjoy the perks of formal tuition from a philosophy master.
Records indicate Pythagoras had at least seventeen women in his cult, and at Plato’s academy there were two. One does not have to be a master mathematician to see that the number of female learners decreased as time progressed. In turn, it is no surprise that a few decades later, there were no female students taught under Aristotle (see Is Aristotle Overrated?)
Ancient Greece was a mixed bag of philosophical beliefs, however, the dominant group (cult) of the Classical era were men who supported patriarchal values. As told by Aristotle, this was mostly based on the belief that men’s souls were more evolved than women’s (see below).
“… the male rules over the female, or the man over the child; although the parts of the soul are present in any of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature”
Aristotle, c.350, Politics, Book 1, part 8.
Neoplatonist's (c.300BCE - c.400CE) follow a harmonisation of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies. In regards to gender, this is presents as a belief that males have more intellectual spirit and females have more emotional soul. However, it was not an absolute distinction like it appears to be in Aristotle’s thought - but I'm also mindful that perhaps Aristotle did not strictly see all men as being superior and it is only via interpretations and translations (or mistranslations) that it appears he was blatantly sexist.
When Neoplatonist, Iamblichus (c.245 - 325 CE), describes gender he states that some men are more like women and some women are more like men. From this, we can extrapolate two things, firstly, to be described as being like a women had a derogatory inference (i.e., overly emotional, inclined to hysteria, and weakness of mind), conversely, to be described as being like a man inferred positive cognitive traits (i.e., rational, intellectual, and strong). Secondly, the human population has never fit nearly into strict binary gender stereotypes, there has always been variations.
An additional third consideration, is that patriarchal societies that degrade females’ value and treat them as though they are an inferior species is a form of trauma. Contemporary trauma-informed psychological research confirms that all genders are susceptible to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Historically, PTSD was called hysteria and considered to be solely a woman’s disease. It is therefore possible that the patriarchal traditional of viewing women as “hysterics” is proof of constant trauma. Further, it could be possible that all women today carry generational trauma dating back to the beginnings of patriarchal cults. If correct, then it will take several more generations of consciousness healing for the true qualities of “femininity” to be known.
Prior to this time, during the Greek Dark Ages (c.1100 – 750BCE), evidence suggests women had more influence and freedoms. How and why patriarchy flourished throughout the Mediterranean region, is a controversial topic I’ll skim over; suffice to say, a woman’s role became typecast to that of a mother, and records of female philosophers like Themistoclea (c.600s BCE), Theano (c.600s BCE), Myia (c.500s BCE), Aspasia (c.400s BCE), Diotima (c.400s BCE), Hipparchia (c.300s BCE), and Leontion (c.200s BCE) almost disappear completely for hundreds of years. Did female philosophers not exist? Or were records of them not kept by patriarchal historians? Perhaps we’ll never know.
From about the third century BCE through to the third century CE there are almost no accounts of women philosophers. Then, at this point, we have Hypatia of Alexandria who was killed by a mob of Christians in c.415. Evidence suggests Early Christians believed in gender equality but after Constantine this attitude changed. More about this shortly.
The different schools of philosophy that operated in Classical Greece could be thought of as cults. Each one had its particular approach to learning that stemmed from a belief system. These included Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureans, Cynics, and many more. Further, each ideology can be traced back to an initiator, a charismatic leader who defined a belief system that followers demonstrated devotion to. By the way, each of those four examples went against mainstream cultural attitudes by believing, to some greater or lesser degree, that women and men were of equal standing in intelligence and/or soul qualities.
Vignette of women and Ancient Greek schools of philosophy
Hipparchia of Maroneia (c.350 - c.280bce) was a Cynic. Being a Cynic meant giving up possessions, wearing simple clothing, and self-sufficiency. They were concerned with ethics and living by virtue which was believed to be achievable by living naturally, adhering to reason, and being critical of conventions such as materialism, politicians, and temples that focused on money. One of the most famous anecdotes about Hipparchia is that of when she was antagonised by being asked why she was not partaking in the usual female activity of weaving, she confidently gave a reply that inferred she knew her own mind and did not submit to social expectations: ‘do you suppose that I have been ill advised about myself, if instead of wasting further time upon the loom I spent it in education?’
The Cynic’s were the forerunners to the Stoics who also believed in living naturally, although they were not as extreme. The founder of the Stoics, Zeno of Citium, advocated for equality of the sexes, which included coeducational public exercise and training.The Cynic’s historical precedence of equality and denouncing standard conventions for women has been used by feminists to demonstrated that patriarchy is not a ‘natural’ state that women have historically accepted.
According to standardised history lessons, under Hellenistic (c.323 – 32 BCE) and Roman (c.31 BCE – 476 CE) rulership women were almost entirely (often literally) confined to the kitchen and were expected to cook, look after children, and do needlework. Meanwhile, boys could be taught trades, agriculture, and statemenships skills of law, politics, and rhetoric. There is truth in this depiction of history, however, a history recorded solely by patriarchs cannot be viewed as accurate or complete.
For the most part, it was men who had the most access to education in the ancient worlds. Male academics were often also religious leaders and they congregated together in places like the Library of Alexandria to share wisdom (the ancient world’s Harvard or Oxford). This library was created by Alexander the Great (Aristotle’s student) and it was a hub of intellectual activity for Greeks, Jewish, Egyptians, and later, the Romans. Influential men like Euclid, Ptolemy, and Philo are affiliated with the library.
Cleopatra (c.69 – 30 BCE), the Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt, is reported to have frequented the Great Library as well. Further, she wrote several manuscripts that were housed there; sadly, these have not survived.
The previously mentioned Hypatia was a much loved teacher at the library until her untimely murder. Through the example of Hypatia it can be inferred that it was not impossible for a woman to be educated. Hypatia had a lot of support from some males, like her father; however, to achieve such academic heights meant overcoming prejudices that her male counterparts did not encounter. In the end, Hypatia paid the ultimate price for making a stand against patriarchy.
A poignant difference between humans and other animals is our capacity to learn, moreover, our species evolves through collective education; when one human makes a discovery or invents something new, all humans are propelled into new territory. For example, somewhere in the distant past, a single person observed that seeds made plants grow and from that learning, conceived the idea of collecting seeds so as to control the growth of plants. Thus, agriculture gradually developed as more learning occurred through trial and error. The nomadic lifestyle of human beings decreased simultaneously with humans increased learning about the land, weather patterns, and other agriculture issues (like which Gods or Goddesses one should pray to in order to have successful crops). From the development of agriculture came cities, then, political organisation, and so forth. Nomadic clans in which everyone knew each other and survival was based upon harmonious cooperation, became communities in which social interactions became complicated by issues pertaining to authority. With this diversification, education that was once done within a family, clan, or small community, could be outsourced. To put it crudely, education began as a cult activity then moved on to become a commercial commodity.
In regards to the contemporary western world, Pythagoras’ cult is a significant starting point (it operated in southern Italy, which was then a Greek Provence). Pythagoras lived from about 570-490BCE and, as just about any 14-15 year old who knows how to measure the perimeter of triangles could tell you, he was really good at mathematics. What they probably are not aware of, is that Pythagoras also believed knowledge of numbers could help a person connect with the divine. (Apparently, Pythagoras also believed that eating beans were bad for you because they make you fart, and farting took away the “breath of life”, but that aspect of his teachings have not been maintained in mathematical curriculums.) It is widely recognised that Pythagoras received training in Egyptian cults prior to establishing his own cult and he potentially learnt mathematics off them, however, Egyptian beliefs and practices are still largely an enigma so it is not clear how much was borrowed and how much Pythagoras came up with on his own.
About a hundred or so years later, Plato opened a school called The Academy. The fact that educational institutions are still referred to as academies says volumes about how much Ancient Greek traditions still influence western education.
Plato was somewhat of a perfectionist, which is suiting considering he belongs to the Classical Period (c.510-323) of Greece which is known for striving for Truth, Beauty, Justice, and Wisdom in all realms of life. Like Pythagoras, Plato loved mathematics, although while Pythagoras is renowned for working with two dimensional shapes, Plato is better known for his interest in three dimensional geometry. If some accounts of history are correct (which they may not be) then you could even say he was even a little obsessed with geometry to a point in which a sign over the entrance to The Academy read: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter”. What is known for certain is that Plato was fascinated by geometric forms in which all the faces were equal; we call these Platonic solids (see below). Plato also assigned a classic element to each one.
Five Platonic solids: top left to bottom right – tetrahedron (or pyramid; fire), cube (earth), octahedron (water), dodecahedron (unnamed; or Aristotle’s aether), and icosahedron (air).
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Plato’s love of forms extended from the intellectual/mathematical to into the realms of spirit. To Plato, certain types of thinking were a spiritual experience which, with practice, one could connect their individual mind to a universal mind, in Greek this was called the nous (nous in Ancient Greek more-a-less means the same as what it does in contemporary English; see below).
college slang for "intelligence, wit, cleverness, common sense," 1706, from Greek nous, Attic form of noos "mind, intelligence, perception, intellect," which was taken in English in philosophy 1670s as "the perceptive and intelligent faculty."
Source: Etymology online
Plato believed in a spiritual realm of perfect ideas; we now refer to these as the theory of Platonic forms. In theory, Platonic solids are the building building blocks of the spiritual realm and Platonic forms are the building blocks of all the universe. Such ideas have fascinated many philosophers both now and then. After 2500 years of contemplation, Plato’s hypothesis remains a theory that has not been proven, but nor has it been falsified. (Arguably, Jung’s “collective consciousness” is an attempt to prove Plato’s theory of forms correct.)
When Christianity emerged there were a lot of tensions in the Roman Empire. In previous posts (here, here, and here), I go into detail about Christianity’s development from Greek, Jewish, and other influences so I won’t repeat myself. (It amuses me no end that some people perceive Christianity to have suddenly sprung from nowhere; it’s like thinking flowers naturally appear in vases without consideration given to the environment in which they were grown.) Perhaps, the main point to keep in mind when examining Early Christianity is that its followers did not follow the Gospel stories like most churches do today. Early Christian’s did not have any writings that they followed simply because they wrote the New Testament (see below for timeline). Either that, or they were illiterate. How then did people learn? Answer = stories. Verbal stories.
Timeline of when New Testament writings were created
Source: Image created by Renee Spencer from conventional various sources
Now, the next factor to consider, how does one remember stories they want to pass on to others when they cannot read and write? There are several methods one can use, many of which can be described as mnemonic devices. For instance, Australian Aborigines used features of the landscape as cues. Storytelling could literally be a journey in which one wandered around, with landmarks like old trees, mountains, rivers, and so forth being reminders of what was to come next in the tale. When the English colonised and destroyed the landscape, many stories were lost because the First Nation people did not have their “book” anymore.
Back to the cradle of western civilisation in Europe, it can be hypothesised that prior to the invention of writing, people used the heavens as a mnemonic device for recording stories. Unlike the earth’s features, references in the sky are less likely to be destroyed, hence, the stories could be told and retold for hundreds of years. If correct, it provides a logical premise to explain why so many cultures referred to the Sun as creator and the planet and stars as its offspring (see The Big Bang Theory in Egyptian Mythology). There is a rich and dense supply of ancient stories that incorporated both astrological and human characters, e.g., Jupiter is a planet and a God, Venus is a planet and a Goddess, etc. Modern theories of astrology do not accurately capture past beliefs.
Symbols are complex, with layers of references that require consideration (see The Connection between Symbolism and Mental Wellbeing:The Basics ). For example, at the iconic level, a symbol of the Sun means the Sun. At an indexical level, the Sun is a reference to light and warmth. At a symbolic level, the Sun represents a life sustaining object. Using one’s imagination, a Sun could also be a God, or the Son of God, or something else that somehow relates to its iconic and indexical references. To learn what the Sun symbol means, one needs an education. Like trying to interpret Durer, simply looking at symbols does not give all the answers.
In antiquity, the revealing of hidden meanings of symbols took place progressively, in stages of initiation that can be likened to modern education in which children first learn through being told stories, then progress to learning letters, words, sentences, and eventually they can write their own stories. The stories children hear inform and mould their communication style that is carried into adulthood (like an artists building templates that they can reuse again and again; Banksy uses this process in his/her art making). Logically, the more diverse stories a child hears, the more possibilities for interpreting symbolism they will develop (like an artist who is skilled across multiple mediums). However, it is also plausible that a child will fall back on what is most familiar to them, that is, the symbolic language which is used the most frequently in their homes and society. For example, Eastern cultures untouched by WW2 may learn about Nazi association with the Swastika but they are unlikely accept the negative connotations of the symbol on a personal level.
Early Christians were like preteens in later primary school. Collectively, they drew upon symbols that were used by the cultures around them to tell a new story. The story of Jesus Christ in the four canonised Gospels share a lot of the same symbols, however, subtle differences between them can be identified as being congruent with the culture they came from. For example, Matthew’s Gospel was written in Hebrew, whereas Mark, Luke, and John were written in Greek. The different language means Matthew came from slightly different culture (even though all apostles were living in The Roman Empire) and, in turn, the audience he was addressing valued different symbols, hence, the inclusion of the star of Bethlehem, the wise men, and the phrase “kingdom of God” instead of “kingdom of heaven”. All these features tap into Jewish culture in a manner that the Greek versions don’t.
It is also worthy to consider that when the Gospel stories were being repeated by word of mouth, the storytelling would have been slightly different each time. The written product is the result of a perfected version that relayed the most important parts of the Jesus Christ narrative.
Additionally, Early Christians also made artworks that reflected their cultural backgrounds. For example, paintings on the ceiling of Early Christian catacombs followed the design principles of Jewish catacombs:
Early Christians depicted Jesus with a wand to represent his magical powers. This symbolism could be a link to Moses’ staff (that he raised to magically part waters) or it could be linked to Greek accounts of Hermes and Athena who both waved wands to perform magic. Either way, the depiction of Jesus with a wand presented an easy to read symbol to people living in the first century.
Early Christian depiction of Jesus performing magic with a wand
Source: Biblical Archaeology Society
It’s widely recognised that Early Christians pictured Jesus as a young man, cleanly shaven, with a likeness to the Greek God Apollo.
Early Christian relief carving: Jesus is repeated in all the figures holding a wand.
Source: Biblical Archaeology Society
First and foremost, the first Christians taught each other about Christian faith through verbal storytelling, then through Art, and then writing. The indoctrination process into Christianity was presumably like other modes of education, that is, a person progressively learned what the symbols were and then moved onto more complex or finer points of their meanings – these steps could be taught in a myriad of ways that were either implicit or explicit, and included medications, prayers, rituals, creating pictures in sand, discussions, etc.
To explore how symbols may have been gradually introduced in Early Christianity, let’s look at an anchor. Like many symbols, it’s meaning could be discovered in layers.
Anchor in the the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 2nd Century
Source: Persecution Worldwide
On a simple level, an anchor suggests being secured to a location, like a boat whose anchor is tied to the shore. This metaphor could then be used to infer a Christian needs to “anchor” themselves to Jesus Christ, especially when the seas of life are rough and windy. This interpretation is supported by Hebrews 6:19-20 (below) in which “anchor” is specifically referred to as being “hope”:
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
The comment about Jesus being a High Priest of the order of Melchizedek is curious upon first glance. That is until one learns that Melchizedek is mentioned in Genesis 14:18-19:
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.
Generally, Melchizedek is an archangel associated with atonement. The symbolism is more complex but I’ll leave it at that for now.
By using symbols to describe spiritual concepts, their meaning moves from being purely intellectual, like simply telling someone they need to have hope in Jesus, to evoking emotional responses – an anchor brings to mind visceral associations of water, boats, and security, which add depth to the concept of “hope”.
On another level, hidden within the symbolic representation of christian anchors is the suggestion of a cross, thus, hope is juxtaposed with Jesus’ crucifixion.
Gravestone St. Domitilla catacomb in Rome depicting two fish anchored to the anchor of hope
Source: Early Church History
As per the above two examples of anchors from Christian catacombs, fish were also frequently included. These could be a reference to Jesus being described as a fisherman of men (Matthew 4:19), or it could be speculated that they are a reference to the astrological symbol of Pisces, hence, a reference to time, i.e., the Age of Pisces. The bottom line is that symbols can have multiple meanings.
There were many stories and writings of Jesus Christ circulating in the first two centuries of the common era (see except below). This reality, and the finding of additional gospels in Egypt, 1945, referred to as the Nag Hammadi, leads some to speculate that once Early Christians learned the story of Jesus, they were encouraged (or required) to express their understanding in writing that incorporated learned symbology. (For more details about this theory, see Youtube: Is This Proof That Jesus Christ Never Existed?).
Rejected Gospels and Texts (Written by Hays, 2018)
There were dozens, probably hundreds, of religious texts circulating around at the time the Gospels were written and coming into common usage in the early centuries after the death of Christ. They include The Gospel of Peter , Origins of the World , Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) , Acts of John , Homilies of Truth and The Gospel of Truth . Many were simply written and forgotten. Others were carefully scrutinised by Christian scholars and rejected for one reason or another, in many cases because the doctrines they promoted were regarded as threatening or heretical.
Source: Rejected Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Peter, and Judqs
Early Christianity was not a universal system. Two broad groups emerged: those who interpreted Christian symbols to be mostly literal and those who interpreted them entirely symbolically. Those who viewed Christian symbols entirely symbolically were often called Gnostics and after Constantine, they were declared heretics and their bibles apocrypha, i.e., non genuine. That’s not to say that what became mainstream Christianity was based solely on iconic or indexical understandings of symbols. Rather, it just means one set of interpretations became mandated and others became outlawed. As the heretic interpretations of Gnosticism were suppressed, their ideas slipped into a hidden realm of knowledge that later reappeared in the Renaissance era as a component of occultism.
When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, the first full book he published was the Bible. However, did not make a lot of money because most people still could not read, let a lone read Latin, the language of the Bible. Gutenberg died penniless but his invention prospered and revolutionised the world.
Some wealthy Italian families (they weren’t called Italians back then, rather, they were Venetians, Florentines, Romans, etc.,) already had an interest in old manuscripts, especially those of Greek Philosophers, and were in the process of making copies of old ancient text by hand. They saw the potential to speed up the process by printing, hence, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Germany, became the first major epicentres of book publishing. Unlike Gutenberg, who did not have a ready made literate customer base, families, like the Medici’s, had members within the Church, politics, and military who could read and were eager to maintain superiority over others through advanced knowledge.
Early Printing Press
Source: Wikipedia Commons
I sometimes wonder if the Europeans of the late 1400s who were involved in those early days of printing realised what a monumental role they were playing in facilitating social change? Did they realise that the mass production of literature would increase literacy levels that, in turn, spark revolution after revolution? What is known is that when it became apparent that books and learning were encouraging people to challenge authorities and the status quo, the Pope attempted to censor and control what books were and were not allowed to be published. It became canonised law that books, especially those of a religious nature, had to receive an imprimatur which in Latin means “let it be printed”. A person found to be illegally printing books without the Pope’s approval, or any person in possession of non-approved publications, could be fined, brought before a court, and/or integrated by inquisition panels.
As time went on, it also became apparent that brute force could not prevent people from learning non-Church approved literature, so the control tactics became more emotionally driven. That is, Christians were warned that certain reading material was heretical and if the devout wanted to be assured an eternity of bliss in heaven, then they needed to stay clear of some books, if not, they would burn in hell. Between 1560 and 1948, twenty editions of Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) were published by various Popes. Many people today would recognise some of the authors who had work on forbidden list: Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Simone de Beauvoir. Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Dante Alighieri had their works banned for a period of time and then later Pope’s removed them from the index.
The Church’s totalitarian approach lead to a kind of underbelly of education. It was probably obvious to many that the Church leaders were keeping secrets, but working out was true and what was false was difficult. Like a person who has been in a relationship with a narcissistic partner, it takes some time to realise the depths to which they have been gaslighted. l have no doubt that many secret societies were established; that is, people gathering in groups trying to put pieces together and/or groups led by people who claimed they knew all the answers. Hence the idea of cults and occultism developed alongside each other.
If the Catholic Church’s version of history is correct, then all groups of people who operated outside of mainstream Christianity were involved in cults. Further, if they did not abide by the Pope’s version of Bible interpretation, then they may be called occultists. Making cults and occultism derogatory, was just par and parcel with trying to maintain control. (See below for discussion on cults.)
The word “cult” comes from the Latin, cultus, which was a reference to the attentive agricultural practices of seeds being cultivated. Like almost all aspects of Ancient Roman life, farming involved an element of religious devotion with growing practices tied to the moon and seasonal cues. Hence, a grower didn’t just cultivate seeds, they had knowledge of the earth and its elements, thus, they cultivated themselves via the obtaining of wisdom about nature. Gradually, over time the symbolic gesture of seeds growing was applied to the concept of ideas growing, hence the term cults became known as a reference to groups of people devoted to an ideology, and culture became a reference to masses of people who shared common ideas, customs, beliefs, and attributes.
Initially, the Latin definition of a cultus did not carry any negativity, it simply referred to groups of people who practiced shared worship or homage to deity or doctrine. When the word transferred over to French, as culte, in the sixteenth century, it began to pick up negative connotations of groups of people who adhered to ideologies contrary to social norms, and this association has remained in the English usage of the term of cult.
In a metaphorical sense, a cult is like a seedling, whereas a culture is a crop that has developed from thereof. E.g., Early Christianity began as a cult then grew so big that it became a culture.
Whether or not a cult deserves to be perceived to be negative or benign can be a matter of opinion. If the cult is at odds with an alternative belief system (particularly if that cult has mainstream acceptance) then it may be judged poorly.
My personal view is that if a cult prescribes any form of abusive, controlling, or trauma-inducing practices (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually), then it can rightly be defined as a destructive cult. Alternatively, if a group of people who prescribe to a shared belief system encourage positive behaviours like love, non-judgment, kindness, inclusiveness, and trauma-formed healing practices, then it is a positive cult. Within this definition is the capacity for varying degrees of negative and positive traits within cults.
Over the years, I’ve read many conspiracy theories about secret brotherhoods (good and bad). The name of some groups pop up more frequently than others, like the Knights Templars, the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and the alike. (It is my understanding that Judaism and Islam have their equivalent in Kabbalah and Sufism respectively, however, I am not as well versed in their histories.) What I have generally noted is that these theories are not grounded in a deep and sincere appreciation of historical considerations, social constraints, and above all humanness. Suggestions that some groups are associated with supernatural beliefs and practices that extend back to ancient cultures like the Egyptians, don’t capture a very basic life principle: nothing is permanent except change. To modify, reinvent, and appropriate are standard behaviours when the paradigm of humans as creative beings is taken into account.
Movies like The Da Vinci Code romanticise a Holy Grail notion of Christian mysticism (comically, the friend I mentioned in the epilogue recently remarked that they didn’t want to watch The Da Vinci Code with me because they knew I’d constantly be critiquing the misrepresentations of history). Certainly, I would agree there are connections between past and present beliefs, and religious practices, but the weaving of influences and events is a lot more complex and nuanced by various factors than some conspiracy theorists acknowledge.
Personally, I like to take a pragmatic approach that incorporates an understanding of the history religions, blended with contemporary understandings of trauma-formed psychology. Above all, issues relating to cults and the occult are about education.
As an Art teacher and Art therapist understanding visual symbolism is mandatory. Art is a communication form, a visual language; however, unlike written and spoken languages it does not have a concise Webster dictionary that can be used to look up meanings. If, for example, I want to interpret the symbols in Durer’s Melancholia, then I’m faced with the task of contemplating what he’s communicating based on my existing knowledge or I need to do some research.
Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I (1514)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The interpretation process begins with identifying symbols on an observation level; there is an angel, cherub, sphere, polyhedron, hourglass, ladder, nails, woodworking plan, saw, numbers in a grid, bell, scales, etc. But what is Durer trying to communicate by bringing all these symbols together? The title of the work gives us a clue: Melancholia = a state of deep contemplation accompanied by a feeling of depression. The theme is reflected in expressions of the heavenly characters. Any number of reasons could be given for Durer’s portrayal of this subject matter, however, in order to fit with the theme of this blog, I am going to suggest that the angel and cherub are depressed because they do not understand the symbolic meanings of all the objects surrounding them.
Did Durer know the significance of all these symbols? Maybe, maybe not. It is relatively safe to infer he had some familiarity with sacred geometry through the presentation of the polyhedron. Likewise, one could assume the ladder is a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, keeping in mind that if I didn’t know Durer was Christian and I was not familiar with biblical stories then I may not make this assumption. One can go on playing the guessing game of identifying individual symbols and marvelling at the refined technical skills Durer applied to create the composition, but doing so does not provide all the answers.
Durer’s personal relationship to these symbols is another matter. Whilst objective, educated guesses of what the symbols meanings can be made, these are not necessarily reflective of how Durer related to them. The interrelationship between symbols and their maker is vitally important in Art therapy contexts. A story one of my lecturers told explains this relationship well. She described a time when a client drew themselves as a small figure on a gigantic piece of paper. Initially, in the role of therapist, the lecturer was concerned their client had a low self esteem, as indicated by how they small they’d drawn themselves. However, the client explained that the reason for doing so was because they desired to have more space around themselves. The client expressed feeling confined by their life experiences and imagining themselves in an open space in the artwork enabled them to envision the freedom to move that they wanted in real life. To extend this train of thought to Durer, perhaps he felt his life was overcrowded with symbols and not knowing what they meant was very overwhelming and depressing?
In sum, symbols can have subjective significance and objective meanings. Objective meanings are not universal, they are informed by the culture in which they are created. For example, a six pointed star in Judaism represents God’s seal of protection, but in Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Zoroastrianism, or more contemporary cults like Wiccan, a six pointed star may be used in ceremonies to conjure spirits that Jews would vehemently object to worshiping. Regardless of context, the common element is a belief that the six pointed star has magical power, unless, of course, you are an atheist, in which case the symbol is just two triangles placed on top of one another.
A Swastika is another classic example of a symbol that has multiple meanings that are dependent upon the time and place in which it is used. Many cultures (mostly eastern) have positive associations with the Swastika but due to the Nazi party’s appropriation of the symbol to represent their group and associated values, most people (in western cultures) have negative associations with the Swastika.
In consideration of the above examples, theories that propose there are universal symbols hard wired in human brains can be easily challenged, if not outrightly falsified. Nonetheless, theories like psychoanalysis are still popular amongst laypeople and academics. There is also no shortage of wannabe gurus, now and in the past, who claim the meanings they give symbols are truer than anybody else’s.
Psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961), infamously proposed the idea of a collective consciousness in which so-called universal symbols “lived” in an unseen world that all humans unconsciously tapped into. Jung came to this conclusion by studying ancient religions and noticing similarities between the symbols used across faiths; he called these archetypes (see definition below).
"model, first form, original pattern from which copies are made," 1540s [Barnhart] or c. 1600 [OED], from Latin archetypum, from Greek arkhetypon "pattern, model, figure on a seal," neuter of adjective arkhetypos "first-moulded," from arkhē "beginning, origin, first place" (verbal noun of arkhein "to be the first;" see archon) + typos "model, type, blow, mark of a blow" (see type).
The Jungian psychology sense of "pervasive idea or image from the collective unconscious" is from 1919. Jung defined archetypal images as "forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myths and at the same time as autochthonous individual products of unconscious origin." ["Psychology and Religion" 1937]
Source: Etymology online
Jung was especially fascinated with the idea of “hidden” meanings within symbols which lead him to exploring occultism. But what does occult mean? Let’s have a look …
The word “occult” can conjure up many associations that can vary from person to person. Frequently, it is viewed as an ominous reference to supernatural beliefs and practices that fall outside of mainstream religions. It has a darkness to it, as though the word “cult” within its lettering is a synonym. Whilst in some instances there is an overlap between cults and occultism, the two concepts are not the same.
The most literal meaning of occult is something that is hidden, for example, occult symbols are symbols that have a hidden meaning. The word evolved from the Latin occultus (past participle of occulere “to hide from view, cover up”) and it began being used during the late Renaissance era of 1520–30. It’s no coincidence that the word emerged at this point in time, a period when scholars were enthralled by ancient writings that had been re-discovered and made available through book publishing. Up until that point, the Catholic Church had held a monopoly on information flow so when alternative explanations to the questions of life, the universe, and everything, became available, there was some backlash. Basically, any meaning given to a symbol that the Church did not approve of was degraded, hence, “occult symbols” were viewed as unholy, and the term occult took on a derogatory inference. This did not deter everyone and the pursuit of uncovering the meaning of symbols can be seen in the emergence of practices like alchemy. On a physical level, alchemists believed that base metals like lead could be turned into gold (forerunner to chemistry), and on a conceptual level, the symbology of ancient astrology was believed to hold formulas that could transform human ills into human vitality.
Christianity is the most popular religion around the world. It is practiced by approximately 30% of the population yet, surprisingly, many of its devotees are not aware of some of its most basic premises. Lack of knowledge about one’s religion means blind faith, which can lead one down the proverbial garden path. Potential problems include spiritually bypassing issues and being susceptible to manipulation from people who pervert Christianity to suit their own agendas. Knowledge of the historicity of Christianity can overcome naivety and ignorance, and help prevent adverse situations from developing.
In this discussion I am exploring the Christian faith from the perspective of it being a religion based upon the principles of Jewish blood magic. Future topics will include how Jesus replaced Adam as God’s first born; biblical references to daughters, whores, and women rarely (if ever) represent real females; when Moses once had horns; Jesus created in the image of Apollo and Zeus; and the Romanisation of Christianity.
Before digging into details, we need to go over a few basics about Christianity.
The Basics of Christianity
Christianity is a religion that began approximately 2000 years ago based on the teachings of a character known as Jesus Christ, as described in a document called the New Testament. There are (and always have been) many variations on how to interpret Jesus’ teachings, although a generalisation can be made that all Christians are united in the belief that their saviour, Jesus Christ, came to earth (literally, spiritually, or symbolically) to forgive sins so as it was possible for people to enter heaven.
The New Testament consists of several chapters that give accounts of Jesus’ life and that of his early followers. It contains a lot of supernatural themes such as miracles being performed and visions of the future. The New Testament also contains a continuation of themes presented in the Hebrew Bible. The Christians call the Hebrew Bible the Old Testament and these text consist of stories that date back to the first or second millennium; Jews refer to these stories as the Torah. Both Jews and Christians alike believe in the one God who is all powerful, incorporeal, and eternal (this is the same God that Muslims believe in too, but that’s another story). Christian’s believe Jesus was the Son of this God, Jews do not. (Muslim’s believe Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God, again, that’s another story).
From a young age, Jesus was reported to have a comprehensive understanding of God; on one occasion he became separated from his family and was subsequently found explaining Hebrew scriptures to Jewish elders in the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:41-52). The above painting depicts the moment twelve-year-old Jesus was found by his anxious parents, Mary and Joseph. Painting by William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1860. Source: Wikipedia Commons
While Christianity has strong links to Judaism, it also has significant influence from Greek culture because a lot of the places where it originally developed were Hellenised areas of the Mediterranean, for example Alexandria, modern day Turkey, and cities such as Athens, Corinth, and Thessalonica. The English title of “Jesus Christ” comes from the Greek Iesous Christós, which is more common than the Hebrew, Yeshua The Messiah. In both cases the names mean the Son of God (Jesus/Iesous/Yeshua) the Anointed One (Christ/Christós/Messiah) but the fact that Christians call themselves Christians, not Messiahians, reflects a veneer of Greekness that dominates the religion. This presentation can sometimes disguise the underlying Jewish theology. Identifying that which has been hidden is vital to understanding aspects of the religion, such as the role that Jewish blood magic has on defining Christian faith …
Christian faith is based upon the principles of Jewish blood magic
Magic is the power to influence events through the use of mysterious forces. To achieve magical outcomes, physical substances or actions are often carried out in a ritualistic manner that symbolically or supernaturally indicate magic is being performed. The use of blood to carry out magical spells is evident in many Jewish traditions, in fact, Judaism was established in reference to blood magic in the form of human sacrifice.
The First Blood Magic Ritual of Judaism
Abraham, the first Jewish prophet, had clairvoyant communication from a supreme God who told him to offer up his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham was loyal to this invisible God and prepared to carry out the act but at the last minute a new instruction came into his mind saying the sacrifice is not necessary. Abraham and Isaac, joyous that their obedience and loyalty was rewarded, killed a ram and gave thanks to God. Ergo, Judaism may be perceived as having began with the killing of a sheep.
History channel, A scene from “The Bible”, 2012: Abraham (Gary Oliver) prepares Isaac (Hugo Rossi) for the sacrifice. Source: Read the Spirit
The notion of killing a child to get on the good side of the spiritually divine is the antithesis of Judaism; however, it is known to have been a common practice in some ancient and not so ancient cultures. For example, in recent years, a ten-year-old girl in India was allegedly sacrificed to heal a paralysed man, and in the Greek epic, The Iliad, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the Goddesses Artemis and, in turn, achieve victory in the battle of Troy. Other examples of human sacrifice can be found in Inca, Aztec, Ancient China, Nordic countries, and more. Likewise, child sacrifice was a cultural norm within Abraham’s homeland of Mesopotamia, where some (but not all) groups of the Phoenicians (also known as Caananities) routinely offered their children’s souls up to the Gods.
From Abraham onwards, Judaism rejected human sacrifices and denounced them as a practice that was necessary to achieve the favour of deities. Having said that, blood sacrifices were still believed to be important and Jews developed ritualistic animal killings to appease God and influence events.
The significance of blood as a magical substance is, presumably, connected to our ancestors’ understanding that blood carries life, as explained in the Old Testament:
In regards to the specific significance of sheep’s blood, the symbolism is nuanced. One interpretation is that the ram symbolises the zodiac sign of Aries, therefore, they are an indicator of astrological significance. Another interpretation is that the birth of lambs each spring represent new life and hopes for prosperity after long winters. On a pragmatic level, Abraham was a shepherd, hence, a ram was easily accessible from his flock.
Sheep sacrifices emerged as a prominent theme in the Old Testament story of Exodus. Jews, at this point in time, were reported to be living in Egypt and were under the Pharaoh’s oppressive rule. God communicated with a prophet called Moses and gave him instructions for a blood magic ritual. (Backstory to Moses is that he was born a Jew and was saved from infanticide by being placed in a basket that floated on the Nile till he was found and subsequently raised by the Pharaoh’s family. These circumstances were different to Isaac’s but may be seen as a continuation of the idea that when God saves a Jewish first born male from death it means they have an important life mission … in Christianity, God also saves Jesus from infantile death.)
Getting back to the sheep’s blood, Moses received a clairvoyant instruction that all Jewish households were to ceremonially slaughter a lamb and paint its blood on their doorposts and lintels. The lamb’s blood becomes a physical indication that a magical force field is protecting their families from an Angel of Death. Like in the story of Abraham, the sheep’s blood represents a life saving substance; all first born sons in houses with lamb’s blood painted above their door had their life spared while those without were killed. In recognition of this historical event that led to Jews being freed from Egyptian masters, an annual festival involving the sacrificing of a lamb was established; this festival became known as the Passover.
Coincidentally, it was at the time of year when Jews celebrate Passover, that Jesus was crucified and died. Thus, a correlation of sheep’s blood and a first born son being killed in a manner that was coordinated by God has an archetypal significance that flowed through to Christianity. Note, the archetype in this instance is not a Jungian archetype that suggests symbols are universal across time and cultures; rather, the archetypal connection between sheep’s blood, first born males, and God’s saving grace, is an archetype in the Ancient Greek sense that the original form is a prototype that evolved over time. Hence, the Christian significance of sheep’s blood, first born males, and God’s saving grace is different to the initial presentation in the story of Abraham in much the same way that an archetype (prototype) of a car has evolved from being a chariot driven by horses into a mechanical motor that is described in terms and in horsepower.
The New Testament account of the Passover is described as Jesus’ Last Supper. This differs from traditional Jewish celebrations of Passover on account of the emphasis being on Jesus blessing bread and wine:
The Christian reasoning behind the foregoing of a Passover lamb is based on the belief that Jesus was the final sacrificial Passover lamb; a human sacrifice that ended the need for all future animal sacrifices. Dr Richard Carrier, renowned expert on the historicity of Jesus, explains that ancient logic perceived blood, with its life carrying properties, to be the most powerful substance available for magic purposes. Animal blood was good, but not strong enough to make spells last forever, so they need to be repeated, often yearly. Human blood was understood to have stronger magical properties, and Jesus was not just any human sacrifice, He was the son of God! Therefore, Jesus’ blood was the most almighty substance of them all!
Thus we have the transforming of a Jewish tradition into a Christian one. The writings of second century christian, Justin Martyr, further explains that when the Jews anointed their houses with lamb’s blood they were giving an external display of their faith, whereas when Christians anointed themselves with the wine (symbolic blood) of their sacrificial lamb (Jesus) they were displaying their faith internally. By recognising the transformation of physical acts from a real lamb with real blood, through to the symbolic lamb and symbolic blood, it can be understood that Gospel accounts of Jesus saying that his disciples must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:51-58) were spiritual concepts. Arguably, anyone of Jesus era who understood Jewish theology would have also understood the Christian adaptation, however, concerns from outsiders that christians were practicing cannibalism were not completely unfounded given some religions literally practiced human sacrifices.
Whether one believes that Jesus was a real human who walked upon the earth or a spiritual character within a mythological tale, the simple fact remains that Jesus’ death is a continuation of faith in Jewish blood magic principles. Christian texts refer to Jesus as being the Lamb of God (John 1:29/36). And the disciple Paul says:
Jesus being God’s Son, moreover, his first and only son, made Jesus’ blood very powerful. How powerful? Powerful enough to take away the sins of the world for an eternity.
The Yom Kippur
Christians claim Jesus’ death represents a magical event that facilitated the forgiveness of sins that could allow faithful followers access to the eternal bliss of heaven when they die. This idea can seem confusing to outsiders. Actually, it can be confusing to insiders too. As a child raised in Catholicism it never made sense to me that someone’s death meant anything I did wrong, from lying to my parents about not eating the chocolate in the cardboard through to maliciously harming another person, could be forgiven if I simply had faith in Jesus. Nor did it make sense that if Jesus didn’t die then I would be spending my afterlife burning in the depths of hell because of my sins, and being born was a sin, so there was no escape. I was told these sorts of things so many times that I accepted that I was supposed to be grateful for Jesus dying for my sins as a truism irrespective of comprehending why. My father once made the flippant remark that Christianity was based on Jewish blood magic, but it was not until relatively recently when I learned of the Yom Kippur that everything really made sense.
The Yom Kippur, is the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar; it translates into English as being “Day of Atonement”. The focus of this festival is to cleanse oneself and one’s community of sins and transgressions. Traditionally, two goats were used to perform the ritual. One goat would be ceremonially prepared to represent the sins of all the community before being set free and driven out of the village (often by being pushed off a cliff). This goat, (the scapegoat) represents the relinquishing of sin and transgressions. Conversely, the second goat would be ceremonially slaughtered and the sprinkling of its blood signified the magical act of God forgiveness; this goat was referred to as the Holy of Holies or the Goat of God.
Illustration of the Holy of Holies from the 1890 Holman Bible. Source: Learn Religions
By referring to New Testament accounts, Jesus’ death can be seen as an enactment of the Yom Kippur in many ways. For instance, Jesus did not try to escape his fate of being turned over to Rabbis and Roman soldiers who charged him with crimes he had not committed. Once in custody, Jesus Christ was trialled in contrast to a person called Jesus Barabbas, a criminal (not all Bible’s state this other man’s name as being another Jesus, but older versions do and it’s an important detail). Jesus Barabbas is set free, thus symbolically representing the scapegoat, while Jesus Christ is condemned to death, thus symbolically representing the Holy of Holies; an innocent man dying to redeem the sins of the world.
As previously mentioned, human blood was more powerful than animal’s, and the blood of God’s Son was the mightiest of them all, therefore, Jesus’ death, as a blood sacrifice, was powerful enough to cleanse the entire world of sin for an eternity … And as an added bonus, it was even powerful enough to retrospectively save all humans who died before Christ’s era (1 Peter 4:6).
Given that Judaism condemned ritualised human sacrifice, it is not that surprising to note that the New Testament deflects the blame of Jesus’ death by placing most of the accountability onto a group of people that most Jews despised the most, the Romans. Further, the Rabbis who were affiliated with the story of Jesus’ death are depicted as being corrupt. These details allowed early Christians to not completely ostracise themselves from Judaism, conversely, the storyline has all the hallmarks and appeal of a classic Greek tragedy.
How could Jesus be a Passover lamb and Holy of Holies goat?
According to Christian theology, the Passover and Yom Kippur are sacraments that Jesus brought to fulfilment. Having said that, Jesus being symbolised as a lamb is more prominent than Jesus being symbolised as a goat. Patricia Kasten suggests a reason for this could be that goats had a tarnished reputation due to their affiliation with pagan deities from rival religions, like the Greek Dionysus and the Egyptian Khum. Kasten adds that while goats and lambs shared equal respect among Jews of antiquity, lambs had more of a broader positive appeal that may have been advantageous to converting Gentiles. Goats could also be seen in more of negative light due to the role of the scapegoat being more prominent within the community context of Yom Kippur celebrations; it was community members who chased the scapegoat to its death, whereas the ritual slaughtering, burning, and splattering of blood from the Goat of God was done in the privacy of the temple by the high priest.
The synthesis of the Passover lamb and the Yom Kippur goats being blood rituals associated with Jesus’ was explained by Justin Martyr as follows:
(Side note, the above passage brings to light several additional points not specifically covered in this article, such as a lamb being “type” of “Christ” and that “Adam” was “a house for the spirit”; these themes shall be picked up in a subsequent articles.)
In our modern era of technology, mass production of goods, fast food outlets, etc., it is easy to be removed from the significance of symbolic gestures that our ancestors more readily interpreted. For instance, Justin’s depiction of a lamb being roasted and roasted, on a skewer that goes through its body from head to toe and across its limbs, as being like Jesus’ body nailed to a cross, does not necessary come to a contemporary person’s mind like it might if a person who was living 2000 odd years ago.
The Significance of Human Sacrifices in Depth
To the modern mind, human sacrifices are an unethical, criminal act; moreover, it is unfathomable that parents would contemplate sacrificing their newborn, only child, first son, or any offspring at all, for the betterment of others (for example, in a magic spell designed to ensure next year’s crops grow well, or to cure a paralysed man, or to facilitate victory in an upcoming battle with a rival village). Nonetheless, to fully appreciate the Christian faith in relation to Jesus Christ being a human sacrifice, one needs to examine how our ancestors’ thought differently.
Nowadays we use scientific methods to explain phenomena, like tracking weather patterns and analysing war strategies with sophisticated technologies, however, up until relatively recently, it was usual for people to believe in the supernatural. To our ancestors, especially those who lived a few thousand years ago, every event was attributed to magical forces and/or spiritual deities, therefore, if one believed they could affect outcomes by manipulating unseen forces, then they may do so. In some cases, sacrificing one’s life to alter these unseen forces was deemed necessary.
Researchers of human sacrifices suggest that because bygone eras had a high child mortality rate, parents may have had reduced emotional attachment that allowed them to give up their children. While complacency towards death may have played a role, personally, I’m not convinced of this theory. If children were perceived as a commodity in which reaching adulthood was a prize, surely parents would have had some hesitancy? Besides, there are reports of Phoenician parents screaming in objection to their children being sacrificed against their will. I wonder if, in at least some cases, mentally ill individuals with no empathy (like psychopaths and narcissists) rose to the rank of religious guru within ancient tribes. Then, once in a leadership position, these cruel-hearted people dictated the murder of children and humans to satisfy their perverted desires? Then in doing so, murder and abuse were made culturally acceptable.
In the beginnings of Judaism, which inadvertently is also the beginning of Christianity (and Islam), Abraham does not call out the atrocity of killing children directly (like later generations of Jews did). Nonetheless, his promotion of animal sacrifice instead of humans may be viewed as an important component towards developing a human consciousness in which socially permitted murders were forbidden. (All of this is assuming the story of Abraham is true, if not then Jewish elders who created the narrative can be credited with successfully promoting the end of child sacrifices.)
Generally speaking, human sacrifices, of adults or children, were not culturally supported in Roman provinces during the era that Christianity was established in (one of the reasons the Romans are reported to have attacked the Phoenicians in Carthage was because they detested their practice of child sacrifices; and, generally, Romans did not view deaths in gladiator sports to be sacrifices to the Gods). Sacrificing animals was another matter. Like in Judaism, it was very culturally acceptable to sacrifice animals to spiritual deities. Other religious groups that are renowned for their ritualised killings are the Dionysus cult (Greek), Mithras cult (Roman), Zoroastrianism (Persian), and numerous others. In the Christian story of Jesus we have a synthesis of these two considerations; Jesus’ death was tragic, therefore, was not a deliberate human sacrifice, nonetheless, it’s effect was consistent with beliefs surrounding sacrificial deaths of animals, namely the Passover and Yom Kippur.
Another aspect of in the history of human sacrifices that is worthwhile to consider is the notion of a soul living after death. In the past, less so than now, many cultures perceived the incorporeal world to be as real as the corporeal world. Physical death was part of life and honouring the soul as a separate entity that could live on in an afterlife was a common. Further, like on earth, it was believed possible for souls to have spiritual missions after death, or they could reincarnate, or something else; for example, in Ancient Egypt servants may have been killed so they could continue working for their Pharaoh in the realm of the dead. In Christianity, Jesus had the spiritual mission of defeating Satan and opening the doors of Heaven to all believers; these were act not deemed possible to achieve while living on earth in a physical body.
Regardless of ethical backgrounds, our shared human ancestry contains many examples of violent acts in which people and animals were ritualistically killed to fulfil spiritual rites and beliefs. Christianity is not the only religion to forgo ongoing flesh and blood offerings, however, the dominance of the religion has contributed to the abolishing of animal sacrifices in many circumstances. The transformation of magical processes that were initially conducted with real flesh and blood, through to magical processes being conducted through the symbolic bread and wine, could be likened to horsepower being used to describe the power of a car even though there are no horses literally pulling the vehicle like in previous models.
The reasoning behind Jesus’ sacrificial death (as opposed to, say, dying of old age) being a symbol of forgiveness and life-saving act for the faithful only makes sense if viewed through the understanding of Jewish traditions, namely the Passover and Yom Kippur. Christian believers typically add to these theologies that in dying, Jesus was able to spiritually descend to lower parts of the world (Hell) and capture an oppressor (Satan) before ascending up to heaven. (These concepts can be viewed as having an alignment with Ancient Greek mystery school doctrines, i.e., Hell was originally called Hades by Hellenistic Christians, but that’s a story for another time.)
Jesus’ death would have been morally condoned by his contemporaries if it occurred as an outright human sacrifice, however, because the circumstances had tragic elements, it was perceived as being a fateful series of events that were ordained by God. Christianity’s approach to Jesus’ death transformed the significance of flesh and blood sacrifices, hence, many Christian denominations symbolically represent Jesus’ through bread and red wine (referred to as the Holy Communion or Eucharist). Instead of animal sacrifices conducted to maintain God’s favour, reverence continues less violently thanks to the power of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice and magical life sustaining blood.
Essentially, in early Christianity we see the theology of Judaism synthesised through the magical acts of Jesus in such a way that difficult rituals that involve real flesh and blood were transformed into symbolic references; supernatural acts became spiritualised:
In turn, this spiritualisation of Jewish theology provided a basis for an intellectualisation of God. Connecting to deities through the mind has strong links to Greek values, for instance, according to philosophers like Plato, the intellect, nous, or universal mind, is the highest of all spiritual components. (Again, the finer details of this connection are best left for another time.)
The relevance of Jesus Christ being a sacrificial lamb that fulfils of Jewish in blood magic purposes is a matter for each individual to decide. For some, the significance adds to their pious faith that Jesus is the true global redeemer of sins whose gift of self sacrifice is wanton of praise and gratitude. For others, understanding the continuum of Judaism to Christianity can insight cynicism that both religions are bogus, built upon fraudulent accounts of clairvoyance. Either way, to believe or disbelieve, full knowledge of the theology that supports faith enables one to live with truth and integrity.
To summarise, Christianity is a religion based upon the premise that a 2000 year old Jewish ritual, that involved a human sacrifice, was effective. Christians today still believe that the blood magic performed by someone called Yeshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, and Jesus in modern English, will ensure they have an afterlife of bliss, and those who don’t will burn in hell until Yeshua/Iesous/Jesus reincarnates. This event is called the second coming … which is a little confusing because modern Christians generally don’t believe in reincarnation … and yet if Jesus is God’s only son and Christians (in particular fundamentalists) also believe that the Jewish creation myth is true, then Adam is also God’s first son … how can God have a first son called Adam and an only son called Jesus? This conundrum brings us to the second topic of discussion: Jesus as Adam, which shall be discussed in my next article.
Agatan Foundation 2018, The Crazy Facts You Didn’t Know About The History of Christianity by Richard Carrier, YouTube.
A common objective of destructive cults is to get complete control over devotees by convincing them to break all ties with family and friends. The indoctrination process is often subtle, with victims not realising they’ve been manipulated till it’s too late. From the perspective of a twisted mind, establishing absolute control over others by eliminating opposing opinions is a logical requirement of initiation. Goodbye logic, hello darkness.
In the case of Christian cults, leaders often achieve isolation by quoting scriptures like Matthew 23:9. The phrasing as expressed in the New International Version is a typical translation of the original Hebrew:
And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.
On face value, it appears cult leaders may have grounds for encouraging the breaking family ties, at least those between children and fathers. However, if the passage is read in the context of the previous verse, it’s not so simple: But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.
And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.
But you are But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.
Contextually, the two sentences are indicating that no one person should be considered spiritually superior to another, that is, there should be no “Father Rabbis” because everyone is a “brother”. Matthew’s application of figurative speech is relatively easy to recognise; it does not literally mean you cannot call your male parent “father”. I imagine ancient political correctness was the last thing on the scribes’ mind. (There is a trend being explored in contemporary midwifery which stipulates it is more politically correct to refer to a “mother” as “the lactating parent”.)
In ancient Jewish and Roman cultures it was normal to call Rabbis, or any older man, in particular one with a higher status, “Father”. It was both a title and a means of showing respect.
In 2 BCE Emperor Augustus was dubbed “Pater Patriae”, which means the “father of his country” (Pater = Father in Latin). Rome was not without adversaries, hence, it’s probable not everyone felt warm fuzzies towards Augustus as a father figure. For example, the Jews, in accordance with the prophecies outlined in the Torah, wanted and expected ruling rights over much of the land that their Roman father had won claim to. In turn, it seems plausible that some Jewish citizens (Early Christians were Jews) could relate to the sentiment no man should be called father. To take that figurative expression and apply it literally to biological parents defies logic, hence, I suspect that is the reason why the caveat is not mentioned in Matthew’s text. (Perhaps Augustus should have been called the “non-lactating parent of Rome”?)
Imagine if every time someone used figurative speech there was an expectation that they explained their symbolic referencing!? For example, a novel that describes a character as being a night owl (not a real night owl, just someone who stays up late at night, like an owl), or a newspaper article that reports of items falling off the back of the truck (the items didn’t literally fall of the back of a truck, they were stolen like they could have fallen off the back of a truck), or historical accounts of Euclid as the father of geometry (there was no mother geometry that Euclid impregnated, he just fathered ideas that were like babies, not real babies but things that grew into bigger things, like babies grow into bigger people). If all writers had to explain their similes, metaphors, or colloquial expressions there would be no point using expressive language in the first place; furthermore, communication would be pretty boring.
Humans have a flair for being creative with words and our cognitive abilities have developed in a manner that enables us to quickly and efficiently identify homophones and their meanings within given contexts. At least that is the case when interpreting contemporary language in cultural contexts that we are familiar with. But perhaps understanding figurative speech from 2000 years ago is different? Afterall, as an Australian I would never imagine calling our prime minister, Scott Morrison, the father of our country! I can’t envision Americans calling Joe Biden their Father either. Hence, perhaps it is due to the differing cultural standards of how and when the term “father” is used impacts Biblical interpretations?
To add a bit of a different spin to the issue, when looking up Matthew’s verses, I was intrigued by the Aramaic Bible in Plain English version to Matthew’s sentences which hat reads:
But you shall not be called “Rabbi”, for One is your Rabbi, but you are all brothers.
And you should not call yourselves “Father”, in the earth, for one is your Father who is in Heaven.
The semantics of this phrasing changes the interpretation previously explored that was based on the New International Version (Bible semantics is thing and a half, as I discovered while researching the“bow” of the white horseman). Instead of the directive being not to call others “father” (presumably with the caveat of there being an exception if you’re referring to your biological father), the instructions are now not to call oneself a “father” as opposed to calling anyone on earth a “father”. In other words, there are to be no Christian “Rabbis” which can be transferred to meaning Christianity initially condemned all leadership positions within the church. I think I could dig (figurative expression, I don’t literally mean I’d dig a hole in the earth) a Christian theology that genuinely supported no leaders and was based upon every individual having spiritual autonomy and a direct relationship with God, aka, the heavenly Father, the One who is the ultimate Rabbi. Alas, whilst that may have been the impulse of Early Christian communities (and there is evidence to suggest in some instances this was the case), Christianity on the whole did not develop in that direction. Ever since at least the second century there are reports of Christian deacons, priests, and bishops, or in other words, “Fathers” and “Rabbis”. Perhaps cult leaders who want to high-jack religions have always been around?
With Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity came orders to impose structure upon the religion. The structure that was imposed just happened to be consistent with the standards of Roman culture. From the patriarchal hierarchy of bishops through to labelling priests as “father”, Christianity took on a very Roman military-like structure; i.e., it was normal for Roman soldiers to call the leader of their legion “father”.
The Aramaic version emphases the figurative concept of everyone being “brothers”. (I’m deliberately not entering into the whole patriarchal structure of the language and for the sake of simply I’m going with the flow of “brothers” in this context being a gender neutral term; according to Jewish symbology it is acceptable to do so.) The significance of unifying everyone as a brotherhood is as nuanced as the term “father”.
When using figurative speech, a thing is not identical to the original thing in all contexts. For example, the “father” in Augustus’ Pater Patriae infers control and responsibility, whereas Euclid’s title of “father” implies he metaphorically birthed geometric offsprings, and priestly “fathers” can suggest a nurturing role. Not all associations of the term “father” can aptly be applied to all situations. Likewise, not all associations of “brothers” can be applied to all situations, e.g., loyalty, strong bond, sense of duty, kinsmanship, support, equality, etc., may not all be applicable to Matthew’s usage. (Some could argue that “brothers” implies rivalry, fighting for attention, and other negative traits; hence, the assumption that Matthew meant only positive associations is a cultural bias in itself.) The interpretation of a thing when used in figurative speech is dependent upon both the speakers/writers intentions and the audience’s comprehension; in turn, both are dependent upon cultural understandings of the symbolic significance of the thing. (Humans are a symbolic species, for a background discussion see: The connection between symbolism and mental wellbeing: The basics).
What then did Matthew mean when he said “you are all brothers”? In the context of the statement being prefaced by “you shall not be called Rabbi”, I suggest the emphasis of “brothers” relates to status, in particular not having a hierarchy in which individuals are judged to be closer or further away from the “One”. (The number One as a reference to God has a long standing tradition within Greek philosophy).
Many Christians over the years have claimed that orthodox and Catholic traditions are flawed interpretations of Jesus’ readings, and the examples of the establishment of priesthood and fathers figures can legitimately be used as proof of this. Ironically, however, cult leaders who skew this scripture to isolate and control others, have a tendency to make themselves father figures, albeit they don’t call themselves by that title. Which is worse, to disobey a literal interpretation of the Bible and have church leaders called father, or to dispense with the title and fulfil the essence of the meaning of the terms. While cult leaders, claim to be “brothers” with their followers, their actions speak louder than words; they call themselves “Rabbi” in the sense that they are self proclaimed leaders, like father figures, to individuals whom they manipulate to break ties with their true families.
Judaism has an abundance of figurative speech that relates to family terms that, in addition to the ones mentioned here, include husband, wife, daughter, son, etc. Likewise, Christianity, as an Abrahamic religion, continued to use many of these Jewish symbols, plus some were harmonised with Greek symbols (Jesus was for the Jews and Gentiles!), and slowly but surely, uniquely Christian symbols were developed.
Identifying authentic meanings of much of the symbolism used in the Bible is not difficult if one knows where to look for it. The problem is that too many well-intended and open hearted people fall for wolves in sheep’s clothing (figure of speech, not a real wolf in sheep’s clothing, but a person with wolf-like qualities who, on the inside wants to devour others, but on the outside appears like a sheep who is placid and willing to follow the crowd) who leads them to dangerous pastures due to their self serving interpretations of Bible verses. On that note, it is also worthwhile to consider that perhaps Matthew’s Gospel was intended to be a document that could be used to establish a cult that deconstructed families …
The Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible is a controversial and influential book. It’s basic storyline, that of an apocalyptic end of the world, has persuaded men, women, children, and others into fearing God and believing unprecedented doom will occur if Christian beliefs aren’t followed. Ever since the first century, there have been individuals who proclaim the apocalypse is just around the corner; see below for a brief list. In today’s environment of Covid-19, natural disasters, nuclear weapon technology, and financial hardships, there is no shortage of doomsday leaders who believe the real time of the tribulation is now. But what if they are all wrong? What if the symbology used by John the Elder (the credited author of Revelations) has been taken literally when it should be metaphorical? In this blog I explore a possible interpretation that takes into account how the symbolism can be read in a historical context.
List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events
Details of Apocalypse
Simon bar Giora, Jewish Essenes
The Jewish Essene sect of ascetics saw the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66–70 in Judea as the final end-time battle which would bring about the arrival of the Messiah.
Hilary of Poitiers
This early French bishop announced the end of the world would happen during this year.
Martin of Tours
This French bishop stated that the world would end before 400 AD, writing, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.”
This Christian declared in 847 that the world would end that year, though later confessed the prediction was fraudulent and was publicly flogged.
Following the failure of the prediction for 1 January 1000, some theorists proposed that the end would occur 1000 years after Jesus’ death, instead of his birth.
The Black Death spreading across Europe was interpreted by many as the sign of the end of times.
A group of astrologers in London predicted the world would end by a flood starting in London, based on calculations made the previous June. Twenty thousand Londoners left their homes and headed for higher ground in anticipation.
The standard interpretation of the Four Horsemen is:
“The first horseman, a conqueror with a bow and crown, rides a white horse, which scholars sometimes interpret to symbolize Christ or the Antichrist; the second horseman is given a great sword and rides a red horse, symbolizing war and bloodshed; the third carries a balance scale, rides a black horse, and symbolizes famine; and the fourth horseman rides a pale horse and is identified as Death.”
To me, this explanation is too simple; the descriptions of white, red, black, and pale horses beacons more investigation than the literal presentation of a Christ/Antichrist, war, famine, and death. In Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, and bow? I demonstrate how interpretations of homophones can significantly alter the interpretation of Bible passages, further, I highlight that common, contemporary interpretations are not necessarily correct if translations issues, like punctuation, are not accounted for. As a continuation, a major flaw I perceive in many Bible interpretations is that the meaning of symbols are not viewed in relation to their historical significance and cultural context. But before delving into alternative ways of viewing the Four Horsemen, I’d like to do a little thought experiment.
Imagine: You are John the Elder, a citizen of Ephesus in approximately 96 CE. You have a spiritual experience in which prophetic visions are placed in your mind. Now imagine what language the Holy Spirit would use to communicate with you. Would you expect it to use a symbolic language that you understood? Or a symbolic language that you did not understand but people in the future might? To put it more crudely, if you spoke English, would you expect a spiritual being to communicate with you in English or a language you don’t know? Would you write down your vision using icons you did not understand? Or would you record the vision according to your own comprehension level?
Speaking in tongues aside, the chances are you’d receive a message from the Holy Spirit in a language you could comprehend, and you’d pass on your message in a manner that others could also comprehend. But also remember that you may be persecuted by Roman authorities for your beliefs, hence, you may want to disguise what you are saying so as it looks like it is not “Christian”. If only there were a symbolic code you could use …
Contrary to some theorists (like psychoanalysts) language and symbolic communication is not consistent over time or cultures. Pictures and symbols are a form of language, and just like any type of communication, these evolve over time. Human communication is in a constant flux that develops due to standard meanings being reused and blended with creative impulses that alter previous meanings. When changes to symbolic language is done deliberately, it can effectively make an “in” and an “out” group, that is those who understand the communication and those who do not … I can’t help but wonder if Early Christians who were afraid of persecution may have deliberately manipulated language and pre-existing symbols to avoid having their beliefs scrutinised?
When new words, phrases, or concepts get known and/or accepted by large groups of people they develop a cultural context. For example, if you were to tell someone in their eighties that you went to a party that was “totally sick”, they may give an empathetic response because they assumed that “totally sick” means the party was a disaster in which everyone became ill. In contrast, a younger person hearing about a “totally sick” party would understand that you had a great time (I touch upon the creativity of language more here.) Each generation alters or develops language usage in some way or another. Language has simple and complex interrelationships with the time, culture, and the audience in which it is spoken.
Second thought experiment: If John the Elder had been given a literal vision of armageddon that was supposed to happen in our time then he would have had to describe cars, computers, electricity, and several other things that he would not have a point of reference to in his lifetime. Hence, it stands to reason that John’s recording of prophecies is embedded with symbolic communication appropriate to his language and his culture. Moreover, his vision is not literal, it is metaphorical; an allegory of concepts and feelings. I would even argue that it is not even about the end of the world, rather, it depicts a cosmic cycles; rebirths or some form of evolutionary stages. In comparison, consider real childbirth. If one were to metaphorically describe labour, especially a difficult labour, then it could be said to be a time of great pain and bloodshed in which the woman’s appetite is gone, her limbs and pelvis are torn in different directions, and there is a battle between internal forces and external forces. Birth is the death of life in the womb. So too the Book of Revelations may be describing great changes to humanity that are allegorical to war, famine, battle, and death.
To decode the symbols of the Four Horseman further, we need to consider the Ephesus culture. Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey and it has a long history. In about the sixth century BCE it came under Greek influence and was a hub for cults that worshipped the Goddess Artemis. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great consolidated the Hellenisation of the region. By John the Elder’s time, Ephesus was a Roman province, however, Latin had not yet developed into a scholarly language, hence, Revelations was written in Greek (as was most of the New Testament). Pretty much all New Testament writers had an understanding of Greek and Jewish traditions, albeit, they may have favoured one over the other and their products were original to some degree. (See commentary on Justin Martyr.)
Now to cut to the chase of the symbolism of the Four Horsemen; horses in Ancient times were a symbol of the intellect. To a contemporary mind this may not make sense; books, degrees, and computers may be considered better symbols of intelligence but in the eras we’re talking about, before the first century, books, formal qualifications, and computers weren’t invented yet. To a person of antiquity, horses were a valuable possession, they enabled travel and freedom, were needed on farms and to go into battle, they could be trained to do all sorts of tasks and tricks, and horses were loyal companions. Given all these considerations, it is understandable that horses became a symbol for intelligence. Homer’s depiction of the Trojan horse that enabled victory in the battle of Troy is a good example of how the concepts of intellect, strategy, resourcefulness, and success, were linked to horses in the pre-Christian era.
Nowadays we think of the intellect in terms of cognitive brain functions that occur in the prefrontal cortex, in antiquity, the intellect was considered to be more of a spiritual principle. Spiritual forces were perceived to be everywhere and these could and would impact individuals. For instance, in Ancient Greece, it’s unlikely that a person would be described as a genius, rather, if a person displayed strong intellectual qualities then the external force of a “genii” may be given credit for working through them. A genii was like a guardian angel, higher self, or daimon that floated around trying to give people ideas; it was believed possible that if an idea from a genii was not accepted by one person, then the genii would move onto someone else. Basically, what we view as internalised higher order thinking, our Mediterranean ancestors perceived as external messages from spiritual realms.
Recognising the Four Horsemen as being aspects of an intelligent spiritual force is only the first step. The next is to understand that horses were also cosmological symbols. Hence, each horseman may be interpreted as representing a cosmic element. Helios riding his four-horsed chariot immediately comes to my mind.
Helios the Sun God riding is chariot with four horses. Image source: Theoi Project
In Ancient Greek theology, Helios’ four horses symbolise earth, water, air, and fire. Could it be that the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse are an appropriation or repurposing of the symbolism of Helios’ four horses? Maybe, however, the link may be broader. In Judaism Ezekiel’s chariot has four horses (Ezekiel 1:4-28), in the Greco-Roman era, Apollo had a four horse chariot, and some Early Christians depicted Saint Mark as the charioteer of four horses. The question, therefore, may be: Is there an ideological link between all these varied representations of horses with the classical elements?
The concepts of fire, air, water, and earth were definitely popular amongst philosophers, however, to say they all meant the same thing in every context is probably an overgeneralisation. Suffice to say, it is not farfetched to assume John the Elder knew this symbolic code; I’d be more surprised if he didn’t know about it. So how do the four elements link to the Four Horseman? Let’s first look at the colours. (Readers may want to review The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts to get some background information about the framework.)
In Empedocles era, there is evidence to suggest that he and others associated black, white, yellow and red to water, fire, earth, and air. Coincidentally, the four horsemen described in the Book of Revelations have the same colours, albeit, yellow may be referred to as pale or green, depending on which translation of the Bible you look at. (Side note: the colours associated with each element and the differing of terminology to describe the pale or yellow element is consistent with The surprising pattern behind color names around the world.)
If we go through the associated symbolism of each horseman one at a time we can see more clues:
I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
Revelation 6:1-2 (NIV)
Key symbolic words that I can identify in these lines are thunder, white, and crown. These conjure inferences of concepts that relate to fire. The association of the White Horseman with the element of fire is strengthened in Revelation 19:11-16 when the rider is described as having eyes like a flame of fire. In Ancient Greek theology, fire is the highest on the hierarchy of elements. (The White Horseman’s “bow” is still open to interpretation.)
When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
Revelation 6:3-4 (NIV)
If the sequence of the hierarchy is to be followed, then the red horse symbolises air. Air in classical philosophies is the emotional and passionate part of the soul. It is given reverence, however, it is also sometimes described as being an element that causes strife. Amongst air’s good points, is that it is a life-supporting element on earth; if one does not have air in their body they will be dead. Thus, there is some correlation between the traditional qualities of air and the Red Horseman’s characteristics of taking away peace and producing death.
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds a of wheat for day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
Revelation 6:5-6 (NIV)
The black horse may be interpreted as water. While the literal symbols of scales, wheat, barley, and wages, appear to to be a reference to earthly concerns of money and finances, if they are viewed in the context of being said by a voice among the four living creatures, it can be inferred that the symbols of earthly existence (i.e., food and money) are supported or balanced (i.e., the scales) by the element of water. The final line is a warning that support of the physical elements must not damage the oil or the wine; wine is a symbol for spirit, aka fire, and oil is a symbol for soul, aka air. Hence, water is an intermediate or transitional element.
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)
The most significant indication that the fourth horseman represents the element of earth is the term “Hades”. As explicitly told by Empedocles, Hades represents the earth in Ancient Greek theology. In Bible’s such as the King James Version, the pagan term of Hades is replaced by “Hell”, hence, some of the alignment between the theology of the elements and the horsemen is obscured. Just like the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hades in Revelations is connected to death. The terms sword, famine, plague, and beasts, are not necessarily literal, but metaphorical of earthly experiences. The Early Christian concept of Hades is not identical to the Ancient Greek Hades, but it is a significant link that deserves acknowledgment.
The embedding of Ancient Greek theology into Christian doctrines has a long history. From Justin Martyr, to Augustine, and Aquinas, Christianity has always borrowed theology from other sources. In Is Aristotle Overrated? I hone in on the Greek influence, however, influence also came from Judaism, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and others.
Overall, there are many indicators that the Book of Revelations is a metaphorical story that appropriates or repurposes Ancient Greek theology. Read as an allegory, the Four Horsemen are not going to appear one after the other and signal the end of the world. According to my interpretation, John the Elder’s vision was as much a reflection on the development of human beings from a cosmological perspective as it is a prediction for the future.
Decoding the symbolism of the remaining three seals introduces some more complex theology that I’ll leave for another day. And to be honest, I have not perfected my interpretation of Revelations, but I hope that the insights I can provide promotes critical thinking that prevents people from falling for doomsday predictors who will one day join the Wikipedia list of false prophets.
Of all philosophies and theologies, I resonate with the concept of creativity being the most important. From imaginative applications of symbols and communication that involves creative language, to every moment of every day, human beings are creators, or as I’ve said before, creat[e]-ures made in the image of a Creative force that some call God. Ultimately, we all have the gift of Free Will to create a future of our choosing without fear that our destinies were pre-written in Ephesus, c.96CE.
Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198
“Since the beginning of time, spirituality and religion have been called to fill in the gaps that science did not understand.”
~ Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, pg.43
Alan John Miller, is the cult leader of a group called Divine Truth. He convinces his disciples that he is the reincarnation of Jesus; that’s right, this charismatic Australian believes he is the big Christ man himself. From the authoritative stance of being the Son of God, Miller gives advice to his followers that inevitably leads them into forsaking their family and friends. Coercive and controlling behaviour like this is common amongst cult leaders, but from watching the investigative documentary (see link below) it occurred to me that much of Miller’s manipulation would be ineffective if victims or potential victims understood the basic principles of trauma.
About three minutes into the 7NEWS documentary, we see footage of Miller addressing a hall full of Christians who are searching for answers to some of life’s difficulties. Miller tells them that addictions are standing in the way of their relationship with God and that by speaking his truth he can heal their emotional wounds. A few seconds later we see a white board which illustrates his approach.
The journalist aptly points out that Miller, or Jesus as he prefers to be called, is speaking New Age pop-psychology. The notion that addictions have some spiritual cause, moreover, that one can overcome “sinful” or “evil” temptations through the mysteries of a “Holy Spirit” has little grounding in light of contemporary neuroscience. I am very open to the notion that there is a metaphysical world that our ordinary senses cannot identify. However, I am equally open to the notion that there are things in our physical world that once appeared to be supernatural can but now be scientifically explained, hence, “gurus” who could once get away with spreading misinformation cannot do so as easily.
There is an expanding school of thought that addictions, and most mental health conditions, are caused by trauma. Gabor Maté (author of The Realm of Hungry Ghosts) and Bessel Van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score) are in my top five favourite researchers who actively work to educate society about the link between trauma, addictions and mental health issues.
At the core of understanding trauma and how it affects thoughts, emotions, and behaviour is the vagus nerve. This all important nerve begins at the base of the brain and runs down the spine. It branches off throughout the body and is the major highway for sending signals to and from the brain and throughout the body. Burnt your finger on the stove? It is through nerves in your fingers that link to the vagus nerve that pain signals are sent to your brain. Commonly, the signal sent back will be to remove your finger from the heat source. All this can happen in an instant. You may also apply learned behaviour, like placing your finger in cool water to stop the burning process. Alternatively, you may scream, call for help, or become confused and not know what to do. Neurologically, the difference between a calm or heightened reaction is how much access to cognitive functions you have. When presented with threatening situations, the nervous system directs all its energy into survival, hence digestion stops, heart rate increases, and energy is pulled away from non-essential higher order cognitive processes, thus thinking is affected.
Several factors contribute to how a person reacts to trauma, namely, how, when and why the trauma occurred. Reactions are also heavily dependant upon prior life experiences. If one has had experiences of nurture and support then their reactions are more likely to be calm and measured. Alternatively, if one has been raised in an environment where crying in pain from being burnt is not acceptable (sadly, this happens), emotions like fear can overwrite other reactions. A person’s survival instincts generally fall into the categories of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
Now imagine you’ve been hurt emotionally. If one knows strategies that will elevate the pain through healthy behaviours (like going for a walk, meditating, or seeking therapy) then cognitive functions may prevail. But what if these things aren’t known? What if crying for help does not work? Unfortunately, many people, especially young children, find themselves in this position. When emotional pain is unaddressed, the person’s vagus nerve still sends signals that there is a problem, however, when the desire for relief is not addressed, it gets stored in the body. That is where addictions emerged.
Maté defines an addiction as any behaviour that provides temporary relief but causes harm in the long run. Aside from the obvious harmful addictions of drugs, smoking, alcohol, and some sexual activities, a person could develop an addiction to seemingly less harmful activities like shopping or excessive exercise. From Van der Kolk’s work, the message is clear; trauma stays in the body till issues are addressed. Breaking the cycle of trauma responses is hard, especially if the nervous system’s pattern of adverse responses was set in childhood. Essentially, children who grow up in abusive environments can become accustomed to anxiety states being normalised, therefore, it can feel strange when their body is learning how to relax without the use of addictions. Adopting one addiction for another can be an endless cycle till healing takes place at a nervous system level.
Ultimately, healing requires soothing the nervous system which, in turn, means working with the vagus nerve because it’s a major component of our anatomy that links the brain with all other parts of the body. There are many approaches that can be used to achieve this; no one size that suits all. Breathing exercises, trauma-informed yoga, art therapy, psychotherapy, journal writing, are a few examples of what some people find useful. Miller does not use any of these.
In the spirit of new aged psycho babble, the documentary shows Miller encouraging people to enter into a state of anxiety, that is, a state in which their nervous system is activated. He achieves this by requesting they find trauma in their family history (not a difficult request). At the 4:30 min mark there is a difficult to watch scene in which Miller asks a person to “connect” with their childhood rage of being oppressed by their mother. We see the man shaking and trembling as he recalls his past. Miller stands by, almost excited by the emotional pain he’s elicited. He offers no emotional support, comfort, or suggestions for how the man can emotionally or cognitively process the event. Due to the absence of addressing trauma at the nervous system level, the exercise can be perceived as re-traumatising and, in turn, it places Miller in a position of power over his followers. One could even suggest that they shift their addictive behaviours from drugs, shopping, or whatever, onto being addicted to his approval.
To add complexity to the situation, there is almost value in Miller’s approach to childhood trauma, that is, when the man trembles while recalling a time in his childhood where he felt unsupported, it is reminiscent of Peter Levine’s work (another of my fave psychologists). Levine has done extensive research on the role of the nervous system and anxiety, and he reports that shaking is an effective means of releasing stored energy from past trauma. However, Levine’s work is an evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice that incorporates psychoeducation. Moreover, Levine is not a cult leader who tries to get people to commit to his total control. In contrast, when Miller evokes activation of the nervous system he is not doing so in a therapeutic manner. Miller does not explain the body-mind connection through autonomical functions, rather, he explains things in terms of his interpretation of the Christian Bible. After all, he is the messiah, Jesus, right!?!
Given that Miller may by successfully activating the vagus nerve through his techniques, it is understandable that some people find relief and therefore attribute this to Miller having some divine qualities. However, Miller’s full process of deliverance from addictions stops short of being effective therapy. There is no directed resolve of stored emotions, just the instruction of feeling them, which is not enough. Triggered but unresolved trauma energy can do more harm than good. Essentially, I see the situation as being one in which a lack of understanding of how the brain and body functions in response to trauma is being used to manipulate people into giving up money, dreams, and relationships, moreover, doing so fulfils Miller’s self-declared grandiosity. Given Miller’s narcissistic tendencies, I am highly sceptical of his overall approaches being in line with evidence-based therapy. Research about people who have been in cults, suggests they are more traumatised by the leaders’ control and manipulation than anything they experienced prior to joining.
Abuse tendencies that are promoted through religious ideologies is being recognised as such a significant issue that the term spiritual bypassing has been coined. This refers to spiritual explanations that dismiss or belittle real trauma. For example, “it was the will of God” or “what doesn’t kill you makes us stronger” or to just “let things go”. Such directives are more likely to encourage dissociation than healing. Dissociation (distancing oneself from reality) can feel euphoric, therefore, spiritual practices that encourage it may appear (at surface level) to be “real”, however, dissociation is actually a serious mental health concern.
"To many people, spirituality becomes a sort of crutch used as a way of standing back up again in the face of life’s turmoil – and sometimes this is necessary. We all need support at some time or another in our lives. But the problem comes when spirituality is used as a drug for which we become dependent on in order to bypass the darker elements of our lives."
~ Aletheia Luna, What Is Spiritual Bypassing? (Beware of These 10 Types)
Miller’s approach to Christianity blends half truths about psychology with his personal narrative of Jesus. It is a classic example of partial-truths being more dangerous than outright lies.
"In any given psychiatric hospital at any given time, there are probably several Jesus Christs. A colleague once told me of a group psychotherapy situation at a state hospital in which there were three Jesus' in the same group."
~ Alan Gettis, The Jesus Delusion: A Theoretical and Phenomenological Look
Contrary to stereotypes of destructive cult leaders, they do not necessarily have adverse mental health conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar. In the case of Miller, it appears he has some sort of basic delusion disorder (I cannot give an official diagnosis). The narrative he’s created is not very original; believing oneself to a Messiah is common. Mental health clinics around the world do not have a shortage of people who believe they are Jesus. Unsurprisingly, western countries are more likely to see people who believe they are Christ, while in other locations, individuals with delusional disorders may believe they are another grandiose personality like the Buddha, or a Scandinavian God, or whatever is a significant religious influence in their culture.
Besides the potential for narcissism and delusional disorder, Miller demonstrates sound cognitive functions. Thus, there is some need to re-evaluate stereotypes of cult leaders. Further, in line with the school of thought that suggests that most mental health issues have a basis in trauma, one may ask what is Miller’s trauma? Perhaps if he received adequate support for whatever this was he would not be in the current situation of re-traumatising others?
In conclusion, any religious ideology that makes claims about healing trauma warrants scrutiny. Within Australia, the issue of cult leaders, spiritual advisors, and some personal coaches, presenting misleading psychological advice often goes unrecognised. While Freedom of Religion is important, it is equally important to recognise when self-proclaimed leaders are using pseudoscience psychology that leads to spiritual bypassing and religious abuse. Continued education of trauma may save a lot of people from becoming victims of “Messiah’s” who do more harm than good.
"Do not the philosophers turn every discourse on God? and do not questions continually arise to them about His unity and providence ? Is not this truly the duty of philosophy, to investigate the Deity?"
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypo, P.5
Justin Martyr was born in Palestine, in about 100 CE. In his mid thirties he began wandering, preaching, and explaining Christianity to others. According to the encyclopaedia Britannica he was ‘one of the most important Greek philosophers-Apologists in the early Church’.
Justin is described as being Greek (as opposed to Roman or Palestinian) because that is the language he used, moreover, he studied Plato and other Greek philosophers prior to converting from his old belief system to Christianity. Palestine, thanks to Alexander the Great, was Hellenised in 332 BCE, and despite the Roman takeover in 63 BCE, Greek was still a common language amongst academics.
Palestine was also home to many Jews and a variety of other religious groups. The interactions between these groups are suspected to have been a mixture of hostile and receptive occurrences.
Justin’s evangelism took him to Rome where he was accused of being subversive and sentenced to death. He was killed by beheading in c.165, thus killed for his beliefs he was martyred by Christian followers.
André Thévet – Saint Justin dans André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons
Justin wrote several treatises explaining Christian theology; he was instrumental in defining beliefs in the days prior to the bible being compiled. In the following centuries, followers of Christ would become divided into two broad categories of “true” Christians and “false” Christians, the latter usually referred to as Heretics (for example, the gnostics). During a process of establishing consistent guidelines for the faithful – which mostly came about by Emperor Constantine calling council meetings (the Nicene council) – Justin’s version of theology was accepted in the “true” category, as opposed to some others, like Valentina and Origen.
Given that Justin had a strong Greek background, it’s not surprising he incorporated references to ancient Greek philosophy into his writings, however, what I find even more interesting is his detailed understanding of Jewish theology. In a publication titled Dialogue of Justin Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho, a Jew, Justin records an imaginative conversation between himself and a Jew called Trypho. The aim of the conversation is to explain to the Jew how Christianity fulfilled prophecies expressed in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. The fact that Justin wrote in a dialogue style (like Plato and other Philosophers), is a reflection of his scholarly Greek background. It is with this foundation that he describes Christian stories as being a continuation of Jewish symbology. Thus we have two streams of ideology merging into one river.
Let’s have a look at some of what Justin says, first through a Jewish lens, then a Greek:
Several themes can be taken from the above extract, some of which I’ve underlined or bolded:
mysteries– this implies that Justin is referring to things that happened [in the events of Jesus life] that are not obvious at a surface level.
marriages – term used in a symbolic sense; if you lived in the 2nd (or earlier) centuries you probably would have understood the term “marriages” differently to that of someone today.
your teachers never looked at the divine motive – this is a dig (insult) to rabbis and other Jewish experts of the day
The marriages of Jacob were types of that which Christ was about to accomplish – this comment punctuates the notion that the term “marriages” is symbolic, not literal.
Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church – “Leah” is symbolic of Judaism [i.e. Justin is talking to a Jew] and “Rachel” is symbolic of Christianity [Justin is referring to his church of Christianity] …
The last point, that of “Leah” being symbolic of Jews and “Rachel” being symbolic of Christians is arguably the most important thing Justin says. He is clearly stating that the Torah, which became known as the Old Testament to Christians, was NOT literal. Moreover, concepts were personified. To understand the use of symbolism in this context, it is useful to consider Charles Peirce’s threefold definition of symbols:
Iconic = where a thing literally means what it is.
Indexical = where a thing brings to mind other things.
Symbolic = where a thing represents another thing, with referential connections to iconic and indexical levels.
Justin’s use of culturally informed gendered metaphors continues:
Justin’s language is as colourful as a poet. Nearly every phrase is doused in pre-Shakespearean ambiguity: “Leah was weakeyed” and “Rachael stole the gods of Laban”. Moreover, Justin explicitly says: “Jacob was called Israel”, and “Israel has been demonstrated to be the Christ”. To take these phrases literally is to believe that Leah was a real person who needed reading glasses, Rachel was a thief, and Jacob is a double agent who goes by the names of Israel and Christ. However, interpreted figuratively, neither Leah, Rachel, or Jacob are real characters. This symbolism becomes even more apparent in the following:
The term daughter in the above quote is also by no means literal.
‘Now Leah is your people and synagogue; but Rachel is our Church. And for these, and for the servants in both, Christ even now serves.’
Justin, throughout his discussion with the Jewish Trypho is referring to male and female personifications in a hierarchical manner that follows a patriarchal pattern of father (Jacob) at the top, followed by the mother (Leah and Rachel), however, if one is to continue down the ladder, we have another female symbol, that of daughters (the synagogue and church) before sons (individual members of congregation) who are the lowest rung.
To give a visual of what he’s saying, let’s look at it like a family tree:
Justin is candidly stating that characters from the Torah (Old Testament) were not literal people, rather they are symbolic of groups of people. The use of a familia constructs follows the cultural conventions of the era, albeit, daughter is above son.
The symbolic use of “son” as a reference to “man” can easily be understood in the figurative concept of “mankind” being children of God. “Man/mankind” is traditional patriarchal language that refers to all of humankind. (In sexist ideologies women were literally believed to be less than human, but that’s another story.)
The logic behind using the family structure described above to present metaphysical ideology may not be obvious to us today but, presumably, it did to whomever developed it in the second millennium BCE (or earlier).
In regards to women/daughters being used as symbolic of groups of people, while the reasons may not be clear, there are multiple examples in the Torah (Old Testament).
Isaiah 47:1 (ISV)
Come down and sit in the dust, Virgin Daughter of Babylon. Sit on the ground without a chair, Daughter of the Chaldeans! For no longer will they call you tender and attractive”
Psalm 137: 8-9 (KJV)
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
“The daughter of Zion” as a symbol of Israel, likewise, “the daughter of Jerusalem” and “daughter of Edom”. For more references of “daughter” as symbolising groups see Laminations 4:21; Zephaniah 3:14; Zachariah 9:9; Isaiah 3:16-17; John 12:15; Matthew 21:5. (“Bible Hub” 2019; Schwartzmann 2000)
What I appreciate the most about Justin’s work is that it explicitly defines symbolism that, in my humble opinion, gets overlooked in modern Christianity. While growing up in a Catholic household, I have a clear recollection of my father once explaining to my older brother: “the daughter of Zion is metaphorical of the state of Israel”. So it is, I suspect the meaning of some symbolism has passed down through the ages, but it is not necessarily recognised by all laypeople.
Many things come to my mind when I process the significance of Justin’s explanations of the Christian faith, as expressed by someone who converted in the second century. For instance, when in Luke 12:53 is says:
Destructive cult leaders love to use this quote as a means of manipulating people into breaking all ties with their loved ones and, in turn, gaining more control over them. But what if Jesus is only speaking metaphorically of the “House of God”? Rather than referring to the divide of biological father and son, biological mother and daughter, and biological mother in law against daughter in law, I believe he’s talking about Synagogues, Churches, spiritual leaders, and followers being divided against one another. To me, it makes a lot more sense that the “man of peace” would be referring to the symbolic destruction of institutional “families” than real nuclear families.
I also wonder about references to Jesus explaining scriptures to Rabbis and crowds … was he explaining symbolism, like that of Leah and Rachel? … were Jesus’ sermons all about explaining figurative expressions that had been forgotten by the masses? Additionally, to add a little complexity, Jesus was renown for speaking in riddles, and understanding the symbolism was virtually an initiation process:
Note: the word “sin” in Ancient times was an archery term that mean missing the mark; if you did not shoot your arrow straight and get the target then you had “sinned”. Hence, Jesus is not saying that people who do not understand the parables are evil, rather, he is just saying they have misinterpreted symbolic language.
To me, understanding the Jewish background and how Judaism used familia terms within the symbolism of scripture is very insightful, however, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, Justin had a Greek/pagan background and his understanding of Christianity involved harmonising Jewish traditions with ancient Greek philosophy, namely, those compatible with Plato.
As it so happens, Ancient Greek philosophy also used a symbolic familia system to describe elements of their faith. As discussed in The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts, they had a hierarchy in which Zeus was at the top, followed by Demeter, then Persephone, and then Hades. The Greek system of Father (Zeus), mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), and son (Hades) has a correlation to the Jewish system of Father (Jacob), mother (Leah and Rachel), daughter (synagogue and church), and son (man/humankind). However due to different inferences, the characters of respective belief systems are not the same. Nonetheless, one could argue there are enough similarities to warrant the potential harmonising.
So why did both Jewish and Greek philosophers use the symbolism of a family to present theological ideas? A simple answer could be it is because the family structure is something relatable to just about everyone.
The links between Judaism and Ancient Greek philosophy and how they emerged in Christianity goes deeper than this blog can demonstrate. All the same, I hope I have illustrated that Justin Martyr is a prime example (there are others) of someone who explicitly spells out some of the symbolism of Christianity and how it is tied to both Jewish and Greek traditions.
I am not one to blindly follow conspiracy theories, and what I have presented here is not intended to nullify Christianity and the spiritual impulse that it inspires. Likewise, I do not wish to suggest that Christianity emerged as some conscious attempt to create a religion to control people (as some conspiracy theories suggest). Rather, my intention is to deepen the understanding of Abrahamic religions by examining the historical and cultural contexts in which they emerged. Moreover, I hope that by what I have written, individuals may be inspired to research for themselves the history of the Christian Church and question what some gurus (destructive cult leaders) have to say about how the scriptures are to be interpreted.
I’m not saying all Hebrew and Christian Bible stories are symbolic; it may be a case of some are, some art. What I am saying is that some Bible stories are symbolic. Justin’s writings support this premise.
Was Justin deliberately trying to harmonise Jewish and Greek belief systems? Maybe. Or maybe he was just exploring spirituality in accordance with his culture. I’d love to hear what readers think, please write let me know in a comment below.
As a final consideration, I’d like to mention Philo of Alexandria (c.25 BCE – 50 CE) whom it is known consciously tried to harmonise Jewish and Greek philosophy some hundred years prior to Justin Martyr. Philo was a Jewish philosopher that was fluent in Greek. Alexandria, his home town, was a Hellenisted province of Egypt (it was called “Alexandria” after Alexander the Great. It was also the location of the Great Library which housed scrolls gathered from all the Hellenised lands).
Philo re-wrote Genesis, emphasising the allegorical significance of characters; it was Philos’ version of creation, the story of Adam and Eve, that most early Christians followed. Speculatively, it may be assumed that Church fathers, like Justin, were acquainted with scholarly ideas that were not shared amongst broader society.
Looking at the title of this blog some people may wonder what an Ancient Greek philosopher has to do with mental health? As it turns out, Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) has a lot to do with how westernised cultures have developed psychological theories, especially in relation to spiritually and gender. Long story short, in arguably Aristotle’s most contentious writing, Politics, he describes men’s souls as being more developed than that of women’s. He claims a man’s soul is closer to being god-like, therefore they are the more rational gender, whereas a woman’s soul is less evolved, more like the soul of an animal, therefore they are irrational beings. Hence, men dominating women has justification because this is supposedly the “natural” order of the universe. In Aristotles’ own words:
‘Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind’
(Politics, Book 1, Part 5)
This above opinion of genders aptly sums up patriarchy. The belief of male supremacy is by no means universal across time and cultures, but it did have a stronghold in Classical Greece so it is fair to say a lot of men in antiquity assumed men were by nature superior. Conversely, many have used Aristotle’s sentiments as proof of man’s “rightful” status above women.
The name “Aristotle” has long provoked the notion that whatever was said by him is worthy of credence, especially in academic traditions. This has continued to be the case in spite of the fact it is now known Aristotle was wrong at least as often as he was right. Additionally, his obvious sexist biases, like claiming that females have less teeth than men, raise the question as to whether he has been chronically overrated? And if so, why? Cynically, I wonder if, historically, patriarchal systems have overrated Aristotle simply because doing so serves their cause?
I’m going to skim over the finer details of systemic sexism and how it impacts the mental health of millions of people, every day. Suffice to say, Aristotle’s philosophies have been used to justify slavery and the oppression of women for a disgustingly long time. In order for the trauma culture to end, I believe the roots of societal conditioning need to be exposed.
The Ancient Philosopher
Aristotle’s influence can not be overstated. He is praised for being an all round genius who wrote treatises on numerous subjects that cover areas of biology, physics, natural history, drama, poetry, ethics, rhetorics, politics, and metaphysics. Aristotle was one of the first “psychologists” to put his theories down in concise written format, as opposed to more traditional forms like poetry. That is if “psychology” is understood in its literal and traditional meaning of being the “study of the soul”, i.e. in Greek “psyche” is “soul” and “ology” means “study of”. It was only in the late nineteenth century that the definition of “psychology” evolved into a “study of the mind” that inferred thinking, feeling, and behaviour.
Aristotle’s psychological ideas are scattered throughout his writings, but most notably in topics dedicated to the soul, memories, the senses, and dreams (Freud was intimately familiar with Aristotle’s work, henceforth it’s no coincidence that parallels can be drawn between Freudian psychology and Aristotle, but that’s a topic best left for another time). In regards to explaining the differences between genders, Aristotle did not use empirical arguments like we know them today. In Ancient Greece, reference to soul qualities to explain phenomena was not only accepted, it was expected.
From Christian theologians through to Renaissance scholars and beyond, Aristotle’s writings have been a source of inspiration for many. In order to appreciate why this influence may be overrated it is useful to know how Aristotle’s work has been handed down through the ages.
Background to the handing down of Aristotle’s work over the ages
Aristotle never intended for anyone to read his philosophies in the form of the manuscripts we currently have. In his lifetime, he wrote dialogues in a similar fashion to that of his teacher, Plato. There are records of these dialogues being in circulation up until the first few centuries, however, none of these have survived.
Aristotle spent about twenty years studying under Plato at the Academy (which is credited as being the first university; that is a school which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, taught “mathematics, dialectics, natural science, and preparation for statesmanship”). Upon Plato’s death, Aristotle left the Academy and went on to be the private tutor to Prince Alexander (later known as Alexander the Great), and from there he moved on to found his own school in Athens that was called the Lyceum. It is at the Lyceum that Aristotle left behind the copious amounts of writings that are credited to his name. These writings are presumed to be lecture notes and/or teaching resources.
Schools back in Aristotle’s day weren’t like that of today. For instance, there were no classrooms and Aristotle is known to have tirelessly walked around the outdoor campus while lecturing. There are reports of his students dutifully following his every step as well as his words of wisdom. Therefore, exactly how Aristotle used his lecture notes is not clear.
In many respects, Aristotle’s work follows on from Plato’s and other Ancient Greek philosophers, however, the legacy of Alexander the Great is also very much intertwined with Aristotle. It is often portrayed that Alexander spread Greek thought throughout the ancient worlds, and seeing as Aristotle was his primary tutor, it’s reasonable to assume that it was Aristotle’s version of Greek thought that was circulated. However, it was not a one-way streak. Alexander also absorbed influence from the lands he conquered (Egypt through to India). In fact, Alexander’s best friend criticised him for being influenced too much by the Persians, as was notable by him wearing Persian attire instead of Greek clothing. (Alexander’s response to this offence was to kill him, which apparently he had more remorse about than killing his own father, but anyway that’s not the focus of this blog.) The influence of other lands flowed through to Aristotle too, who, in particular, had access to biology specimens of plants and animals that other lovers of wisdom in Greece did not. In light of these circumstances, I can see why Aristotle was considered highly knowledgable.
To add a layer of complexity, technically, neither Aristotle or Alexander were Greeks, they were Macedonians. Calling Macedonian’s Greek is a bit like calling Austrian’s German; in both instances there is a shared language but each have different dialects, customs, politics, culture, and so forth. Referring to Aristotle or Alexander as Greek is a bit like calling Hitler German when, as any German will tell you, Hitler was Austrian.
Basically, the way history panned out, despite the Macedonian monarchy being the ones to take control over Greece, Macedonia inevitably became part of Greece, not vice versa.
Macedonian’s takeover of Greece during Aristotle’s lifetime was a period of great tension. Ill feelings towards Macedonians resulted in Aristotle being exiled from Athens a few years prior to his death. Aristotle’s colleague, Theophrastus, succeeded him as headmaster of the Lyceum. Theophrastus kept Aristotle’s writings as part of his personal library and is credited for extending Aristotelian logic into an even more refined systematic order. Upon Theophrastus’ death Aristotle’s manuscripts were passed onto another philosopher, and so on. Aristotle’s works were preserved – sometimes in dingy, damp locations where they were exposed to moisture and mould – by a small group of philosophers for a few hundred years. During those years, Plato’s writings had a lot more public attention. By the way, Plato appears to have supported the opinion that all genders had equal soul qualities (albeit, Plato also suggested that “male” soul qualities are superior to “female” soul qualities).
In about 30 BCE, a Greek philosopher by the name of Andronicus of Rhodes published an edited version of Aristotle’s manuscripts that are the basis of what we have today. Sections that were too weather damaged were guessed to ensure no gaps in the pose. Thus, the story of Aristotle’s writings from being lecture notes through to editions that were made available to an audience beyond his school, illustrates that Aristotle never intended anyone who was not a student at Lyceum to read his work. There is not even any evidence to conclude that Aristotle intended for his students or colleagues to see his writings; it may simply have been lack of foresight that he left them behind when he fled Athens.
Over the next few hundred years, versions of Aristotle’s work began being circulated in Latin and Arabic, however, Aristotle’s rise to fame was not instant. In the fourth century, Emperor Julian wrote a Hymn to the Mother of the Gods in which he records an interesting comment by the philosopher Xenarchus who said that Aristotle was absurd when he spoke about metaphysical principles, in particular, the nature of the human soul. Emperor Julian’s personal critique of Aristotle was not as harsh. He believed that if Aristotle’s work was brought into alignment with Plato’s then it had value. It is unclear from this brief reference whether Emperor Julian was referring to Aristotle’s dialogues that may have still been available or if he is referring to the published lecture notes.
Moving on into the next few hundred centuries, while most of Europe was plunged into an era commonly referred to as the “Dark Ages” and/or the Medieval period, Aristotle’s writings were mostly preserved by Islamic (and some Jewish) scholars. Early Christian scholars typically had more exposure to Plato, although individuals such as Saint Augustine (354 – 430), are noted for having Aristotelian influence. Augustine spent time in Persia and he studied Neoplatonism before converting to Christianity so to note Aristotle’s influence in this instance is not surprising.
Exactly how and when more Aristotelian ideas were incorporated into Christianity is a bit fuzzy, suffice to say, that as the Medieval period evolved, Aristotle’s influence on the Church was crystallised through the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). Aquinas was originally from Italy, studied in France, and was ordained in Germany. He wrote a summary of Christian theology (if you can call a 4000+ page document – modern typeface, PDF format – a summary!) Aquinas’ Summa Theologica quotes Aristotle directly around 400 times. In comparison, Plato only gets mentioned about 150.
Aquinas’ life marks a point in time when education was becoming more formalised through the establishment of universities like those that we know of today, for example the University of Paris that Aquinas attended was established 1160-1250. More crucially, another point to note is that Aquinas and the emerging universities began to have access to Aristotle’s work that had been passed down through Greco-Roman lines and works that had been preserved by Islamic scholars. Thus, rather than a broad range of subjects being covered by numerous philosophers, Aristotelian texts offered the bulk of what was considered a complete education, especially in regards to the liberal arts.
In a nutshell, education of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods was a Latinised version of Aristotelian theories treated as gospel. From Aquinas’ integrating of Aristotle’s metaphysics into Christian doctrine through to biological treaties on plants, animals, and humans, Aristotle was considered to be a genius of all time. Moreover, Aristotle’s focus on logical, rational thinking, and empirical observations were the rhetorics of justifying why his views should be accepted. From the royal palace in Spain to the clergy in Rome, and throughout the Byzantine Empire, Aristotle’s works were a stable curriculum. Having said that, only about 5% of the European population were educated (the statistics are slightly higher in Italian regions where closer to 10% of the population were educated; these places maintained more of the Roman education system than elsewhere. It was also more likely for Italian women to receive a formal education in Italy than elsewhere around Europe, that is until the witch hunts began).
The educated were predominantly men of privilege. They were priests and anyone of noble birth who were in an elitist position. There are a few references to nuns and women in royal households studying Aristotle but they are few and far between.
As previously mentioned, in Politics Aristotle claims that men are naturally superior to women, and men who can engage with philosophical topics are naturally superior to men who have labouring occupations. Therefore, given that these concepts were standard teachings given to educated men, the system itself was maintained by insisting that women of all classes and men who worked in labouring jobs (i.e., farming, blacksmithing, and other crafts) were unsuited to education. Aristotle taught these discriminating theories based on “empirical” observations. He observed that slaves had more muscle mass than philosophers, who supposedly had more intelligence, therefore he concluded it was only natural that the former should work on tools while the latter tell them how to do the work.
The level of influence Aristotle had on European culture was quaintly captured by writer and poet, Dante, who echoed the sentiment that practical skills were inferior to thinking, moreover, men who used their intellect were considered to be closer to God (God = the Primal Goodness who brought mankind into existence):
‘I am referring to actions, which are regulated by political judgment, and to products, which are shaped by practical skill; all of these are subordinate to thinking as the best activity of which the Primal Goodness brought mankind into existence. This sheds light on that statement in the Politics that “men of vigorous intellect naturally rule over others”‘
(Monarchy, Book 1, part 3)
It may be deduced that, for multiple centuries, the average person had no idea who Aristotle was but nonetheless they lived within religious, political, and cultural environments that were formed around his ideas. In other words, Aristotle’s philosophies set the tone for social values, laws, and other areas of life. One can only wonder how different things may have been if another philosopher or a broader range of theories were circulated. I’ve said it once, but its worth saying again, Aristotle’s influence cannot be understated and Aristotle was wrong about a lot of things. His cosmology and physics were not only accepted without question, in some cases, disagreeing with Aristotelian thought could result in retributions from the Church (e.g., Galileo and Copernicus).
In some circumstances, it must have taken a lot of effort to believe Aristotle’s “wisdom” when there was concrete evidence available to easily be demonstrated as false, like both men and women have the same cranial sutures, was as easy as examining the a few skulls. However, there was also a period in time when the Church forbid autopsies, hence, reliance upon Aristotle’s descriptions of anatomy was all people (in particular, physicians) had to go on.
With cultish belief in Aristotle being the norm, it’s not that surprising even more outlandish claims were also believed. My personal favourite in the category Aristotle’s outlandish claims is the one about how menstruating woman could tarnish a mirror by looking simply looking at it. When I mention this one to people in conversation they usually burst out laughing. However, this was no laughing matter to devout scholars like Aquinas. Not only did he believe Aristotle was completely correct about the menstruating women and mirror theory, he followed it up by saying it proved that old ladies could damage the souls of young children simply by looking at them. Hmm, kind of reminds me of the concept of the evil eye that fuelled witch hunts … I’d like to say more about this but it’s better left for a blog of its own (see here).
Interestingly, it was not until Aristotle’s theories were rejected that significant developments took place in science, religion, and, in turn, culture. Some people believe Aristotle held up scientific development for 2000 years, and while this may be an exaggeration, there may also be some truth in it.
A major game changer was Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) who, in 1517 pinned his thesis to the door of a small church in Germany, thus sparking the reformation. Luther’s criticism of the Church were inevitably rejections of Aristotle’s philosophies pertaining to the nature of a human soul. Further, Luther was deeply concerned about Aristotle being taught at universities. Specifically, as reported by Robert Stan in The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Luther spoke against the decision made by the faculty of liberal arts at the University of Paris, to include all of Aristotle’s known writings in their curriculum. Whilst the Catholic Church appalled Aquinas for Christianising Aristotle, the Islamic world praised Averroes for Islamicising Aristotle. To Luther, Aristotle was, quite simply, a pagan. Luther fell short of calling out Aristotle’s sexist attitudes, but nonetheless he was a key player in getting the ball rolling.
Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) is one of the first recorded academics to directly oppose Aristotle’s gender assumptions, which he eloquently did in a book titled Defence of Good Women.
Rene Decartes (1596 – 1650) is another important character who successfully questioned Aristotle’s authority. Descartes is considered by many to be the father of modern science. An examination of his work quickly reveals why. He successfully defined the difference between philosophy and science, and in doing so turned cultural acceptance of Aristotle’s works on its head. From Descartes’ foundational work many other scholars followed, such as Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and François Poulain (1648–1723).
However, despite the work of many dedicated scholars in search of truth, in the nineteen century, Friedrich Tiedemann (1781-1861) was still questioning why Aristotle’s biology lessons were still being taught even though it was well and truly known he was often wrong. Likewise, from a psychology and mental health perspective I wonder why Aristotle’s philosophies about the human mind, sensations, and emotions are still given credence?
In many instances it is not a case of Aristotle’s psychology theories being taught “we believe human beings behave/think/feel in such-a-such manner because Aristotle said so” (although I have come across one university lecturer who presented a lesson in that way). Rather, once one is aware of Aristotle’s work it is clear to see the chain of influence. For instance, Freud’s psychology lecturer at the University of Vienna was a Catholic Priest called Franz Brentano; Brentano was a devout fan of Aristotle and introduced Freud to his philosophies. Is it just a coincidence that Freud divided the human mind up into two categories (the id and superego) and Aristotle also referred to the soul as being divided up into two categories (the passionate soul and the rational soul)? Likewise, is it just a coincidence that Freud claimed men had more “superego” compared to women and Aristotle claimed men had more “rational soul” compared to women? I think not. And so the Aristotelian influence on psychological sciences continues in subtle ways through the credence given to individuals like Freud who come from an Aristotelian background. (I’ve written a peer-reviewed paper that can be found here that goes into more detail about negative consequences of following flawed interpretations of Ancient Greek philosophy.)
It is my humble view that the situation is nuanced by Aristotelian influence being so deeply embedded into cultures (namely those with Christian, Islamic, and Jewish heritages) that it is not recognised where certain attitudes and assumptions first came from. In order to rectify the situation, critically revisiting Aristotle’s theories and comparing them to contemporary research is a prudent step to take. Aristotle’s philosophies are a belief system and the fundamental ideology that underpins his writing needs to be recognised in order to see its potential value and harm.
Big Picture Questions
To conclude, I firmly believe Aristotle was a great man and I find much of his work is utterly fascinating. His works provide a precious insight into a particular type of thinking that existed over 2000 years ago, however, there were many other philosophies from antiquity that are also worthy of admiration and attention. For starters, the Pythagoraean and Epicurean philosophers had some great things to say about mathematics, ethics, and equality of the genders … hmm, I wonder why the 5% of the educated people in the Medieval period neglected their ideas when formalising religious doctrines and education curriculums?
I can’t help but wonder if there is a link between systemic sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice embedded in contemporary culture that can be traced back to historical support for Aristotle’s psychology? There is probably no simple answer to such a question, but I believe there is sufficient historic evidence to support the need to consider the possibility that Aristotle has been overrated.
While it is tempting to shame Aristotle and berate him for being an arrogant, sexist man who who used illogical premises to justify misogyny and racial discrimination, I don’t believe it is fair to do so. Ultimately, Aristotle never intended his work to be published and we have no copy of the works that he did intentionally publish. As a teacher, I feel a certain sympathy for this man who is a founders of my craft. I shudder at the thought that my teaching notes may be published after I’m dead and that I will be judged according to what is written on them. Never in my life have I written down word for word everything I intend to say in a class. There are always additional points, information I know so well I don’t need to make notes about in my lesson plans, and above all, I always intend to have discussions with my students to flesh out the topics further. I suspect Aristotle may have been similar, moreover, it is my understanding that he, and many other ancient philosophers, were also members of mysteria, that is mystery cults (e.g., Eleusinian Mystery School). Membership into such groups was dependent upon keeping secrets and to reveal knowledge that was considered sacred was punishable under Ancient Greek laws. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to speculate that Aristotle held beliefs that were not recorded in his lecture notes, or if they were then they were, they were written in code. Hence, if Aristotle’s works are lecture notes, they do not give us a full picture about Aristotelian thought. In turn, subsequent ideologies and curriculums based on Aristotle’s works can be considered as products of biased interpretations, as opposed to proof that Aristotle was a genius who deserves to be given a higher rating than other ancient philosophers.
Is Aristotle’s work overrated? I’d say a firm, yes! Ancient Greek philosophy was about debating ideas, not placing one man’s (misogynistic) opinions above all others.