Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism
by Thomas Inman, M.D. (1874)
Appendix: The Assyrian Grove and other emblems,
by John Newton, M.R.C.S.
Appendix - Page 2
We proceed now to investigate the more primitive emblems. The origin of life is, even to us, with all our lights, as great a mystery as it was to the ancients. To the primitive races of mankind the formation of a new being appeared to be a constant miracle, and men very naturally used as tokens of life, and even worshipped, those objects or organs by which the miracle appeared to be wrought. Thus, the glorious sun, that "god of this world," the source of life and light to our earth, was early adored, and an effigy thereof used as a symbol. Mankind watched with rapture its rays gain strength daily in the Spring, until the golden glories of Midsummer had arrived, when the earth was bathed during the longest days in his beams, which ripened the fruits that his returning course had started into life. When the sun once more began its course downwards to the Winter solstice, his votaries sorrowed, for he seemed to sicken and grow paler at the advent of December, when his rays scarcely reached the earth, and all nature, benumbed and cold, sunk into a death-like sleep. Hence feasts and fasts were instituted to mark the commencement of the various phases of the solar year, which have continued from the earliest known period, under various names, to our own times.
The daily disappearance and the subsequent rise of the sun, appeared to many of the ancients as a true resurrection; thus, while the east came to be regarded as the source of light and warmth, happiness and glory, the west was associated with darkness and chill, decay and death. This led to the common custom of burying the dead so as to face the east when they rose again, and of building temples and shrines with an opening towards the east. To effect this, Vitruvius, two thousand years ago, gave precise rules, which are still followed by Christian architects.
Sun-worship was spread all over the ancient world. It mingled with other faiths and assumed many forms.§ Of the elements, fire was naturally chosen as its earthly symbol. A sacred fire, at first miraculously kindled, and subsequently kept up by the sedulous care of priests or priestesses, formed an important part of the religions of Judea, Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome, and the superstition lingers amongst us still.
§ We may point out that, according to all the Gospels, Christ expired towards sunset, and the sun became eclipsed as he was dying. He rose again exactly at daybreak.
So late as the advent of the Reformation, a sacred fire was kept ever burning on a shrine at Kildare, in Ireland, and attended by virgins of high rank, called "inghean au dagha," or daughters of fire. Every year is the ceremony repeated at Jerusalem of the miraculous kindling of the Holy Fire at the reputed sepulchre, and men and women crowd to light tapers at the sacred flame, which they pass through with a naked body. Indeed, solar myths form no unimportant part of ancient mythology. Thus the death of nature in the winter time, through the withdrawal of the sun, was supposed to be caused by the mourning of the earth-goddess over the sickness and disappearance into the realms of darkness of her husband and mate, the sun.
Mr. Fox Talbot has lately given the translation of an Egyptian poem, more than three thousand years old, and having for its subject the descent of Ishtar into Hades. To this region of darkness and death the goddess goes in search of her beloved Osiris, or Tammuz. This Ishtar is identical with the Assyrian female in the celestial quartette, the later Phoenician Astarte, "The Queen of Heaven with crescent horns," the moon-goddess, also with the Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus; and the Egyptian legend reappears in the west as the mourning of Venus for the loss of Adonis.
Again, the fable of Ceres mourning the death of her daughter Proserpine is another sun-myth. The Roman Ceres was the Greek [—————], Mother Earth, who through the winter time wanders inconsolable. Persephone, her daughter, is the vegetable world, whose seeds or roots lie concealed underground in the darkness of winter. These, when Spring comes with its brightness, bud forth and dwell in the realms of light during a part of the year, and provide ample nourishment for men and animals with their fruits. The sun, being the active fructifying cause in nature, was generally regarded as male. Thus, in the Jewish scriptures, he is compared to "a bridegroom coming out of his chamber" (Ps. xix. 5), i.e., as a man full of generative, procreative vigour. The moon and the earth, being receptive were naturally regarded as female.
At the vernal equinox, the ancients celebrated the bridal of the sun and the earth. Yet, inasmuch as the orbs of heaven and the face of nature remain the same from year to year, and perpetually renew light and life, themselves remaining fresh in vigour and unharmed by age, the ancients conceived the bride and mate of the sun-god as continuing ever virgin. Again, as the ancient month was always reckoned by the interval between one new moon and the next,—an interval which also marks a certain recurring event in women, that ceases at once on the occurrence of pregnancy,—the lunar crescent became a symbol of virginity, and as such adorns the brow of the Greek Artemis and Roman Diana. This was used as a talisman at a very remote period, and was fixed over the doors of the early lake-dwellers in Switzerland, like the horse-shoe is to modern side-posts. With the sun and moon were often associated the five visible planets, forming a sacred seven,—a figure which is continually cropping up in religious emblems.
So much for the great cosmic symbols of Life. But the primitive races of mankind found others nearer home, and still more suggestive—the generative parts in the two sexes, by the union of which all animated life, and mankind, the most interesting of all to human beings, appeared to be created. This reverence for, or worship of, the organs of generation, has been traced to a very early period in the history of the human race. In a bone-cave recently excavated near Venice, and beneath its ten feet of stalagmite, were found bones of animals, flint implements, a bone needle, and a phallus in baked clay. And if we turn to those savage tribes who still reproduce for us the prehistoric past, this form of religious symbolism meets as everywhere. In Dahomey, beyond the Ashantees, it is, according to Captain Barton, most uncomfortably prominent. In every street of their settlements are priapic figures. The "Tree of Life" is anointed with palm oil, which drips into a pot or shard placed below it, and the would-be mother of children prays before the image that the great god Legba would make her fertile.
Burton tells us that he peeped into an Egba temple or lodge, and found it a building with three courts, of which the innermost was a sort of holy of holies. Its doors had carvings on them of a leopard, a fish, a serpent, and a land tortoise. The first two of these are female symbols, the two latter emblems of the male. There were also two rude figures representing their god Obatala, the deity of life, who is worshipped under two forms, a male and a female. Opposite to these was the male symbol or phallus, conjoined in coitu with the female emblem. Du Chaillu met with some tribes in Africa who adore the female only. His guide, he informs us, carried a hideous little image of wood with him, and at every meal he would take the little fetish out of his pocket, and pour a libation over its feet before he would drink himself.
We know that a similar superstition prevailed in Ireland long after the advent of Christianity. There a female, pointing to her symbol, was placed over the portal of many a church as a protector from evil spirits; and the elaborate though rude manner in which these figures were sculptured shows that they were considered as objects of great importance. It was the universal practice among the Arabs of Northern Africa to stick up over the door of their house or tent the genital parts of a cow, mare, or female camel, as a talisman to avert the influence of the evil eye. The figure of this organ being less definite than that of the male, it has assumed in symbolism very various forms. The commonest substitution for the part itself has been a horse-shoe, which is to this day fastened over many of the doors of stables and shippons in the country, and was formerly supposed to protect the cattle from witchcraft. From a lively story by Beroalde de Verville, we learn that in France a sight of the female organ was believed, as late as the sixteenth century, to be a powerful charm in curing any disease in, and for prolonging the life of, the fortunate beholder.
As civilisation advanced, the gross symbols of creative power were cast aside, and priestly ingenuity was taxed to the utmost in inventing a crowd of less obvious emblems, which should represent the ancient ideas in a decorous manner. The old belief was retained, but in a mysterious or sublimated form. As symbols of the male, or active element in creation, the sun, light, fire, a torch, the phallus or linga, an erect serpent, a tall straight tree, especially the palm and the fir or pine, were adopted. Equally useful for symbolism were a tall upright stone (menhir), a cone, a pyramid, a thumb or finger pointed straight, a mast, a rod, a trident, a narrow bottle or amphora, a bow, an arrow, a lance, a horse, a bull, a lion, and many other animals conspicuous for masculine power. As symbols of the female, the passive though fruitful element in creation, the crescent moon, the earth, darkness, water, and its emblem a triangle with the apex downwards, "the yoni," a shallow vessel or cup for pouring fluid into (cratera), a ring or oval, a lozenge, any narrow cleft, either natural or artificial, an arch or doorway, were employed. In the same category of symbols came a ship or boat, the female date-palm bearing fruit, a cow with her calf by her side, the fish, fruits having many seeds, such as the pomegranate, a shell (concha), a cavern, a garden, a fountain, a bower, a rose, a fig, and other things of suggestive form, etc.
These two great classes of conventional symbols were often represented in conjunction with each other, and thus symbolised in the highest degree the great source of life, ever originating, ever renewed. The Egyptian temple at Denderah has lately been explored by M. Mariette. In a niche of the Holy of Holies he discovered the sacred secret. This was simply a golden sistrum (see ante, pp. 44 and 70), an emblem formed by uniting the female oval O with the male sacred Tau T; and thus identical in meaning with the coarse emblem seen by Captain Burton in the African idol temple. A similar emblem is the linga standing in the centre of a yoni, the adoration of which is to this day characteristic of the leading dogma of Hindu religion. There is scarcely a temple in India which has not its lingam; and in numerous instances this symbol is the only form under which the great god Siva is worshipped. (See ante, pp. 72, 78.)
The linga is generally a tall, polished, cylindrical, black stone, apparently inserted into another stone formed like an elongated saucer, though in reality the whole is sculptured out of one block of basalt. The outline of the frame, which reminds us of a Jew's harp (the conventional form of the female member), is termed argha or yoni. The former, or round perpendicular stone, the type of the virile organ, is the linga. The entire symbol, to which the name lingyoni is given, is also occasionally called lingam. This representative of the union of the sexes typifies the divine sacti, or productive energy, in union with the procreative, generative power seen throughout nature. The earth was the primitive pudendum, or yoni, which is fecundated by the solar heat, the sun, the primitive linga, to whose vivifying rays man and animals, plants and the fruits of the earth, owe their being and continued existence. These "lingas" vary in size from the tiny amulets worn about the neck, to the great monoliths of the temples. Thus the lingam is an emblem of the Creator, the fountain of all life, who is represented in Hindu mythology as uniting in Himself the two sexes.