“I do not know much about gods,” wrote T.S. Eliot in The Dry Salvages, “but I think that the river is a strong brown god.” Eliot was a devout Anglican, but he lived at a time when classical education and a self-confidence long since vanished from today’s Christianity still gave Christian thinkers and creative minds room to allow Pagan religious metaphors free play in their work.
The same ease that allowed him and his Christian contemporaries to move at will between Pagan and Christian religious visions was just as common in the nascent Pagan scene of the time. Eliot’s contemporary Dion Fortune, whose writings played a central role in the birth of modern Pagan spirituality, also wrote a work of Christian devotional literature — Mystical Meditations on the Collects — without sensing, or being accused of, the least inconsistency. To Fortune, and in a different sense to Eliot as well, Christianity and Paganism were simply different ways of talking about spiritual realities and relationships that could not be reduced to a single symbolic formula.
Those times are unhappily long past. During the second half of the 20th century, most Christian denominations in the Western world responded to the re-emergence of Pagan religion by reviving centuries-old stereotypes of devil worship or, at best, restricting their efforts at interreligious dialogue to a narrow circle of “world religions” hedged in by definitions that exclude today’s reborn Pagan faiths. Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine an Anglican poet anywhere this side of heresy wielding Pagan religious metaphors with Eliot’s aplomb. The same narrowing of options can be found on the other side of the newly raised barrier, for that matter; Pagan writers nowadays are far more likely to craft extended diatribes about the misbehaviour of Christian churches in the past than to explore, as Dion Fortune did, the interpenetration of Pagan and Christian religious experience.
It’s anyone’s guess when, or whether, this sorry state of affairs will end. Still, there are exceptions to the generalisations just made. Some Christians have made serious efforts to grasp the nature of Pagan religious consciousness, just as some Pagans have tried to understand Christianity as a valid religious expression that doesn’t happen to be theirs. There are also those who feel called to a faith that blends Pagan and Christian traditions, and despite the hostility such ventures too often receive, their number is growing. From such initiatives, with luck and the blessing of the gods, a wider context of mutual tolerance and acceptance may someday arise.
My own background places me in a complex relationship to this hope. I am a Pagan even in the strictest Christian sense of the word; that is, I have not been baptised, nor have I ever belonged to a Christian church of any kind. I grew up in a comfortably secular milieu in one of the least religious parts of the United States; among the families on the block where I lived for much of my childhood, for example, only one went to church on Sundays.
When Christianity finally came to my attention, it was by way of the strident evangelical revival that swept over America in the late Seventies. Instead, like much of my generation, I explored other paths — atheism, Asian religions, a handful of the new religious movements — before finding my spiritual home; in my case this was on the far end of the religious spectrum, in that branch of the alternative spiritual scene that embraces the name and draws on the inspiration of the ancient Druids.
The modern Druid movement has a complex and quirky history of its own, reaching back to the 18th century, when it evolved out of a collision between liberal Anglicanism, nature worship, and fragments of Celtic tradition. It inherits from its origins a distrust of dogmatism that has made it a haven for eccentrics and a nightmare for would-be systematisers. Even so simple a question as the number of deities Druids worship — one, two, many, none — finds nearly as many answers as there are Druids. At the core of most visions of the contemporary Druid way, though, lies a sense that living nature is the least murky expression of the divine accessible to human beings. We may not agree about much else, but the shorthand creed drafted by one Druid tradition wins almost universal assent: “Nature is good.”
This apparent platitude has depths that may not appear to a casual glance. It’s not a statement of fact, since nature routinely violates most conventional human ideas of goodness. Rather, it’s the first postulate in a system of values. By taking living nature as our basic measure of the good, the qualities expressed by nature — wholeness, flow, spontaneity, elegance, and the like — become core values that can be expressed in the life of each Druid. Equally, the central role of nature in Druid thought makes symbols and imagery derived from nature equally central in contemporary Druid myth, ritual and practice.
This may appear worlds apart from Christianity in its modern forms. In the hands of an almost forgotten tradition of 19th-century Pagan thought, however, it forms an unexpected bridge crossing the chasm that now separates the religious visions of Paganism and Christianity.
Very few of today’s Pagans, and even fewer contemporary Christians, have ever heard of the redoubtable Welsh author and Druid Owen Morgan. In his day, though, Morgan — Archdruid Morien of Pontypridd, to use his religious title — was a prominent figure on the far end of British spirituality, with a substantial following in Great Britain and the United States. Those who like to imagine the Victorian era as a glacial landscape of conformity and sexual repression should stay far away from Morgan’s writings, and especially his 1887 textbook of Druid philosophy and theology, The Light in Britannia, which argued that Christianity was a Pagan fertility cult.
Morgan himself did not put the matter quite so baldly. He argued, rather, that the core of all true religion was the worship of the life force; that the most prominent emblems of the life force — in the macrocosm, Sun and Earth; in the microcosm, the male and female genitals — were the foundation of all religious symbolism, in Pagan as well as Christian traditions; and that Christianity was simply a restatement of the old Pagan gnosis of fertility and new life. He considered himself a good Christian as well as a Druid, and saw nothing inappropriate in attending church regularly. For him, after all, the church was a stone representation of the vagina of the Earth goddess, its portal facing east to welcome the virile and penetrating rays of the rising Sun: the Bride of Christ, in another symbolism, eagerly awaiting her heavenly bridegroom.
Ideas such as these were far from unique to Morgan, or for that matter to the Druidry of his time. Behind his book lay more than a century of pioneering explorations of the origins of human religion, and the rise of two major schools of thought — one arguing for an astrological and seasonal origin to religion and myth, the other tracing all religion and myth back to what was primly called “the worship of the generative powers” — that many alternative thinkers of his time were trying to reconcile. Some of these had already taken the final, daring step of including Christianity in their syntheses, though none ever quite managed to equal Morgan’s flair or his genius for deadpan humour. Despite this, Morgan’s own cultural impact has gone surprisingly unnoticed. You can read any number of histories of the rise of modern Neopaganism, for example, and never learn that The Light in Britannia was the first modern expression of a fertility religion that places a single god, a single goddess, and their sexual relationship at the centre of its spiritual vision — a pattern that became popular after its publication, and eventually took definitive form with Gerald Gardner’s invention of Wicca.
The broader tradition of seasonal and sexual religious interpretation has had a little more visibility in recent times, not least because it helped shape important works of scholarship such as James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Still, such interpretations have been unfashionable in scholarly circles for some decades now. This is unfortunate, for however overblown some of the old analyses may have been — and Morgan’s were among the most colourful, it must be admitted — they capture a crucial factor in ancient Pagan religions that is also amply present in the origins of Christianity.
The “strong brown god” in Eliot’s The Dry Salvages, for instance, offers a useful starting place. To any Pagan in ancient times, Eliot’s recognition was so obvious that it scarcely required mentioning. Of course, rivers were deities — gods to the ancient Greeks, for example, and goddesses to the ancient Celts. Other natural phenomena were equally full of divinity. An ancient Greek who wanted to comment on wet weather would as likely as not say “Zeus is raining”.
Whatever else Zeus was in classical Greek religion, in other words, he was always, in part, the sky as a conscious and potent divine being. Poseidon was similarly the ocean, Demeter the fertile earth, Aphrodite sexuality in all its forms, Pan the raw unhuman presence of wilderness, and so on. Even through the elegant literary constructions of late classical myth, it’s not difficult to see each god and goddess as a distinct force of nature with its own power to shape the weaving of the fabric of human life.
The same principle applies in a different way to a class of beings the Greeks carefully distinguished from the gods — the heroes or demigods, who were born of loves between a god or goddess and a mortal. Each of these embodied one of the realms where the human and natural worlds fused into unity. The twelve labours of Heracles, for instance, echo precisely the seasonal movement of the Sun through the signs of the Zodiac as reflected in the agricultural cycle — compare Heracles’s labours to the tasks of the Greek farmer as outlined, say, in Hesiod’s Works and Days, and it’s not too hard to make sense of the myth.
There was, of course, another god whose cult thrived in the late classical world, and the parallels linking the myth of Jesus with the seasonal cycle of agriculture are at least as precise as those that can be traced in the myth of Heracles. Just as Heracles had his 12 labours, for instance, Jesus had his 12 disciples, whose connection with the signs of the zodiac has been a commonplace of Christian symbolism for many centuries.
Yet the mythic narratives that surround Jesus have the greater richness one would expect from the classical Levant, where fertility deities who die and rise again had been a commonplace of Pagan religious thought for thousands of years before the rise of ancient Greece. It’s for this reason that Jesus is paired throughout his myth with his alter ego John the Baptist. The two mirror each other seasonally; Jesus is born at the winter solstice and dies in the spring, the harvest time in the eastern Mediterranean, suspended above the earth like the ripe grain on the stalk; John is born at the summer solstice and dies in the autumn, the planting time, beheaded in a prison beneath the earth, like the seed that goes to its burial behind the ploughshare’s iron blade. “He must increase,” John says of Jesus, “while I must decrease.”
Evidence for this interpretation of Christian myth is abundant in the Bible and other early Christian sources. Jesus’s traditional birthplace is in Bethlehem, for example, a town whose name literally means “house of bread” in Hebrew, and the central act of traditional Christian ritual centres on eating the bread that is Jesus’s body and drinking the wine that is his blood. (John has no similar ritual attributed to him, since one does not eat the seed corn or the rootstock of the grapevine.) “I have come that they might have life,” Jesus says in the Bible, “and that they might have it more abundantly.” Any other fertility deity could have said as much, and it’s only the intellectual distance that separates us from the context of early Christianity that makes so many people nowadays think that the “life” Jesus spoke of is a spiritual abstraction.
Christianity, it must be remembered, had its birth in the bustling spiritual marketplace of the classical Mediterranean world, where religious metaphors of this sort were commonplaces of contemporary thought. The mystery religions, which offered salvation to those who sought union with a god or a goddess through rituals of initiation and communion, were among the most powerful religious forces of the time, and nearly all of them focused on exactly this kind of agricultural symbolism. Thus it’s hardly a leap to suggest, as so many scholars of myth have suggested, that the precise parallels between Christianity and the other mystery religions, and the rich agricultural symbolism of Christianity itself, show that the original Christian faith may well have been something not far from what Owen Morgan claimed it to be: a mystery cult venerating the life force in nature, expressed through a rich mythic symbolism, that became associated through a complex historical process with the events of the life and death of an otherwise obscure Jewish religious reformer.
The relationship between the mythic role assigned to Jesus and the sparse historical traces left by his life is a challenging issue for many modern versions of Christianity. Some theologies refuse to draw any distinction between myth and history — if the Bible says that Jesus rose into heaven, according to these interpretations, then that’s what happened, and if television reporters had been there, they could have filmed it for the five o’clock news. Others draw a distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith”, though data on the former is so sparse that it can be, and has been, redefined to fit any of a dizzying assortment of modern agendas. Still others have come to reject the idea that a historical Jesus existed in the first place.
If Christianity was originally a mystery cult focused on the life force, though, these confusions evaporate. Whatever historical reality might have formed the kernel around which the Jesus myth emerged — and in all probability no one will ever know what that reality was — the spiritual meaning of the myth is not dependent on that reality. In Morgan’s sense, there is no question as to the factual nature of the resurrection of Jesus, since it takes place in every sunrise and in the sprouting of every seed. The historical figure around which the myth coalesced is simply not that important; there was doubtless some dimly remembered historical figure at the root of the myth of Heracles, too.
The claim that Christianity’s dying and resurrected god was a historical person who lived in the very recent past, rather than a wholly mythic figure, played an important role historically in giving the new-born Christian church an edge over its competitors. When the fall of Rome dragged the classical world to ruin, however, the elegant mythic metaphors that had made Christianity the most successful of the Pagan mystery religions were reinterpreted in blindly literal terms. Later on, in the Reformation and afterward, these metaphors lost the last of their original meaning, and were transformed into bloodless ideologies completely detached from the seasonal and vegetative context that once gave them their power.
Nowadays, the obscure historical figure of Jesus lies in the distant past, and attempts to force a literal meaning out of those narratives have long since crossed over into absurdity. The widespread modern notion of the Rapture, in which believing Christians will soon be beamed up to heaven by some miraculous equivalent of Star Trek’s transporter beams, is a troubling case in point. It’s a lightly disguised fantasy of mass suicide — when someone tells their children that Grandma has gone to heaven to be with Jesus, most people understand what that means — and its popularity suggests that the conflict between overly literal interpretations of Christianity’s exuberant seasonal myths and the awkward solidity of a world that refuses to fit those interpretations may finally have become too great for many Christians to bear.
Efforts to reconnect Christianity with its origins as a mystery religion of life and fertility have been going on for more than two centuries now, and might have succeeded in revitalising the old myths and rituals, except for one detail: Nearly all these attempts aimed at discrediting Christianity as just another Pagan fertility cult, and therefore unworthy of respect. It took a believer in a different Pagan fertility cult, Owen Morgan, to realise that the equation could be worked the other way. He saw, as a handful of visionaries since his time have seen, that the ancient worship of the life force is a potent and valid spiritual option in its own right, and that Christian ritual and symbols can readily carry this primal constellation of meanings.
It is only fair to say that many other interpretations of Christianity are possible; many people will find some other way of approach to the Christian faith more relevant to their own spiritual lives, and many others will find no need to approach the Christian faith at all. Central to the old Paganism was the realisation that different people are called to worship different deities, and the corresponding sense that each person has the right and the duty to pursue his or her own religious path within a context of respect and toleration for the deities of others. Still, for those who feel drawn to the rituals and symbolism of Christianity, the vision of Jesus as an image of the ever-returning life force, and of Christianity as a mystery cult that need not conflict with a wider reverence for the divine presence in the world, may offer unexpected possibilities.
A version of this essay appeared in Beyond the Narratives: Essays on Occultism and the Future (Aeon Books),
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