A Symposium of Six Perspectives on the Archaic Religious Period

Religion: The Ancient, or “Archaic,” Pattern - A Symposium of Six Perspectives on the Archaic Religious Period
The archaic stage of the religious life, dating from about 8,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE, is found worldwide. Comparative religion studies most often say that it follows the primitive stage and precedes the historical stage of the great world religions. It peaked after 3,000 BCE in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as well as India, China and Japan, but flourished later among the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, and native American peoples. Disputes remain as to the essential nature of archaic religion so rather than siding with any one interpretation, the following summarizes six slightly different perspectives from which to view the many facets of this bedrock religious pattern.
Robert Bellah's Sociological Perspective
Archaic religious life differs in striking ways from the primitive. In primitive settings one finds no towns or cities, no writing, literacy or teachers, no specialized craft-differentiation. The economy depends upon hunting and gathering with little domestication of animals. There are no gods in the religious symbol system, only spirits and totemic ancestors. Their religious action has no sacrifice, only dances for fertility, or the”walkabout” to visit ancestral totem's ”stopping places,” and to reconnect or fuse. It is a one class society. There is little leverage for social change. An archaic world is more far more differentiated. It has settled living in villages, towns and cities. It has writing, agriculture, craft-specialization, gods, priests, sacrifices and two classes in society—patrician kings and priests on the one hand, plebeian commoners on the other. The symbol system still lacks the idea of two worlds—this world and the other. Gods are almost within reach in caves, clouds, mountains, wilderness and temples. In a primitive setting, the world is a “one possibility thing,” but in the archaic tensions between classes occasioned social change. Also, priests, by using augury, divination and omen-reading to make moral decisions, exercised leverage for social reform. The archaic created large scale warfare and geographically extensive empires. It is also available on line through J stor.
Owen Barfield's Psychological Perspective
Barfield emphasizes that the archaic age was above all defined by people living in a psychological sense of “original participation” Barfield defined original participation as “the sense that there stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, ...something of like nature with me...psychic and voluntary.”. Hence, consciousness and matter always dwelt together in any phenomenal object; they co-mingled or “participated.” The physical form of a mountain was not just a physical thing; It was the appearance of the mountain god who dwelt in it or lurked around it; it was the god's body or image--his/her appearance. Similarly, the sun, moon, earth, rocks, rivers and the rice growing in lakes and rivers were manifestations of divine beings with feelings and will. Furthermore, through “invisible silver threads,” as it were, gods could emit powers into fetish objects, thereby charging special sticks, stones or weeds with the power to heal or curse. And they also beamed into you, too, personality traits, moods and illnesses. If you felt quick, it was Mercury; if melancholy, Saturn; if combative, Mars; if expansive, Jupiter; if loving, Venus. To them the seven spheres of heaven were draped around them like a cloak. Pre-perspectival art expressed this sense of envelopment and permeability. The impermeable individual, the modern sense of an islanded, walled-off ego, arose for most only during the Renaissance in the late stages of the evaporation of original participation. Art styles and subjects changed after 1400 and became humanistically centered. Language changed, too. All archaic word-meanings had this primordial participation built into them. So hearing the word “tree” called to mind a spirit-appearance. That was what the signifier signified. The Sioux word for the cottonwood tree (wagachun) called to mind that one of the standing peoples who liked tobacco smoke and gave courage when used as the center pole for the sun dance. Likewise, they “minted” all the phenomena of their world from the controlling agreement that matter and consciousness participated everywhere. Before modernity, words carried a sense of participation. We today use unparticipated words to construct items in our world. We figurate “its,” not “thous.” We cannot feel that a tree is a god-spirit; but given the inherent connotations of their words, they could not help feeling it.
Henri Frankfort's Philosophical Perspective
This Dutch archaeologist (b. 1897), anthropologist and cultural historian specializing in ancient Egypt, stresses the limitations of archaic thinking. They lived before the dawn of philosophical thinking. They had great powers of imagination and thought a lot but within the box of a mythopoeic mode of thought (myth-making). They exhibit five habits of thought that we have largely dropped. First, concepts were substantialized—were imagined as physically existing. “Life,” for example, was felt to be a glob, like putty, adhering to a person somewhere inside, like oatmeal sticking to your ribs. Similarly with luck, eloquence, courage or a sense of justice. By ritually eating corn bread each morning, the pharaohs of Egypt were thought to imbibe justice, since corn bread was an appearance of the goddess of justice, Ma'at. Second, they made any association between two things into a possible causal explanation. Every resemblance of appearance, color or sound—every contact in space or time, establishes a connection. If a pregnant woman saw snake's heads raised up in a Pueblo Kiva ceremony, this might cause the fetus to raise its head and be born the wrong way. Sticking a pin in a voodoo doll might actually pierce the person resembling the doll. Sympathetic and contagious magic were thus part of archaic associationist thinking. A common form of causal association was “predicate confusion.” Here any two things sharing the same predicate were associated and therefore might be seen as the same thing or even the whole class of things. A black cat, the black plague and a black knight might all be bringers of death, expressions of the god of death. Or all red heads might have a fiery temper. Third, they did not insist on one logical explanation for something as has been fashionable since the time of Greek philosophy. They accepted many emotionally satisfying explanations of how the sun got up in the sky and juxtaposed them side by side in their texts. Fourth, Frankfort, like Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, asserts that they were indifferent to “secondary causation,” that is, non-spirit explanations. They explained things straight away by reference to spirits. Fifth, they experienced emotional, qualitative time and space, not space or time in general. Mythopoeic thought does not abstract out a general concept of space as uniform measurement units, or of time as uniform duration. Localities have emotional color—alien, friendly, sacred. Different times and different qualities of light during the day, have different spirits in them. They do not ever speak of a succession of qualitatively indifferent moments of time, or homogeneous, even space.
Mythopoeic thought also lacked five distinctions that are built into modern thought. First, they had not reached the stage of effectively differentiating between appearance and reality. Dream experiences were not taken to be less real than waking experiences. To be effective was to be real. Second, mythopoeic thought lacks a distinction between a symbol and what it stood for. They did not conceive of symbols as signifying yet being separate from objects. They did not consider that the connecting relationship was only established in their minds and was separate from the objects. Thus, a person's name was an essential part of him, not just a symbolic, mental connection having nothing to do, really, with the person. A lock of hair is pregnant with the whole significance of the person. Third, there was no distinction between a real act and a ritual one. Ritual bowls with the names of hostile kings on them were solemnly smashed with the object that enemies should die. Egyptians felt that real harm was done by the destruction of their names. They also sought to destroy detrimental dreams, plans, thoughts, rumors, as we would say, “ritually.” Ritual acts like anointing the bricks used for a building were a part of construction on the same footing as other work, and there were rituals, addressed to gods, for firing the bricks and mixing in the straw. Fourth, it lacks the distinction between subjective and objective knowledge. Ancient man did not have alongside his sense perceptions another set of conceptions about what was really happening which he regarded as more true than his sense perceptions. Fifth, they lacked a distinction between specific events and general laws that were impersonal, mechanical, necessary. Instead of the natural law conception of nature, they had “the dramatic conception of nature.” For them, the succession of seasons and the movement of heavenly bodies were conceived as the signs of a life and will. The change from day to night was caused by a will. An event such as a storm was always the result of a willed action of some god or demon, possibly part of a fight between the two. Through rituals, humans would try to help divine forces.
Frankfort concludes, “Mythopoeic thought knows only life, The world is not inanimate or empty, but redundant with life—every thunderclap, shadow, cloud, or unknown clearing in the wood has individuality and confronts man as a 'Thou.' It is not that he 'peoples' inanimate things with spirits; he simply does not know the inanimate. All is experienced as life confronting life.”
Brede Kristensn's Phenomenological Perspective
Kristensen (1875-1950), a Norwegian expatriate to Holland and lifelong student of the ancient Near East, says that the key to grasp early archaic religious life is to see that what they really worshiped was the Infinite Self-Renewing Life of the Earth. This was the sort of permanent, underlying kind of life that could die and come back to life again like the brown grass and barren trees annually did. They saw this power springing from the Great Mother Goddess deep in the Earth. More than early primitive animism or later sky-god polytheism, the Great Mother, says Kristensen, dominated archaic religion. The famous Venus of Willendorf statuette of a pregnant woman, dating from 22,000 BCE, is probably the Great Mother Goddess. Goddess worship expressed itself principally in extreme, sacred respect for the many lesser, finite bearers of the earth's Life. Water, for example, could revive the life of drooping plants so it must carry an unusual measure of earth's Life. The water god may actually have been seen as a god by virtue of participating in the more fundamental life of the earth. So also many other gods. One could read the whole of Frankfort's book on Ancient Egyptian Religion in the light of this supposition and it would make great sense out of many puzzling matters. At any event, later on Holy water came into religious use. Blood, too, seemed to have more of Life than most things. Blood, shed, led to death. Blood retained in pregnancy led to new life. Bull's blood was sprinkled on the earth to increase its fertility. Again, horns died, were shed, and then grew gloriously back; hair and finger nails also continued to grow on the body even after death so they too must be special, finite, visible bearers of the Goddess's Life. Cave temples all around the Mediterranean had “the gate of horn” at their entrance. When Samson lost his long hair he lost his strength, an Old Testament echo of archaic sensibility and so also perhaps the Shofar ram's horn. Snakes could shed their skin and new skin reappeared. And they lived underground close to the Great Mother and were often depicted coiled around her arms. The moon also could fade and grow back. Mountains, too, had extraordinary life in them. They had grown from the primeval hilllocks, first above of the ocean's surface, to tower over the landscape. Egyptian pottery plates had little hillocks in the middle. Some vegetation like date palms were impressively loaded with life-giving food. Palm branches were sacred even at the time of Jesus when he entered Jerusalem on what later became Palm Sunday Evergreen trees especially possessed a potent dose of Life for they never completely lose their greenery. They are highly sacred in Japanese Shinto today. The body grows cold at death so warmth, fire, and the sun, too, must bear great life. So Germanic and Nordic peoples lit candles on evergreen trees at the winter solstice to induce the disappearing sun to return, a vestigial custom not unknown, even in suburbia today. Sacrifice, says Kristensen, was not a crass process of giving to get something back. Out of befitting respect, only Infinite Life could be offered to Infinite Life. Therefore finite life had first to be converted into Infinite Life before it could be offered. It must be killed and transformed. But only a priest who had himself undergone transformative suffering and emerged reborn as divine could take life, trans substantiate it, and offer it. Something like this probably went on in the underground initiations of Greek Elusinian mystery religions near Athens. Initiates of the Earth Mother Demeter and her daughter Persephone, died and rose again, now possessing some of Her Infinite Life. Plato himself was said to be an initiate. Christianity eventually prevailed as the mystery religion of the Mediterranean world with its historically real dying and rising God. And the Roman Catholic mass, in which the wafer and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ for eternal life, continues to give hope and meaning to millions. Archaic man, says Kristensen was neither a little philosopher trying to explain things to himself, nor a greedy egoist out for gain, but rather an innocent existentialist who worshiped that upon which he felt his life depended.
Mircea Eliade's Religious Perspective
Eliade (1907-1986), perhaps the foremost scholar of the archaic, stresses its superiority over our historic and profane period. He uses a good bit of specialized terminology. For him, archaic man is homo religious par excellence for he lives in the cyclical myth of “the eternal return, ” oriented to getting back to in illo tempore, (that time) the fabulous, fresh time of the beginning when the cosmos was full of being, power and life, when totemic ancestors, spirits and gods lived with men. Likr Frankfot, Eliade thinks archaic man found things that seem permanent to be impressive and sacred. He worshiped what seemed changeless. When archaic humanity seeks to reconnect with the permanent he reconndects with the time of the beginning. Todo this he betakes himself to some sacred center that Eliade calls an axis mundi. This is a power spot where enduring Being breaks into this level of the world and makes an axis uniting the underworld, the surface world, and the upper world. The center is not only a place of irruption, but also of passage, communication and orientation that lays out a group's world. The “symbolism of the center,” for Eliade, is the key to understanding the archaic. It involves the functions of piercing, passage, petitioning and positioning. Archaic humanity therefore always arranges its encampments, homes, towns, and temples so that each has a center, an axis mundi, to facilitate periodic returning to in illo tempore. Here archaic man engages in “the repetition of the archetypes.” In myths, a divine example for any action is given, that is, an archetype. Hence, all aspects of life are connected to some episode in mythic time. Eliade claims that archaic people are only “once fallen.” because, whenever the wear and tear of daily life debilitates them, they realize their eccentric state and reconnect themselves. Historic people, by contrast, are twice fallen. When they spin off center they neither realize it nor reconnect. Archaic man is thus the only truly religious man. He has a sacred existential stance of being present to reality because all parts of his life are connected to the cosmos-generating myths. Thus, they have something to respect at all times and places. Modern man has a profane existential stance of being present to reality because most things in his life have no connection to the genesis of the world. For Eliade, the profane is defined by this “coexistence of contradictory essences”—wherein some parts of life are sacred, but most are not. This hodge-podge results in a life that is profane, meaningless, bored, humdrum, routine, and cynical. Color it Grey. So sacred and profane are not properties of objects, but two different ways of being present to reality. Eliade mixes up primitive and archaic religion and highly praises both. While largely ignoring archaic limitations, he provides a sharp and searching critique of techno-modernity.
Ken Wilber's Evolutionary Deep Structure (Integral) Perspective
Wilber is interested in the archaic as an example of one stage of the evolutionary curve of consciousness as a whole. For Wilber the archaic stage has been followed by the mental-egoic fundamentalist stage, the formal rational stage, the awareness, subtle, causal, and the enlightenment stages, each inscribing its own world view. For him, history, and all these cultural developmental stages, closely match an individual person's developmental stages from infancy on. Ontogeny recapitulates the essence of phylogeny. Baby and history grow similarly in terms of deep structures of consciousness To distinguish maturation stages, Wilber focuses in on each stage's cognitive style, emotional climate, motivational factors, sense of self and sense of time. The archaic cognitive style is mostly pre-logical operations as Frankfort points out, but it has an extended time sense, making possible farming and all the features of settled living. Its sense of self is verbal membership, Persons felt their identity to be members of a mythic group whose origin from a common divine ancestor was narrated in a shared world-forming myth. It was thus word-based in narrative, not primarily blood-based in clan/kinship bonds. On this basis, myth united tribal and ethnic groups into large kingdoms. Motivationally, the late archaic world was into heroism, the strongman warlord installing satellite sultans in a feudal system. In many ways it was an exploitive “con.” It was a matter of idealizing will power to override the body's need for immediate pleasure in a quest for autonomy beyond shame, doubt and guilt. It was a matter of self protection and control of one's turf, seeking power and safety within a membership world as the “king of kings.” Its oppression and constant warfare wore out its welcome. By 800 BCE, religions of law and strict personal conscience arose to replace the archaic. and in an accelerating process of the evolution of consciousness were two hundred years later followed by the rise of numerous mysical paths to Self Realization.

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