The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
October 2014 – Vol. 17 Issue 8
There is a feel of autumn in the air as the year rounds to its finale. It is a time when the inner life of nature is withdrawing from outer activity and from the bondage of physical forms, bringing a new quality into the atmosphere, a soundless music, having in it faint cadences of spring and summer, and even a premonition of winter, but all these forming part of the autumnal undertone.
Spring is the dawn of a new cycle: everywhere the tide of life is rising. It is a time of expansion, in which all of nature cooperates, yet analogically, it is a necessary descent into physical manifestation in the minor cycle of a year. With the coming of summer the climax of activity is reached, the noontime of the year. With autumn the expansive tide of nature is replaced by an ebb tide, for the forces of nature appear to indraw as the twilight of the year approaches. About the time of the autumnal equinox a change takes place which makes itself felt in many ways. There are marked changes in weather, and a general reversal of life. Busy as the life of spring is, that of autumn is equally so.
Remnants of a number of ancient autumn ceremonies still linger in the west. The festival of Hallowe'en or Samain was originally a Druid feast during which bonfires were lighted on the hilltops and offerings made to the Tuatha De Danaan and the ancestral spirits. A similar ceremony was held in Egypt at the Feast of the Dead, commemorating the slaying of the Sun God, Osiris, by his brother Sitau. After this event the sun was said to decline because of his wounds, and all the forces of nature waned. In both instances, in Druid Britain and in Egypt, the feast symbolized the after-death condition and marked the withdrawal inward of the soul of nature before the birth of a new year. It was at this time that many peoples extinguished all fires and ceremonially lighted a new flame, the embers of which were carried to every hearth in order to light new fires for the new cycle.
With the Roman conquest many features were added to Hallowe'en from the festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits; and the roasting of nuts, ducking for apples and the telling of fortunes are probably derived from this source. Still later, Christian influence changed this festival of the gods into one of all the saints. Today Hallowe'en is an occasion for mischief and merry making. Yet like some old manuscript covered with erasures and interpolations, there is something about the day to which folk-memory still clings, some intuition of an inner meaning now lost.
The symbolism of the spring and autumn was one of the themes dramatized in the Greek myth of Ceres and Persephone which formed the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries. These, relating to the birth and passing of the year, were divided into two parts, the Lesser Mysteries celebrated in the spring and the Greater Mysteries at the time of the autumnal equinox. According to the story Persephone, while playing in a flowery meadow near her home, was seized by Pluto who ruled over the underworld; and carried to those shadowy regions as his bride. Ceres, the mother of Persephone, was frantic and searched the world over for her daughter, causing cold and drought to wither all vegetation until her daughter was restored. At last she learned that Persephone was in the dark domains of Pluto, and pleaded with Jupiter to intercede. This he did, and Persephone was restored to her mother, but since she had eaten seven pomegranate seeds, she was ever afterwards obliged to spend six months of the year with Pluto in the underworld.
Those who organized the mysteries knew that nature was analogical throughout and used the symbols of nature to illustrate in veiled form the condition and experiences of the human soul, first, when bound to the body, and second, as freed from mortal bonds between incarnations. Those who had the keys saw a meaning within and behind the obvious interpretation of the myth of Persephone, while the uninitiated saw only the commonplace explanation.
Thomas Taylor in his Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries quotes many classical writers to the effect that the descent of Persephone into the underworld and her re-ascent to the world of men refers to the descent and return of the soul as it enters and leaves the body during incarnation. For in the ancient mysteries, to become identified with the body was to enter into a prison or grave. This may be why the name Persephone means bringer of death, and why she is represented as bearing ears of wheat emblematic of the heavenworld, pomegranates, fruit of the underworld, and poppies to represent the sleep and forgetfulness separating the two existences. But while the myth in its larger aspect personifies the spiritual forces attendant upon the outbreathing and inbreathing of worlds and universes, and in its human aspect dramatizes the peregrinating cycle of the human soul from life to life, it also shows the inner nature of autumn-time and that the season offers unusual opportunities for inner growth and reflection.
While the Eleusinian Mysteries are no longer enacted, the great drama of nature still presents to the earnest student the same age-old truths would he but pause and consider; not the piled-up sticks of dry facts, but the rhythm of life as a whole, as it progresses through the year.. – Allan J. Stover
Jewish and Greek influences on Christianity are well known, but in recent decades a third influence has received serious attention. As John Dominic Crossan explains: “There was a human being in the first century who was called ‘Divine,’ ‘Son of God,’ ‘God,’ and ‘God from God,’ whose titles were ‘Lord,’ ‘Redeemer,’ ‘Liberator,’ and ‘Savior of the World.’ Who was that person? Most people who know the Western tradition would probably answer . . . Jesus of Nazareth. And most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus. To proclaim them of Jesus the Christ was thereby to deny them of Caesar the Augustus. Christians were not simply using ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people at that time, or even extraordinary titles applied to special people in the East. They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant.”
Considering a Roman ruler divine began with Julius Caesar, deified after his murder. His great-nephew and adopted son, Octavian, became the first emperor, Caesar Augustus (“worthy of veneration or worship”), in 27 BC after decades of civil war and more than a century of chaos. People felt he had brought peace, security and prosperity to the world and heralded him as savior. He wasn’t worshipped in Rome itself, but in the eastern empire, culture encouraged honoring the emperor as one of the divinities, asking for his protection and favor. Proclamation of his good deeds was called evangelion (good news, gospel). By the end of the first century the emperor Domitian was styling himself “Lord and God.”
The New Testament reacted strongly against Roman Imperial theology, the fastest growing religion in the empire when Christianity began and developed. Indeed, N. T. Wright has called the opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans “a parody of the imperial cult” and its closing “a direct challenge to the present ruler of the nations, Caesar himself.” Marcus J. Borg sees this trend originating in Judaism: “The Bible from beginning to end is a sustained protest against the domination systems of the ancient world,” the rule by an elite few over the impoverished many. Thus Jesus preached a “kingdom” of God, rather than a community or people of God. He had a political and economic, not just a religious and moral, agenda.
Borg writes: “In Paul’s world … Caesar was ‘Lord’ – and ‘Son of God,’ and the savior who had brought peace on earth. So when Paul and other early Christians proclaimed ‘Jesus is Lord’ (and the Son of God and the savior who brings true peace on earth), he and they were directly challenging Roman imperial theology and the imperial domination system that it legitimated.” Of Jesus’ death he says, “Note that Paul emphasizes the mode of death. He doesn’t simply say that Jesus died, but that he was crucified. In the world of Paul and Jesus and early Christianity, a cross was always a Roman cross. The gospel of ‘Christ Crucified’ intrinsically signaled that the gospel challenged the way the authorities, the powers, put the world together. The gospel was an anti-imperial vision of what the world should be like. Early Christianity in the New Testament and for its first few centuries was an anti-imperial movement. That’s why Jesus was crucified, and why the Christian movement was persecuted.” As Crossan points out, applying imperial titles to Jesus “was what the Romans called majestas and we call high treason.”
Until recent times there was no hard division between politics and religion. Persecution of Christians centered on their refusal to perform religious rituals of civic loyalty that involved sacrificing to the emperor (Jews refused to make this sacrifice but instead agreed to pray for the emperor’s welfare in their temple). It was like a group of Americans refusing to swear a loyalty oath to the US government. Observance of such religious-civic rituals was widely believed to protect the whole community and its prosperity. Any group refusing to carry out these rituals might bring down divine anger or abandonment on everyone.
While Jewish terms identified with divinity, like the son of Man and Messiah (Greek Christos), are used today, so many of the terms applied to Jesus continue to be those coming from the Roman emperors. In an ironic twist one branch of Christianity was chosen to be the state religion of the empire that had executed its founder and whose policies its scriptures protested and invalidated. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, expanded rather than renounced his imperial claims to divinity. As a tool of empire and its privileged groups, Christianity necessarily downplayed the Biblical mandate to humble worldly powers in bringing the kingdom of God to earth. Demands for radical justice, requiring systemic change, had long been superseded by calls for obedience and charity, facilitators of the status quo. Whose kingdom triumphed?