Behind the Sheen of Culture

By I. M. Oderberg

Most of the old nations of which we have any record seem to have been indebted to civilizing centers called Mystery schools (mystery in the sense of something taught secretly rather than the modern meaning of a problem to be solved). These colleges imparted knowledge transmitted to them from a remoter past by oral or other means. They also trained the candidate to become a 'captain of his soul' -- i.e. to master personal traits and embody the finest potential within him. We need refer only to the grateful references and tributes made by various classic authors to the high moral tone and revelations experienced in the Greek Mysteries. Such centers have left their traces in all lands -- in the Americas as much as in Asia Minor, Asia, Egypt and Europe -- the glyphs and 'picturegraphs,' found throughout the world, pointing to the existence of a language of symbolism that had meaning for the peoples of many past civilizations.

The Mystery schools were also the universities of the day, and academies of architects were among the many 'post-graduate' bodies attached to them. For example, the inspired designers, builders, and craftsmen who comprised the legendary Dionysian Artificers left their mark in the superlative quality of the great temples and other structures of antiquity. As with the Parthenon of Athens, some of the columns of Stonehenge bulge to overcome the illusion of concavity -- a feature of sophisticated architecture. The daggers and other emblems carved into the very hard sarsen stones (that blunt even our steel alloy chisels) need not betoken a Mycenean architect or team of skilled masons as has been claimed for Stonehenge, but may well be the insignia of the initiated or instructed artisans whose members were of all countries.

Neolithic remains such as 'cyclopean' walls, stone circles, single menhirs and dolmens, are located in many lands and not in one place. Very recently rings of dressed stones have been reported even in eastern United States -- to the consternation of some archaeologists who said they should not be there! These remnants of a lost global civilization display a marked similarity of design and structure, and probably of purpose -- the latest suggestion being that they served as a kind of astronomical observatory. The term 'global civilization' may seem astonishing, but there is a considerable amount of evidence to support it. (See Charles H. Hapgood's important work, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings, reviewed in Sunrise, August 1967.)

In the 1930's, K. E. Maltwood, F.R.S.A., flew over Glastonbury, in Somerset, England, in a small plane. When she looked down over the countryside, she was startled to see the well-known figures of the constellations, forming the landscape of hills and so forth into a zodiac many miles in diameter and largely bounded by two small streams that she later discovered were of unchanged course. She thereupon began a thorough investigation, beginning with ordnance maps and photographs from the air. She traversed the neighborhood, interviewing villagers about their local myths and legends to ascertain if there were any folk-memory connected with the images. Her books contain not only the official maps and such scraps of information as the inhabitants could provide for the strange names of some of their hamlets, towns and unusual features of terrain, but more importantly perhaps, summarize her considerable research into the Arthurian cycle of myths pertaining to the Round Table.

She found that the adventures of the Knights in their encounter with lions, damsels, fisher-kings, giants, dragons, and the like, now glowed with meaning. She traced their journeys as a circuit of this zodiac that had been extrapolated upon the ground. The quests symbolized the search for spiritual quality and the ongoing experiences of the soul in the process. She even suggested an antiquity for this remarkable creation based upon the placement of the constellations, which implied to her a date many thousands of years B.C. It was also noted that the term Somerset was associated with the Arthurian "Land of Summer," and that Dr. Waddell had drawn attention to the Welsh claim that their name 'Cymry' was derived from 'Sumer' (the ancient pre-Assyrian civilization of Mesopotamia). It is indeed interesting that the people of Somerset pronounce the name as "Zumerzet."

In The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky, reference is made to a tradition that enlightened individuals used to be sent out from a center in Egypt to bring culture to various countries, traveling by land all the way -- obviously a period when Africa and Spain were joined together, and Britain was part of Brittany. These emissaries were credited with supervising the formation of enormous zodiacs, the erection of stone circles and menhirs, as well as other structures. None of this could have happened a bare three or four thousand years ago, and it may be that any similarity between configurations of zodiacs found today with settings ascribed to 'only' a few millennia ago, applied actually to a previous precessional cycle, which itself is some 26,000 years in duration.

Professor Giorgio de Santillana and Dr. Hertha von Dechend (Hamlet's Mill -- An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time, Gambit Inc., 1969) joined forces to follow the thread of meaning in Hamlet, leading to an astronomical myth about the end of an age, or the twilight of the gods. For Hamlet or Amleth, prince and king, shares his story with the Icelandic Amlodhi who had an unusual mill that, at first, ground out peace and plenty, but later, in decadent times, produced salt. Now beneath the sea, it creates the Maelstrom, the whirlpool leading to the land of the dead. The two authors picked up the thread in the old star-lore of Polynesia, traced it through pre-Christian prototypes of Hamlet in Europe, Asia Minor, India, Mexico and Greece. They followed it back into what is for us the 'night of time' some 17,000 years ago when a particular configuration of stars was recorded by observers who had to be already highly intelligent to understand what they were doing. The same alignment, being precessional, did not prevail through the ensuing centuries and must therefore have been noted originally when seen. We must assume this as the people of those days are believed not to have had such equipment as ours which can compute the occurrence by calculating backwards. For our far-off predecessors, the cosmic cycles were awesome happenings, closing and opening epochs.

In any event, the writers show that myth perpetuates a large and complex treasury of astronomical science. Charles Dupuis' work (Origine de tous les Cultes et toutes les Religions. 10 vols., Paris, 1795; 1834) has been dismissed as difficult and outmoded, but it is a repository of some valuable information and insights. He says that "Myth is born of science; science alone can explain it." We believe that the key of science opens the door to only one facet of the meaning of myth, for there are yet other keys, including the cosmic and human, in the religious, philosophical and psychological fields. Drs. de Santillana and von Dechend have found in the fragments of ancient cultures that we possess, "the remnants of a pre-literate 'code-language' of unmistakable coherence." After delving into Norse myths, the Finnish Kalevala, Indian Vedas, Orphic texts, Egyptian rituals, the Mesopotamian cycle of Gilgamesh, the authors discovered that -- despite geographic and linguistic separation -- there existed between many ancient cultures a common language.

These days, when considering a culture or civilization, most attention is focused on the outside influences shaping it, especially in the area of artistry. For instance, a recent ten-minute TV program, featuring some pottery and porcelains, alluded to trade exchanges between Persia and China, and the mutual effects of the contact. China, previously content with calligraphy as an ornament for bowls and vases, we were told, absorbed and transmuted Persian decorations, while the Iranians achieved finer textures and shapes from specimens of Chinese workmanship. But was the traffic in objects the sole or major contributor to cultural development, to what is after all an inner experience?

In India we have a similar example in what is now called the Gandharan form of Buddhist art. This style was the by-product of the advance of Alexander the Great to the Indian border. He left behind a small satrapy of administrators and soldiers in a corner of Afghanistan, and this petty state provided the channel of Grecian influence -- mainly artistic -- into India, where it fused with evolving native forms and those from Persia, Yet the mainstream of this modified medium of expression was essentially Buddhist in character, and it entered neighboring countries wherever Buddhism had taken root. Although nonreligious and domestic subjects were eventually presented in the Gandharan style, we should not forget an important aspect here. It is not the outer form but the motivating urge in the heart of man that is the source of cultural expression, through any medium. In other words, it is not the form of expression but the factor expressing itself that should be considered and emphasized. As an illustration of this point, the finest examples of the Gandharan genre all depict bodhisattvas imbued with compassion and the resolve to help all men to attain enlightenment.

In ancient America, we have the interesting case of Quetzalcoatl, the Savior-god who came from the west and brought the arts of civilization to the Mexican peoples of long ago. The quetzal bird has been linked with the legendary phoenix of old Egypt, which rose from the ashes of its parent, surging with fresh energy. As a symbol of renewed life, it is found among most of the ancient peoples known to us. It has many meanings, applicable to the universe at large, to the world, to cycles of time and to man as his 'reincarnating ego.' Sometimes historical events have been used to convey profound spiritual concepts, garbing them in symbols and in narrative form. It is possible that Quetzalcoatl's story combines a type-figure of the god-illumined sage with a Chinese traveler two millennia back. Very often the researches of educated amateurs uncover more information and understanding than the work of specialists limited by unproved theories that have hardened into 'fact.' For instance, Henrietta Mertz' little-known but perceptive book Pale Ink examines texts of some ancient Chinese voyagers, and by careful analysis shows them to provide exact descriptions of the topography of western America, especially California and Mexico. She identifies Quetzalcoatl with one of the early navigators.

These Chinese writings are the precis of previously condensed versions of yet earlier works written by the very persons who set sail in various expeditions -- from hundreds of years B.C. to the early centuries A.D. -- and reached the Pacific shores of the Americas. The original accounts have disappeared because every now and then the Emperors of China would order a drastic reduction of the vast accumulation of literature. Those items worth preserving were reduced to the bare essentials; in the process the genuine travelogs were so constricted that the meaning was lost to later generations who assumed that the reports of unfamiliar landscapes and strange peoples were mere fables, figments of someone's imagination.

The parallel is very close between the stories of other world Saviors and that of Quetzalcoatl who gave the initial impetus to the early peoples of Mexico and then returned across the waters to his home. The essential ideas at the heart of their teachings are the same the world over; and this suggests a global association of enlightened individuals who sent forth messengers or culture-bringers at cyclic times in the life of humanity.

The Arts, however, are not the only factors achieving cross-fertilization of culture and civilization -- indeed, they would seem to be a result of the process rather than a cause. Religions have played an important role in the drama of man's continuing unfoldment of faculties and insights hidden in his heart and awaiting their day to come out of the realm of the potential. There can be little doubt that the diffusion of religious teachings has had a powerful effect upon the development of ideas once believed to be unique but now seen as universal. Take for example the Christian influences that made their imprint upon European states after the so-called Dark Ages had stamped out the 'heathen' heritage. And, too, the Western mores and concepts that traveled via exploration and the ploys of commerce in an outburst of energy that broke the molds of dogma and searched out far horizons. After the dawn of European science and the cultural break with sectarian beliefs, the flat world became a sphere revolving around the sun. Freedom of thought came with the renaissance, and we are discerning in the present culture pattern threads not only of Judeo-Christian origin but also of Greek philosophy, Zoroastrian dualism, Alexandrian gnostic theosophy and Neoplatonism, as well as of other sources.

This is not an unusual case. When Buddhism penetrated into China, there was a fusion with the inherent Chinese love of nature and beauty. The fruit of the union was the art and poetry of the T'ang and Sung Dynasties. But more important was the approach to life called Ch'an -- not so much 'sudden enlightenment' as the intuiting of the oneness of planet earth and all its inhabitants. Hence the landscapes showing a human being small among large mountains; as a speck by a waterfall; or in a tiny boat on the great river of Life, pensive at times, at others depicted fishing patiently for the elusive awareness of the source of Being. An atom in a giant? Perhaps, but a necessary atom nonetheless.

These creations of Chinese literati or scholar-artists were the outer expressions of inner encounters with man's true self and his relationship with his source. The models were transformed when they reached Japan. There the existing appreciation of artistic beauty in nature and beings was transmuted into a painting, sculpture or poetry imbued with yugen -- meaning subtlety, delicacy and the spiritual quality lying beneath the surface that the Japanese themselves refuse to define strictly, for they see it as the response to a sensibility beyond the range of words. Yugen was a Chinese term first used in books of the Six Dynasties and the T'ang period to allude to the sensing of the mysterious aspects of life and destiny. When the Japanese took over the word, they applied it to the peculiar type of beauty that could be delicately pointed to but never stated, something sublime or profound -- in a word, the beauty of suggestion.

There is scarcely a culture in the world today that does not contain qualities inherent in others. Many of our own routine customs may be derived from ancient Egypt, Sumeria, and possibly divers nations now lost in limbo. For instance, the formality of raising and lowering flags bearing official insignia to indicate the presence of civil executives, their absence or death, may be traced back directly to old Egypt. Even such a supposedly European feature as the Madonna and Child is to be found millennia before in Egypt's Isis and the Infant Horus, as well as in other older civilizations. And such apparently unconnected cultures as those of the Shang and Chou eras of ancient China and that of the early Mexicans show common designs, symbols and motifs in their ceramics and other artifacts.

The lore of pre-Christian Ireland and the immensely subtle No plays of Buddhist Japan would seem to be remote from each other. Yet the poet William Butler Yeats was inspired by a quality in these plays to present the heroic figures of ancient Eire in a kind of Celtic No. The outer forms are different but the characters move as hieratic symbols, with precise, ordained movements and gestures in the way they do in No. The modern creations reflect back upon the old like two mirrors shining their own colors upon each other. The experience is rewarding because we see flashes of human nature that we may otherwise have missed. If a quotation may be permitted:

Man combs his hair every morning;
Why not his heart?
(From the back of an old Chinese mirror.)

But taking them all in all, these comparisons and the tracing of indebtedness are only matters of external form. If we construct a pattern of inheritance based solely on these, we surely miss the essence of culture-making. Within the human soul resides the spark of genius that creates. Like a builder of a house who gathers his ready-made bricks and other materials from many sources, so may an artist utilize something from here, there, or anywhere else to express his interior vision or feeling. The radiance of the center suffuses what would otherwise be an empty shell of matter.

Only within the last few generations have historians broadened their theses to cover cultural and related developments. Previously in our school texts we could find only an endless array of dates and battles, rulers and dynastic changes. Names meant all -- still, there will always be some that echo down the corridors of time, such as the Pelasgians and Aeolians of pre-Hellenic Greece. Traditions already old in the times of Homer and Hesiod allege the first Orphic writings were inscribed in the Aeolian language -- a lost tongue to them! -- yet, the seeds of Orphism descended through the generations to germinate at later periods, even in so recent an era as that of the Roman occupation.

What provided the carrier for the concepts of life, man and the universe labeled Orphic? Or of those of all other distinctive quality? Surely it was the soul, their creator, that bore in its heart the essence of all its experiences, endeavors and aspirations. And just as certain is it that the soul will continue to distill vision, wisdom and understanding out of its unexpressed resources and whatever it has garnered through the ages. We are all parts of nature and the kin of its many lives. Earth's sustaining energy proliferates everywhere, and we move along with it, infilled and inspired at times by manifestations beyond our smaller selves.

Behind the sheen of culture we may see the human being who projects himself and his view of the world through many forms of creative expression, each component of culture exerting an influence upon the others. And there is a constant ebb and flow, that originates in the universe at large and is seen particularly in the continuous interrelation not only between man and the universe, but among ourselves.

We may use the analogy of two inland seas. The Sea of Galilee is rich with life because the Jordan river flows into it and then out at the other end. Fish swim in its waters, trees and shrubs abound along its banks, birds nest in the branches. Not too far away is the Dead Sea, where the same river enters, but there is no outlet. Nothing lives in its waters, nor around its shores. All is salt and bitter. If we do not share with all men everywhere, we face cultural sterility and death from the sour deposits of stagnation. If there is a natural sharing, the exchange is like the circulation of water through the Sea of Galilee, where the sweetness of life is to be found. Are we our brothers' keepers? In a very profound sense we are. The influences of one cultural expression upon another derive from this common quality of humanity, possessed by all, evolving slowly out of the formless reaches and immensity of Being.

 (From Sunrise magazine, December 1971; copyright © 1971 Theosophical University Press)

Evolution Menu