We sometimes talk so recklessly about fables and myths. We ridicule their purport and tenets as if they were a thing of the past. But what most of us fail to realize is their omniscience and elusive presence all around us. It is sometimes difficult for us to acknowledge to what extent they are inherent to many of our daily practices and firmly held beliefs. This misrecognition is partly due to the silent dissolution of myths and fables into religion where they have been preserved, nurtured and reinvented as one of its divine miracles.
Having said that, the key role myths and fables had in the evolution and development of many civilizations in the past must not be overlooked or denigrated. Myths were crucial in developing key civic concepts conducive to the good running of daily social life, to nurture the respect of private property and to dictate the general organization and structuring of social life from the level of family unit to that of larger groups. Fables were the major incentive strengthening the individual’s bonds with social rules even though this process must have claimed many innocent lives throughout human history. Fables developed into myths, prohibitions and taboos that later converged towards religions, which in turn gave birth to the concept of god where it found its most suitable breeding ground. At a later stage, the gods and their laws adapted themselves to the traditions and cultures of various societies as it was the case for instance when the Romans embraced Christianity. What is now commonly known as a celebration of the birth of Christ was originally a Roman pagan feast to celebrate the birth of the sun. It was only at a later stage that the Church decided to appoint the same date as that time of year when Christ was born. Similarly the rituals observed during Easter imitate the death and rising of the Phoenician deity Adonis. Many other similarities can be identified between Christian traditions and pagan religions.
The image that I wish to focus on at this point in my analysis is the myth of the virgin birth in Christianity. A similar narrative can be found in the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and India. It has also been found among tribal cultures where sexual intercourse was not directly linked to the reproduction of human life. Tribes, which observed totemic beliefs in their religious practices, established a kinship between themselves and other forms of life, especially animals and plants. It was widely believed that when a woman is giving birth and undergoing various painful tremors she had to remember at that moment what she has eaten or seen or thought about prior to going into labor. A connection is established with her going into labor and a specific plant or animal so that the delivered child is later given its corresponding totem accordingly. Primitive myths are at the origin of totemic religions as explained by anthropologist James Frazer. And so even though the idea of the virgin birth has been found among many tribes, its ensuing spiritual stage added to it an aura of mystery as embodied in the person of the Virgin mother.
Fables and myths are not the trademark of any specific religion. They are rather the common denominator of all religions. I deliberately started with the discussion of the affinities between Christianity and Pagan myths in order not to offend the excessive susceptibility of Muslim cultures or be branded an anti-Semite had I talked about the myths informing the teachings of Judaism. I thought it might be safer to draw on examples from Christianity qua a religion that does not have any political or judicial powers. I was also encouraged by the attitude of the majority of Christian believers who would not find the above critical account on the affinities between myth and religion offensive.
It is worth noting that the laws and rituals of all religions are borrowed from ancient beliefs because it is almost impossible for them to obliterate all the already held beliefs of their followers and new converts. That’s why each religion inhabits old forms of belief. It does not just erect itself on the already existing cultural practices and moral systems of those who enter under its dictates, but it maintains a close connection with these firmly established beliefs and perpetrates them in new forms under a uniform discourse. Religion is founded on this very complex and subtle historical process and is equally attuned to various other environmental and climactic factors in the course of its expansion. According to [Will Durant], religion consolidates moral laws in at least two essential ways: through myths and taboos. Myths cultivate belief in supernatural and metaphysical forces. Residues of ancient or pagan beliefs can be found in every new law and every new belief across cultures and nations. We can understand the ancient foundations of each law or belief when we study the early and primitive beginnings of religions.
Going back to fables and to all the real and symbolic sacrifices made in the name of spirits believed to be in control of natural phenomena, control and power were later attributed to an all-powerful deity. This divine omniscience is still with us, very much part of our modern world. Sacrifices are still made in the name of a deity widely praised and venerated and whose worshippers call the great and almighty.
Primitive men and women were crippled by their fear of incomprehensible natural phenomena. When they failed to control and make sense of them, they became worshippers of that which they failed to understand. Hoping to evade its wrath, they presented sacrifices at its alter. This unfathomable angry nature gradually became a deity. Every social formation had its own image of this god. Some Mexican tribes, the Aztecs violently put their god, embodied and represented in select individuals, to death. The victims are skinned alive. This ritual was believed to secure their access to eternal life and eternal youth after death. Death was for them a threshold leading to eternity.
Human history is marked by a relentless endeavor to reach eternity and vanquish the idea of death. This is best illustrated by the symbolic meaning of Adam and Eve whose endless and inconclusive journey towards maturity is used to work through a universal fear of death. Adam and Eve have been denied the eternal life they were once granted and because they sinned, wanted to get a taste of knowledge and therefore did not observe the will of their master and creator, death was their punishment. This universal narrative with local variants is a symptom of a human-made god. This constructed image of deity wants nothing other than slaves so that they can be exploited and subjugated by his representatives on earth. Somewhere deep down, humankind must have always been aware of its ability to put the deity it invented and all its related myths and fables to death. But at the same time, the putting to death of its human-made god also implies the putting to death of the very idea of eternity that has been dreamt a long time ago by the first human beings since the dawn of history. The idea of death had always been rejected by the human mind that invented various means to deal with its absurdity from magic and shamanism to taboos and prohibitions. These practices sought to prevent that moment when the spirit finally leaves the body. It fantasized about the possibility of the spirit returning in another life. The failure of humankind to invent eternity made them think of ways to project their desires onto an external force embodied in nature. The human mind invented extraordinary and mysterious forces that took various shapes over time. Later on, the human mind projected on these very shapes instincts repressed and restrained by the group and sublimated them into paradises and everlasting wanderings in an afterlife fraught with all those things that have been forbidden and prohibited in life. Rivers of wine and honey and milk and many beautiful young virgins are awaiting the believers after their death.
What is most striking about this slippery passage from the idea of death to the idea of god is the unthinking and uncritical incredulity of a formidable number of people towards myths embodied by religions. It may be easier for us to understand the subjection of the primitive mind to its dead ancestors and spirits and to the traditions of the unlearned socio-cultural environment where it was born. It is hard to expect an individual mind to make a sharp break with such practices. However, what I find absolutely mindboggling is the condition in which entire modern societies live. They are blindly and collectively aligned behind religious myths, standing behind impotent leaders unable to provide them with anything exceptional. Haven’t we wronged ourselves when we embraced a monotheistic religion and turned our way of thinking into a monotheistic and totalitarian worldview where we wholeheartedly believe in and support one god, one idea and one leader?