How powerful are the words we use? How have they influenced the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves? To really understand, we need to know how Christianity arose.
Only monotheistic thinking, with its simplistic dualisms, sees difference as a threat to be eliminated; whatever isn’t aligned with our god must necessarily follow his opposite. Here is a clue: if your people consider their story to be literally true and other people’s stories are “myths,” then you and your people are thinking mythically or literally. Other mono-words share the brittleness of one correct way: monopoly, monogamy, monolithic, monarchy, monotonous.
By the time of Jesus the idea that humans are alienated from God was firmly in place (Genesis 6: 5-6). And so was the idea that the children of light must forever confront the children of darkness. God forbade men to create “graven images,” which were central to indigenous spirituality. Later Christians would fight brutal wars over this question. This was the birth of monotheism’s assault upon the imagination.
Word One: Hamartia
Greek mythmakers had long told stories of tragic heroes. Aristotle used the word hamartia (“error” or “missing the mark,” a term from archery) to describe the hero’s inevitably fatal flaw, the wound that connected him to his potential. It was, paradoxically, the very thing that made him unique. In both the Greek and the Celtic worlds, if sin had any meaning at all, it meant “failure,” and – this is critical – potentially any failure can be reversed. Christians, however, interpreted hamartia as inherent and inescapable sinfulness, mankind’s literal inheritance from Adam’s original mythic transgression. From this thinking came the doctrine of original sin. Men needed discipline and moral purification to control their darker side.
The change in the meaning of hamartia is an historical marker that drags us into a fearsome new world in which every single person is tainted from birth with the mark of evil. By this logic, children are corrupt by nature and must be kept from polluting adults through baptism (“to dip, steep, dye, color”) very soon after birth. It was a toxic mimic of indigenous initiation ritual.
Word Two: Daimon
Another factor in the solidification of Christian dogma (originally, “opinion”) was the rational and ascetic Greek philosophical tradition. The Church turned Plato’s notion of a realm of pure ideas into the afterlife, which was a higher, better place than the sensual world. Another old word took on new meaning. Plato wrote that before birth each soul receives a unique soul-companion or daimon that selects a pattern for it to live on earth. James Hillman explains, “The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and…is the carrier of your destiny.” It was known as genius (related to gene, generate) by the Romans and jinn or genie by the Arabs.
Like hamartia, daimon was connected to the universal notion of purpose. Older traditions understood the vast complexity of the human soul, but Greek dualism marked a clear boundary between good from evil. In the second century B.C.E., the seventy men who translated the Hebrew Bible into a Greek book (the Septuagint) used daimonion to denote evil or unclean spirits.
Thus, with two linguistic shifts, western man gradually lost both his guiding spirits and his sense of his innate purpose in life. Eventually, one’s intuition, if it disputed church dogma, would express only the voice of the demonic, and the pagan gods, archetypal images of human and cosmic potential, became demons.
Changes in language signaled changes in cult practice. The breakdown of ritual eventually led to a condition in which human urges that were once hallowed to the gods became acts of evil. The church repressed them into the personal and collective unconscious and blamed all suffering upon human sinfulness. Orphism had taught that the soul (derived from Dionysus) was potentially good; but the body (from the ashes of the Titans) was its prison, where it remained until all guilt had been expiated. This led, writes E. R. Dodds, to “a horror of the body and a revulsion against the life of the senses.” The Orphics themselves had written: “Pleasure is in all circumstances bad; for we came here to be punished.”
As the age of mythological thinking neared its end, it became more difficult to think in terms of the symbolic processes of initiation and rebirth. The holy text that emerged out of this period omitted the few metaphors of the sacred Earth that had been allowed into Hebrew scripture. As a result, writes Paul Shepard, the New Testament is “one of the world’s most antiorganic and antisensuous masterpieces of abstract ideology.”
All these factors were rolled into the messianic tradition. Pagan cults had expressed a longing for the return of the king or the divine child who was reborn in the hearts of the initiates. But as mythological thinking declined, the Jews longed for a literal messiah (“the anointed”, Khristos in Greek). They witnessed the quick passing of many such figures, including the historic Jesus. After his death, however, he became “The Christ,” a concept, writes Arthur Evans, that was molded by traditions that had “…nothing to do with his life, applied by people who never knew him, recorded in a language he never used.”
Word Three: Apocalypse
At first, the Roman world welcomed the new god. Their cosmos was still marked by epiphany, the continual manifestation of spirit in the world. Paganism never needed to create structures of belief. Celebration of multiple divine images was one of its most essential characteristics.
But it was precisely this animating connection between cosmos, Earth and individual that Christianity sought to replace. Its transcendent god could only enter the world through revelation, which led to dogma and reduced a world of possibilities to one of dreadful certainties. This god was kept alive through belief, not through sacrifices. Saint John of Patmos interpreted his apocalyptic dream vision not as an internal initiation experience, a “lifting of the veils,” but as universal destruction. His Book of Revelation is ecstatic poetry. Interpreted literally, however, it is the very definition of – and a prescription for – madness. To Puritans obsessed with judgment and evil it became the Bible’s most important section. Later, they would invent the Antichrist to embody the world’s resistance to the Word, who “…became flesh and resided among us.”
Word Four: Pagan
For generations, the new belief (a word that has long lost its etymological connection to “love”) system was primarily urban. Everywhere across Europe, rural people were the last to be forcefully converted (some not until the 14th century), since they lived closer to the natural and still magical world that had been served by the older cults. Christians called them “country dwellers” (paganus). Eventually the term Pagan became so thoroughly defamed that today’s English language can barely describe it in value-neutral terms. Common dictionary definitions include “an irreligious or hedonistic person.” For millennia these people had gratefully accepted the mysterious bounty of the earth in the form of Dionysus’ wine and Demeter’s bread. The Eucharist (“thanksgiving, gratitude”) ritual eventually expressed this same mystery, after having removed both Dionysus and Demeter.
In the late fourth century the Church set the Christian canon (“measuring line, rule”), which excluded much writing that posed alternatives to the new orthodoxy (“right, true, straight”). It declared that Jesus had been born on December 25th. Now, his birth coincided with the rebirth of the sun, and the symbolism of his light conquering darkness matched a common theme in ancient hero myths. Other old beliefs, such as reincarnation, died slowly. Early theologians had embraced it, but eventually the church opposed it because it promoted the idea that men could find the truth for themselves, without intercession by religion. It wasn’t until 543, however, that they declared it anathema (“devoted to evil”).
Absolutely nothing attributed to Jesus in the Gospels suggested anything about his death as a sacrifice. Saint Paul, however, changed Christianity’s central image from the birth of the Divine Child to his death and resurrection. An invitation to immanence became an excuse for transcendence. A religion of love became an obsession with suffering. It taught that Christ’s sacrifice had occurred once, not as part of an unending cycle. Emphasis on this single event and the progression from creation to salvation solidified our concept of linear time and led to the invention of clocks, which eventually contributed to the regulation of social behavior for the purpose of production (the word “calendar” came from the Latin calends, the first day of the month, when business accounts had to be settled). The western world understood myth literally, as actual history. Jesus, unlike Dionysus, had died not to symbolize the cycle of creation but as a payment for humanity’s bad behavior.
In the indigenous world men had always understood the necessity of symbolically killing the child-nature in their boys to invite their full participation in the adult world. But the crushing of paganism produced a different narrative, the actual sacrifice of a child for the glory of his father. Fanatics emulated this god, and Europe feasted on the bodies of its young in constant warfare.
Word Five: Martyr
Jesus was now the suffering god, but not the ecstatic, bisexual destroyer of boundaries, and no longer a Prince of Peace. Worshipers beheld his stern figure, the Pantocrator (“ruler of all”), glaring down from church ceilings, amid horrifying scenes of the Last Judgment. “Because a monotheistic psychology must be dedicated to unity,” writes Hillman, “its psychopathology is intolerance of difference.” For centuries, white men would rape and pillage to hasten the coming of the Prince of Peace. The meaning of the word martyr gradually changed. Abraham’s knife became a soldier’s sword in Christian iconography. Dying as Christ (around 100AD) became dying for Christ (500), which became killing for Christ (1000).
Word Six: Breath
Dualistic thinking and misogyny were interlinked in language. Men identified with mind and spirit and associated women with nature and the body. We can follow the linguistic shift. The Old Testament Hebrew word ruah (spirit/breath) is feminine. Translated to Greek it became pneuma, which is neuter. But Saint Paul elevated pneuma to the Trinity as the Holy Ghost, which became the masculine spiritus in Latin. In a long, mysterious process, spirit would become an Alchemical term, a substance that unites the fixed and volatile elements of the philosopher’s stone, and eventually the essence of distilled alcohol.
Word Seven: Evil
As I mentioned in Part One, the Aramaic word used by Jesus and translated into Greek as diabolos and into English as “evil” actually means “unripe.” An unripe person is not evil; he is simply immature, or in ritual terms, uninitiated. His antisocial behavior may be nothing more than a cry for help. The classic Hero doesn’t overcome evil, not even an evil part of himself, but his own “unripeness.” Through the corruption of the term hamartia, however, the Church made it clear that no one was unripe; everyone was inherently evil.
Word Eight: Devil
The Holy Ghost required an evil twin. In Hebrew myth, Satan was originally an adversary of humans and enforcer of Jehovah’s will. His meaning gradually changed from “opponent” into a personality whose nature is to obstruct, a rebellious prince in eternal opposition to the divine will. The Septuagint used the Greek word diabolikos (accuser, slanderer, “to throw across”), which became the English “devil.” Hebrew myths of the fallen angel (Lucifer, or “light-bringer”) added to the image of this eternal opposition: “How thou art fallen, oh day-star…” (Isaiah 14:12).
This established the foundations for European racism. Light/white became synonymous with spirit/goodness, while dark/black represented the material and sensual world. The New Testament solidified the image; Barnabus described Satan as the “Black One.” Saint Jerome linked blackness with sex; the Devil’s strength was “in his loins.” Augustine (himself a North African) claimed that everyone is black until he accepts Christ.
The choice was now clear and unambiguous. If one wasn’t an observant Christian, he followed the dark prince. In this form, writes Jacob Needleman, the Devil becomes irredeemably evil: “All the truly terrifying images of the devil are in one way or another rooted in the diabolical.”
As early as the second century, Clement of Alexandria declared that the gods of all other religions were demons. Since their mere existence placed in doubt the belief in one true God, they could only be in league with Satan. The church now had an “Other” to justify its Catholic (“universally accepted”) self-perception – and justification for its genocidal crusades.
Scholars disagree as to how Satan received his popular image. Some claim that the earliest model was the lecherous goat-god Pan. Early Christians feared Pan because of his shameless sexuality and his association with the wilderness, where hostile spirits lay in wait. He caused panic. They depicted Satan with Pan’s hooves, oversized phallus and horns, which carry a potent ambiguity, writes historian Jeffrey Russell. They symbolize Satan’s power and evoke the “mysterious, frightening otherness of animals…not only fertility but also night, darkness and death.”
Some link Satan with the European Horned God, consort of many Goddesses, especially those worshipped on the island of Crete. These images evoked the ambiguous mix of fertility and death (not evil) that indigenous people still understand, but which the modern mind splits into two figures.
Others connected Satan with Hades, ruler of the underworld, but the Greeks also knew Hades as Pluto (“wealth,” root of “plutocrat”). Here is as sharp a divide as we can find between monotheism and Pagan thinking, which perceives a wealth of possibilities both under the ground and in the psychological underworld. The Western world would not begin to imagine these possibilities until the late 19th century, when Freud “discovered” the unconscious, although he admitted, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”
Word Nine: Heretic
The paranoid imagination created enemies within to match those without. More dangerous than pagans were Satan’s followers who took the form of schismatics who divided the community with false doctrines, and heretics (“able to choose”).
Word Ten: Hell
When Christians assigned Satan a realm to administer, they named it after Hella, Nordic goddess of the underworld, sister of the wolf who threatens to emerge and wreck vengeance upon the gods of the upper world. Greece, however, has retained indigenous associations. There, the lord of Hell is still Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx (“the hateful”), and rural Greeks still place coins over a dead person’s eyes to pay for the journey. If Hades (as Pluto/wealth) is forgotten, his ferryman still makes a tidy profit.
When words come together they can form metaphors. In America, those metaphors often carry specifically martial meanings that, in turn, can give us insight into our American mythology. For more, see my essay Military Madness – The Unacknowledged Metaphors in Our Daily Speech