Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass,
And by the streamers of white cloud,
And whispers of wind in the listening sky;
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s center.
Born of the sun, they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor. — Stephen Spender
As readers, film and TV viewers, students, churchgoers or any other patriotic consumers of our national mythologies, we have long been conditioned to support, praise and even to emulate that vast pantheon of heroes who put themselves in harm’s way to defend the innocent. In the extreme, we venerate those few who are willing to simply die for an ideal. This is one of the major themes of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.
Like almost every man my age, I grew up on John Wayne and Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett, who is last seen dying for freedom at the Alamo, and it’s not easy to remove those images and stories from one’s subconscious. It was easy, however, to forget that Davy’s family was back in Tennessee, and that John Wayne rarely even had a family.
For me, as a grandfather to three girls, the big question as I watched A Hidden Life was: Is one’s spiritual purity worth the suffering of others? I can’t speak for anyone else in the audience, but I was pleading with Franz: Sign the goddamn pledge! Think of your family!
Ultimately, however, along with my grief for them – and for our planet – I was angry at Franz. Yes, you could suggest that my reaction has something to do with my own psychology. But where would that get us? James Hillman said that we have psychology only because we no longer have mythology. To understand what conditioned his decision to refuse the pledge despite knowing the harmful consequences to himself and to his loved ones, we have to look at the history of European religion from a mythological perspective, as I do in Chapters Six and Ten.
For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son. – Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun
Roman generals declared, Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Partria Mori, that it was “a sweet and noble thing to die for your country.” This statement may be self-evident to true believers, but for those of us who no longer subscribe to such a belief system, who sit outside the bubble of other people’s myths, we ask: Why would anyone sacrifice his life for his country, or for any other abstract concept such as a religion?
Joseph Campbell taught that Europeans and their American descendants have lived in a “demythologized world” since Christianity began to lose potency in the 12th century. Now, we rarely take notice of the price we pay for living in such a world. Can we even imagine those times when culture and nature together really did hold and protect our ancestors? We live dispirited lives, since we long ago rejected the “spirits” who connected us to this immense and incomprehensible universe. We stand exposed to old, patriarchal conditions – raw opposition between irreconcilable polarities. We still have myths, even if we are rarely aware of them, but they no longer nourish us.
With great respect to Campbell, it seems to me, however, that myth has been breaking down for much, much longer. What remain, exposed like archeological layers, are immensely old stories: the myths of father/son and brother/brother conflict, and the literalization of initiation rites into the brutal socialization of children. I argue in my book that the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son so as to glorify his god is the foundational myth underlying all of western civilization, that the story actually describes the breakdown of symbolic initiation into literal child sacrifice, and that a thousand years later, the death of Christ on the cross solidified this narrative for a new era.
We do not deny some of the great advances in human thinking such as the Alphabet that the Hebrew tradition bequeathed us. But these gifts came with consequences. Well before the Christian era, the Hebrews began to offer something new – history – as a literalization of myth. It was a culture-wide, top-down movement to no longer interpret the old stories as multi-layered social dreams intended to invite everyone to grow their souls, but as literal, chronological truth. Whereas the pagan world had long understood the words of Sallustius (This never happened, but it always is), people throughout the region now heard, This actually happened, and it happened once. It was the first movement from education (to draw something out of young people that already exists in them) to instruction (to stuff pre-determined information into their empty heads).
And we must admit that they also were the first to glorify people who preferred to die rather than change their thinking. Shira Lander writes: “Most scholars consider the Hasmonean traditions preserved in 2 and 4 Maccabees as representing the earliest Jewish strata of martyrology, although there are many earlier examples.”
Maccabees tells of the first martyrs to Roman persecution – not just those who fought, but those who refused to break Jewish law. Sure of going to Heaven, they went uncomplaining to their execution, unknowingly setting an example for future centuries of Christian martyrs:
And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.
A century later, the siege of Masada by Roman troops ended in the mass suicide of 960 rebels – or at least this is what Josephus, the sole chronicler of the event, recorded. Since archeologists have disputed his account, we must ask if this literally happened, or whether the evolving narrative of Jewish martyrdom required such a story. It doesn’t really matter, since the area is now one of Israel’s most popular tourist destinations and, more importantly, it shores up the myth of Israeli innocence.
In any event, such narratives began to have enormous emotional resonance, and both Jews and Christians (and later, Moslems) compiled catalogues or lists of martyrs and other saints. Some scholars consider these martyrologies to have been vehicles through which Jews and Christians competed for adherents and negotiated their conflicting claims to ultimate truth. To this day, the faithful venerate their memories, celebrate their feast days, name places of worship, schools and hospitals after them.
Many secular states, we should note, do the same with their war victims regardless of their religious convictions. This is a major way in which nationalism perpetuates itself, saying in effect, they died so that you could live in freedom. You must be willing to do the same. Gervase Phillips writes:
The word martyr itself derives from the Greek for “witness”, originally applied to the apostles who had witnessed Christ’s life and resurrection. Later it was used to describe those who, arrested and on trial, admitted to being Christians. By the middle of the second century, it was granted to those who suffered execution for their faith. Christians were not alone in their admiration of those willing to die for their principles. The philosopher Socrates was unjustly condemned to death in 399 BC for “refusing to recognize the gods”…There was, however, a striking difference between Socrates and those martyred in the arenas. The philosopher hoped for, but was not sure of, an afterlife. The martyr, however, was very certain of an afterlife (and) of salvation and reward in heaven.
In the early centuries of the Christian period, as the age of mythological thinking reached its end, it became more difficult to think in terms of the symbolic processes of initiation and rebirth. And 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, wrote Paul Shepard, the New Testament is “one of the world’s most antiorganic and antisensuous masterpieces of abstract ideology…”
The zealots who wrested control of the church believed that Christ had literally returned from the dead, and that metaphoric interpretation of his life was unacceptable. Theirs was a religion, write Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, of “…outer mysteries without the inner mysteries…”
In the late second century, they prohibited women from participating in worship. Soon, schisms developed over fine points of dogma, and rival sects attacked each other in furious jihads, even as the Roman state was still persecuting them. Soon enough, when Christianity became the official state religion, they attacked pagans with the same ferocity.
Here, we can apply some social-psychological insight. Christianity grew up within a heritage and in an atmosphere of violence. Like other traumatized children, it became a perpetrator of abuse, and early on it became obsessed with death.
Absolutely nothing attributed to Jesus in the Gospels suggested anything about his death as a sacrifice. Saint Paul, however, changed Christianity’s central focus from the old mythic image of the birth of the Divine Child to his death; in his vision the Aqedah – the story of the binding of Isaac – was completed only with Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. A religion of love devolved into an obsession with suffering. It taught that Christ’s sacrifice had occurred once, not as part of an unending cycle. The western world now understood myth literally, as actual history.
And since the idea of one unrepeatable sacrifice excluded any metaphorical or psychological interpretation of Christ’s death as sacrifice of the ego, it resulted in the suppression of initiation rites. Christians came to believe that Jesus, unlike Dionysus and other earlier gods, had died not as the cycle of creation but as penance for humanity’s bad behavior. This subtle yet significant difference shifted the emphasis from the tragedy of the human condition to the innate sinfulness of human nature. Eventually the initiation of adolescents was transformed into the ritual purification of infants who by their very nature were such threats that it was necessary to protect the community from them.
Having died for the sins of the world, Christ became the ultimate, if willing, scapegoat. Men left society (and women) to defeat their own sinfulness. To this day, the monks of Mount Athos in Greece still refuse to allow the presence of female animals onto their sacred grounds.
Eventually, some of these men even pursued martyrdom. In the late second-century, Arrius Antoninus, proconsul of current-day Turkey, was provoked by “the whole Christians of the province in one united band.” He obliged some of them and then sent the rest away, saying that if they wanted to kill themselves there was plenty of rope available or cliffs they could jump off. Later, Ignatius longed to suffer, “but I do not know whether I am worthy”, and Cyprian imagined the “…flowing blood which quenches the flames and the fires of hell by its glorious gore”.
Martyrdom would eventually evolve into one of the most emotive terms in the English language. It became the highest ethical virtue that every believer must be prepared to emulate, a shared tradition of the Abrahamic religions – in Hebrew, Kiddush Ha-Shem (sanctification of the divine name); in Arabic, shahada (witness). But let’s be very clear about how radical this belief was. Leonard Shlain, in The Alphabet and the Goddess, put this astonishing demand into its proper context:
Until the Christian martyrs, there does not occur anywhere in the recorded history of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Greece, India or China a single instance in which a substantial segment of the population accepted torture and death rather than forswear their belief in an ethereal concept.
This is the legacy of monotheism. No Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Confucian, Pagan or member of any of the thousands of indigenous religious systems before or since could possibly understand this willingness to die – or to slaughter one’s own child – rather than to change one’s mind about an idea, or to even to pretend to do so. Bruce Chilton, in Abraham’s Curse, adds:
Uniquely among the religions of the world, the three that center on Abraham have made the willingness to offer the lives of children – an action they all symbolize with versions of the Aqedah – a central virtue for the faithful as a whole.
And as we all know, the meaning of the word “martyr” gradually changed. Abraham’s knife became a soldier’s sword in Christian iconography. Dying as Christ (around 100 AD) became dying for Christ (500), which became killing for Christ (1000), or for Allah. And a thousand years later, give or take a decade or two, the Western world’s relationship with its deity and its understanding of myth and, yes, its contempt for its own children has produced the ultimate descent into literalism: dying for Allah and simultaneously killing as many innocent non-believers as possible.
The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins. – Soren Kierkegaard
This is the logical outcome of the disappearance of mythic consciousness and initiation ritual. For thousands of years, men had symbolically killed the child-nature in their boys to invite their full participation in the adult world. But with the crushing of paganism, a literalized myth (the sacrifice of a child for the glory of his father) came to predominate. It was a very old myth, but now Europe was about to feast on the bodies of its young.
With the inexplicable advance of Islam, however, Christianity confronted a new and immensely powerful Other that questioned its assumptions of universal superiority. The Church responded by distracting its nobles from killing each other and enlisting their energies in crusades of conquest and extermination against the infidels. A new figure emerged: the warrior-monk, pledged to both chastity and eternal warfare. It became glorious to die even in defeat because it would be a martyr’s death.
The Crusades mark the first merger of what I have called the paranoid and predatory (link) imaginations. Pope Urban offered the soldiers both remissions of sin (now, violence was a ticket to paradise) as well as an incentive to martyrdom. The result was a scale of atrocities that still puzzles historians, who, writes Chilton,
…have not factored in the sacrificial dimension of Urban’s appeal. Self-sacrifice, more than self-interest, is the hidden hand guiding this strange and relentless history…Crusading was a license, not only to kill, but also to…indulge other appetites, absolved in advance.