This is a brief summary of a talk I gave in 2006 as part of a yoga and mythology workshop series. It being the holidays and all I though I might share the main points. I hope it is interesting to some readers:
In Southern and Central America there is a mythic figure common to several cultures. He is born of a virgin, ascends into the sky at the end of his time on Earth, promises to return and his symbol is the cross. His name is Quetzalcoatl, which literally translates to "feathered serpent," and when the Spanish conquistadors landed, the natives thought they might be his second coming, what with how they occasionally represented him with fair hair and beard! The Spaniards for their part noticed that the local religion had striking similarities to their own, but not being well versed in symbols and archetypes their interpretation was that the devil had implanted a perverted version of Christianity there to try and drive the conquering sons crazy and lead them from the Lord...
In Ancient Greece we find the story of Dionysos, born of the congress of horny god Zeus and a mortal woman - one version of the story has Zeus kill her and sew the fetus into his thigh until it is ready to be born. Horny and murderous! Dionysos is the god of wheat and wine and he is killed only to rise again from the dead. his followers perform a ritual of bread and wine to remember him.
Death and resurrection is not an uncommon theme in world mythology. It is most often associated with agrarian societies whose lives are tied to the cycles of the earth and who made sacrifices to the earth to ensure the resurrection of Spring after the death of Winter. The spilling of blood upon the land and in the temples went on even into the time of Jesus and there is a way that the evolving archetypal symbolism that he carries represents a once-and-for-all uber sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell tells us that the earliest evidence we have of ritual and myth comes from the Alpine caves about 110 000 years ago in which a cult of the Great Bear existed. As human beings became more empathic and self-reflective we felt terrible anxiety and dread over the fact of our killing in order to live and began to enact rituals and construct myths as containers for this conflict.
Perhaps if we do a ritual honoring the Great Bear god he won't be angry that we kill his children, perhaps he will still send us more so that we can survive. One version of this hunting mythology says that the gods come to visit us in animal bodies but then can't escape to go home. When we kill the animal we set the god free and they are happy...
As agrarian societies developed the emphasis shifted from hunting myths and rituals to fertility myths and rituals and it is in these sacrificial cults that we find the roots of the archetypal constellations that will later give rise to Qutzalcoatl, Dionysos and then Jesus.
What Joseph Campbell calls "the mask of god" keeps evolving and taking on the clothing and the meaning structures of the societies it serves. In one of my favorite quotes from him he says "We wonder what is wrong with our society when we are trying to live by a myth that is 2000 years old from the Middle East ..." Campbell suggested in the early seventies that perhaps a contemporary world-centric mythology could have as it's central symbol the famous "Earthrise" photograph taken by the astronauts who landed on the moon.
Elsewhere he asks:
"What is mythology?
Other people's religion.
What then is religion?
The earliest mythic symbols are the sun and the moon, the earth and the sky.
The moon dies every month and after three days is resurrected. The moon is often linked with the snake who sheds it's skin and is likewise reborn. The sun often associated with the lion or other hunters and the antelope or bull that has a crescent moon in it's horns. The sun (hunter) kills the moon and stars (antelope) every morning and they are reborn again at night...
In stories of gods fathering children with mortals we see the yearning for the marriage of the earth and the sky and perhaps the intuition of a next stage of our own evolution.
I find it interesting that in the yogic Chakra system the heart center is called "Anahata" which means "unstruck." I think of an unstruck drum - that beats of it's own accord. Interestingly, the image we know as the Star of David is also found at the heart center, representing upward flowing and downward flowing sky and earth energy. The horizontal and vertical lines of the cross also meet in the heart.
This leads me to an association on a "virgin birth" - an unstruck drum, a birth that is not preceded by the sex act, also the birth of the Buddha, whose myth says that he is born (after another mysterious spirit-impregnation) from his mother's right side at the level of the heart. Compassion strikes me as an emotion that has no ulterior motive and hence arises in this same mysterious way as these symbols...
Perhaps that is the yearning expressed in this collectively dreamed up poetry of the inner life - a yearning for compassionate awakening and altruistic self-actualization. A death and rebirth in the heart of hearts. The divine child of the Winter Solstice born from the womb of one's psyche.
May we keep learning to read the symbols and see them as signposts toward an inner life in healthy, integrated relationship to outer reality....