Tree Nymphs and Tree-Hung Shamans
By John Lamb Lash, author of
Not in His Image: Gnostic Vision, Sacred Ecology, and the Future of Belief
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PART ONE: The Myth of Adonis
Chapter 17 of my book Not in His Image (Chelsea Green, November 2006) is entitled
“The End of Patriarchy.” It opens like this:
Monotheism begins with a god who hates trees.
Ye shall utterly destroy all the places where in the nations which ye shall possess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every green tree. And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their idols with fire; and ye shall hew down the carved images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. - Deuteronomy 12: 2-3
The Demiurge of the Old Testament is jealous, insisting that no other gods be honored before him. This demand of course implies that there are other gods, competing deities. They are Pagan divinities who pervade nature, manifesting in all manner of creatures, in clouds and rivers and trees, even in rocks. Monotheism will tolerate none of these sensuous immanent powers. It makes the Earth void of divinity, its inhabitants subject to an off-planet landlord.
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Throughout the book I refer to the Gnostic assertion that redemptive religion is a mental aberration insinuated into the human mind by non-human entities called Archons. Whether or not one accepts this bizarre explanation, common sense alone warns us that a paternal deity who claims to have created the natural world, yet demands to be worshipped by the destruction of nature, may have some serious psychological problems. This is an aberrant god who inspires a twisted faith. We live a natural world that we must deny and destroy in order to show devotion to the god who created it. This is certainly one of the more perverse propositions ever contrived by the human mind.
We may well wonder, How did such an idea ever come to be formulated in the guise of a religious system? Since it is we humans who create religion, and invent our own gods, the monotheistic hatred of trees must have originated in human nature. It must have devolved from some actual experience. Even dementia, the distortion of reality, depends on having a reality to distort. What reality could have been at the source of the hideous distortion of Deuteronomy 12?
It has often been observed that Christianity took some of its rites and images from Pagan religion. The Christian mass, for instance, was taken directly from Mithraic religion. The Vatican itself is erected over a crypt where the rites of Mithras were celebrated. Christmas was originally a feast-day dedicated to the rebirth of the solar god, Mithra, not to mention a host of other Pagan divinities.
Okay, all this is more or less old hat. The cooptation of Pagan religious motifs and rituals by Christianity is well-known, but there is a deeper aspect to the crime of spiritual piracy. It is one thing to pillage rites and symbols which result from genuine religious experience, and quite another thing to undermine the very capacity for such experience. In The Politics of Experience, L. D. Laing warned about this danger: “If our experience is destroyed, our behaviour will be destructive.” Can the destructive behavior demanded by the paternal deity in Deuteronomy 12 be the result of experience having been destroyed? If so, what kind of experience?
A while ago a friend asked me, “Why is the infant Jesus depicted sleeping in a manger?” This question caught my attention, because after a good many years of deep immersion in mythology, I had not asked it myself! The “Christ Child” in the manger is one of the striking details of the New Testament. This endearing image is so deeply associated with the life of Jesus that we never think it could belong to any other story or setting. It seems this way, as do so many features of Christianity, because the cooptation has been done in such a way as to exclude any and all alternatives. The propagation of Christianity has been like a brutal advertising campaign of complete brainwashing that aims to make sure that the targeted consumers do not just reject the competition, but are oblivious to the very existence of any competition.
Birth from a Myrrh Tree
Upon reflection, I realized that the cameo image of baby Jesus in the manger was a cooptation of Tammuz (“true son”), the Sumerian shepherd. As a tender of sheep and goats, Tammuz sometimes slept in the manger where the flock came to eat. This humble image contrasts to his privileged role as a lover of the Goddess, Ishtar.
The Greek equivalent to the Assyro-Babylonian Tammuz was Adonis. Legend says that his mother Myrrha was a tree, i.e., a tree nymph or dryad. One version says that Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (the guardian goddess of the Eleusinian Mysteries) became enamoured of Adonis and took him with her as she migrated through the seasons of the year. In other words, the human Adonis became entirely absorbed in the recycling, regenerating processes of nature, like a tree that changes with the seasons. Adonis’ Sumerian counterpart, Dumuzi (identical with Tammuz, of course), was traditionally born from a tree (Ceramic bowl by Urbino, 16th Century, N. Italy). Even casual observers of nature have noted how the trunks of many trees have open joints that graphically resemble the distended birth orifice. Adonis is extracted from the trunk while his mother, caught in the throes of labor, looks down as if upon a miracle.
All over the ancient Near East the birth of Adonis from a myrrh tree after a ten-month gestation was celebrated on December 25. This is the pre-historical origin of the Christmas tree.
Three details of the Urbino image are striking: First, Myrrha the tree nymph has her arms outspread in a way that immediately suggests the posture of someone crucified on a cross. Second, the scarf wrapped around her recalls the serpent wrapped around the tree in the Garden of Eden. Third, Myrrha wears a pointed cap that almost looks like a thorn, recalling the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on Golgotha. It is as if these details are subliminal clues embedded in the overt mythological imagery. The ceramic bowl pictures (symbolizes, if you prefer) an experience, not the literal counterpart to what it shows. This complex image mirrors to us today something that happened to humanity in the past due to a specific capacity for experience (yet to be determined), a capacity which has since been destroyed. If this mythic image is obscure to us today, it is not because we cannot conceive or imagine what it might mean, but because we can no longer experience in a vivid and direct way what it represents.
In short, the Urbino ceramic does not merely display a mythological event, the birth of a man from a tree-woman; it also reveals the humanly lived counterpart to that event: the experience encoded in the mythic image of a tree-woman giving birth to a man.
Now, assuming that the Italian artist who made the Urbino artifact faithfully preserved some details of Pagan mythology about Adonis, and allowing that the legend of Adonis predates Christianity by millennia, we can assert that the image on the ceramic bowl represents a mythical event that came to be caricatured in the crucifixion. By caricatured I mean deliberately and perversely distorted. The specific details that have been coopted are flagrant, as noted above: the woman with arms outspread in joy, the billowing scarf, the pointed hat. Of these details, the first and last are transposed into the conventional scenes of crucifixion. The second detail has been coopted for conventional representations of the Christian scenario of the Fall: the serpentine tempter curled around the Tree of Life.
Consider closely how the caricature perverts the value of the original mythic images. The gesture of Myrrha is an expression of joy: she throws out her arms as if to embrace the newborn child, but also to show her exuberance. The serpent-scarf flutters wildly around her. In Pagan myth and art, the serpent represents the life-force with its sinuous currents full of ecstasy. In Gnostic myth, the serpent in the garden of Eden is the instructor and divine benefactor who confers the cognitive ecstasy of Gnosis on the first parents, Adam and Eve. All this imagery is grotesquely redeployed in the religious imagery where Christ on the cross replaces the serpent on the tree. The difference in the psychological impact of the birth of Adonis compared to the crucifixion is obvious: one, the Pagan image, represents ecstasy and birth from the powers of the earth; the other, the Christian image, represents human death-agony as an otherworldly sacrifice.
The crucifixion image borrows and distorts a preexisting mythic image that arose from a certain experience, but the cooptation denies and reverses the values attached to that experience. In my book, I call this tactic counter-mimicry, after the Greek wordantimimon, used in Gnostic texts to describe Archontic mentality. In other words, counter-mimicry copies an image, but converts it to a set of values contrary to its original meaning. The counter-mimicry of the crucifixion displaced the Pagan religion of ecstacy and regeneration in nature and substituted in its place a cult of death and suffering. It made the redemptive power attributed to Christ's suffering look more powerful than the regenerative force of nature itself.
Gnostics insisted that this is a deviant and dangerous idea. What do you think?
So far, so good. But let's cut to the chase. What is "the humanly lived experience" represented by the birth of Adonis from a tree-woman? Well, there are two answers to that question. First, the mythic image shown above reflects the Pagan religious experience of ecstatic regeneration through immersion in the forces of nature, as suggested above. Those who identified with Adonis were spiritually and somatically reborn. They participated morally, emotionally and psychologically in the regeneration of nature, as if they were an integral part of the natural world and not separate from it, confined to the human world alone, trapped in single-self identity. This experience was available to every person initiated into the rites of Adonis. The Urbino image represents the first-hand experience of those who underwent those rites.
But this mythic image shows another kind of experience as well, something that transcends the realm of individuality. Because myths refer to the long-term evolution of the human species, not only to the specific experience of an individual member of the species, each mythic image is time-intensive. This means that it displays in a static pictorial form a process that evolved over a long time, extending back into prehistory. Take Orion the Hunter, for example. This is the best-known mythological image found in the skies, where it is pictured as a constellation. The mythic image of Orion does not merely represent one human individual who once went hunting, it represents the experience of the hunt as lived by the entire human species over hundreds of thousands of years. Orion is the time-intensive image of an evolutional process undergone by the entire human species. The image is a mnemonic device for recalling that long-term evolutional process to the conscious mind. You could say that a mythic image is an icon of phylogenetic memory. Behold the image and it brings up the species memory in the form of a mythic narrative.
Phylogenetic, adjectival form of phylogeny: development of the entirety of a species, by contrast to ontogeny, development of the individual of a species. Phylogenetic refers to the experience shared by a phylum. (Linnaean taxonomy describes each living creature by Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Humanity belongs to the Phylum of Chordata, including all vertebrates with a central nervous system along the back. In evolutionary terms, the human species is defined as a creature with a spine, but in moral terms, many members of the species are totally spineless.)
That myth preserves a record of phylogenetic memory, or long-term species memory, has not been widely considered, as far as I know. I have been trying to get this concept into circulation for a good many years. Perhaps you, patient reader, can now understand why I've considered this matter to be of such paramount importance. The heuristic value of this idea is immense, and may be crucial to human survival. (heuristic adj 1 allowing people to learn for themselves. 2 denoting problem-solving techniques that proceed by trial and error. The Penguin Concise English Dictionary, 2001.) If you accept the concept of the mythic image as stated here, you can formulate questions that will lead into the true depth of the mythological material. You can ask, What specific phylogenetic memory does this mythic image or story present? The answer is already half-contained in the question. By knowing what you are asking for, you will be able to develop a rich, deeply resourced response. You can ask what a mythic image or narrative reveals about specific experiences in the evolution of our species over the long term.
Which brings us to the second answer about the mythic image of Adonis born from a tree. This image does not represent a one-time literal event, a boy born from a tree-woman in some remote moment of prehistory; but an actual, lived event that transpired over many eons of time. What event was that? It was the birth of male shamans from women who were trees.
Phylogenetic memory encompasses everything that has happened to the human species, including what brought it to its current stage of biological existence as a two-legged self-conscious animal. Whoever can access the long-term memory of the human species can come to know how the human body was formed from germinal events at the molecular level, how we evolved from a kind of primal plasm into a complex multicellular creature, how we acquired our sense-organs, how the brain developed, how sex originated, how we acquired fingernails, how we came to weep when we are sad, and so on. These are biological and evolutional developments, things that happened to us, rather than actions we performed, like hunting. They are developmental events in the life of our species. But phylogenetic memory also comprises other experiences: how fire was discovered, how the woodsaw was invented, how we learned to make bread. I want to emphasize that phylogenetic memory carries a record of discoveries that humans have made and as well biological developments that the human species has undergone. Both categories of events are retained in the human genome where they can be accessed by shamanic techniques of ecstasy, comparable to the Gnosis of the Mysteries.
Now here’s where the going gets tricky, as will happen from time to time on Metahistory.org. We are entertaining an amazing concept — myth is a record of phylogenetic memory — and, at the same time, we are contemplating some mythological material with that concept in mind, in order to observe how the concept can be applied, how it works in practice. This exercise requires the use of the leftbrain (concept) and rightbrain (myth) simultaneously, but it is not always good technique to engage both sides of the brain at once. For instance, we cannot investigate “the birth of male shamans from women who were trees” and remain engaged with the leftbrain concept of phylogenetic memory. That investigation has to be pursued via a narrative, a story-telling process.
The narrative cannot be developed conceptually, even though we are using a concept to intiate it, i.e., to frame the storytelling process.
Even though the mythological material to be elicited through the narration will show how the concept works, the concept has to set the aside, otherwise it hampers or even cripples the narrative. So, the way to proceed from this point on is to elaborate the narrative purely on its own terms. When the myth has been expanded into a set of graphic and palpable memories of species experience, we can return to the framing concept of phylogenetic memory. In the process of expanding the myth, it helps to keep conceptual and critical thinking in suspension.
Just like we do when we go to the movies.
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Posted by John Lamb Lash January 2006 on Metahistory.org