Magic, myth and mystery in the ancient world…
I’m reading William Haslam’s deeply insightful and thoroughly-researched exploration from 1849: The Cross and The Serpent. From the outset, it reminded me of the 1998 book, Heaven’s Mirror, by Graham Hancock and Santha Faiia. This apparently had an accompanying Channel 4 television series, but unfortunately I didn’t see it.
I did, however, read the book from cover to cover with growing enthusiasm and excitement as it explored the tangible links between the world’s ancient cultures – the distances between which geographically, temporally and socially would have made communication between them pretty unlikely, if not absolutely impossible in many cases.
What they asserted was that the same patterns of language roots, architecture (specifically temple-building), and mythological motifs could be found in pretty well every ancient culture that ever inhabited the earth at any place and in every time. They made exciting links between the temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, and the Temples of the Sun and Moon in Mexico City; these were linked to Hindu temples and mythologies, Egyptian, Pacific and ancient Western traditions.
One of the major connecting factors was the symbol of the serpent – others included The Word, and the overwhelming presence of the Great Flood narrative across every culture, with all evidence seeming to point towards the civilisation that existed before the flood as being holders of wise and sacred knowledge from God that was later imparted to the varying cultures as they dispersed across the globe after the flood.
The study explores a wealth and wide range of sacred texts and scriptures from around the world to underpin its findings, and includes some references to the Gnostic Gospels which point towards a vaguely Christian understanding, although the Bible itself seems to have been largely overlooked as an important source of scriptural knowledge.
The rift between biblical and non-biblical cultures seems to be deep and strong.
And yet. In 1849, William Haslam was setting out the exact same argument – with one key difference: grounded in Biblical theology, Haslam shows how all these mythologies share the same Original Root as the Christian Gospel – namely, the Word of God. His theory is based on a deep reading of Biblical Scripture, not just for what is written, but also for what is implied. And his argument is partly based on reinterpreting the history of what happened after the Flood. He sets out to prove through scripture that the scattering and dissemination of peoples across the globe following the flood is directly responsible for the arising of so many symbolically connected mythologies across the ancient world.
By examining the exact same arguments and evidence, Halsam shows how the esoteric knowledge and sacred mystical understanding of the symbolic Cross and Serpent wove their way into every sacred mythology across the world, and still hold potency in our imagination and rituals today.
He explores language etymology, temple architecture and mythological symbolism to demonstrate how the world’s seemingly diverse cultures have One Root in God’s Word, and that they all find their culmination in the salvation of mankind at the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Stories bearing the same or similar motifs abound across the ancient world and in every mythology that we have inherited.
For me, one of the most personally relevant – and seasonally topical – of these stories is the Celtic/British story of John Barleycorn, which is symbolically enacted every year at the Eastbourne Lammas Festival (Western Lawns, 26-27 July 2014). In this story, the god (Lughnasa/”Light”) is present on earth in the form of an ordinary man – John Barleycorn. At harvest time, John Barleycorn must die – his blood must be shed to give life for the people in the following year. With his death, bread and ale are produced from the crop of his body (the barleycorn), and are ceremonially partaken to ensure the success of next year’s harvest.
In a corresponding ancient Mexican symbolic rite, a maize cross was constructed, venerated and shared among the people, in a ritual that was linked to the giving of blood in sacrifice.
The echoes of the Gospel are so striking they hardly need explaining. John Barleycorn’s story itself has resonances across the ancient world – for example the Greek story of Demeter and Persephone, the Roman Ceres, and particularly the Egyptian story of Osiris, whose body was broken on the threshing room floor each year at the harvest, and who would judge the dead in the underworld.
Haslam argues that the symbol of the Cross can be seen in the Egyptian ankh – designating immortality and eternal life; the symbols of the five major planets in the solar system, each relating to ancient god and goddess figures; the architecture and construction of ancient Hindu temples in India; and is traced in China, South America, Europe, Celtic imagery and many more.
The serpent shows itself in the temple structures and mythology of Hinduism, Buddhism, Mayan culture, and so many more – especially when we consider it in its form as the dragon: barely a cultural mythology excludes this nemesis.
Haslam gives specific examples from across the ancient world of the recurring symbolic motifs of the Cross and the Serpent, similar to those put forward in Heaven’s Mirror.
The thing that both books do brilliantly is highlight the need for integration, rather than obliteration, when it comes to understanding our ancient history and our relationship with the Divine.
To me, early British churches are a kind of hopeful symbol of this. There are a number of Saxon churches (pre-1066) near where I live in Sussex, and among the striking features of these and other Mediaeval churches and churchyards you would be quite likely to find the following: a pair of ancient yew trees, often marking the entrance to the church or graveyard; sacred geometrical symbolism in the architecture and design; ‘pagan’ images carved into the cornices and ceilings – such as oak leaves and even some Green Man faces. It is often said that the church came along and pushed out the local Druidic religions – but I feel this is a little unjust in the face of the evidence, in these particular cases at least.
People who want to obliterate would perhaps take over the original sacred site (clearly marked by the yew trees, which were sacred gathering places) and destroy everything that marked it out as pagan – including the trees themselves. They certainly wouldn’t glorify the old ideas in stonework and architectural design. And yet they did. They preserved the trees and the imagery.
I like to think this is suggestive of the implicit understanding that the great mysteries require investigation, co-operation and integration, much rather than obliteration.
With the Church of England’s recent decision to allow women bishops for the first time in its history, I wonder what the process of mutual learning and shared understanding would uncover for us all.
Haslam is clear – as were Tolkien and Lewis a century later: the thematic recurrence of shared sacred symbolism across the mythologies of the ancient world is both derived from and pointing to the Truth of the One God, whose Word was made flesh in the actual historical person of Jesus Christ; the willing sacrifice of whose blood for our sins is both our salvation and the culmination of all ancient prophecy.
Once we were divided and scattered. Once again we will be reunited in the glory of our God.