Thursday, 19 January 2012

A Cosmology

In trying to get my thoughts in order I have been attempting to formulate a workable cosmology that combines the fundamental beliefs that seem to have endured through the ages in Britain B.C. Much of this is based on prehistoric studies and what we know about the artifacts, legends, customs and religion of later copper, bronze and iron age peoples. If we start at the beginning of the Paleolithic this covers a vast time span. From the first evidence of religious belief to the rise of civilization there are around 26,000 years to cover (depending upon school of thought). And for the vast majority of this time period we know nothing absolute about religious belief or spirituality. Much is inferred.



We will never know exactly how our most distant ancestors viewed the cosmos but some beliefs seem to have endured through time. Ancient peoples had the same brain power as we do now and probably had similar motivations and emotions, so perhaps we can assume that they made observations and drew comparisons as we do. Whenever we have a new experience our brain searches through its archive for similar experiences. We describe things as being "like...", we use metaphor. I think that one of the earliest comparisons drawn was that between the Earth and the Mother. Both nurture developing life and bring it forth.


But before a baby is born man and woman unite and "something", an energy or life force passes between them. Here it seems sensible to suggest that the male power comes from the sun. People surely observed that light is needed for growth. It is interesting that the sun and then male gods, took on greater importance in the neolithic agricultural revolution, where the link between sunny weather and crop yield must have been more closely followed. It is probably true that the Earth Mother was the principle deity for a long time. Not only did life appear to develop within the Earth, everything was a child of the Earth. One can imagine our ancestors trying to maintain a balance between killing their fellow creatures for food and seeking the blessing of the Earth Mother. Afterall they knew that she could turn on them with flood and quake. It is appealing to think that they asked permission and honoured the "spirit" of the animals killed as some native cultures do to this day. Or maybe they considered themselves set apart and blessed by the mother? We cannot know for sure.

Although the female principle was probably dominant, the male principle was still present and needed for the creation of life. The male would also provide for the female, especially during the vulnerability of pregnancy and caring for infants. The male principle in the form of the sun was also capable of anger and retribution: he could parch and scorch the Earth making it barren, or he could absent himself, removing warmth and light.

So a belief in a balanced Goddess and God interaction seems sensible. We will never know for sure if the apparent absence of male images in Paleolithic art points at a dominant Goddess or matriarchal society (big debate). For all we know, depiction of the God principle was taboo, abstract or metaphoric. To a majority of people the balanced view is intuitively correct. This balance is probably best summed up by the Ying-Yang symbol used in Taoism. Ying often represents the female and yang the male. Each has a dot of colour from the opposite principle. They are balanced and interdependent. Of course this is a recent Chinese invention (500-600 B.C.) but the balance is pleasing.


A God and Goddess duality also fits in with archetypal stories from across the globe where male and female principals interact, particularly with the cycle of the year. An interaction with yearly cycles is particularly strong in northern european mythology because there are very clear differences between seasons. Sir James George Frazer picked up on this theme in his book "The Golden Bough" (1890) when he described a yearly rebirth of a God King, his union with the maiden Goddess, the creation of new life and then his death. Here the God King can be equated with tales of the holly or oak king, and in his vigorous youth he is sometimes seen as the green man, chasing and seducing the young Goddess. The cycle of his rebirth and death follows that of the sun at the solstices.

So deity was present, male and female, Earth Mother and Male principle (probably the Sun). These were balanced overall as each was interdependent, but the Goddess was given particular devotion as lover, mother and nurturer. Perhaps unsurprising as the presence of the male principle came and went through death and rebirth and could be mysteriously distant (probably in his shed ;). These could be personified in image and sculpture (although clearly male images were few). And abstract invisible things, "energies", passed between people, animals, plants and deities bringing about change and creation.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a thought on the primacy of Goddess in the early days: many early cultures did not make the connection between intercourse/conception & procreation. The Egyptians, for instance, (at least during the period when the Book of the Dead was written), believed that women had the power to generate life within themselves, spontaneously. Women made themselves pregnant -- they just hadn't figured out the male role yet. This was considered incredibly mysterious & powerful magick on the part of the "gentler sex." (Perhaps part of the origins of a mistrust of women?) I tend to think this had something to do with the veneration of the feminine divine. Of course, I only have a pocketful of knowledge in this regard, not being particularly into the Women's Mysteries like some of my friends & acquaintances. I am sure some of the more radical Goddess worshippers might balk at my speculations, but eh, I need more evidence for things than just a powerful desire to believe it used to be a certain way.

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