Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The God from the House of Bread: A Bridge Between Christianity and Paganism (Part 2)

The Wild Reed's 2018 Holy Week series continues with Part 2 of Druid author and speaker John Michael Greer's essay "The God from the House of Bread," originally published in the 2012 anthology, Jesus Through Pagan Eyes: Bridging Neopagan Perspectives with a Progressive Vision of Christ.

For Part 1 of this series, click here).


Very few of today's Pagans and even fewer contemporary Christians have ever heard of the redoubtable Welsh author and Druid Owen Morgan. In his day, though, Morgan – Archdruid Morien of Pontypridd, to use his religious title – was a prominent figure on the far end of British spirituality, with a substantial following in Britain and the United States. Those who like to imagine the Victorian era as a glacial landscape of conformity and sexual repression should stay far away from Morgan's writings, especially his 1887 textbook of Druid philosophy and theology, The Light of Britannia, which argued that Christianity was a Pagan fertility cult.

Morgan himself did not put the matter quite so baldly. He argued, rather that the core of all true religion was the worship of the life force; that the most prominent emblems of the life force – in the macrocosm, sun, and earth; in the microcosm, the male and female genitals; in both, the activities that give rise to new life – were the foundation of all religious symbolism, in Pagan as well as Christian traditions; and that Christianity was simply a reinstatement of the old Pagan gnosis of fertility and new life. He considered himself a good Christian as well as a Druid, and saw nothing inappropriate in attending church regularly; for him, after all, the church was a stone representation of the vagina of the earth goddess, its portal facing east to welcome the virile and penetrating rays of the rising sun: the Bride of Christ, in another symbolism, eagerly awaiting her heavenly bridegroom.

Ideas such as these were far from unique to Morgan, or for that matter to the Druidry of his time. Behind his book lay more than a century of pioneering explorations of the origins of human religion, and the rise of two major schools of thought – one arguing for an astrological and seasonal origin to religion and myth, the other tracing all religion and myth back to what was primly called "the worship of the generative powers" – that many alternative thinkers of his time were trying to reconcile. Some of these had already taken the final, daring step of including Christianity in their synthesis, though none ever quite managed to equal Morgan's flair or his genius for deadpan humor. Despite this, Morgan's own cultural impact has gone surprisingly unnoticed. You can read any number of histories of the rise of modern Neopaganism, for example, and never learn that The Light of Britannia was the first modern expression of a fertility religion that places a single god, a single goddess, and their sexual relationship at the center of its spiritual vision – a pattern that became popular after its publication, and eventually took definite form with Gerald Gardner's invention of Wicca.

The broader tradition of seasonal and sexual religious interpretation has had a little more visibility in recent times, not least because it helped shape important works of scholarship such as James Frazer's The Golden Bough and iconic cultural works such as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Still, such interpretations have been unfashionable in scholarly circles for some decades now. This is unfortunate, for however overblown some of the old analyses may have been – and Morgan's were among the most colorful, it must be admitted – they capture a crucial factor in ancient Pagan religions that is also amply present in the origins of Christianity.

The "strong brown god" in Eliot's "The Dry Savages," mentioned at the beginning of this essay [see Part 1], offers a useful starting place. To any Pagan in ancient times, Eliot's recognition was so obvious that it scarcely required mentioning. Of course rivers were deities – gods to the ancient Greeks, for example, and goddesses to the ancient Celts. Other natural phenomena were equally full of divinity. An ancient Greek who wanted to comment on wet weather would likely as not say "Zeus is raining."

Whatever else Zeus was in classical Greek religion, in other words – and Pagan gods and goddesses were richly complex beings, impossible to pin down with simple definitions – he was always, in part, the sky as a conscious and potent divine being. Poseidon was similarly the ocean, Demeter the fertile earth, Aphrodite sexuality in all its forms, Pan the raw unhuman presence of wilderness, and so on. Even through the elegant literary constructions of late classical myth, it's not difficult to see god and goddess as a distinct force of nature with its own power to shape the weaving of the fabric of human life.

The same principle applies in a different way to a class of beings the Greeks carefully distinguished from the gods – the heroes or demigods, who were born of loves between a god or goddess and a mortal. Each of these embodied one of the realms where the human and natural worlds fused into unity. The twelve labors of Heracles, for instance, echo precisely the seasonal movement of the sun through the signs of the zodiac as reflected in the agricultural cycle – compare Heracles's labors to the tasks of the Greek farmer as outlined, say, in Hesiod's Works and Days, and it's not too hard to make sense of the myth. Heracles, half god and half human, is the divine spirit of farming as what we would now call an ecosystem, half natural and half human, contending with its seasonal opponents, bringing treasures from the underworld, and then dying in the flames of the burning stubble to be reborn. The Greeks called Heracles "son of god" and "savior," and since their daily bread depended on him, this was entirely appropriate.

Another god whose cult thrived in the late classical world had the same titles, of course, and the parallels linking the myth of Jesus with the seasonal cycle of agriculture are at least as precise as those that can be traced in the myth of Heracles. Just as Heracles had his twelve labors, for instance, Jesus had his twelve disciples, whose connection with the signs of the zodiac has been a commonplace of Christian symbolism for many centuries.

– John Michael Greer
From "The God from the House of Bread"
in Jesus Through Pagan Eyes
(edited by Rev. Mark Townsend)
p. 154-156

NEXT: Part 3

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The God from the House of Bread (Part 1)
Advent: A "ChristoPagan" Perspective
Gabriel Fauré's "ChristoPagan" Requiem
A Day to Celebrate the Survival of the Old Ways
At Hallowtide, Pagan Thoughts on Restoring Our World and Our Souls
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son
The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day
Beltane: Celebrating the Sheer Exuberance of May
Beltane and the Reclaiming of Spirit
Beloved and Antlered
Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"
The Prayer Tree

Image 1: Detail from Salvador Dalí's "The Sacrament of the Last Supper" (1955).
Image 2: Owen Morgan. (Photographer unknown)
Image 3: Heracles fighting the Nemaean lion, one of his "twelve labors." (Artist unknown)

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