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CHAPTER II
THE NATURAL SYMBOLS OF PULSATION

Heaven and Earth declare the wonder of His Work.


The History of early religions is very much a history of the successive introductions into public worship of various symbols, by means of which the Seers hoped to make the masses realize the perpetual Flux or Pulsation which underlies the phenomena of Nature. The Seer perceives the Law of Pulsation by observing a certain phenomenon; that phenomenon becomes for him interesting; he tries to make the masses share his interest in it, as a revelation of Nature's fundamental Law; the masses lose sight of the idea of pulsation, and get up an idolatrous (i.e. fixed) tension on the symbol itself. To the pure in heart who see the Logos, all things are pure, because all things suggest the ineffable "process of becoming"; and those things are naturally sacred to any man, and an object of religious reverence, which most vividly suggest it to him. But to the masses things are not thus pure; because they see, in each thing, not the Creative Logos, but some special quality which is, or which they suppose to be, the especial characteristic of that object. Each Seer tries to break up the association of special Sanctity which clings round the symbol employed by his predecessor; in all good faith and innocence he tries to teach Flux-doctrine by some new symbol; and so the process begins again. It has in various forms gone on throughout the History not only of religion, but of all the intellectual and moral life of the world; it is made intelligible by studying those natural objects which at various times have been associated with religious ceremonies.

The movements of the Heavenly Bodies revealed to the Seers some mighty Principle of rhythmic motion; those whom they tried to indoctrinate with this idea worshipped Sun and Moon and Stars. The Seers erected stones to facilitate consecutive observation of the heavenly motions; the people supposed those stones to be possessed of magic virtues. It would seem that at some time in the world's history the process of becoming was taught chiefly by reference to vegetable growth. The people attached fantastic ideas to the grotesque forms of certain vegetable objects. Then the Seers selected for use in teaching certain trees distinguished by the absence of tendency to grow into suggestive shapes, and which exhibit in a severely simple form the main laws of growth.[1] The idolaters constituted these particular trees or plants sacred. Then the Seers ordered the sacred plants to be burned in homage to the Unseen Cause of growth; the masses made an idolatrous ceremonial out of the very act of destroying a sacred Symbol. The Seers would seem then to have turned from the vegetable, which only grows, and whose growth can only be inferred, not seen, to the animal, in which the life-process reveals itself by visible motion. To the medical priest, who, by dissecting a ram's heart, has caught the secret of the throbbing of his own heart, the ram is henceforward a sacred object. The mass of mankind are, however, not easily interested in abstruse and as yet imperfectly developed physiological theories; to them, a ram is — a beast of certain shape. They see his form, but not the pulsating force which constitutes his life; and, of all that the enthusiast has told them, they remember nothing, except that when they say their prayers they are to look at a ram. From that to the worship of a ram-god is an easy step for the unthinking multitude.

When the sacred beast dies, Superstition makes of him a mummy, so as to preserve as much of him as can be preserved. The Seer orders him to be burned in honour of The Unseen Giver of Life. The masses attach superstitious ideas to the very fire that consumes the offering. The Seer orders that part of the flesh shall be consumed, not by the fire, but by the very worshippers; the masses make the meal a superstitious observance. Some Seer tries to show that the important thing in the beast is not his death, but the lessons drawn from the palpitating entrails which reveal the secret of life; the next generation declares that the Prophet drew auguries from the entrails.

Another Seer tells how mere tension on the lessons of the past is idolatrous and barren, and mere following of one's personal inspirations is dangerous and misleading; that he alone is a true Prophet by whose head converge the two streams of instruction, inspiration and tradition, as two birds may fly from distant points of the horizon.[2] Posterity says that the great man of old taught how to gather knowledge from the flight of birds. And so on, ever round and round the same weary circle, the Seers rolling up the Sisyphus-stone towards true enlightenment; the masses ever plunging back into idolatry and carnalism.

There was in old times one practical difficulty connected with the conflict, which may well account for the eagerness of ancient Prophets to put an end to idolatrous conceptions. To every genuine philosopher the symbols of certain physical functions are among the most sacred of all objects, as being the perennial witness that the Logos is with man; and not with man only, but with all Creation. But the masses can see nothing in these objects except the symbols of certain pleasurable sensations; and if they are taught to think intently of them, they make their religion consist in the stimulation of mere sensation. This has been the cause of numberless disorders, and excuses much Prophetic injustice and bigotry on the subject of Idolatry.

The Founders of Judaism desired that the People should be taught, as far as possible, by symbols possessing in a very marked manner the property of evanescence. The Sun and Moon, the symbols of pure Light, had been degraded to idolatrous purposes; Moses seems to have tried to make his people feel that some phosphorescent material, which shone only rarely, was more truly sacred than the Sun and moon. In fact, the Mosaic religion may be described as one which abjures, as far as possible, the consecration of colour-and-form manifestations which are either partial or permanent; it takes, for its principal symbols, manifestations which are essentially evanescent; and it keeps permanently enshrined nothing but revealed Laws. The writer of Genesis asserts that the true symbol of God's covenant with Man is the Rainbow; which no man can capture or embalm or enshrine; which is made by the occasional breaking-up of the One Light into many colours, to fade before long into the Unity of White Light again; and which, when it departs, leaves nowhere in the world a trace of its having existed, except on man's heart an impression of spiritual beauty, and in his mind the power of attaining a knowledge of the Laws of Light.

We gain a curious side-light on the early history of religions by the study of Cornish legends. When, in the early ages, savage tribes were converted by strangers of a different religion, the priests who converted them taught them to connect the memorials of their old faith with the idea of evil magic. Where, therefore, we find Druidic stones, believed by peasants to be relics of evil magicians, we may guess that some conversionist has been trying to indoctrinate people with his views. In Cornwall there are distinct traces of a stratum of some religion intervening between the old idolatry of fixed stones and the Christian ideas imported from Rome through England. The characteristic of Cornish legends is that monoliths are people who would not pay proper respect to the Sabbath; and who, as punishment for that crime, were arrested on their way to somewhere where they wanted to go, and were struck into stone to stand on the moor for ever, to show what comes of not keeping Sabbath. Now when we know about any preacher, that he instructs his flock to expect, as the penalty for neglect of religious observances, arrestation of progress, and the falling into a permanently fixed position, we can form a tolerably clear idea what was the main character of the religion taught by him. we are not here, however, left dependent on mere inference, for the religious teachers who converted the Cornish from their early idolatry left behind them another trace besides the legend of the people who would not keep Sabbath. In contrast with these evil stones, there are others held sacred by the peasants almost to our own day; the so-called "logan-stones." A logan-stone is one so delicately poised, that a child's touch can make it sway to and fro; yet it presently returns to a position of equilibrium by virtue of its natural equipoise. The name "Logan" is derived from a word in use in Cornwall, to "log" i.e. to sway, rock, vibrate. We need not ask what was the philosophy of teachers who held sacred the logan-stone.

Perhaps the most impressive of all Natural Symbols of progress by Pulsation is the one referred to by Jesus—the Law of the circular Storm, which might be suggested to any true lover of Nature by observing the wheeling dust. The Spirit which guides man is like the whirling wind; it blows backward in one place while it is blowing forward in another; so that you cannot tell in what direction it is going as a whole, merely from feeling how it blows on you.

In connection with this subject I may mention a remark that has occurred to me in reading works of piety. All sorts of religious writers agree in describing the troubles of life as "stormy seas." The instinct of some leads them to speak of taking refuge from the storm in an Ark (which sways with the heaving sea, and yields to its every motion); while others, on the contrary, prefer to think of clinging for safety to a fixed stone or cross, or other immovable object. The writers of "clinging" symbolism are of the properly orthodox type; if such a man should happen to disagree with the ecclesiastical superior who is in authority over him, it will be owing to the disturbing accident of some other having gained a stronger hold on his mind. But the man who, like Baxter, writes hymns about taking refuge in an Ark, is normally a heretic by the very nature of his mind; a natural Free-thinker, born to be a reformer and an Apostle of the Hidden Logos. There are, indeed, some who express the sense of trust in God without reference even to an intervening Ark; they find sufficient security in the very Law of the Storm itself. He who is scientific enough to know the rhythmic pulsation which is revealed in the Law of the Storm, feels sure that it will cease when the appointed time has come. Suggestions of this feeling are common in the Hebrew Scriptures; the following is a modern English instance:—

"O'er this fair and blooming earth,
 When the rushing storm has birth,
 And the winged lightning flies,
 And the tempest rends the skies,
 And the sea with deafening roar
 Rolls its strength along the shore;
 Yet within its limits' bound
 Raves that storm its little round.
 O'er the flood Jehovah reigns,
 Ever He a King remains.

"From the sphere of human things,
 When Peace waves her parting wings,
 Bidding mighty Nations quail
 At the Future's opening veil;
 Famine lift her withered hand,
 Battle waste a sinking land,

 Social warfare, civil strife,
 Wither all the flowers of life;
 Yet within its bounds assigned
 Is that tempest's wrath confined;
 And in limits sealed and set
 Human passions roll and fret;
 O'er the Water-flood Who reigns
 Evermore a King remains.

"When above my fainting head
 Gathering clouds of ill are spread,
 Wild and dark the Heavens around,
 Rough my path on alien ground;
 Still, O Lord of Hosts, in Thee
 Shall my trust unwavering be;
 For the dwelling of Thy Throne
 Is where tempests are unknown;
 And Thy sceptre and Thy sway
 All life's waves and storms obey;
 O'er the Water-flood Who reigns
 Evermore a King remains."

George Boole.
  1. Such is the characteristic of all the sacred Trees which I have been able to examine.
  2. Odin's birds were "Thought and "Tradition."