The Sacred Fire, by B.Z. Goldberg, 
LOVE’S HIDDEN WAYS
|Beyond light and shade,
Beyond thing and thought,
There is love forever lurking.
ON the cross-roads of the Balkans, near a city called Naissus, an illegitimate son was born to an innkeeper’s daughter. The boy’s arrival in the world hardly raised a stir at the very inn of his mother. Yet he came to rule over a mighty empire and to shape the destiny of Europe. As if to reflect upon his parents, this boy was named Constantine.
Up from obscurity Constantine climbed. He fought his burdensome way through Roman soldiery in the East. On the banks of the Danube his star began to rise. He was made a tribune. He became a Cæsar. He made himself an Augustus. Slowly, slowly it all came about. It required patience to wait until a superior would rise to greater heights and vacate his place. Prudence was necessary that neither envy nor suspicion be aroused in filling the place vacated. And courage was needed when the ripe moment came to make the move so decisively that it would weather any storm.
Patience, prudence, decision, brought this son of a woman innkeeper of Naissus to the very waters of the Tiber—at
the head of an army. But there was the end. Across the bridge lay Rome with Maxentius and his army, two hundred thousand strong. Beyond Ponte Molle no one could go. Constantine saw Severus try it with disastrous result—Severus, the very man in whose footsteps he had followed on his climb in the East. He watched Galerius make his attempt to cross the Ponte, Galerius whose star had sailed out of the East westward across the heavens—the celestial path his own star followed. Galerius never came to Rome again. The hopes and aspirations, the very lives of these Augusti lie buried in the sands of the Tiber shore.
It was just like Constantine to halt at Ponte Molle and—wait. But one day, Constantine had a dream—a dream at noon-time. On the horizon in front of him he saw a flaming cross; the familiar triad, which the poor, persecuted men and women called Christians always carried about them. In the flame of the burning cross he read: “In hoc signo vincas“—in this sign you will conquer.
When he came to himself, his patience was gone; his prudence thrown to the wind; only decision was left, his decision to cross the bridge, however unequal his army might be to the forces of Maxentius.
So Constantine had a cross made and bearing the sacred emblem he passed over the Tiber and took Rome. And the son of a woman innkeeper at Naissus sat upon the throne of the Cæsars with the name Constantine carved upon it. When he left this throne, heeding the call from a still higher one, fame came and added “the Great” to his name.
Constantine was the first Christian Emperor, the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, and the father of papal power at Saint Peter’s. Who knows what might have become of
the growing yet already disintegrating band of Christians had not Constantine joined them at this time? The faith of the cross had been saved by the vision of the cross appearing to a mighty man of Rome.
True, Constantine was just then in need of a faith. He was facing the crucial point of his career, the critical moment of his life. And everything was against his favor. Considering the actual situation, common sense would have made the ardent leader stop at Ponte Molle. All his courage and energy, fired by ambition and his overwhelming desire for power, could never have carried him across the bridge in the face of such odds. Yet, there was one source out of which a hand might appear to lead him. There was still something that could save him. It was faith; the force that takes away the very sense of reality and taps the energy of the subconscious, the mystic nature in man. Faith—the power that makes so many super-human heroes, men who defy nature and life itself to attain their goal.
Faith, a new faith, Constantine needed, to make his own cause the cause of the faith, so that he might fight his own battle in the name of God and for his religion. “When thou goest forth to battle . . . thou shalt call in the name of God. . . .” Constantine may have saved Christianity, but Christianity surely saved Constantine.
Now, he may have heard long before of those poor, ridiculed bands of men and women who called themselves Christi ins. He may even have been acquainted with the ideas and rituals of this new group coming out of the East. Yet no amount of knowledge or rational persuasion concerning Christianity could have given him that reliance and self-confidence needed to cross the bridge. Mere
thought, abstract idea, imageless belief, never carried one off his feet. The Sermon on the Mount might or might not have aroused Constantine’s admiration; the vision of the fiery cross conquered worlds for him. The symbol of Christianity was more effective than Christianity itself.
A symbol will rouse men and women and carry them over all sorts of obstacles, beyond their apparent limitations. A striking example of its efficacy is to be found in the mascot. Everyone undertaking a hazardous task “trusts to luck.” He has no solid reason for believing that things will take a good turn in his enterprise; but he hopes for it. It is the will to win that instills the hope of victory and inspires confidence in the ability of the individual to carry the project to a successful end. So far, it is all abstract and cannot very well hang together. What is lacking is a concrete basis for this sentiment of trust and confidence, and belief in luck. This is offered by the mascot. The elk, or dog, or rabbit, taken along on a dangerous voyage, on an airflight, or to a football game is supposed to assure the luck that is hoped for. And any man may commit this intellectual sin and accept the superstitious premise, not because he believes in the mascot’s power to charm, but because it offers an object upon which he can collect and focus all his hope and confidence.
Deep in the heart of every man there is a strong feeling of nationality, but whether his nation be large or small, as an abstract thing, it is hard for him to visualize it and to love it in itself. There is a symbol, however, that offers him something upon which to center his devotion. It is the flag, the emblem of the land he loves and honors. His entire thought may be taken up with the problems and
duties of business and life; he may have little time to think about his country. But once an appeal is made to him in the name of his flag, he will drop everything for it. It exerts such a hold upon him that he may gladly face death itself to protect it.
The cross and the crescent, the emblems of two great religions, convey to their followers thoughts that transcend the limitations of language. And the faithful, in turn, love these symbols of creeds that are in themselves highly abstract. The very cross that means so much to a Christian
may convey an entirely different idea to a man of another belief. In the times of the Inquisition, to save his life, a Jew might bend before his executioner and kiss his boots imploring surcease from torture. Yet, he would not kneel or touch the cross with his lips. The former was simple humiliation; the latter was to him a symbol of betrayal of God and people.
In religion, symbols play an important rôle. The symbolic object offers many sensations, every one of which helps to keep the idea that is symbolized in the foreground of consciousness. A symbol is the hold that a man can
obtain on an abstract thought, the peg upon which he can hang his heart, the funnel through which he pours out his soul.
If it is difficult for us today to grasp a purely abstract idea, how much more difficult must it have been for the man of primitive times? His mind was less organized, his notions more confused, and his thinking heavily befuddled. Watch a steamer sail out of a haze on a misty morning and you will see man’s thinking slowly emerging out of primitive mentality. Watch the steamer making shore on a foggy night and you will observe the primitive mind groping for a way to give a meaning to the multitude of impressions hammering away at him from all corners.
Imagine Old Anthropology Adam struggling toward the concept of a generative force in nature. Its manifestations showered upon him at every turn: spring, warm weather, green grass, flowering fields, budding trees, fresh products of the land, births of animals, the increase of fish in the streams. There were births in his own hut and there were times when he himself seemed reborn as well. He felt the sharp, sweep pang of romance, and his whole being was attuned to mystic forces beyond his power of comprehension. What a leap from all these varied impressions to a single thought of regeneration!
Thrown amidst these phenomena of life, death, and rebirth, primitive man was unconsciously groping in the dark of his ignorance, seeking a symbol, a unifying element for all that was going on about him. Lost in the woods, he was searching a way out into the open. In the language of today, he was attempting to give a meaning in a single concrete form to the various phenomena of generation
about him. This process was gradually and unconsciously working out in the primitive mind, clarifying his thought and giving it definite expression, just as our ideas become definite and fixed in our minds very often while we are apparently not thinking at all.
One such clarification was light. In the dark, all things seemed to ebb away. All nature seemed to have sunk into a languid inactivity, while man himself was lost in sleep. Whatever lay awake at night was a source of danger and of fear. Darkness was an enemy. Darkness was death.
As the sun creeps above the horizon a new day is born. Everything begins to stir: the birds chirp and the horses neigh. When the sun rises, man may leave the dark, damp cave and bask in sunshine. He feels as if new life has come to him. As the days grow longer and the rays of the sun become more intense, all nature seems happier, the fields yielding their crops and the trees their ripening fruit. Consequently, this heavenly body may be that common denominator in all manifestations of generation, so gropingly sought after by primitive man. Just as the father is both generator and provider of the family, so may the sun be generator and provider of all life upon the earth.
To the sun, the author of life, the power behind all generation, primitive men sought to render homage by identifying him with the principle of good. They personified the sun in such divinities as Brahma of the Hindus, Mithra of the Persians, Osiris of the Egyptians, and Adonis of the Greeks. We, therefore, have sun worship all over the world, in some places in its pure form, in others in a form merged with other symbols.
Some superstitions prevailing until very recent times point to the erotic element of the sun. It was believed that
if a young woman walked naked through a field of corn in the intense sunlight of midday, she would become pregnant. In the same way, some Slavs still hold the belief that a woman may conceive by standing naked in the moonlight; the moon like the sun being once taken for a deity.
Again, it may not be the sun itself that is behind creation, but the light of the sun, its rays, the fiery ball sinking below the edge of the world at the approach of night. That is fire, the great mystery that consumes everything like the crocodile, yet aids man in combating darkness and in driving off the beast. The fire built by man is only a small part of the great fire of the Universe that makes for life and generation. Just as it sustains life, it may also generate it. And just as it generates, so does it consume, transforming everything it touches into ashes and smoke. Fire is the beginning and the end of things. It is the basis of all the generative manifestations that the spiritual hand of primitive man was groping for. Its worship became another universal religion.
Fire and sun came to serve man as symbols of the generative force; but even they were abstract. The sun is distant and cannot be touched. One cannot even look at it when it is at its zenith. It is difficult to visualize its action upon the earth, or to see in the concrete its generative quality. Fire, too, is intangible. The young child tries to grasp the flame before him. He reaches for it, but it only burns his fingers. Fire is something that is nothing. God appeared to Moses in the form of a fire upon the bush. Yet Moses could not tell what God was, and when he asked, the answer came: “I am that I am,” a very slightly illuminating reply. Had God appeared in the form of a bull,
like the god of the Egyptians, Moses would not have been puzzled.
In consequence, both of these representatives of the generative manifestations had to be reinforced with more concrete symbolic aids. There were animals about man doing in their own way for themselves what the sun or fire was doing for the universe. There were the bull and the goat, both of which came to their high positions in the religions of the world because of their supposed superior virility. They performed sexually oftener than other animals in primitive man’s immediate environment. And in the period of rut no other domesticated animal could compare with them in sheer brutal strength and in the blind urge that would not stop at self-destruction in its hunt for the female. The strength of the force of rut fills us with awe even today. The sight of an aroused bull making for the cow or of a stallion rushing upon the mare is an exhibit of so tremendous an urge that it cannot fail to impress.
The generative force exemplified by these animals introduced the animal symbols as aids to the higher symbolism of the sun and fire. In time, these symbols, just because they were more concrete, overran the entire worship. There are religions in which the bull or goat or serpent is the basic element and the sun or fire has almost entirely vanished from the minds of the worshippers, lingering only in rare and half-forgotten rituals.
When the Bijagos of Africa were attempting to represent in the concrete their generative deity, they took the goat as its representative on earth. Similarly, the old Aryans of Europe had their spirits of the woods, Ljeschie, depicted with the horns, ears, and legs of a goat. The
woods were ever swarming with life: grass and trees, birds and beasts and insects. There was always something creeping, flying, humming in the woods. This seething life, this bubbling-over of the forests, must be the spirits of life, Ljeschie. And only the goat could justly symbolize the generative powers of the divinity.
Dionysos, the Greek and Roman version of the Eastern god of generation, was personified as a goat. This god was born, died, and came to life again to annually resurrect all nature, just as he himself had been resurrected. He was known as the “one of the Black Goatskin.”
The sacred goats were usually kept in the temple with considerable care and tenderness. At Mendes, there were sacred stalls for them back of the room containing the altar. As the ceremonial progressed and the worshippers worked themselves to a pitch of excitement bordering on ecstasy, the goats were let loose among them. There was a scramble to touch the sacred animals. People struggled with one another for the opportunity to give them an humble kiss of homage. In this state of excitation, amidst song and revelry, attempts were made to join in sexual union with these living symbols of virility. There were he-goats for the woman worshippers and she-goats for the males. Those who were not fortunate enough to have the animal impersonations of the generative divinities had to be satisfied with human substitutes. And general sexual promiscuity followed the festivities and worship.
Not always, however, was the life of the sacred goat so happy. Often enough this animal became all the more sacred in its death and was offered up as a sacrifice to the generative god. Just as man offered his own generative organs, or parts of these organs, to the divinities, so did he
sacrifice the entire animal that symbolized for him the very essence of these organs.
Kali was an Indian goddess, who knew everything that was going to happen to the humans in the huts and villages of India. She was kind enough to impart her knowledge in the form of prophecy to the priests in her temple. Yet she would not descend to her earthly dwelling-place unless a goat was sacrificed upon her altar and her priests sucked the blood of the animal while it was streaming from its cut neck.
The fate of the bull in the faith of the primitive peoples was not much different from that of the goat. There were occasions when the bull was eaten alive so that the worshippers might draw directly to themselves a part of his living force, for this animal was a powerful phallic emblem signifying the male creative power. At the Dionysian mysteries, bulls were torn apart and their flesh devoured while still warm. Dionysos himself was often represented as a bull as well as a goat. In Achia, the priests of the goddess of the earth could not commune with the divinity before they had offered her the fresh blood of a bull.
However, there were places where the bull was kept with great care, led a long life of comfort and ease, and, at death, received a distinguished tomb. There was the sacred bull of Egypt. In excavations at Serapeum, near Memphis, in Egypt, the tombs of over sixty of these sacred animals have been discovered. In these tombs, one usually finds a careful statement of the age of the animal, its place of birth, its mother’s name, and the date when it was enthroned. Even the plain bull, without any official connection with god or temple, was held in great esteem. All these animals that died a natural death were carefully
buried in the suburbs of the city, and their bones were afterwards collected from all parts of Egypt to be interred in a single spot. When the bull lost his life in religious duty, such as in sacrifice to Apis, all the worshippers beat their hearts and mourned his death.
The worship of the bull was not confined to Egypt and Greece. In India, Nandi—the sacred white bull of Siva—
is still the object of much veneration. For the Persians and the Jews this animal, the personification of virility, served as an important religious symbol. And it was reverenced as well by the Assyrians, the Phœnicians, and the Chaldeans.
Like the bull and the goat, the serpent came to lend its aid in presenting to the human mind the force of generation
in the world. Because it annually sheds its skin, reappearing in a new body as it were, this animal has for ages been looked upon as the emblem of immortality and reincarnation. The serpent, it is said in the Bible, is “more subtle than any of the beasts in the field” and therefore carries away the biggest prize. Not only has it become an erotic symbol, but it was, at one time, almost a universal religion in itself.
The American Indians had their serpent mounds, and the Druids reverenced their sacred snakes. The mystic serpent of Orpheus, the Midgard snake of Scandinavia, and the brazen serpent of the Jews give testimony to the universality of this religion. There are even today some quarter of a million snake worshippers in India alone. A carved serpent curled up in an oval may still be found among the decorations on the ark in the synagogue. There were serpent ceremonies in Europe long after the advent of Christianity. Within recent times, live serpents were burned on the Eve of Saint John in the Pyrenees. The Ophites caused a tame serpent to coil round the sacramental bread and worshipped it as the representation of the Savior. The very traditions of Saint Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland and of the expulsion of serpents from France indicate the struggle of early Christianity against the worship of the serpent-lingam.
What is it that singled out the serpent of all the animals for such a prominent place in the symbolism of religion?
On the one hand, it was the particular impression the serpent was making on the primitive mind. Its noiseless walk aroused both suspicion and mystery. Its peculiar gaze and its knowing look, along with its supposed power of fascination, won the serpent the designation of “intelligent
fish” from time immemorial. Its name in some languages means life; it also stands for wisdom. It was the serpent that opened the eyes of the first human pair that were born blind. The serpent is the teacher of man in wisdom, but its wisdom is generally taken to be misguided and applied for evil purposes. It was evil in the minds of some primitive peoples; it is evil in the faith of Zoroaster; it was so conceived in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.
In Sunday school, we learn of the serpent in his glory. He did not crawl over the surface of the earth but had legs to stand upon. In fact, he walked erect like Adam and Eve and was equal in height to the camel. He could talk and was in the habit of conversing with the first woman on earth. He was clever enough to meddle in the life of the first humans and to offer them the benefit of his counsel.
To be sure, it was bad advice; slyly he induced Eve to desire the fruit of the forbidden tree. Gently and cleverly
he pointed the way to disobedience of the divine command. And as the woman slid downward, she pulled man down with her. It was by the guile of the serpent that Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden to a life of toil and pain. Like Samson of a later day, the serpent itself shared the ruination it caused. By the fall of man, it was crushed and left to spend its days crawling upon the earth.
There is more to the story than is told to the Sunday school class. The serpent was in love with Eve. He had seen Adam and Eve in their conjugal act and was animated by a passion for the woman. He hoped to get Adam out of the way and to take Eve for himself. The serpent is the first illicit desire of sex, the first thwarted passion of love, the first struggle of the male with the male for the female.
There is another reason for the serpent’s place in religious symbolism—its resemblance to the lingam. They who ascribed the life principle to their own organs of generation were impressed by a living animal so suggestive of the male generative organ. So they deified the serpent and associated it with the sun-father gods and the generative divinities in general.
Like all male gods, the serpent came to be considered as a source of generation. A married woman needed only to enter a place where Tamburbrin, the eel-like creature was, and she would become pregnant. In the temple, a serpent might assume a human form and bless the woman worshipper with his divine sexual presence. The offspring resulting from this union were known as the children of the snake. In the execution of the sexual function, however, the priest represented the serpent.
Just as we today associate the generative powers with
youthfulness, so did the primitive men ascribe to the serpent not only generativeness, but the capacity of eternal youth as well. Utnapishtim, living beyond the mountain Mashu, past the wonderful park and across the Waters of Death, knew the secret of immortal life and perpetual youth. Gilgamesh, a hero of Elam, who became a god in Babylonia, set out to learn this secret. After a series of supreme difficulties, he ran the gauntlet of scorpion men and obtained the thing he so desired. But a serpent in the pool deprived him of the plant that rejuvenated old age, and itself became the guardian of the treasure. Out of scorpions the secret came to Gilgamesh; to a serpent it returned. The serpent is in itself the fountain of youth.
Once this animal symbolizes virility and youth, it is promptly exploited by men anxious to impregnate women. At a religious festival in Bengal, the men march entwined with snakes, while the chief has a rah-boa, or python, round his neck. It is a march like many others in which the males strut out like birds before the females, in display of their conjugal strength. He who kills a serpent even accidentally may be burned alive, for he has exposed the virility symbol to humiliation and insulted the men of the tribe.
Naturally, it was the women who were to show the greatest reverence to the serpent. It was their homage to the lingam, the sign of their subjection to the male sex. In India, there are wives of the snake as there are wives of the other gods in the temples. In Malabar, the serpent inspires certain women with oracular power, if they are perfect in their purity. In another place, the oldest woman enjoys the distinction of carrying the image of the serpent in the processions. This woman must lead a celibate
life, since she is dedicated to the snake. Like many generative divinities, the serpent is worshipped by women with libations of milk; they are bestowing upon the snake their motherly gift.
If the serpent is a god and a source of fertility, it is only natural that he should be looked upon as a father as well. And a father he is for many of his worshippers. The rattlesnake men of Moqui claim to have originated from the snake, and snakes they will become after death. The Black-snake men of the Warramungas believe that they embody the spirits of snakes, which their ancestors, genuine serpents, deposited in a certain creek. The Moquis of America claim descent from a woman, who gave birth to snakes; in consequence, reptiles are freely handled in their snake dances, the purpose of which is to secure fertility of the soil.
In Papua, the natives have given thought to the animating principle of human beings. What is that something that gives life to a growth within the woman’s body and causes it to eventually emerge as the new born? Why, it is Birumbir, of course. Birumbir is the embryo, as we might call it, operating within the uterus. And how does Birumbir get there? It enters the vulva in the form of Junga, and the Junga is inserted by an eel-serpent-like creature called Trombuir. Translated into our scientific tongue, it is as if we said: life is brought into the womb in the form of semen introduced by the male organ. In the picturesque language of the Papuans, the lingam is the serpent-like Trombuir.
Now while Trombuir may enter the yoni of a married woman and impregnate her, it cannot do so to virgins. In the latter, the entrance is closed. Some special ritual
must be observed by the woman and the tribe before the serpent or lingam may find its way to her. This is the
origin, perhaps, of the universal stories of serpents guarding a treasure or dragons watching over hoards of value. It is
symbolic of the masculine desire held in abeyance before the taboo on the virgin is raised. Having appeared on the scene as the mere physical representation of the lingam, a sort of living pillar, the serpent by its own attributes grew to much larger proportions and took on deeper meaning. It came to signify both wisdom and virility and to express the male protest and the masculine anticipation at the gate of the eternal feminine.
It should not surprise us at all that just as animals came to reinforce generative symbolism on account of their virility, man’s own virility should also come in as an additional element in the symbolism of generation. Primitive man was greatly occupied with his own organs of reproduction. He offered them in sacrifice to his gods; he operated upon them for his own salvation; he was ever conscious of their virility. No wonder, then, that they became for him the symbols of generation in the universe. Just as the sun was the father, so was man’s lingam the father, and just as the moon was the mother, so was the yoni. Not only were these organs themselves symbolic, but anything suggesting them became emblems of the generative divinities. The lingam is in the shape of a rod with a round head; so any object of this form, stone or wood, might become such a symbol. The yoni is an oval opening; so any oval figure might represent the female divinity of sex. By further simplification it was enough to draw a vertical line to suggest the lingam and a horizontal one to signify the yoni, while the union of the two was represented by the cross.
The erotic symbol in religion was naturally a concomitant of the erotic religious thought. In fact, the two were elements of the same formative process. The thought affected the symbol, and the symbol influenced the idea. We should, therefore, expect the development of erotic symbolism to follow that of erotic thought. Just as man originally saw the generative process not by sexes but in the actual union, so did he seek to symbolize the generative force by the actual union of the sex organs. We find such images in Africa and Australia. We come across them in India and Japan. We can observe them carried in procession to the temple of Persephone. There are collections of such amulets in some museums with the notice that they were in use as late as the seventeenth century in Southern France and Italy.
Upon the altar of the Hindu temple, there is a sacred object of deep meaning. It is what the cross is to the Christian and the tablets or scroll to the Jew, and more. It is a cylinder hanging from a vase which is set into a pedestal. The pedestal is symbolic of Brahma, the basis of all that is in the universe, the fundamentals of reality. The vase stands for Vishnu, the goddess, the female principle; and within it is the cylinder, representing Siva, the male god, the lingam. Highly involved as the Hindu trinity is, its symbolism is simple. Here we can see the foundation upon which the Hindu mythology has developed. It is the representation of the sexual organs in union.
Close to three millenniums before the Christian era, a Chinese emperor, Fu-Hsi, was given to creating religious symbols. He invented the pa-kua, eight symbols consisting of broken and unbroken lines; the broken lines were
symbolic of the yoni, while the unbroken ones represented the lingam. Here again we have the two sexual principles together.
In the mythology of both Japan and China, there is the Queen of Heaven, Kwan-yin, whose name means: yoni of yonies. She is represented as seated upon a lotus, which, in turn, is a symbol of the womb, and immediately over her is her lord, Shang-ti. Below the two of them the emblem of fertility is placed. This same queen of Heaven and lady of plenty, Kwan-yin, is sometimes represented as a fish goddess. Then she is shown holding a lingam and swimming in a phallic sea.
Seeing the generative process in the union of the sex organs, primitive man came to conceive of it as essentially hermaphroditic in nature. And so the scarab, because it was believed to be double-sexed and capable of fructifying itself, became a sacred emblem. It was symbolic of the generative force in nature. In Egypt, it was the emblem of Khefera, god of creation, father of gods and men, creator of all things and the rising sun. In times of famine and poverty in medieval Europe, the people resorted to an old symbolic service to secure divine aid. In some places, the “need-fire” was kindled by two naked men, who rubbed two dry sticks together, an action in itself symbolic of the sexual process. With the flame they lighted two fires between which the cattle were driven to insure fertility in the herd. In other places the monks kindled the fire in the presence of the faithful. Near the fire they raised the image of the lingam.
The ceremony was a form of magic. It was an appeal to the heavenly powers to engage in the process of fertility and bring an abundance of crop. The fertility powers in
nature were definitely shown what was expected of them by the kindling of the “need-fire”; it was a symbolic union of the sexes. The sexual union, then, was the purpose of the ceremony. Still, at its end an image of the lingam was raised. Of the two sexes represented in union, one emerged separated, individual, with a place for itself in the ceremony. It was the development of the god of sex, male in this particular case, from the divinities representing the sexual process. Religious symbolism, therefore, had to seek ways of representing the individual agents of sex—heretofore represented together.
Of the two agents of the sexual process, it was only natural that the female principle should first occupy the primitive mind. The female is directly associated with the birth of new life. It is the mother who brings the child into the world and it is she, too, who nurses the young. In sexual symbolism we might, therefore, expect the female principle to be most often represented. As a matter of fact, however, there are comparatively few female symbols, while there is an enormous number emblematic of the male organ. The reason for this is often given as the difficulty in representing the female generative organ; the male organ, on the other hand, invites representation. However, this is insufficient reason. The symbol did not always represent the organ realistically. It was often only suggestive. If no difficulty was encountered in representing the lingam by a straight line, there is no reason why it should not be possible to represent the yoni by curved lines or an oval. There were many ways of suggesting the yoni that called for little effort or technique.
The real cause for the paucity of female symbols must be sought not in the technical process of representation but
in the ideals motivating the social group. In a social system dominated by males, where the women are held in subjection, it is small flattery for the males to have the feminine principle worshipped in the temples. Man, dominating the social group, could not declare himself divine, but he could attribute a divine significance to the lingam. When masculinity is worshipped, the male naturally assumes greater importance. Consequently, the male principle was all the more dominant in countries where women were held in subjection. As the women were more and more enslaved, especially in the western world, the religious symbolism grew more masculine. Man forced woman not only to serve him but to worship his virility as well.
The female principle began its symbolic history crudely enough. Centered upon the mother idea, it only sought to represent motherhood. Just as there was an individual mother giving birth to individualized life, so was there a universal mother giving birth to new life universally. The universal mother was represented by the individual mother. Such a mother was Oma-Oma of the Hindus. She was a goddess, yet greater than all gods; for she was before gods came into existence and before existence itself. In many early religions the mother goddess was the supreme deity, the male gods playing only a secondary part.
The individual mother was represented by the figure of a woman with her breasts and genitals greatly exaggerated, or even by the images of these parts alone. There were female breasts and genitals upon the supporting columns of almost every temple in antiquity. Similar carvings were found over the doorways of the Christian cathedrals in
[paragraph continues] Ireland, where they served as a protection against evil. In the Cossit library of Memphis, Tennessee, there is a Mexican idol in the form of a woman with her yoni fully
exposed ready to receive the lingam. There is a goddess on the Slave Coast in the form of a pregnant woman, who is invoked against barrenness. Another African goddess, Odudua, is represented as a seated mother holding her child, and the walls of her temple bear carvings of the lingam and yoni. There are goddesses imaged with babies
growing out of their fingers, toes, and all parts of their bodies, and goddesses possessed of many breasts, like the many-breasted Artemis. Out of this idea of motherhood, grew the mother-child symbolism that was so common in the art of ancient times and that later developed into the beautiful Madonna paintings of Christian Europe.
As the idea of mother dissolved into the more generic idea of femininity, the artist jumped a step. He no longer sought to represent the mother or female herself, but to draw or sculp an object that would suggest the female figure or genital. What was it that made the artist give up realism for impressionistic symbolism? It may have been a growing sense of refinement which makes us speak, at times, by indirection or use sarcasm where we might scold and abuse. Again, it may have been the helplessness of the artist in presenting a realistic picture, or his sheer laziness.
Crude draftsman that primitive man was, he may have found it difficult to carve the vulva in true detail. Often, all he succeeded in doing was to hammer out a figure in the form of a horseshoe, the very figure that is nailed to so many doors in various parts of the world, as an emblem of luck. Mighty few of those who live in such houses know that the horseshoe is only symbolic of the yoni and that by nailing it to their doors, they follow out a custom older than the history of their race. Another female symbol of this kind is the Greek delta or the Hebrew dalet, a pointed triangle in form, which also means door.
Another attempt to re-create the yoni was the pointed oval. We may find it yet over the portals of ancient temples in Yucatan and we can come across it anywhere
in India. A profile view of the yoni would suggest the crescent, the sacred emblem of the Moslem, the symbol of Selene, the moon-goddess who appears in similar form in the sky. Selene stood for lunar periods associated with the periodicity of women.
Any oval or fissure may represent the female generative
organ. There were oval stones with a cut in them to which women came to pray and to find solace. The asherah so often mentioned in the Bible was originally an accidental stump of a tree and later the trunk of a tree with its branches purposely cut away. It had an opening or a fissure, called the Door of Life. Around this door, there were thirteen tufts of hair representing the thirteen
periods of a woman in a year. Above it, there was an emblematic representation of the clitoris.
The filled oval suggests the egg, which itself has generative powers. The oval-egg shape admits a number of objects into the female symbolism of religion. Among these, we find the peach in China and Japan.
There is still another line of female religious symbols—symbols that came to be what they were because of their resemblance to the female organ, not in appearance, but in function or activity. Just as the mother harbors the new life, so might any object housing things be symbolic of the mother. The ark, for instance, is a female symbol. The story of Noah’s ark is really the story of a dream fulfilled, the dream of returning to the mother to escape from a disappointing reality into the protecting womb of motherhood. The ark was the container of the Tablets of the Covenant of Moses, the Book of the Law, and other sacred objects of the Hebrews. A tabernacle is also a container like the ark, and in the Roman church Mary is called the tabernacle of God. Mounds and pyramids came to be symbols of the female principle, and taking a dead pharaoh to his tomb upon his demise was actually returning him unto the universal mother whence he came into the world.
By a similar analogy, woman came to be symbolized as a bridge between god and man. Like Prometheus, she steals life from above and brings it forth upon the earth. She is the intermediary between the divine and human, and as such, she is symbolized by objects suggestive of a bridge or crossing. One of these is the altar, which, in India, is called “yoni.”
Similarly, the apricot, bean, barley, vesica piscis, comb,
cave, and various other things developed as suggestions or symbols of female organs of generation, just as did the circle and the ring. The part of the latter in our marriage ceremony is clear enough, although few people give it a thought. The act of putting on the ring is only the reverse of the function of the consummated marriage. It
would thus be more appropriate if the groom put his finger through the ring held by the bride. Whatever it was that reversed the process, the reversal brought an additional meaning to the ceremony: it were as if until the wedding, the ring, or yoni, of the bride was not recognized because it was not functioning. By giving the maiden the ring, the groom calls upon her for the functioning of the yoni.
If there are many symbols for the female principle, those that represent the male force are countless, indeed. The first attempt to represent the latter was a man with a lingam greatly enlarged, or the lingam itself, of enormous size, detached from the body. We have already taken note of such figures in African temples. In the religious festivals of Egypt, the image of Osiris was carried in the processions. This figure was one cubit in height and the length of its lingam was also one cubit. The women of Rome reverenced waxen reproductions of Priapus with the lingam enormously disproportionate and movable at will. When the Protestants took Embrun in 1585, they found there the image of Saint Foutin with an exaggerated lingam which was reddened by the libations of wine that had been poured over it by women needing its aid.
Not only were such phallic figures to be found over gateways and doorways of churches and public houses, but the image of the lingam itself, detached from the human organism, is frequently met with. There were such figures at the entrances to the houses of worship among primitive men. In the largest and richest temple of Syria, at Acropolis, there were two immense figures with the inscription: “Bacchus has brought these phalli for Yunon, his mother-in-law.” The lingam detached was known in Latin as Mutinus, Tutinus, and later as Priapus. In the convenient form of an amulet, it was called Fascinus.
A red lingam was often the sign above the door of legalized houses of prostitution. Both the Greeks and the Romans used to place an image of this organ upon their
graves. It was an affirmation of the belief in eternal life in the very face of death. Was not Priapus referred to as “savior of the world”? At Trani, in Italy, a lingam was carried through the streets in religious processions. It was called il santo membro. Idols representing it were so common in Christian times that there was a special penance for performing incantations to the lingam. Hot cross buns were originally phallic in form—a reproduction in dough of the generative organs. Finding it impossible to break the people away from this custom, the early Christian fathers ordained that these buns be marked with a cross and accepted in Christendom.
In antiquity, the woman received an amulet from her husband on their wedding day, and she was supposed to wear it round her neck. It was a bejewelled lingam bearing the inscription: “When they join.” Phallic amulets were particularly common in Naples, where they were worked into the designs of vases, rings, medals, and even precious stones. A lingam amulet was often nailed to a tree for the protection of the countryside. In France, a fesne was a lingam amulet said to work magic. In Japan today, the young man gives an amulet to his beloved. It is a box containing a realistic representation of the lingam in ivory or metal. When a corner of the box is pressed, it opens and the lingam emerges by means of a delicate spring. In Isernia, full-sized reproductions of the lingam were offered to the memory of the saints, Cosmos and Damian; and this very day, in Naples, one may buy such an image with a serpent curled about it. Sir Joseph Bank, writing in 1786, describes some of the phallic amulets he observed in the same city:
“On the 27th of September at Gernia . . an annual fair 
was held which lasted three days. The situation of this fair is on rising ground, between two rivers, about half a mile from the town of Gernia. In the most elevated part there is an ancient church with a vestibule . . . This church is dedicated to Saints Cosmo and Damiano. On one of the days of the fair, the relics of the saints are exposed and afterwards carried in procession from the Cathedral of the city to this church, attended by a prodigious concourse of people. In the city and at the fair, exvoti of wax, representing the male parts of generation, of various dimensions, some even of the length of a palm, are publicly offered for sale.
“There are also waxen vows that represent other parts of the body mixed with them, but of those there are few in comparison with the number of Priapi. The devout distributors of these vows carry a basket of them in one hand and hold a plate in the other to receive the money, crying aloud: ‘Saint Cosmo and Saint Damiano.’
“If you ask the price of one, the answer is ‘piu ci metti, piu merito’—the more you give, the more the merit. The price of a man is fifteen Neapolitan grains and of a litany five grains. The vows are chiefly presented by the female sex; they seldom are such as present legs, arms and the like, but most commonly the male organs of generation . . . At the time, a woman presented a figure of the male organ of generation in that state of tension and rigidity which it assumes when about to discharge its functions, she said: ‘Santo Cosmo benedette, cosi voglio.’ Blessed Saint Cosmo, let it be like this.
“The vow is never presented without being accompanied by a piece of money, and is always kissed by the devotee at the moment of presentation.”
Leaving the field of complete realistic reproduction of the male principle and entering upon its symbolic representation, we find that anything suggestive of the lingam may become a symbol. There is the pestle, for instance, still generally considered as the male in distinction to the mortar which is the female. In olden times, these objects played a greater part in the daily’ life of the people and their sexual meaning was consciously accepted as such. There is the mushroom with its bell-like, enlarged prepuce. There were the pillar and the post universally considered as sacred not to any particular divinity, but to all the gods.
Moses operated with a rod when he was vying with the servants of Pharaoh in magic power. Some of us still pay for the services of a “divining rod,” which is said to locate water or mineral veins. There is the concept of the “staff of life” in modern mysticism just as the Tree of Life figures mystically in the story of Adam and Eve. There is a forked stick used in mystic ceremonies and perhaps there is something of this rod-lingam meaning in our custom of carrying a cane. Possibly that is why the cane is more of a man’s companion in a love escapade than it is an aid in walking.
In Japan, the term wo-bashira, or male pillar, is applied to the railing of a bridge or a balustrade of a staircase, and to the end of the tooth of a comb, since they all in some way suggest the lingam. Our own Maypole comes down from post and pillar worship, associated with May festivities—the spring fertility celebrations of ancient times. The custom of distributing prizes from the Maypole is suggestive of its fruit-giving or gift-bringing powers. At the same ceremony, the gathering of the seed of the male
fern further points to a connection between the Maypole and the sexual life.
Along with the rod belong the bow and arrow which are likewise lingam symbols. Above the Assyrian grove,
there was a winged figure, the celestial bowman, who was implored by all those desirous of vigor. Cupid, too, has his store of arrows always with him, a symbol of reserved virility; his bow, relaxed or taut, signifies this power spent or conserved.
The symbol of the lingam is also the father of the statue
in religious worship. The primitive forms of Mercury, Hermes, and Troth, all lingam gods, were hewn in stone. These stones had no facial sculpture nor hands nor feet. They were sometimes in the shape of a lingam, but more often simply upright pillars, vaguely suggestive of the human figure. They were considered sacred and were erected upon cross-roads or used to mark the boundaries of properties. They sometimes faced the altars upon which sacrifices were offered to the gods. We still can find traces of such works in stone in the round towers of Ireland.
In time, these stones underwent modifications. At first, only the head was carved upon them. The Hermæ—fertility gods of antiquity—were represented as square pillars with bearded heads. Later, both head and bust were formed on the stone, which descended lingam-like to a square base. Such were the Ameonic statues. Gradually, the part between the head and the base was also humanized, and what was once just a lingam became the trunk and limbs of the human body. The stone representation of the generative gods followed closely the development of the generative deity.
Some notion of the worship of the lingam may be gleaned from the sacred books of the Hindus. The priest was first to go through a series of ablutions like our baptismals; then, dipping the utensils of worship in perfumed water, repeating the while the sacred word om, and invoking the favor of Nandi, the sacred bull of Siva, he was to “bathe the lingam with perfumed water, the five products of the cow, clarified butter, honey and the juice of sugar-cane, and lastly pour over it a pot of pure water, consecrated by the requisite prayers. Having thus purified
it, adorn it with clean garments and a sacrificial string, and then offer flowers, perfumes, ornaments. Thus worship the lingam with the prescribed offerings, invocations, prayers and honors, and by circumambulating it and by prostrating thyself before Siva, represented under this symbol.”
The Roman lingam divinity was also worshipped by offerings of flowers, fruits and libations. It was likewise served in some places with honey, milk, and myrtle, the symbol of an amorous attitude; with roses in spring, ears of corn in summer, grain in autumn, and branches of
olives in winter. On all these occasions the lingam was decorated with garlands by the women, and prostrations came in for a very important part of the worship. From passages in the works of Maimonides, famous Jewish physician and medical authority of the twelfth century, we get the impression that, in his day, prostration was associated with exposing one’s self, for to expose one’s self was an act of humility as well as a display of a sacred object. As kneeling is a vestige of prostration, its former use in expressing one’s amorous feelings was symbolically appropriate for the occasion.
Many were the symbols that were called by the pious to represent the male principle of generation, but only a few were chosen. Few succeeded in becoming universal symbols and forming almost a religion of their own. The tree was one of these few; and tree worship was once a universal religion.
Like the rod or the pole, the tree graphically represented the lingam. But it also suggested the generative organ functionally; standing erect, rooted in the ground and stretching skyward, withstanding all assault of the weather, the tree emphasizes power and virility. Bedecking its branches with green leaves and bearing fruit, it was generative in no mistakable manner. The tree was, then, a living image of the lingam.
The ancient Hebrews were so averse to idolatry and figurative religion that they forswore even lay sculpture. Still, they held a venerable attitude toward the tree. In the Garden of Eden, there were two trees, one giving knowledge and the other eternal life. Both were forbidden
to Adam and Eve. Yet, Adam, incited by Eve, tasted of the one and became wise; that he might not taste of the other and live forever, he was driven out of Eden to trudge his wearisome way over the length and breadth of the earth.
What was that Tree of Knowledge that brought so much woe unto mankind? In Christian theology the notion crept in that it was an apple tree. It was over an apple that Adam tripped and fell for all eternity. According to the Hebrew tradition, however, it was not an apple tree but a fig tree, a ficus or sycamore. It was the triangular fig leaf that covered the nakedness of Eve, the triangular form being in itself the symbol of the nakedness of all her daughters. The fig, universally considered a symbol of the virgin yoni, was the appropriate fruit for the lingam-tree to bear. How much more significant is now the seduction of Adam by Eve in getting him to partake of the fig-yoni she offered him? We can thus better understand our excessively criticised ancestor who yielded to a woman.
When Abraham chose to express to Jehovah his humility and devotion, he planted a grove at Beth-El, which forever after was to be a “house of God.” Thousands of years later, the children of Abraham were looking for a symbol to place upon the flyleaf of a sacred book. Again they found in the tree the most appropriate emblem. The Hebrews and the Greeks were not friendly to each other, yet they both were friendly to the ficus tree. The idol of Bacchus was always made of the wood of the ficus and the most sacred object in the Bacchanalian procession was a basket of figs. Upsala is far away in cold, wintry Sweden, yet it possessed a grove in which every tree was divine. In
the flatlands of Lithuania there were sacred groves until late in the fifteenth century, when the people first embraced Christianity. He who cut a branch in such a grove would either die suddenly or become crippled in one of his limbs. To the Finnish people, the holy groves were so sacred that they would not permit a woman to enter them.
The old Finns had their Veddas called Kalawala. In them we find the story of an acorn. The acorn fell to the ground and was covered by the sand. Then it began to grow. It grew big and yet bigger; tall and yet taller. Finally it assumed such immense proportions that it became a menace to the world. Just then a hero came to the rescue of the universe. He appealed to the mother, the windspirit, who sent out a giant to overcome it. Then it was discovered that the tree possessed the power of bestowing good.
And Zoroaster told his Persians that there was a tree of life called Harn. It grows upon a mountain and is nourished by a spring near by. It is zealously guarded by Feroedin, the door-keeper of paradise, against Ahriman, the evil spirit who wants to possess it. This tree assures those who die in the faith that when the bugle sounds they will come to life again. This tree, too, is possessed of detective qualities, revealing thieves and murderers before they commit their evil acts.
As the tree was a bearer of new life, it came to be taken for the father of the race. The ancient Mexicans believed that their ancestors came from the seed of the sacred palm. Hesiod tells of Zeus creating a race of daring people out of ash trees. Virgil speaks of people of his day that traced their racial origin to the trunks of trees.
Being the father of the race, it was only natural for
the tree to possess a self, like god or human. It could be spoken to or argued with. Before the Fiji Islander tasted his cocoanut he politely asked the tree’s permission. When a durian tree in Selangor does not bear fruit, the local sorcerer will take a hatchet and deliver several telling blows
on its trunk, saying: “Will you now bear fruit or not? If you do not, I shall fell you.” To this the tree will reply through the mouth of another man who has climbed another tree near by, “Yes, I will now bear fruit; I beg of you not to fell me.”
There were male trees and trees that were female. To
make a grove fruitful, the trees should be married. A Hindu would not taste of the first fruit of his mango tree until he had married it to a tamarind or a jasmine near by. This tree wedding was an expensive affair, for the more Brahmans that ate at the wedding the greater was the glory to the owner of the grove. A family was known to sell its golden and silver trinkets and to borrow all the money it could get to marry its trees with due pomp and ceremony.
If a tree may be married, one need not wonder that it may become pregnant and as such are blossoming clover trees treated in the Moluccas. No noise may be made near them; no light or fire carried past them of nights, and everyone must uncover in their presence. All these precautions are taken so that the pregnant tree may not be frightened and drop its fruit too early by miscarriage.
Since trees are so fruitful, man applies to them as a source of fecundity. A barren woman, among the Maoris, will therefore do well to embrace a sacred tree, for by so doing she will conceive. If she embraces the east side, she will give birth to a boy, if the west side, a girl will be the result. In Slavonia, a barren woman will place a new chemise upon a fruitful apple tree on the eve of Saint George’s Day. Next morning, before sunrise, she examines the garment, and if she finds that some living creature has crept over it, she believes that her wish will be fulfilled within the year. Just as the tree is helpful to man, man may sometimes be of aid to the tree in its function of fertility. In the islands of Amboyna, when the crop appears to be scanty, the men go naked to the plantations by night and there seek to fertilize the trees precisely as they would impregnate women.
That the celebration of the Maypole is related to this primitive tree worship has already been indicated. A few customs of the May Day celebrations will bear out this statement. In some parts of Russia, the pole is dressed up like a woman. In other Slavic countries, a young man is clothed to represent the groom. Here the sexes seem to have become confused, the Maypole becoming a female rather than a male symbol. This is probably due to the position in which it is kept; it is usually, in these countries, a long trunk brought in from the woods on two small carts drawn by horses. The pole being long, only its ends rest upon the cart so that it resembles a narrow slit between two comparatively broad bodies. Consequently, it may have been taken as a symbol of the yoni. Generally, however, the Maypole is set up erect with its head decorated with garlands and hence it prevails as a symbol of the lingam.
The ceremonies connected with the Maypole were erotically appropriate indeed. Philip Stubb decries woefully the license in the May Day celebration of England in 1553: “On Whitsunday all the young men and young women, husbands and wives, and old men as well, run wildly into the woods, hills and mountains where they spend the night in pleasant pastimes and revelry. In the morning they return bringing with them a birch and branches of trees. Some twenty or forty oxen, each one having a nosegay of flowers placed on the tips of its horns—in themselves symbols of the lingam—bring home the Maypole decorated with flowers and herbs and painted over in variable colors. Behind the Maypole follow two or three hundred men and women, and often even children, with great devotion. The devotees strew the ground round about with flowers,
bind green boughs around the Maypole and set up bowers and arbors near by. Then they fall to dance about it like the heathen at the dedication of the idol . . .”
What transpired during the night of revelry in the woods and mountain? Mr. Stubb offers few details save that he heard it “credibly reported (and that viva voce) by one of great gravity and reputation that of forty, three-score, or a hundred maidens going to the wood over night there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.”
There are various reminders of the old tree worship among us even now. We still celebrate Arbor Day. We plant a tree upon solemn occasions, often in memory of the dead. We ceremoniously erect a pole for the flag. Jews still shake the lulov on the Feast of Tabernacles. Christians have their palms on Palm Sunday and evergreens for Christmas. Both the pillar and the tree are still with us—their erotic significance aptly concealed yet invariably present, however modified.
. . . . . . .
In the land of India, there is a great spirit hovering over two drops of water. One of the drops is white and represents the masculine world. The other is red and symbolizes the feminine element in creation. The two are separate and yet not unrelated, for both are touched by the great spirit Kama, love fluttering over the deep of sex.
Kama, then, is the great force that holds the universe together. But it is not the greatest. For as the drops of water are drawn closer together by the attraction of Kama, they often unite, and their union calls forth a spirit even greater than Kama. The union of the sexes, brings down Kamakala, the highest deity of them all, that has the sun
for its face, fire and the moon for breasts, and the Hardhakala for organs of generation.
This was the way the old man of India told his tale of love and its place in the world. Of course, it could all be said much more plainly and bluntly, but primitive as the Indian man was, he had the sense for the beautiful and he sought to speak as beautifully as he thought.
There were moments in the life of primitive man when he felt saddened and depressed. There were others when he was expansive and elated. There were times when he felt his heart melting away in a sweet longing for the unobtainable, in a vague attempt to fathom the unfathomable and to become at one with the great power behind nature and life. It was then that he turned to imagine beautiful tales and to conjure up figures and shapes that would express not only the thought in his mind but also the way he felt as he was thinking it. It was then that mythology and religious symbolism came into the world.
Years rolled on. Ages came and passed. Man changed in diverse ways, yet fundamentally he is ever the same. He is ever reaching out for what cannot be obtained, like the child on his way to meet the horizon. Yet his ways of going about it have changed with the times. He may ever be trying to symbolize the same experience, but his methods of doing so have improved with the evolution of his mind and tastes. Kama and Kamakala may be the divinities he is ever seeking to portray, yet his portraiture is ever becoming less brutal and more refined, poor in concrete representation, but richer in suggestive detail.
And even for this fact the people in the East have a fitting symbol:
In the solemn ceremonies of the Lingayats in India, the
high priest holds a lingam in his left hand, while he worships it in the required sixteen ways. During all this time the disciple stands by a reverent observer. Then the high priest places the lingam in the left hand of the onlooker, enjoining him to view it intently. “Look at it,” he says, “it is the highest thing in existence. Look at it and you will see your own soul.”
And just because man’s own soul was mirrored in his sex worship, it is so rich in color, so fascinating in detail, and so fragrant with the aromatic flower of the human soul—its sentiments of love.