Cults of Generative Powers
Cult, Deity, Worship, Nature, Religious, Deities
The origin of religion is not to be referred exclusively to any one order of ideas; it springs out of man's total life. All objects and processes have been included in men's construction of nature, and the processes, when they have been held to bear on human well-being, have been ascribed to a force inherent in things or to the activity of supernatural beings.
The study of processes has gone hand in hand with the creation of divine beings who are supposed to manifest themselves in the processes. The great spectacle of nature's productivity has been especially recognizable in the vegetable world and in the world of man; in both of these life has been perpetually unfolding itself under men's eyes as a mysterious process, which, by virtue of its mysteriousness, has become religious material and has entered into systems of religious worship.
The relation of vegetable life to religious cults is referred to elsewhere, and a brief survey may now be given of usages and ideas that have been connected with the production of human life.
It is obvious that not all customs that include the function of generation are of the nature of religious observances. The promiscuity that obtains in many savage communities before marriage is a naïve unreflective animal procedure. Exchange of wives (as in Central Australia) and the offering of a wife to a guest are matters of social etiquette. Festivals in which sexual license is the rule are generally merely the expression of natural impulses. Holidays, being times of amusement, are occasions used by the people for the satisfaction of all appetites: there is eating and drinking, buffoonery, disregard of current conventions, unbounded liberty to do whatever exuberant animalism prompts. Such festivities abound among existing savages, were not uncommon in ancient civilized times, and have survived in diminished form to the present day. In the course of time they often become attached to the worship of gods, are organized, explained by myths, and sanctified. In such cases of coalescence we must distinguish between the true worship offered to a divine being, and the observances, generally originating in desire for animal amusement and enjoyment, that have been attached to them.
Cult of generative organs. Men's attention must have been directed very early to those organs that were believed to be connected with the genesis of human life. At what stage this belief arose it is hardly possible to say; there are peoples among whom it seems not to exist; but it is found over a great part of the world, and was doubtless an outcome of popular observation. As it was intimately connected with life it passed naturally into the domain of religion, and in process of time became a more or less prominent part of religious observances; the organs in question, both male and female, became objects of religious devotion.
Here again it must be noted that not all usages connected with the organs of generation were religious of origin. It is pointed out above that the origin of circumcision and excision is to be sought in another direction. Ithyphallic images are sometimes merely attempts at realism in art; a nude figure (as in modern art) must be represented in its full proportions. Such seems to be the nature of certain images among the Western Bantu, and this may have been the case with the images of the Egyptian Khem and Osiris and similar deities. In general this sort of representation in savage and ancient civilized communities is often either simple realism or indecency. Folk-stories abound in details that sound indecent to modern ears, but were for the authors often merely copies of current usages.
All important members of the human body have been regarded as to a greater or less extent sacred, their importance depending on their subservience to man's needs. The head of an enemy gives the slayer wisdom and strength; an oath sworn by the head or beard of one's father is peculiarly binding; the heart, when eaten, imparts power; a solemn oath may be sworn by the sexual organs. In no case does the sacredness of an object necessarily involve its worship; whether or not it shall receive a true cult depends on general social considerations.
Though phallic cults proper cannot be shown to be universal among men, they have played a not inconsiderable part in religious history. They appear to have passed through the usual grades of development—simple at first, later more complicated. The attitude of savages and low communities generally, non-Christian and Christian, toward the phallus, suggests that in the earliest stage of the cult some sort of worship was paid the physical object itself considered as a creator of life; satisfactory data on this point, however, are lacking. It was at so early a period that it was brought into cultic connection with supernatural beings that its initial forms escape us.
It seems not to exist now among the lowest peoples. There are no definite traces of it in the tribes of Oceania, Central Africa, Central Asia, and America. The silence of explorers on this point cannot indeed be taken as proof positive of its nonexistence; yet the absence of distinct mention of it in a great number of carefully prepared works leads us to infer that it does not play an important part in the religious systems therein described. It seems to require, for its establishment, a fairly well-developed social and political organization. Some of the tribes named above have departmental deities, mostly of a simple sort, but apparently it has not occurred to them to isolate this particular function, which they probably regarded as a familiar part of the order of things and not needing special mention. The gift of children was in the hands of the local god, a generally recognized part of his duty as patron of the tribe, and all sexual matters naturally might be referred to him. Also, as is remarked above, in certain tribes there was no knowledge of the connection between the birth of children and the union of the sexes, and such tribes would of course ascribe no creative power to the phallus.
The best example of a half-civilized phallic cult is that which is now practiced in Yoruba and Dahomi, countries with definite government and institutions. The cult is attached to the worship of a deity (Elegba or Legba), who appears to be a patron of fertility; the phallus occupies a prominent place on his temples, and its worship is accompanied by the usual licentious rites. These are expressions of popular appetite, and it does not appear that the cult itself is otherwise religiously significant.
In modern India the Çivaite phallicism is pronounced and important. The linga is treated as a divine power, and, as producer of fertility, is especially the object of devotion of women; though Çivaism has its rites of unbridled bestialism, the worship of the linga by women is often free from impurity; it is practically worship of a deity of fertility. The origin of the Indian cult is not clear. As it does not appear in the earliest literature, it has been supposed to have come into Aryan worship from non-Aryan tribes. Whatever its origin, it is now widely observed in Aryan India, and has been adopted by various outlying tribes.
While it is, or was, well established in Japan, it apparently has had no marked influence on the religious thought of the people. Phallic forms abound in the land, in spite of repressive measures on the part of the government, but the cult partakes of the general looseness of the Shinto organization of supernatural Powers. It is said to have been adopted in some cases by Buddhists. It appears to have been combined with Shinto at a very early (half-civilized) time, for which, however, no records exist.
It is among the great ancient civilized peoples that the most definite organization of phallic cults is found.
For Egypt there is the testimony of Herodotus, who describes a procession of women bearing small phallic images and singing hymns in honor of a deity whom he calls Dionysos—probably Khem or Osiris or Bes; such images are mentioned by Plutarch, supposed by him to represent Osiris. Both Khem and Osiris were great gods, credited with general creative power, and popular ceremonies of a phallicistic nature might easily be attached to their cults. Bes, a less important deity, seems to have been fashioned largely by popular fancy. These ceremonies were doubtless attended with license, but they probably formed no part of Egyptian serious worship. The phallus was essential in a realistic image, but it appears to have been regarded simply as a physical part of the god or as an emblem of him; there is no evidence that worship was addressed to it in itself.
The evidence that has been adduced for a cult of the phallus among Semitic peoples is of a doubtful nature. No ithyphallic images or figures of gods have been found. Religious prostitution there was in all North Semitic lands, but this is a wholly different thing from a phallicistic cult. It is supposed, however, by not a few scholars that descriptions and representations of the phallus occur in so many places as to make some sort of cult of the object probable. In a passage of the Book of Isaiah, descriptive of a foreign cult practiced, probably, by some Jews, the phallus, it is held, is named. The passage is obscure. The nature and origin of the cult referred to are not clear; it is not elsewhere mentioned. The word (yad, usually 'hand') supposed to mean 'phallus' is not found in this sense elsewhere in the Old Testament or in later Hebrew literature. But, if the proposed rendering be adopted, the reference will be not to a cult of the phallus but to sexual intercourse, a figurative description of idolatry.
A distinct mention of phalli as connected with religious worship occurs in Pseudo-Lucian's description of the temple of a certain goddess at Hierapolis. He gives the name to enormously high structures standing in the propylæa of the temple, but mentions no details suggesting a phallic cult. Twice a year, he says, a man ascends one of them, on the top of which he stays seven days, praying, as some think, for a blessing on all Syria—a procedure suggesting that the pillar was simply a structure consecrated to the deity of the place (probably Atargatis, who is often called "the Syrian goddess"). However, if there was a phallic cult there (the phallus being regarded as a symbol of the productive function of the deity), it is not certain that it was Semitic. Hierapolis had long been an important religious center in a region in which Asiatic and Greek worships were influential, and foreign elements might easily have become attached to the worship of a Semitic deity. The cult of the Asian Great Mother (whom the Greeks identified with their Leto) had orgiastic elements. Lucian's reference to a custom of emasculation suggests Asian features at Hierapolis.
In Babylonia and Palestine stones, held by some to be phalli, have been found. While the shape of some of these objects and their occurrence at shrines may be supposed to lend support to this view, its correctness is open to doubt. There is no documentary evidence as to the character of the objects in question, and they may be explained otherwise than as phalli. But, if they are phalli, their presence does not prove a phallic cult—they may be votive objects, indicating that the phallus was regarded as in some sort sacred, not that it was worshiped. Decision of the question may be reserved till more material has been collected. There is no sufficient ground for regarding the stone posts that stood by Hebrew shrines as phallic symbols; they are naturally explained as sacred stones, originally embodying a deity, later attached to his shrines as traditional objects entitled to veneration.
In Asia Minor and the Hellenic communities (both in Ionia and in Greece proper) the phallicistic material is extensive and complicated. A symbolic signification appears to have been superimposed on early realistic anthropomorphic figures that were simply images of supernatural Powers. In various regions such figures came to be associated with the generative force of nature in human birth, and the tendency to specialization assigned these divine beings special functions; of this nature, probably, were the local Athenian deities Orthanes, Konisalos, and others. At a later period such functions were attributed to the well-developed gods of fertility; rituals sprang up and were explained by myths, and various combinations and identifications were made between the prominent gods.
The most interesting figure of this character is Priapos, an ithyphallic deity of uncertain origin; his special connection was with Lampsakos, and he may have been an Asian creation. From the variety of his functions (he was patron of gardens and viticulture, of sailors and fishermen, and in some places a god of war) it may be surmised that he was originally a local deity, charged with the care of all human interests, in an agricultural community the patron of fertility, and at some time, and under circumstances unknown to us, especially connected with sexual life. Whatever his origin, his cult spread over Greece, he was identified with certain Greek deities, licentious popular festivals naturally attached themselves to his worship, and his name became a synonym of sexual passion. In the later time the pictorial representations of him became grossly indecent; his cult was an outlet for popular and artistic license. On the other hand, in the higher thought he was made the representative of the production of universal animal life, and rose to the rank of a great god.
The Greek deities with whom Priapos was oftenest identified were Dionysos and Hermes—both gods of fertility. They, as great gods of such a nature, would naturally absorb lesser phallicistic figures; but they were specialized in other directions, and Priapos remained as the distinctest embodiment of phallicistic conceptions. Other such figures, as Pan, Titans, Sileni, and Satyrs, were beings connected with fields, woods, and mountains, products of a low form of civilization, to whom realistic forms and licentious festivals naturally attached themselves.
Rome had its native ithyphallic deity, Mutunus Tutunus (or Mutinus), a naïve symbol of generative power. Little is known of his cult beyond the fact that he figured in marriage ceremonies in a peculiarly indecent way; by later writers he is sometimes identified with Priapos. The Romans adopted the cult of Priapos as well as other phallicistic forms of worship; his original character appears in his rôle of patron of gardens.
Phalli as amulets occur in all parts of the world; as symbols and perhaps as abodes of deities, they have been held potent to ward off all evils.
The female organ (yoni, kteis) appears frequently in figures of female deities, ordinarily without special significance, religious or other, except as a sign of sex. In the rare cases in which it is the object of religious veneration (as in India) it is subordinated to the phallos—there is little or no evidence for the existence of a yonistic cult proper. Female deities act as fully formed anthropomorphic Powers, embodiments of the productive energies of nature; they are generally treated as persons, without special reference to bodily parts. The most definite formulation of this conception appears in Çaktism, the worship of the female principle in nature as represented by various goddesses, often accompanied, naturally, by licentious rites.
Androgynous deities represent attempts to combine in a single person the two sides of the productive power of nature. Such attempts are relatively late, implying a considerable degree of reflection and organization; how early they began we have not the data to determine. They are not found among savage or half-civilized peoples.
In Semitic lands no artistic representations of a bisexual deity are now known, but evidence is adduced to show that this conception existed in early times. It has been sought in two old Babylonian inscriptions published by the British Museum. The first of these (written in Sumerian) reads: "For [or, in honor of] the (divine) king of countries, the (divine) Nana [Ishtar], the lady Nana, Lugaltarsi, king of Kish, has constructed," etc. Barton takes the two titles "the divine Ishtar" (='king of countries,' masculine) and "the lady Ishtar" to refer to the same deity, in whose person would thus be united male and female beings. If, however, the king of countries and Ishtar be taken to be two different deities (as is possible), there is no bisexuality. The second inscription, which is bilingual, has the expressions "the mother-father Enlil," "the mother-father Ninlil" (Sumerian), rendered in Semitic "the father-mother Enlil," "the father-mother Ninlil." These expressions probably signify not that the two deities are bisexual, but that each of them fulfills the guarding and nourishing functions of a father and a mother.
The expression in a hymn to Ishtar that "she has a beard like the god Ashur" may be satisfactorily explained as an astrological statement, the meaning of which is that the planet Dilbat (Ishtar, Venus) at certain times equals the sun (represented by Ashur) in brilliancy, her rays being likened to a beard. A similar astrological interpretation is offered by Jastrow of a passage (to which attention was called by François Lenormant) in which a female Dilbat and a male Dilbat are spoken of. Other astrological texts indicate that the terms 'male' and 'female' are employed as expressions of greater or less brilliancy. Lajard's view, that all Babylonian and Assyrian deities were androgynous, hardly needs discussion now.
Of a more definite character are expressions in two Phœnician inscriptions. In an inscription of Eshmunazzar II (probably early in the fourth century B.C.) the great goddess of Sidon is called "Ashtart Shem Baal." The word shem means 'name,' and, if it be so interpreted as to give the goddess the name of a male divinity, she may be understood to have partly male form. But such change of name is hardly probable, and this is not necessarily the natural force of the phrase. In Hebrew to "call one's name on a person or thing" is to assert ownership in it or close connection with it. In the West Semitic area some personal names signify simply 'name of such and such a deity,' as, for example, Shemuel (Samuel), 'name of El,' Shemzebul, 'name of (the god) Zebul,' denoting devotion or subordination to the deity in question. "Shem Baal" as a title of Ashtart may then indicate her close relation with the god, or, perhaps, if the expression be understood more broadly, her equality with him in power (the name of a deity involves his attributes)—he was the great god, but she, the expression would say, is not less mighty than he; or, less probably, baal may be taken not as proper name but as title, the sense then being that the goddess is the lord of the city. Another proposal is to read "Ashtart shame Baal," 'Ashtart of the heaven [sky] of Baal.' There is a Phœnician Baal-shamem, 'lord of the sky,' but nowhere else is the sky described as the abode of a baal, and the transference of the local city-goddess to that region would be strange; nor in the expression 'Baal-shamem' is Baal a proper name—it is merely a title.
Another phrase, occurring in many Carthaginian inscriptions, makes mention of "Tanit face of Baal," an expression that may point to a female body with male face. Its indefiniteness—it does not state the nature of the face (it may point to a beard)—makes it difficult to draw from it any conclusions as to the character of the deity named. But the probability is that it is identical in sense with the one mentioned above. Tanit was the great goddess of Carthage; she is called "Adon," 'lord,' and her equality with Baal is indicated by the statement that she had his face, the word 'face' being here equivalent to 'personality' and 'power.'
At a later period (early in the fifth century of our era) two authors, Servius and Macrobius, make definite statements concerning a bisexual cult, apparently Semitic. Both statements occur in connection with Vergil's use of the masculine deus (ducente deo) as a title of Venus, in explanation of which the cases of supposed bisexualism are cited. What is said is that there was in Cyprus a deity whose image was bearded—a god of virile nature, but dressed as a woman, and regarded as being both male and female. Further, Philochorus is quoted to the effect that men sacrificed to her in women's dress and women in men's dress. This last remark does not necessarily point to an androgynous deity, for exchange of dress between men and women sometimes occurs where there is no question of the cult of such a deity. But the Cyprian deity is said also to have been called ?f??d?t?? (Aphroditos? or Aphroditon?)—apparently a male Aphrodite.
Leaving aside a few other notices that add nothing to our knowledge of the point under consideration, we should naturally conclude, if we give any credit to the statements of Servius and Macrobius, that there was a report in their time of a bisexual deity in Cyprus. As regards Vergil's "deus," that may be merely a poetical expression of the eminence and potency of the goddess. But the assertions of her bisexual character are distinct, even if the "beard" be discarded. This latter may have come from a misunderstanding of some appearance on the face of the statue; or, as has been suggested, there may have been a false beard attached to it permanently or occasionally, and from this may have sprung the belief in the twofold nature of the deity. We are not told, however, that such a nature was ascribed to Aphrodite, or that a beard was attached to her statue; and, if this was done, it is difficult to suppose that a popular belief in the bisexuality of a deity could have arisen from such a procedure. Some better ground for the statements of Servius and Macrobius there seems to have been, though we do not know their authorities. In any case it may be concluded that the cult in question, if it existed, was late, popular, and without marked influence on the Semitic religious development. No figures or other traces of a bisexual deity have been discovered in Cyprus or elsewhere (unless the Carthaginian Tanit be an exception), and all that is otherwise known of the character and cult of the Babylonian Ishtar, the Phœnician Ashtart, and the Carthaginian Tanit (=Ashtart) is against the supposition of bisexuality. Ishtar, originally a deity of fertility, became, through social growth, a patron of war and statecraft; but there is no indication that an attempt was ever made to combine these two characters in one figure.
The Phrygian figure Agdistis, represented in the myths as androgynous (the myths being based on cults), is connected with the worship of the Great Mother, Kybele (the embodiment of the female productive power of nature), with whom is associated Attis (the embodiment of the male power). The myths identify Agdistis on the one hand with Kybele, on the other hand with Attis—he represents in his own person the combination of the two generative powers. But it is doubtful whether this was his significance in the actual worship, in which he hardly appears; he was probably a divine figure of the same character as Kybele and Attis, worked up by myth-makers and woven into the larger myth. His self-castration reflects the practice of the priests and other worshipers of Kybele. Thus culturally he is of little or no importance.
There is no evidence that this Phrygian figure was derived from Semitic sources. A certain similarity between Phrygian and Syrian cults of gods and goddesses of fertility is obvious, and the social relations between Asia Minor, Syria, and Cyprus make borrowing in either direction conceivable. But cults of such deities might grow up independently in different regions, and the supposition that the Phrygian worship was native to Asia Minor is favored by the great elaboration of its ceremonies and by their barbarous character. This character suggests that the worship may have originated with savage peoples who preceded the Aryans in the country.
The most definite androgynous figure is the Greek Hermaphroditos. It was only in Greece that such a compound name arose, and that the composite form became established in art. It is not certain when the Greek form was fixed. If the statement that Aristophanes used the term "Aphroditos" (or "Aphroditon") is to be relied on, it must be concluded that the conception existed in Greece prior to the fifth century, probably in that case as a popular usage that was unorganized and unimportant, since it is not referred to in the existing literature. But of this Aristophanes we know nothing, and the vague statements of Servius and Macrobius may be neglected as being without significance for the figure in question.
The name Hermaphroditos is said to occur for the first time in the fourth or third century B.C. This would indicate a gradual formulation of the idea, the result being the combination of two divine forms into a single form. Aphrodite would naturally be chosen for the female side, and the ithyphallic Hermes is appropriate for the male side—possibly the Hermes pillar with Aphrodite bust was the earliest form. The representations of Hermaphrodites show a male body with female bust; the name Aphroditos would rather suggest a female body with male additions. Other Greek bisexual figures are forms of Priapos and Eros.
An historical connection between the Greek and the Phrygian forms is possible, but is not proved. In India the bisexual form of Çiva, which seems to be late, connects itself with the licentious character of his rites. Its historical origin is uncertain.
It does not appear that the cult of the Greek androgynous deities entered seriously into the religious life of the people. In late philosophic circles they were treated merely as symbols of the creative power of nature, and thus lost their character as persons.
The starting-point for the development of the hermaphrodite figure may perhaps be found in two facts, the interchange or change of sexual characters and the combination of two deities to express a broader idea than either of them represents. The assumption of female dress and sexual habits by males, and of male dress and habits by females, has prevailed over a great part of the world. The embodiment of this fact in a composite divine form would be not unnatural at a time when there was a disposition to give expression, in the person of gods, to all human experiences. Such definite embodiment is, however, rare in religious history, probably, as is suggested above, because it involves a large generalization and a more or less distinct symbolism. The first movement in this direction may have been naïvely sensuous; later, as is remarked above, the symbolic conception became predominant.
The association of certain animals with certain phallic deities (as the bull with Dionysos, the goat with Pan, the ass with Priapos) is a part of the general connection between gods and animals, the grounds of which are in many cases obscure. Pan's rural character may explain his relation to the goat; the bull, the ass, and many other animals regarded as sacred, may have been brought into ritual connection with gods by processes of subordination of divine beasts and through collocation of cults. There is no evidence to show that the animals connected with phallic gods were selected on account of their salacious dispositions or their sexual power.
Phallicistic cults, attenuated by advance of refinement, survived long, even into Christian times, under modified forms. In such cases they become merely devices of ignorant piety. When the aid of a Christian saint is sought in order to secure fertility, the trust in the phallus-symbol involves no unworthy desire; and what is true of medieval European peoples may have been true of ancient peoples. In the ancient world these cults took many forms, ranging from naïve faith to frank obscenity on the one hand and philosophic breadth on the other hand. They take their place as part of the general worship of the forces of nature, and follow all the variations of human culture.
|Written By Crawford Howell Toy|
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