The economic system of the Roman Empire was slavery. The means of production were people owned as property. Compared to the Feudal system that followed and later the capitalist system, this system is extremely inefficient, riven with contradictory forces and not amenable to innovation.
In all class based systems, including our own, there is a tendency for the ruling class to develop into a parasitic class, living on the wealth of others, but delegating the management of the whole process to to someone else.
Slavery, both modern and ancient is particularly prone to this tendency. Look at the numbers of slave owning families in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. They owned slaves and plantations in the Caribbean without the slightest notion of how they were run. They just lived on the wealth. They therefore had not slightest interest in innovation and increasing production and the overseers, bailiffs and managers appointed to run the plantations and manage the slaves had not either.
The slaves in the Roman latifundia who exploited places like Sicily, Egypt and Anatolia to produce the food for most of Italy and Rome and Constantinople used basic methods, with basic traditional tools. Given a certain number of slaves there is a limit on their productivity. The Roman ruling class was particularly parasitic, paying no attention or interest to the managing the system they benefitted from. The Empire had to use vast amounts of its surplus wealth to maintaining a very large standing army, road building for the army and for trade and the wealth of the cities.
The only way to increase production was to expand the empire, more land more slaves. The trouble was more land, needed more armies to protect it.
By 3rd century, the Empire had reached its limit and began to stagnate. Add to that, increasing pressure from migrating peoples of the east and bouts of plague epidemics that reduced the work force. Stagnation set in. Diocletian passed an edict making all trades hereditary, from cobblers to blacksmiths. This was sign of deep stagnation in society. Soldiers became part time, farming small holdings at the same, this of course made them less well trained, less committed and certainly reluctant to travel very far.
The stagnation was particularly pronounced in the west, so that fell in 457. The east of empire was always far more developed, all the major cities and centres of production as well as trade managed not only to carry on but to to thrive until Islamic expansion put it under pressure. The Empire, quite falsely labelled Byzantine (it was the Roman Empire) by western historians in 19th century, survived until 1204, and had a shadowy existence until 1453.
Feudalism being a class system based on landholding was still subject to the tendency of ruling class parasitism, but left slight more room for innovation. The system allowed peasants or serfs to work on their own land (usually communally) 3 days a week and to work for nothing on the lord’s demesne 3 days a week. The peasantry embraced ways of increasing their land’s production. For this reason, the horse harness, a key invention, which enabled a horse to pull a heavy plough instead of the light oxen hauled scratch plough of Roman times. This increased production so much that it is estimated that that the population of Europe doubled between the 11th and 13th centuries. More land came into production as new villages were created. However, increased production meant increased surplus, this meant more trade, more industry and the slow creation of a capitalist class (and a working class), for whom innovation was inherent. This class would eventually overthrow feudalism. The Black Death reduced the labour force so drastically that lords had to start paying labourers wages to work the land, this was the the death warrant for the lord/serf relationship.
Every racist in the country must be rejoicing at the horror John Mann and his Blairite and Tory allies are unleashing, not only on the Labour Party but on society.
This unprincipled crew and their allies know they have lost the political argument about what the Labour Party should stand for, so have decided on the lowest form of skullduggery possible, to accuse a man who has been a leading and committed campaigner against racism of being the very thing he abhors, to be a closet racist himself.
“Leon Trotsky was a Nazi, and I know it for a fact “. This is what Stalinists said of Trotsky in the 30’s. Unable to politically answer the Left Opposition, Stalinists just hit on the idea of accusing them of being in league with their political opposites. Dirt sticks, the trouble is those who use filth to attack their opponents stink of it themselves.
This is the tactic being used by these cynics now. But they are unleashing a monster.
“Race” in objective terms does not exist. There is only one race on earth, that is “Homo sapiens sapiens” the human race. So a racist – like the Nazis, falsely apply a hereditary and biological characteristic to a a group of human beings in order to use these supposed characteristics for their own political ends. By calling anti Israel or Zionist political positions ” antisemitism ” John Mann is confirming in the minds of racists that Jewishness is indeed a racial entity, that there is such a thing a racial Semite. Therefore to attack Israel, not just a Jewish state, but the Jewish State is by definition antisemitism ie racism.
Semitic is a historical term – it refers actually to group of languages spoken by people, the first ones being the Akkadians, who migrated into the Middle East including Palestine around 2500 BC. Arabic and Hebrew are both Semitic languages and have a common ancestor.
However these opponents of the Labour Party leadership know this, they also know their allegations are false. John Mann knows that Corbyn is not a racist, he knows that Livingstone is not a racist but knows that an accusation of ” antisemitism ” will cause havoc.
But there are people out there, in the Tory Party, UKIP, the EDL, the BNP and so on who will be very happy to have it confirmed by members of an anti racist party that being Jewish, is after all to be a member of a biologically defined “race”, different to ” English” and so on.
This crowd in deciding to use the abhorrent filth of racism to attack the party that has left them behind must beware of the law of unintended consequences.
This was a Quora question. I like this question – one of my pet moans about 19th century historians. When Gibbon described the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire in the 18th century he meant the Empire until it’s final fall in 1453.
One big problem in interpreting history is that it is always approached from the from the standpoint and using the values of the historian’s own day and society. Often these values are ones that the people only perceive to be of their own day. So people look at the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition who tortured and burnt, Jews, Muslims and heretics, or the brutality of medieval and Tudor times and believe we are “ civilised” now. Yet the 20th century encompassed more brutality and human slaughter than at any time in human history. Apart from two world wars, to be Jewish in Germany was a death sentence. To be an actual Marxist in Stalin’s Russia was a death sentence. To be South Vietmese peasant was as likely as not be a death sentence and of course many more. Today to be Muslim in Burma ? To be Muslim in Serbia, to be Muslim in Israel? To be a Christian in Syria?
Anyway back to the Roman Empire. To the average person the Roman Empire fell in 5th century and was followed by the “ dark ages”.
This was the western centric view. The Empire that carried on in the east was redesignated by 19 th century historians as the “ Byzantine” Empire – something very foreign and rather exotic. They were not proper Romans because they spoke Greek. Western rulers were very keen to emulate what they thought the ancient Greeks and Romans to be. The American constitution includes a Senate, an upper house of wisdom, Capitol Hill itself is a tribute to the Romans. Napoleon saw himself as the Caesar of a new Roman Empire. The British thought that Parliament was like classical Athens, the Spartans – a more successful state in many ways – were crude by comparison. Palmerston’s marathon speech to the House of Commons summed it up with the subject of “Pax Britannica”. Britannia herself, symbolises Britain is depicted as a Roman goddess. While western society loved the ancient Greeks, as the foundation of modern culture – actual Greeks, the ones were regarded as Eastern, untrustworthy and lacking culture not even to be trusted with ancient monuments – Elgin clearly regarded Britain as in the inheritor of Graeco Roman culture – not the modern Greeks, so long under Turkish rule.. This is why Roman Empire was Latin and not Greek. The “real” Roman Empire was Latin and ended in 427, the rest became Byzantium, a Medieval Greek Empire.
But the actual history is different. When you look at a map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent it’s eady to see that the major cities, the main ports are in the east, Corinth, Ephesus, Antioch, Nicaea, Byblos, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Alexandria among the main ones. All through the Middle Ages the mightiest City of all, with a population at its height in the 8th & 10th centuries exceed 1,000,000 was Constantinople . Excepting towns in Provence, towns in West were trifling. Throughout the history of the Empire the balance of trade and production was in the east. Anatolia and Egypt were the bread baskets of the Empire. Everywhere in the east Greek was spoken as the lingua franca. Rome itself became too remote, too peripheral. The decision by Constantine I to move Rome to the small Greek village of Byzantium. So the new Capital was called New Rome, after his death, it was designated “ The New Rome that is called Constantinople”. After Justinian, who had built the wondrous Hagia Sophia, Latin ceased to be language of government. From that time onwards the government language was Greek. But they were Romans, for them Roman meant civilisation, it meant the known world. The last Emperor Constantine XI who died defending the city on the walls of Constantinople in 1453 was designated “ Roman Emperor “.
However, looking from a people’s point of view, the Roman Empire was fundamentally a slave economy – the foundation of which was the high productivity ( relatively) in the Eastern half. While trade – as far as China and Sri Lanka flourished, this enabled cities like Constantinople, Antioch, Adrianople etc to become very large. As it shrank because of growth of Islamic states on the one hand and Western Europe’s ( particularly Italy) slow emergence from feudalism, together with the continued movement of peoples fro east to west, it became more petrified into feudal like structure.
Thatcher’s baleful legacy lives with us today. Brexit is the result of her turning the Tory Party into representatives of finance capital and thus regarding it as unnecessary to invest in industries. This government deliberately provoked the notion that the UK was being swindled and bamboozled by the bureaucracy of the EU while her own class was swindling the people. Selling off national assets like telecommunications, electricity, gas and water has produced profiteering at our expense. Selling off Council houses, deregulating rents has caused massive house price inflation and the crisis we have now. I never saw a beggar on the streets of London until Thatcher, now there are thousands. In 1979 Thatcher came into power on the slogan “ Labour isn’t Working” because unemployment had topped a million for the first time since the war. By the time she left office it was 3 million, probably a lot more since the Tories kept changing the method of counting unemployment. She was fundamentally undemocratic, when Labour won the elections for the Greater London Council her answer was to abolish it and sell County Hall to privateers. However, while being ostensibly pro European she began the Euro scepticism in the Tory Party that led to Cameron’s referendum designed solely to resolve problems in the Tory party. Thus we are now on a suicidal trajectory that ultimately we can thank Thatcher for.
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We have to try and place ourselves in the shoes of a Roman inhabitant. The concept of the Empire was not the same as ours. To us an empire is a central power governing and controlling colonies and countries that have been conquered – like the British Empire. The Empire to the Roman was not a number of countries ruled by Rome, but the civilised (after 325, Christian) world. Rome was the sentimental capital, but they had no trouble in moving the capital to New Rome ( Constantinople).
So to be a Roman was to be a citizen of the civilised world. Sometimes there were two emperors ruling side by side, that was not regarded as divisive – a good example was Romanus I and Constantine VII who governed successfully together and were not related. Also when the Empire was divided East and West, it was not regarded as two empires, but a purely administrative division of the whole Empire. This is illustrated by time when after the overthrow of the last western Emperor Romulus Augustus, Theodoric the Ostrogoth, who made himself King of Italy sent the Imperial regalia back to Emperor Zeno in Constantinople as an acknowledgement that he was simply ruling Italy in the name of the Emperor.
All through the history of the Empire, the balance of power and trade was biased towards the East, the major production was there, trade and so on. The lingua franca of the Eastern half was predominantly Greek. From southern Italy eastwards, Greek was the the major language. So Greeks from Greece itself saw themselves as Greek speaking Romans, as the people of Anatolia, Alexandria etc saw themselves. Emperor Justinian, in the sixth century was the last Latin speaking Emperor, but Latin had always been the minority language in Constantinople. “Byzantium “ was the name of the small town upon which Constantinople was built. Nineteenth century British historians liked to see the Roman Empire as an early version of the British Empire – to them it was Latin, the Greek speaking Empire in the East after the fall of the West, was foreign, exotic, Eastern, almost Russian. So they coined the term “Byzantine” and imposed it on our concepts. To The Greeks, in Anatolia and Greece itself, Roman meant Christianity and civilisation.
After the fall of Constantinople, Despot of Morea ( Greece) regarded himself as the Roman Emperor in Mistras ( very well worth a visit). Even under Turkish rule Greeks regarded themselves as Roman, so when the Greek kingdom was set up in 1834, the rulers numbered themselves after the last emperor. The last king of Greece was Constantine XIII, numbered after Constantine XI the last Emperor in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. This was the driving force behind the Greek attempt to take Constantinople in 1920. I’m told that some Greeks still refer to themselves as ” Romans” even today.
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The key thing for me is how Marx applied his philosophy derived from Hegel. As he said, philosophers understand the world – the key thing is to change it. In other words to apply your philosophy to your empirical observation to find a programme for change. In terms of observation Engels contributed a massive amount. His book “ the condition of the English working class” is an in depth observation of the abject squalor that existed in Manchester while surrounded by booming wealth of the capitalist class.
To start with dialectical materialism gives you an understanding that everything is part of a system, a system is part of another system as so on. A system is formed of opposing forces, in contradiction to each other but in equilibrium. However all equilibriums are unstable, so disturbances cause changes until a new equilibrium is established.
When people work they always produce a surplus over their individual needs. If they didn’t do this human society couldn’t exist. If every individual spent every waking hour producing only enough to keep themselves alive then society couldn’t exist. Humans therefore have to organise themselves into some kind of system to distribute this “ social “ surplus. A primitive hunting gathering society may only have enough surplus to maintain the young, but perhaps not enough for the old. But who decides this? Collectively, by evolution of rules, rituals and religion or other ways ?
As society evolved through various systems, class rule developed. This occurs when on group organises society and controls the distribution of the social surplus by taking control of the means by which that society produces everything they need. In a slave society, people are owned by a ruling class, in feudal society the land on which society produces is owned by a class of lords. In capitalism, capital, ie the means to erect factories etc is owned.
Capitalism is massively more productive than any previous system and therefore produces an enormous social surplus. The decisions on how to distribute this lies with the ruling class. How much of this surplus is used on social things and not profit depends on the equilibrium between the classes at a particular time and the needs of the capitalist state.
The class system is a system so it does comprise of forces opposing each other. The working class was the creation of capitalism – its means to produce and make profits. In creating this, they created a force capable of overthrowing and establishing a new equilibrium. In order to prevent this, a great part of the surplus is devoted to a massive state structure. Police, military courts etc also ideology aimed at convincing workers that the capitalist order is not only good but a law of nature. Also another contradiction- capitalism is complex, so it needs an education system for producers to work. That very same education system will also make people aware that they are being exploited.
Also the producing class will always oppose and try and defend against their rulers by one means or another. Sometimes slaves rise up. Sometimes feudal peasants rise up. Workers form unions, opposed and suppressed initially by the ruling class, but now adjusted to and incorporated into the system.
Capitalism is only the latest form of evolution of human society and just as capitalism overthrew feudalism – often violently eg the English Civil War, the French Revolution, it will succumb to its own contradictions be overthrown. Society will then organise itself differently and find a new system to distribute the social surplus – hopefully to benefit everyone and not have the majority of it creamed off into private hands.
Capitalism is different to others in that the system works by constantly revolutionising methods of production in order to defeat their own capitalist competitors. So capitalists have a joint interest in maintaining themselves against workers while at the same time destroying fellow capitalists. When this growth ceases because the world is saturated with capitalism it begins to eat itself. Social surpluses spent on public social products like health, education, prisons, military, utilities etc are taken over by themselves in a frantic attempt to keep up profits. Privatisation of health might produce profits in the short term but does not add to the social surplus. Thus capitalism is already in decline because in western countries it has already started to consume itself.
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RELIGION – A SOCIALIST VIEW?
I am using this blog basically air my views about things I have thought about over the years – some will be topical some will not. I don’t make any claims to originality, but equally, no-one should be able to accuse me of plagiarism. If I quote anyone I will certainly try to acknowledge them.
I am a socialist, I see myself as a Marxist, and definitely not in the Stalinist or Maoist tradition – both of whose ideas and followers I reject as mockeries and distortions of Marxism. To paraphrase Trotsky, Stalin stands in the same relation to Marxism as Judas Iscariot to Christianity – traitor. Many Marxists will very likely see my thinking as flawed or lacking in rigour – I do not make any claims of any kind.
The blogs concerning the analysis of religion are not intended to be scholastic with masses of footnotes and references. However a reading list of some of the sources used might be helpful.
N.I. Bukharin – Historical Materialism
J.G. Frazer – The Golden Bough
F. Engels – The Origins of Private Property and the State
Mansel – The Gnostic Heresies
The Holy Bible (authorised version)
The Qu’ran (in English)
The Dictionary of Christian Biography
The Cambridge History of the Bible
Jacquetta Hawkes & Woolley – Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilisation
Jacquetta Hawkes – Atlas of Ancient Archaeology
Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Archaeology
Tacitus – The Annals of Imperial Rome
S. Takakura – The Ainu of Northern Japan
N.G Munro – Ainu Creed and Cult
George Caitlin – Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians
Mircia Eliade – A History of Religious Ideas
Merlin Stone – The Paradise Papers
Elaine Pagels – The Gnostic Gospels
William Watson – Cultural Frontiers in the Ancient Near East
James Melaart – The Neolithic of the Near East
Bachofen – The Mother, Myth and Religion
D. Baranki – Phoenicia and the Phoenicians
A. Bertholet – History of Hebrew Civilisation
K. Bittel – Hattiska, Capital of the Hittites
D.G. Brandon – Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East
E. Butterworth – Some traces of the Pre – Olympian World
S. Melgunov – Russian Religious and Social Movements of the Seventeenth Century
Womens Liberation and Socialist Revolution – various =- Pathfinder
H. Butterworth – Christianity and History
H.N. Brailsford – The Levellers
K. Marx – Capital vol 1
J.G Robertson – A Short History of Christianity
M. Finley – Early Greece and Bronze Age Archaic Society
Radical Feminist Collective – Feminist Practice
F. Engels – The Dialectics of Nature
Alexandra Kollantai – Sexual Relations & the Class Struggle >
THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIANITY
A MATTER OF FAITH
Faith is not merely a question of belief as many may consider it to be. It is more a question of belief in contradiction to knowledge or beliefs held in other ways.
Before the Ruling Class
In the classless societies of the pre-slave days, where labour was carried out in common and the products of labour held in common, religion was equally the common property of all. Religion was formulated in common, but over a long series of generations, as an explanation for the human material existence and the existence of the material world that people lived in. It also offered a system of ideas by which the functioning of the material world might be influenced by human agency. Religion of this kind was built on the logical supposition that all of nature upon which human life depended was organised in a similar way to human society.
The spring came, the rain fell, the sun shone, and the corn grew because of the will of those beings that governed them. The earth, itself, even the rocks, had the same attributes and, therefore, for the same will and purpose as the human mother. In the absence of any scientific knowledge, these explanations were not only as good any other, but logical in terms of the social and economic organisation of those societies.
With the coming of class society, religion required another function other than logical and explanation and belief. It required the subversion of logical explanation to the needs of the ruling class. On the part of the slaves – it required a suspension of disbelief – that is to say, faith. A class society requires submission, achieved by force if necessary, by the producers to the dominating class who not only organise them economically and socially, but take from them, again by force if necessary, the products of their labour. To do this as a system requires the enforcement of faith on both sides. An act of robbery and exploitation is easy to see, and slaves could see the evidence of their own eyes that they were being deprived of the products of their own hands.
Against this clear knowledge faith has to be counterpoised, that oppression and exploitation is not what it clearly is, but a separate right deriving from supernatural sources. In other words, faith can generally help in the enforcement of beliefs that would not ordinarily be credible. Faith lies above actual knowledge, it is a set of contradictory rules justified only by the fact that it enables a ruling class to exploit and yet appear to have the right to do so.
N.I. Bukharin, in his excellent book “Historical Materialism’ makes the point about the absurdity of faith in this way. He puts forward a proposal for a new religion based upon the hypothesis that the world was created and is governed by a lot of little green demons whose writhings give rise to all the physical phenomena we see about us. These little devils are, of course, infallible, invisible, and inaudible, nor can they be detected in any other way. Thus, although no one can actually prove they exist there is no way that anyone else can disprove it either. Of course, he points out, most people, quite rightly, would regard this theory as a lot of nonsense, but only because this ‘religion’ has no role in any ruling class ideology, since it performs no economic and social function.
Any religious belief that is not bound up in the structure of one’s own society is generally regarded as ‘superstition’ – nonsense. So the Christian can say quite seriously that the ancient Greeks or a modern ‘primitive’ that their religion is ‘superstition’. The idea of gods for this thing and gods for that appears to the Christian to be absurd. But the Greek ruling class had good economic and political reasons for demanding faith in it.
Alternative versions of one’s own religion become ‘heresies’. Within Christianity therefore, Catholicism, Protestantism are heresies to each other. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all heresies of each other.
Christian mythology is no less “absurd” than any other and depends just as much on magical legendary events. We all know that women cannot conceive without some kind of sexual intercourse, even if it is done by artificial means. Yet at school we are all taught that this scientific impossibility happened as a matter of fact. This virgin woman, we are told, gave birth to a child who turned out to be none other than God, the self same God who had made her pregnant in the first place. This man/God, following a series of magical performances then was executed and after lying dead for a full two days came back to life. Following that a cloud came down and whisked him off to heaven. This man, we are told, is not only one God and his own father, but also The Holy Spirit making three as one, but still only one – all a mystery. We are told to believe that this event that defies any known laws of biology, physics, or any thing else, took place on the evidence of ‘eyewitness’ accounts written nearly a hundred years after the supposed events.
No one on earth could actually disprove this myth and no one can prove it either, in all respects it has the same veracity as Bukharin’s little demons. The important point is that no one is really expected to believe it as such (although many do), they are merely expected to suspend disbelief in it. Faith is not an acknowledgement of fact, it is an act of ideological submission.
Heresy as Political Opposition
When those who are exploited rebel against their masters, their faith in ruling class religion explodes at the same time. As Marx pointed out opposition to rulers is always there, open or covert.
Indeed, exploding the religious ideology of their rulers was the way people expressed their opposing political programme. The 16th century Anabaptists, the Hussites of Munster, for instance, of central Europe in propounding their belief of the producers’ right to hold their products in common, rejected the dogmas of the Catholic Church. Christianity, for them, was reduced to those things that Christianity could logically explain in the light of their own knowledge and experience. For them God continued as the Creator, since they had no other alternative theory, but for them God created the earth for all human kind and Christ came to earth as a poor man – how he was actually conceived was of little interest. From the point of view of the mediaeval peasant this form of Christianity had a logic while the magic incantations and the acts of submission of the kings, barons, popes, and bishops did not.
In our capitalist society, faith goes beyond the hocus-pocus of religion. Faith in capitalism is not excusively religious since religion no longer has a monopoly on ideology. Here submission required and the faith to actually submit is similar to the wine and bread.
We are required to have faith in the ruling class’s assertion that they have built weapons capable of destroying the whole human race in order to prevent the human race from being destroyed by those very weapons. Or one may have faith in the Government’s belief, and many people did, that unemployment is the solution to the problem of unemployment. Or one may have faith in the capitalist’s assertion that Trident is here to protect the ordinary person from the ordinary Russian.
We have to faith in system that clearly causes, poverty, starvation, pollution, war and widespread misery actually is for the benefit of all.
One could also believe in the media bogeys, that Corbyn is a revolutionary socialist, or that the Labour Party is made up of revolutionary socialists, or the Soviet Union was constructed according to the ideas of Karl Marx. This is not so difficult as we are expected to believe that Christianity as it exists has much to do with Jesus Christ as that figure appears in the Bible. These and many other absurdities are a matter of faith.
Early Christianity contained political objectives, cloaked in religious expression. Beginning in the Jewish area, the objective was the removal of the Roman yoke. This was initially expressed in terms of a fundamentalist Jewish religion. The orthodox religion did not serve the purpose as the Jewish ruling class shared in the oppression by collaborating closely with the Romans.
The concept of a ‘messianic’ religion, the coming of a great leader who would lead the Jewish people into battle against their oppressor was the logical result of this aspiration. The Scriptures would inevitably be searched for ‘proof’ of the validity of this objective. The failure of the Jewish rising in 66 AD laid the basis for the conversion of the ‘Jewish’ messiah into a broader messiah who would lead all oppressed people against their rulers.
Thus, the roots of Christianity lie partly in the fundamentalist version of Judaism and therefore acknowledged the Jewish Scriptures – but in different ways.
Jewish religion, itself, unacknowledged or not, found its roots in the religions of the Semites of the middle east, most of which were still current at the time. Semite religion itself was a combination of the Semite warrior/pastoral religion and the old matriarchal Sumerian religion. The monotheist patriarchal Jewish religion was of fairly recent origin, stemming from the period of the Jewish kingdoms and even then was not universal in Israel and Judea. Therefore, to anyone at the time, the old religion – still flourishing in the productive base of society – represented the old freedoms before the period of Roman rule.
It was inevitable therefore that Christianity should also take on the essential features of the old matriarchal religion. Christianity as it came to be – as the official religion of a patriarchal society – still matriarchal at its base – diminished the component, derived from matriarchal origins and emphasised the patriarchal content. When we once examine the trends in early Christianity it will be seen that the old matriarchy – representing as it did – a primitive communism and equality – was at that early stage its most powerful component.
Even Christianity as we know it historically and today has much of matriarchy in it. Orthodox Judaism did not allow for female deities or the death of the god as did matriarchal religions. Yet the death of the god, the holiness of his mother and his resurrection at her hands, are the fundamentals of matriarchal religion. The male component in Christianity eventually was given superiority but only in its final version.
Christ as well as appearing to be the Messiah – from Judiasm – is the Adonis derived from the middle east. Astarte or Aphrodite become the Virgin Mary and although later demoted in importance had nonetheless an important position and is still, in fact, Catholicism’s goddess in all but name.
As Christianity was taken up in other parts of the Empire, the matriarchal component was strengthened. Christ/Dionysus, Mary/Demeter in the Greek world. But Egypt was an easy convert to Christianity and the slaves upon whose productivity depended much of the Roman economy made an easy transition from Isis to Mary, from Osiris to Christ. Egypt became a stronghold of Christianity and resisted, until the invasion of Islam, the patriarchal versions of Christianity and never accepted the authority of Roman or feudal ruling classes over their ideology – just as previously they had never accepted the imposition of Amon/Ra over their own Isis and Osiris.
Early Development and Tendencies
We must see Christianity in its early phase as a political opposition movement based upon the oppressed classes of the Roman Empire. In terms of political movements of today it cannot be called progressive in any modern sense for there was no progress from a slave economy which could possibly be introduced without a ruling class. There was no way to progress to a new form of society but only to restore ancient freedom – that is to say the removal of ruling the Roman ruling class. I am in no way condemning the movement. Had the it succeeded it would have been a reversion to the old freedom of the matriarchal economy. Its failure was inevitable and so was its conception into the ideology of feudalism.
As in all popular movements there was no exact identity of interest, especially since the Empire was diverse and slaves a difficult or impossible class to unite. The oppression and exploitation felt by the Jews – exploited by tribute through its own ruling class was different to that in Egypt, different to that in urban centres – felt by the plebeians and manufacturing slaves, different to those dragooned into auxiliary service with the army and so.
Therefore, there were diverse tendencies within Christianity. Roughly one may make a right reformist and left revolutionary division. This is to impose present day terminology on to the ancient world obviously falsifies it to certain extent, nevertheless, the difference between the factions and tendencies were real and so was their internal political struggle.
St. Paul and the Scripture
It may come as some surprise to many that early Christianity had no scripture of its own, nor any recognised sacred writing. It may also be a surprise to know that the first books of the “New Testament” to be written were not the gospels at all, but the letters of St. Paul. These letters were never meant to be taken as sacred writing in any form, nor were they written as general principles of Christianity. Most of Paul’s letters were polemical aimed specifically at the opposition within the Christian organisation and part of a struggle for control. Paul felt himself and his followers to be leaders of the movement but he was not universally acknowledged as such. He was the leader of the reformist faction, wishing to convert Romans of good standing to Christianity.
His programme/ideology, although anti-Roman was a reformist programme of change from within. A very rough parallel would be the Labour Party today who are quite happy to convert capitalists to socialists without demanding that they cease to be capitalists. Thus Paul’s Christianity is a mixture of reform without offending any of the essential values of Roman patriarchy.
Paul and his followers based their ideology on two platforms
- a) An oral tradition of Christ whose ‘life’ was not complete in Paul’s own day but was made up of a rough skeleton of sayings and statements. At this time – around 70 A.D. Christ must have been a shadowy figure, a mythical ‘founder’ of the movement to whom was attributed a number of sayings and prophesies. Most of the prophesies were current at the time of the Jewish rebellion. From the old religion (matriarchal) prevalent in all the Mediterranean area was derived the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. This would sound immediately convincing to anyone at that time as it was the basis of all religion in any case. On this point Paul and the opposition were agreed although they differed very strongly in the meaning of the resurrection. The “left” (Ophites, Canites, and Sethites) held a very different interpretation.
- The Jewish Scripture. Christianity began as a Jewish movement and developed out of the defeat of the Jewish rebellion in 66 AD. A military movement against the Romans was now out of the question. However, the Jewish scripture was made was now reformed on the basis of the broader movement. The only scripture any Christian was prepared to acknowledge was the Hebrew scripture up until the 2nd century A.D. No letters of Paul or any gospel was acknowledged as the holy script until Christianity became an official state religion. However, the interpretation of Jewish scripture differed once again from left to right. Paul’s wing accepted the scripture and found in it the main principles of their own movement. The left wing -the Ophites and Cainites – particularly saw the Jewish scripture as a lesson while not disbelieving it held it to be a catalogue of contrary examples and therefore contrasted their version of Christ against the Jewish scripture.
The Pauline Letters
Many copies of letters written at the same time as Paul’s epistles, through similarity in formal style have established the epistles of St. Paul as genuine. They are, in fact, messages, written to various branches of the Church, designed to be read out at meetings. They often refer to some event that came to Paul’s attention. What is clear, is that Paul was not writing ‘scripture’ since the concept of a ‘Christian bible’ did not exist until the 3rd century A.D.
Many branches of the Church accepted his authority as a leader and accepted his claim to be the mouthpiece of God. He styled himself ‘Paul by the will of God to be an apostle, to the Church of God at Corinth …called to be Saints Grace to you and peace from God our father, Lord Jesus Christ.’
None of his letters constitute ‘preaching’ as such for they were designed for internal use. There is a vague parallel here with the role of Trotsky in the 4th International in the 1930’s. Like Trotsky, arguments, factions, disputes were referred to him. His letters, like Trotsky’s were aimed at settling ideological disputes, giving encouragement and solving knotty ideological problems and slamming the opposition. Such letters were later given generalised canonical status, some of the followers of Trotsky equally canonise his letters as containing eternal truths and are equally as far from the intention of the writer.
The letters were probably kept by the individual branches who received them and like the letters of Lenin, Trotsky, etc were brought out later in disputes, bits of them quoted against the opposition. Later right wing polemicists began to call them in order to help their case against the other tendencies.
Clement, a leader of the Rome branch, wrote a good deal polemic himself against the left, says in a letter around 96 A.D. ,that he had Paul’s letter to the Romans and he knows of the letter to the Corinthians, although he has not got it himself, he has heard about its contents.
Marion, in 140 A.D. says that he has 10 of St. Paul’s letters whilst 60 years later the Roman church has 13 of Paul’s letters in their possession.
Not all the letters are genuine. Later polemicists used Paul’s name to add strength to their own arguments. The letters, moreover in the New Testament, by no means constitute a complete collection of Paul’s letters. Many are probably lost altogether and many in the New Testament are fragments of different letters put together. For example 2 Corinthians is an amalgam of several letters, Philippines is considered to be a similar amalgamation. ‘Hebrews’ is generally regarded as a fake, it appears nowhere in early collections and its style is different to the accepted Pauline letters.
The letters of the New Testament therefore do not comprise of all of the letters that Paul wrote and have in them many letters that Paul did not write.
Another important fact to be taken into consideration is that the New Testament letters are a one way traffic. The letters sent to St. Paul outlining the problems that they asked him to comment on have been lost. Their contents can only be inferred from Paul’s own letters.
Many of Paul’s letters are in fact replies to letters sent to him and many of them concern the opposition tendencies within the Church. These tendencies took up most of Paul’s attention – as they did later polemicists. Paul regarded the gnostic tendency as an ever present danger and many of the letters are wholly concerned with pouring contempt on the opposition in order to keep his own followers loyal.
The Faction at Corinth
The best example which shows the real purpose of Paul’s letters is found in his ‘two’ letters to the Corinthians – in fact several letters. The first letter is a reply to an ideological question raised over a number of issues. Paul’s answer advocates the taking of a strong line against opposition elements and expelling them for example “do not associate with immoral men”. It appears that the situation in the Corinth branch worsened whether due to his letter or whether the opposition was making ground is not clear. Paul paid a visit himself to Corinth which seems to have been a disaster. It appears that the opposition, who were strong in Palestine and Antioch, had sent people of their own to Corinth and the branch was on the point of defecting to them. A member of the Corinth Church had affronted Paul so vigorously that Paul demanded formal submission to his leadership or his expulsion. It appears from Corinthians 2 that the branch rejected Paul’s ultimatum and in the next fragment he adopts a more conciliatory tone. It would seem that the whole Corinth branch was on the point of defecting – probably to the Ophites or Cainites, as Paul mentions the ‘false prophets’ from Palestine who were stirring up trouble in the Corinth branch.
The fight against the opposition’s growing strength in the Corinth branch got pretty dirty. They must have accused him of being a liar, unscrupulous in his attempts to control them and were suspicious of his appeals for money. Paul regarded this as an attack on God and it appears from 4 Corinthians that he was seriously considering the expulsion of the whole branch. How the struggle was eventually resolved is not known, although it would be reasonable to suggest that had his own tendency been victorious in Corinth, the fact would have been noted.
A similar problem seems to have arisen in Galatia – the area around Antioch where the Ophites were strong – there is a strong connection between Christianity and the old matriarchal religion centred on Aphrodite and Adonis in Antioch. It would appear from later accounts that the slaves of Antioch regarded Adonis and Christ, Mary and Aphrodite as interchangeable. The letters to the Galatians seem to be dealing with a possible defection there.
Paul’s letter to the Romans, on the other hand, was much more friendly. Rome was his stronghold and this letter offered encouragement for them as he was about to set out to Spain to found a new branch of the church there.
Both Philippians and Colossians are letters written from prison, although not at the same time. Although we can regard Paul as the leader of the right wing of the Christian movement, it is also important to keep in the background that the whole movement was in political opposition to the Roman ruling class despite the difference in methods and programme between left and right. It was inevitable therefore, as one of the leaders of the movement, Paul would fall foul of the authorities. The letter to the Philippians seems to indicate that this branch was one of his strongholds and that they sent him assistance when they heard of his imprisonment. The Colossians on the other hand is a letter written to a new branch that he does not know personally. In it, he backs up a local leader called Epaphras to whom he delegates the authority formally bound to the Church of Laodicia.
On the whole, Paul’s letters are concerned with the struggle between the tendencies in the Christian movement and principally Paul’s struggle against the gnostic sects and their revolutionary outlook. Not much of the argument refers to Christ himself and none to the gospels – they had yet to be written – and their function was political too. Paul never quotes Christ or refers to any incident in his life except for his death and resurrection and the Second Coming – the basic ideas of which he derived from matriarchal religion.
The Non-Pauline Letters
These are the letters that were attributed to Paul when Christianity’s right wing had finally defeated the opposition. They are quite different to the genuine Pauline letters. The letter to the Ephesians refers to nothing that would indicate the reason for the letter being written, neither does it mention the Church of Ephesus at all. The letter was in fact written at a much later date by a Paulinite and is a summary of Paulinite principles. It was not written to the Church at Ephesus but as a general circular. It was ascribed to Ephesus probably arbitrarily because as no other letter was found addressed to Ephesus. To the later church this seemed strange as Ephesus was one of the largest churches and strongly Paulinite. It is quite likely that the letter came from Ephesus, however, no polemical letters to Ephesus were ever necessary as they were never in dispute. This particular letter is not a polemic it is a straight and rather florid statement of Paulinite principles. E.J. Goodspeed who helped translate the letters for the Revised Version noted that the style is turgid and it has a “monstrous conglomeration” of sentences. Some have considered that the Ephesians has a strong gnostic flavour.
Timothy and Titus
The two letters, supposedly from Paul to Timothy and Titus – two of his lieutenants are fakes, written not earlier than the 2nd century. The church organisation described in them did not exist in Paul’s own day. The two letters purport to be from Paul instructing Timothy and Titus how to organise the church, how to carry out a service, a great deal is said on women, duties of deacons, archdeacons, bishops and so on. The two letters were not part of any early collection and when they were written the strictly hierarchical organisation of the Church was well established and ideologically Christianity was ready to collaborate with the Roman ruling class.
The letters were faked in order to show that Paul had ordained the authoritarian structure of the church. The organisation receiving retrospective sanctification reflected the hierarchy of the Roman government at this time. There is no reason why Paul should write a letter to his ‘lifelong’ companion and lieutenant at their headquarters in Ephesus explaining to him how to organise the church in a way that it was not to be organised for another 200 years at least. Whatever the drawbacks of Paul’s own position, he was in opposition to the Roman ruling class, not supporting or justifying or forming an ideological and material parallel to them, as the later church did. ‘Titus’ and ‘Timothy’ are inventions of the later church inserted to justify the authoritarian and hierarchical structure of a church about to become ‘official’.
Peter and Jude
Like the previous two letters, these too are fakes, written halfway through the second century. If Peter, the chief apostle of Christ, was active and writing letters then no doubt Paul’s letters would have mentioned him. The fact is, none of the apostles are mentioned by Paul. This would certainly point to the apostles being a later invention.
Both of these tracts were written for wide circulation and were aimed specifically against the ‘gnostic’ Christians, i.e. Ophites, Cainites for it was during the 2nd Century A.D. that the struggle between the left and right of Christianity reached its peak. Condemnations of the gnostics coming from the pens of St. Peter and St. Jude (suitably retrospective) were salvos in the struggle. Later on, as they appeared to condemn ‘heresy’ in general – of which there was no concept at the time – they could easily be incorporated into the Canon. Condemnation of heresy was an important aspect of Christianity as an official ideology, when the struggle was against the state’s enemies rather than the struggles within a particular movement.
The Letter to the Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews gained admission to the Canon (i.e. the New Testament) on the assertion that it was the word of St. Paul. This is generally recognised, even in the church, that the letter is a forgery. Unlike the genuine letters of Paul which are polemical, the ‘Hebrews’ is a philosophical work concerning the nature of Christ, suffering, obedience, the relation of Christ and the angels, his enthronement etc. The author is of a much later period than Paul.
James is the odd one out of the New Testament as there is no clue to its authorship. The James of this letter is supposed to be Christ’s brother (half brother!) but nothing is said that would prove this. It was probably one of a whole number of ‘letters’ and gospels that were circulating during the 2nd century. It was one of the last books to be accepted officially into the Canon.
The Synoptic Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. John has a different origin and was the last of the Canonical gospels to be written.
All four books purport to be ‘witness’ accounts but the precise date of their authorship is not known for certain except that they were all written after the letters of St. Paul.
The New Testament, as it exists today and since the establishment of official Christianity was selected out of a very large body of material available at the time, i.e. the third century A.D., the rest were rejected as being non-canonical and heretical.
The order that the books appear in the New Testament was carefully thought out by the compilers. It appears from the New Testament that Matthew’s gospel was written first followed by the others. After Christ’s death came the Acts of the Apostles and then the activities of St. Paul.
As has already been pointed out, Paul predated all the others and therefore had no gospel to quote although an oral tradition of Christ’s sayings had probably built up. It was not felt necessary until the late 1st century or 2nd century to describe the life and death of Christ and during the 2nd century a vast number of ‘gospels’ were written.
The gospels served a similar purpose to the letters. Each branch of the church and each faction felt it necessary to produce their own version of the ‘historical’ truth to prove the validity of their own position and to satisfy the curiosity bound to be aroused concerning what really happened. Many of them reflect also, the problems faced by a particular sect or area. During the second century no gospel was accepted as scripture, in terms of truth, the gospels of the left, later destined for oblivion, were in seen in equality to those we now see in the New Testament.
The first synoptic gospel to be written, was not Matthew but Mark. It is by far the simplest of the four and describes the miracles and events in a very rough and ready way. It begins abruptly, not describing the birth and it ends abruptly without describing events after the ‘Resurrection’. It was written in poor Greek. What specific purpose it served cannot be said except to meet a demand for a description of Christ’s life. The Catholic Church accepted Mark, but as an ‘inferior’ gospel and relegated to a place behind Matthew.
Matthew’s gospel was written using Mark as the basis. It was Mark’s basic outline but embellishes the details and intersperses a lot of quotes from scripture – the Old Testament – which do not appear in the earlier version. It is probable that ‘Matthew’ was a product of the Christian group in Palestine – either Caesarea or Jerusalem. It lays heavy emphasis on the scripture and is very strongly against the orthodox Jewish hierarchy.
Christianity in Palestine saw itself as a breakaway Jewish sect. Its energies were spent in the struggle against official Judaism. This gospel was the favourite of the early Catholic Church and was written with the intention of proving to Jewish listeners and readers that Christ actually was the Jewish Messiah. This is the reason why that Matthew begins with Christ’s genealogy tracking him back to King David (so conforming to prophesies). The quotations from the Jewish scriptures are intended to reinforce the point the gospel is making to the Jews themselves, The messianic ‘leader’ message later appealed to the fledgling state ideology of the fourth century because they were wishing to make an ideological parallel between Christ and the Roman Emperor.
The emphasis on the messianic ‘leader’ initially served to try to convince Jews that the Christian messiah was the same messiah they hoped would lead them to liberation. However, later on in the fourth century, this ‘leader’ served another purpose – to be an ideological parallel to the Roman Emperor. I believe that it is for this reason that Matthew was the favourite gospel of the Catholic Church and of the Roman Emperors – who are often depicted in church mosaics standing between St. Peter and St. Matthew in heaven.
Luke and the Acts of the Apostles
These two books began circulating as one volume around 180 A.D. They were written not to convert any specific sect or for edification of Christians but for open sale to the educated – the ruling class ‘public’ that existed at the time. They are an indication of how class collaborationist the right wing of the Christian movement had become by that time. One finds a similar type of writing from the right wing of the Labour Party today. This gospel was published in the Greek style scrolls on which books for sale were written during that period. The author dedicates the work to His Excellency Theophilus – who was not a Christian.
The Acts in particular were a public statement aimed at the Roman ruling class to the effect that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman state. It seeks to show that Christianity was not a class or sectional religion. Both Luke and the Acts – which were in reality one book – aims at an appeal for Christianity that overcomes the differences in nationality class but unites all in the Roman state.
Although modelled on the same basic outlines as the other two gospels, it is a skilful piece of propaganda. Before inclusion in the ‘Canon’ it underwent some editing. The ‘Acts’ were split from Luke, so that they could serve as a link between the four gospels and St. Paul. This created the fiction that Paul based his ideas on the gospel rather than the reality of his time.
St. John’s Gospel
The author of St. John’s gospel is a mystery. Careful examination of this gospel reveals the language of the gnostic opposition seeping through. It is a far more abstract tract than the synoptic gospels and is specifically directed against the gnostics using their own language and concepts. The abstract ‘idealistic’ slogans of the Ophites are thrown back at them for example, ‘God is Love’, ‘God is Light’. It is thought that after the Council of Nicea this gospel was only just accepted into the New Testament as it appears to tread a very narrow line between Gnosticism and Paulinism.
This gospel diverges significantly from the others by including accounts of private discussions between Christ and the apostles and Christ and the Jews. These “private” conversations are typical of the gnostic gospels. The miracles and parables that appear in the other three are carefully selected to suit the author’s purpose – perhaps to steal the Gnostics ‘cleverness’ without conceding anything to them.
This is the only ‘directly inspired’ divine book that appears in the New Testament and was selected out of a number of similar apolyptic writings. It was written in Asia Minor and contains descriptions of the last days of the world, prophesies of the antichrist, and the Last Judgment.
Such writings only make sense in context of the society they are written in and this one has to be seen in the light of the serious crisis of the Empire during the third century.
The Roman slave economy was disintegrating under the weight of its own contradictions, devastating plagues, population shifts bringing in barbarian invaders. To an educated Roman citizen at this time there must have been a sense of impending doom – the world was indeed very old and on the verge of ruin and collapse, the end of the Empire would soon be followed by the end of the world.
To sum up on the ‘canon’, there is no evidence whatever, that the gospels that we know as the ‘New Testament’ have any superiority over the rejected Christian material. The ‘canonical’ books were not written first and many of the ‘gnostic’ gospels were written and were circulating before some of the canonical ones. The gospels were not differentiated along the lines of ‘canonical’ and ‘heretical’ at the time they were written.
It appears that many gospels were used by Christians for different purposes as well as those produced by the sects that they belonged to themselves. Canonisation emerged very much later when the Roman ruling class began to see the right wing version of Christianity as a suitable ideological vehicle for the changed economic/political structure of the Roman state. The rigidity required for survival of the ruling class and the Roman state itself a halfway house to the rigidity of feudalism found an excellent ideology in later Christianity.
Sources – The Didache
Although Mark’s gospel is shown to be the prototype of the others, that gospel itself is an embellishment of earlier writings. One of the earliest known written materials to be circulating around the Christian church was called the Didache. This may have been the work of a church leader in Rome, possibly Clement. It is the prototype for Mark’s gospel. It was written between 70 – 90 A.D. and consists of a series of ‘commandments of Christ’. These are sayings attributed to Christ and are similar in context to those that appear in the gospels. It is based upon an oral collection of sayings collected by the author. Many of the sayings are worded differently to the gospels and point to its oral origin e.g. ‘Love God and honour your neighbour’. ‘The poor will inherit the earth’.
By the Second Century A.D. the churches were established in many areas and the leaders were writing tracts arguing and debating ideological points. Papias of Heiropolis is one of the earliest known writers after Paul and in his writing he quotes from both Mark and Matthew and equally from the ‘Gospel of the Hebrews’ a gnostic gospel later rejected.
Eusebius writing in the 3rd century condemned Papias for accepting too easily ‘strange parables’ hence the disappearance of most of Papias’s work.
Hermas of Rome, in the second century, wrote his own acknowledged tract called ‘The Shepherd’. In the scriptures, Matthew and Mark, the Gospel of the Hebrews (not to be confused with ‘Paul’s Letter’ to the Hebrews) and other gnostic material are quoted with equality.
A good example of the left/right 2nd century debate is to be found in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch. From his letters it appears that Ignatius was familiar with the Pauline letters as well as Matthew and St. John. However, he never quotes any gospel as the equal of the scripture – the Old Testament in a debate with the Jewish Christians – probably Ophites. The Ophites decided that Ignatius’s views were not in any way supported by the scripture, they had written to him saying ‘If I do not find it in the scripture – I do not believe it in the gospel’. Ignatius’s reply was ‘It is written in the scripture’, but their answer was ‘That is just the question!’.
The significance of this will be seen in the profoundly different interpretation of the Old Testament by the right and left tendencies of Christianity.
Another early Christian writer, Polycarp of Smyrna says in his letters that while the ‘sayings of Christ’ are authoritative they cannot be regarded as ‘scripture’. In other words, early Christianity was a political ideological movement, not a set of given beliefs, the actual ‘facts’ about Christ himself did not have the relevance that they had later on.
However, it was the gnostic (i.e. left wing) of Christianity who produced the first great Christian writers. The first known of the gnostic writers was Marion. In Marion’s opinion the authentic teaching of Christ has been distorted by the Paulinite wing but he accept a ‘revised’ view of the Pauline letters and revised version of St. Luke as valid gospels,. Other gnostics – such as Valentian accepted the four (canonical) gospels and the Pauline letters but put such a different interpretation on them as to make them mean the opposite to the Pauline tendency’s understanding of them.
It was only right at the end of the Second century that some writers began to treat any of the gospels as equal to scripture. Clement of Alexandria, a Pauline follower, identified to his own satisfaction which gospels were ‘true’ and which were ‘false’. With a few minor exceptions his selection became the New Testament of the Catholic Church.
The greatest problem in understanding the struggle that went on lies in the fact that the right wing were victorious. Their writing and version of Christianity has been preserved. The defeated tendencies – the Gnostics had no successors, Their extensive writing has largely been lost – as no one had any particular interest in preserving it – unless there was some point that the official faction wished to adopt. Much of the material was probably deliberately suppressed, for the growth of ‘canonical’ belief produced its opposition – the concept of ‘heresy’.
Heresy became an official concept after Christianity became a state religion because to be a heretic was to be in political opposition to the ruling class. In the Second century, the gnostics claimed equal validity with the ‘catholic’ writng, nor was this disputed at the time. There are only four gnostic gospels remaining and some of these are only fragmentary. The Gospel according to the Hebrews’ is an Ophite gospel since the “Holy Spirit’ is depicted as Christ’s mother. There is also the ‘Gospel according to St. Peter’, the ‘Gospel according to St. Thomas’ and a gnostic version of ‘Acts of Apostles’.
No single decree or statute states which gospels were ‘true’ and which ones ‘false’. A third century list issued by the Roman church stipulates the ‘New Testament’ as being Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, thirteen Pauline letters (excluding Hebrews) Jude, St. John 1 x 2, the Wisdom of Solomon (removed much later from the Bible), Revelation of John, Revelation of St. Peter rejected after the Council of Nicea, epistle to the Laodicians, epistle to the Alexandrians. This list is obviously not the same as the New Testament of today but at this time even right wing Christianity was not an official state ideology so further revision was still possible.
One of the second century strongholds of the left was Egypt, particularly Alexandria. It is from Clement of Alexandria that we can derive some information concerning gnostic texts – now lost. Clement was not a gnostic himself but he did describe the texts that the gnostics in Egypt used. Clement states that as far as he knows there were three versions of Mark’s gospel circulating. The first one was the ‘orthodox’ version used by the Paulinites, the gnostics apparently had a version of Mark of their own and Clement states that there was yet a third version, one supposedly written in Mark’s own hand kept by the gnostics in Alexandria. Other texts used by the gnostics in the Alexandria Church were, according to Clement, the Gospel of St. Peter, Gospel of St. Thomas, the Acts of St. Andrew, the Gospel of St. John, the Gospel of St. Paul, Revelation of St. Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews, the epistle of Barnabas, the epistle of the Hebrews (later canonical), Revelation of St. John (now canonical)
The Christian “Left” (Gnostic)
‘Gnosticism’ is defined by the dictionary (Websters’ New Etymological) as Christians who maintained that knowledge and not faith was the way to salvation, claiming themselves to have a superior knowledge of spiritual things — from the Greek Gnostikos – good at knowing.
The early Christian movement was an opposition movement to the Roman ruling class. As we have seen, it was by no means united. The Second century was a period of sharp opposition and debate between what we may call the ‘right wing’ or ‘Paulinite’ or ‘reformist wing and left wing’ or ‘Gnostic wing’. The term ‘gnostic’ itself was used as a derogatory term when the struggle was all over. Those who wished to ‘know’ rather than have merely ‘faith’ were dangerous heretics when Christianity had won its position as the official ruling class ideology.
The right or Paulinite wing increasingly had a policy of converting the Romans to their ideology. In this they succeeded but at the cost of being converted themselves into instruments of power in the hands of that same ruling class. Not that the ruling class immediately saw the use of Christianity even the most right wing type.
Christianity originally was the religion of the oppressed – fundamental economic changes had to take place in the Roman Empire before the Paulinite version could be accepted. Even so, ‘conservative’ elements in the ruling class, wishing to retain the old slave holding society resisted the new ideology. For the classical economy of slavery the Roman religion was suitable ideology; for a feudalised, more military, economy a stricter hierarchical ideology was necessary.
Paulinite Christianity was easily adaptable to the purpose, for as the reformist wing, it had already a strong potential for elitism and hierarchical formation. Materially as it developed it copied the form of Roman administration and hierarchy so that when its time came it could offer material as well as ideological support to the degenerated Empire and its feudal successors.
The left wing, although comparable in strength to the Paulinites during the Second century were by no means comparable to a left wing movement among the modern working class. They tended to be regionally based, although the letter of ‘Jude’ and others seem to indicate that there was some contact across the Empire. The letters of Paul to Corinthians seem to indicate an intervention of gnostics in the Corinthian branch of the Church from elsewhere. These ‘visitors’ that were attacked by Paul seem to have had some success in winning the Corinthians power from the Paulinites to the left.
The major left grouping gave themselves the title ‘Ophite’. This title means ‘The Snake’ and it is one of the many features which connect Christianity, especially the gnostics, to the matriarchies of the Mediterranean and the middle east.
The old matriarchal religions survived in some form during the Roman Empire. They were the religions of slaves and oppressed peoples of the Empire – with the recent exception of the Jews. The ‘Ophite’ system successfully linked these old matriarchies into a unified whole and linked this to Jewish scripture. The link with Jewish scripture was an absolute necessity since the Jews were the focal point of resistance against Roman oppression.
From our vantage point in history, the Ophite use of scripture may seem ingenuous, if not a little contrived, but in the context of the 1st and 2nd centuries it is perfectly logical. Generally all gnostic sects held the Jewish scripture to be valid but a refutation of Jewish belief.
In other words, they accepted the scripture as true and therefore accepted the reality of the Jewish God but maintained that the purpose of Christ’s intervention on earth was to refute the laws of the Jewish God and overthrow the principles of patriarchy. Christ, therefore, was not God’s son but God’s superior come to supersede and overthrow him and reverse his laws. The ‘Ophite’ meant the ‘snake’, the snake of the Garden of Eden, evil for God but in fact good for mankind as the snake was none other than (for some sects) Christ in an earlier incarnation.
For the Ophites and allied sects, Christ was not a man, but a combined male/female entity. The Christ that came to earth was a combination of the Incorruptible Light of the Right Hand (male -Christ) and the Incorruptible Light of the Left Hand (female – Sophia). They had come to earth previously as the snake of the Garden of Eden (for the Cainites at least). Their first visit had been a failure, they attempted to give Adam and Eve knowledge but were thwarted by the Jewish God who was nothing more than a renegade angel.
There was no room in Ophite ideology for Lucifer and his cohorts. Hell was already here on earth created by the Jewish God, through the Jewish patriarchy and the Roman oppressors – not for them the crucifix of the Paulinites, but the snake of the old matriarchy.
In social terms their religious ideology meant the ‘Snake’ and not the crucifix of the Paulines. They opposed all Mosaic laws of oppression and practised the old matriarchy, abolishing marriage within their own membership and where women had total political and social equality. It was these factors (of which their religion was the political expression) that so scandalised and frightened the Paulinites. The attacks on women and ‘false prophets’ in Paul and other letters are not provoked through a desire to expand on the position of women in society but to attack the gnostic factions within their own movement.
By the end of the third century, the Ophites, Cainites, Sethites and other gnostic factions were defeated. Their writings fell to neglect and destruction for the Roman state was reestablishing itself on a new, lower economic basis with the support of the Paulinite church.
Gnosticism seems to have been centred n Syria and Samaria (the old Israel) originally, but spread to Alexandria and Greece. All gnostic sects rejected the Paulinite concept of ‘free will’ and none of them subscribed to the ‘Day of Judgment’ theory. They considered all human beings to consist of three parts
- a) The body, which in the Garden of Eden had been light and beautiful but was now dark, sluggish, and ugly.
- b) The soul given by the Jewish God
- c) The light given by Sophia. The struggle inside each human being was therefore for Sophia’s ‘light’ to liberate ‘God’s soul’.
There were various grades of liberation, but those who achieved the highest would rise up in spirit to enjoy sexual union with an angel (of whatever sex).
The function and purpose of Christ among gnostic sects had nothing to do with the ‘dying for our sins’ concept of the Paulinites. On the contrary, Christ’s purpose was more specific, to enlighten the human race of the errors of the Jewish God and the wisdom of Sophia. Some sects maintained that Christ was merely a prophet to whom Sophia had given the gift of knowledge, others doubted whether Christ had actually existed as a human being at all. Cenenthus, a gnostic writer – an Ophite maintained that Jesus was a pure man whose body had been entered by Nous (the snake) who was none other than Christ and Sophia. On leaving Jesus, the man had been unjustly crucified and he was resurrected to rectify this injustice.
It is difficult for us to imagine today that the gnostic version of Christianity was of equal standing with the (Paulinite) form of Christianity .
By the time that the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea – where hundreds of delegates, who travelled and were boarded at his own expense in 325, the Church was well established in terms of hierarchical organisation and Gnosticism had been long defeated.
However, to serve as an ideology for the newly reunified Roman Empire, now moving from Rome to Constantinople, Christianity itself had to be unified. Within the Church a new heresy had arisen, that of Arianism. The defeat of this heresy enabled the Roman state to establish religion of Christ the Pantocrator, the ruler of the world under God and of God – a reflection of how the Roman Emperor needed to be seen by the slave and semi feudal subjects of the Empire, an Empire not thriving and dominant as it had been in the 2nd century, but a military despotism under siege from without and in constant danger of collapse and opposition within.
Religion – a Marxist Analysis
HUNTING AND PASTORAL SOCIETIES
There is only one species of human being living on earth today, that is “homo sapiens sapiens” . There are no sub-species, offshoots, throwbacks, varieties – just one species. This species has probably existed for more than 100,000 years, the earliest archaeological evidence of “homo sapiens sapiens is dated at around 105,000 years ago. A previous species “homo sapiens neanderthaliensis” is known to have existed at least 250,000 years ago. However, the two species – according to present knowledge – shared the world until about 40,000 years ago. Since this time, it seems that our species has been the only species of human being.
However, the two species had this in common, they both lived in societies. The history of the human race is therefore the history of human society. The idea of the individual human or pair of humans living without society is a fanciful notion put forward by some who think that it is possible to understand human beings in terms of the individual and not in terms of a human system – that is a society. There is nothing new in this “Robinson Crusoe approach, it began with Adam and Eve. It is an indication though of how our society thinks – in terms of the private individual who decides to get educated, decides to get married, decides to have children, decides to believe or not believe in God, decides on a career and eventually decides to drop dead. However, society, is not just a group of individuals who decided to come together to help each other like the Masonic Lodge, it is a system that all are part of, none can escape from and conditions every thought we think, every word we say, and every decision we make.
The majority of people who dominate our thinking. are themselves part of the ruling class of our society who dominate our thinking as a whole. Therefore it can be expected that their descriptions, understanding of society are prejudiced by their role in dominating our society. However, this prejudice stretches back through the 100,000 years of human history, the same prejudice, taints pre-history As it does modern history. Here is an example from “Pre-History and the Beginnings of Civilisation by Jacquetta Hawkes, p 125.
“A life of a hunter is restless, dangerous and most uncomfortable, but blessedly free from the monotonous tedium that was to come with farming and reach a climax in the well regulated factory or office. It is probably, in fact, the life preferred by most men to all other (in contrast to women) they were conditioned to it for a million years. “
We can see here modern prejudice seeping through. The hunter is an individual who somehow appreciates that his life is more exciting than “societies who existed after him – as if he had a choice – but if our men find life boring in the “climax “ of society – capitalism it must be the “hunting gene that somehow has been transmitted to men but not to women, who, by contrast, enjoy the tedium of “well regulated society.”
When the same author comes to an understanding ancient religion then her prejudice is equally obvious. Page 207.
“It seems that while the individual mind was still bound up with family, society and nature and when, moreover, women and maternity were probably still dominant in family and social structure, there was a tendency for the idea of the divine life and fertility to be expressed in the form of the Great Goddess. As intellect gained in power, greatly increasing man’s isolation, and as law and prohibitions built up conscience, then the masculine god waxed and assumed the throne in the human mind.”
This is the modern mind interpreting the past in its own image. Firstly, the individual somehow “bound up is taken as the starting point. However, the first sentence does not describe ancient society but modern society. In ancient society there was no concept of the individual, it is in our society that the individual is “bound up with family, society and nature” . However, the greatest prejudice is to imply that the human intellect can grow independently, that laws and prohibitions do not emerge from every society that has ever existed and that the indication of this growth of bourgeois “conscience” is provided by the worship of a male god in the “throne of the mind” as opposed to the consciousness, intellectually weak, lawless and licentious worship of a Great Goddess.
Taking this approach, history becomes nothing more than the development of the human intellect expressed in its laws and prohibitions and belief in the male god. Given the vast number of laws and prohibitions we have today and the general belief in a male god, human society has reached its pinnacle of achievement – although there is probably room for more laws and prohibitions.
A System within a System
To understand human beings we have to understand human society as a system existing as part of the natural world, opposed to it and in equilibrium at the same time. Every human, in every society is part of its system and we cannot pluck the individual out and say how she/he thinks and acts without seeing what part that individual plays in that particular system.
Pre-history has by convention been given certain chronological categories which while more helpful than the nineteenth century designations of “Savagery , “Barbarism etc. do not clarify the types of society that we may wish to talk about. The designations begin around 130,000 years ago to about 9,000 B.C.
This immense period of time is designated “Paleolithic or “Old Stone Age . For convenience it is split into Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic.
The next period a mere 2-3000 years is called “Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age and covers the period from 6,000 – 3,000 B.C. Then we have the Neolithic or New Stone Age. After that we have the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, etc. These terms have some limited use as they are meant to describe the tools, the instruments of production with which human society comes into contact with nature. However, these tools have a limited story to tell. They do not specify how production with these tools was organised nor perhaps – equally important the other instruments of production like sheep, pigs, horses, dogs which human society manipulated and converted to instruments of production instead of being only the results of production. To call a society a New Stone Age Society categorises it as much as describing our own as the “Nuclear Age” or the nineteenth century as the “Steam Age” instead of describing it by its way of organisation of production – Capitalism.
Although these terms have a limited use and will therefore be used, I shall use designations that are not purely chronological and describe societies in terms of their organisation of production. Some terms will be a bit lengthy but that cannot be helped.
Categories Of Societies With Conventional Equivalents And Basic Class Type
Depending more or less equally on hunting animals and gathering wild plants, etc, (Paleolithic) (Nomadic) (Communist).
Depending more on hunting – ie. usally herding animals and less on gathering.
(Paleolithic, mesolithic) (gen. nomadic) (Communist –male).
3) Advanced Hunting (horse-hunting)
Production by hunting with domesticated animal e.g. horse, as an instrument of production.
(Mesolithic, bronze, iron) (nomadic) (warrior) (male)
Basic herd animal domesticated for production but without horses e.g. sheep, goats, cattle. Some hunting and gathering to supplement.
(Mesolithic, bronze, iron) (nomadic) (Communist — male)
5) Advanced Pastoral
Variety of animals e.g. cattle, pigs, sheep, goats with the horse as an instrument of production,. some hunting and gathering and plundering.
(patriarchal) (Mesolithic, bronze, iron) (nomadic)
Generally an interim stage to (7), Mostly gathering particularly wild edible grasses (wheat and barley) Hunting as a supplement.
(Neolithic) (Communist — female)
7) Slash and Burn Agriculture
Collection of wild seed and replanting. Beginning of domestication of plants. Hunting supplement.
(Neolithic) (Communist — female) (semi nomadic)
8) Matriarchal Agriculture (Neolithic)
Formed by fusion of (4) and (7) complete agricultural economy domestic plants and animals. No hunting.
(Neolithic) (Communist — female) (Settled)
9) Slave Agriculture
A fusion of (5) and (8) producing agricultural society exploited by warrior ruling class.
(Neolithic, bronze, iron age)
Further fusions ie. (9) and (5) strengthen system.
Chronology Of Social Evolution (Approximate)
The Hunter Gatherer
Hunting and gathering is the initial form of human production – it is the first type of human society. However, it must not be assumed, therefore, that the structure of society was uniform in all places. The exact type form of society depending upon the environment, what there was to be hunted, what there was to be gathered and what raw materials were available to work upon and convert into instruments of production e.g. flint for knives, axes, tools, wood for building and making weapons and so on. Hunting and gathering did not necessarily yield equal amounts of product.
In some areas, hunting was more productive and those societies tended to evolve towards a hunting economy; in others, others game was either scarce or difficult to catch but gatherable crops were more readily available and so those particular societies evolved in that direction.
Australian Hunter Gatherers
One of the few examples of a hunting/gathering society to survive until the recent past is that of the Australian aborigines – although their form of society is now in sight of total extinction.
People are thought to have begun to settle in Australia around 30,000 years ago. They appear to have arrived in several waves over a long period. As they arrived after Australia was separated by the sea from the rest of Australasia it appears that the original inhabitants had a different form of society from that which subsequently developed. For one thing, they must have had a high degree of technical skill to build boats to negotiate the difficult passage from the Asian continent to the islands and mainland of Australia.
The aboriginal economy as it was when Australia was first colonized by the British, did not include the domestication of either animals or crops or dependence on any one form of animal or gatherable crop. Nor did it involve the use of boats.
Despite the size of Australia, and the size of its fertile and temperate areas the whole continent did not support more than 250,000 people before the settlement of Europeans. This was after 30,000 years of continuous habitation. This implies a very low level of productivity which declined even further when the
English settlers pushed the people out of the fertile areas into the desert.
The Aboriginals were simply categorised as “Savage “ and useless to the English colonists. Their primitive form of production did not even make them worthy of exploitation – they had no surplus product to be stolen from them – unlike in other British colonies – India for instance. They were either driven into the desert or murdered and then ignored; even today, the original inhabitants of Australia are treated as subhuman savages by many white Australians.
Aboriginal beliefs, customs and social structure baffled all but a few of the English settlers. Christian missionaries dismissed any idea that they had any form of social structure at all, they were merely considered to be “promiscuous and immoral”. However, people like Lewis Morgan and Frederick Engels realised that the native Australians reflected a stage in social and economic evolution and in its own way Australian society was just as complex as that of the Europeans who, at the time, considered theirs to be natural and ordered by God.
However, Engels credits an English missionary, Lorimer Fison, for discovering and understanding the social structure and system of sexual relationships practiced by the Australian people.
The tribes of South Australia practiced a two class system of sexual relationships. Every person in the tribe was classed either as a “Kroki or a “Kumite . Sexual liaison with someone of the same class was strictly forbidden but a liaison with any one of the opposite class was unrestricted. In other words a Kumite woman could have a sexual relationship with any Kroki man she pleased and vice-versa. The class of an individual depended upon the class of the mother. Class was transmitted maternally and there existed no social recognition of paternity. This did not mean that the Aboriginal people did not understand the connection between sex and conception, there is no evidence of any society who did not understand such a simple thing; but the transmission of class through the maternal line had an economic and social function.
The two class system effectively prevented sexual relationships between all relations on the maternal side – as well as many who were not relatives, but permitted free intercourse on the paternal side. Although the system allowed father/daughter relationships – as the father and daughter are of opposite classes, Fison found no instances of it actually happening.
The tribes which inhabited Queensland in the nineteenth century took the class system a stage further. Every person here was a member of one of four classes. Each generation was split into two. Its operation can be illustrated if we called the classes, for convenience, A + B and C + D. All “A s were permitted free intercourse with all “B s, but not with their own class or with the other classes. All the children arising out of relationships with A and B would be either C or D. If the mother was “A then the children would be “C , if the mother was “B then the children would be “D . The C and D s were permitted free intercourse between each other, but not with their own class or with A and B. The offspring of these unions would revert back to A and B.
The effect of this was to prevent any inter-generation intercourse at all and cut out the possibility of father/daughter or uncle/niece relationships. Cousin relations on the father ‘s side were permitted – that relationship was not recognized – but cousin relationships of the female side were prohibited. We can discount the possibility of grandparent, grandchildren relations because it would have been rare to find three generations sexually mature or capable at the same time.
These rules were strictly adhered to and the penalty for breaking them was banishment from the community – a virtual death sentence, but Fison does not record any instances of it actually happening. It was probably extremely rare.
It is interesting to see how the system worked in practice. Fison noted that most of the people tended to pair up – not always for life but for long periods. There was no formality to this pairing up provided the class rules were obeyed, it was a purely voluntary arrangement on both sides. Both the man and woman were free to go off and find another partner if they wished and free to have sex with someone else if they wished. Occasionally, one man was found to be living with several “wives” but this was not usual.
However there were enough examples of “promiscuity” for the Christian missionaries to brand the Aborigines as “immoral”. When they, themselves, were offered sleeping facilities by women they thought were other men’s wives, but they witnessed – with horror – this hospitality offered to strangers. It was a fairly frequent occurrence for Aboriginal men to wander off on their own for a while, presumably hunting or prospecting. On coming to a camp, the missionaries often witnessed another man’s “wife” offering the stranger sexual hospitality. What astonished the missionaries was that neither the “wife” nor the “husband” seemed in the least concerned or guilty about this “infidelity”.
In fact, they would have been more concerned at the stranger’s refusal.
However, there was nothing strange about this behaviour for anyone who really understood these people, the stranger had no less right to have sexual intercourse with a willing woman than the man she had paired with. She had the right to sleep with any man she pleased provided that neither transgressed the class prohibition.
We can see that this basic hunter/gatherer system is free to evolve towards a matriarchal structure, the basic fundamentals of “mother right” are there and also free to evolve towards a patriarchal one as the hunting culture is also strong. Which way would evolve depends upon the evolution of its economy. In Australia, in a period of 50,000 years it evolved hardly at all until the British came and disturbed its equilibrium from which time its evolution was towards extinction.
In terms of religion, the Aborigines were also ambivalent inclining neither toward matriarchal religion or male dominated religion but having features of both. In this way they are the same as their European forebears who lived during the Paleolithic period. They believed in both the Great Mother Goddess who created the world. In many archaeological remains, ie. the “Venus figures – statuettes of women with exaggerated sexual features but no faces – as found in Europe. Also cave painting at Cogul in Spain show a ceremony of women taking place – a group of women with a man in the middle, which appear to be similar to matriarchal rites in the next section. Also, the hunter/gatherers seem also to have the animalistic beliefs common amongst all hunting peoples. The Australians had both types of belief and so did other hunter/gatherers – in America for instance.
With hunting comes animal gods, with animal gods come blood taboos, these blood taboos apply to women also. They are universal amongst hunting and pastoral societies, the hunter/gatherer religion has the basis of this as well as matriarchal religion.
No two hunting societies are ever exactly alike for there is such an enormous variation in possible circumstances. Some hunting societies lived on the margin of bare existence, others in relative prosperity.
In Europe, it appears that hunting reached a peak of prosperity during the last glaciation – around 18,000 B.C. At this time the plains of Northern Europe were swarming with wild game.
Grasslands may have been richer sources of nutrients for large ungulate populations than they are today and the world wide fall in sea level and the emergence of continental shelves added much exploitable terrain to the habitats available to hunter/gatherers. Not only was game more numerous than at later periods, but bigger. There were larger forms of many animals. Giant varieties of sheep, goats, deer as well as mammoths. horses and cattle all flourished in Europe and around the Mediterranean during this period. This period was one of great advance and relative prosperity. Archaeology had shown that tent and temporary house building reached a sophisticated level during this period.
Domestication of Dogs
Moreover, pottery remains have been found on sites of purely hunting societies. This shows that the people had a relatively large surplus product which gave them the time to develop such skills. Also it has been shown that it was during this Upper Paleolithic/Mesolithic period that society domesticated its first animal – the dog. It is usually thought that the dog was domesticated because it was a scavenger – a camp follower. However, dog skeletons found with human ones on Mesolithic sites were large animals related to the Southern wolf. Dogs were not domesticated as individuals but as packs.
Wolf packs hunted the same animals as humans, reindeer, etc. By initially following wolf packs, the hunters could share the kill- especially since wolves wound a great many more animals than they actually bring down. It was short step from that to domesticating their own pack by bringing up young animals to follow as a hunting pack – they would do most of the hard work for you. From an Upper Paleolithic hunting scene in Cueva de Los Cabollos, the hunters seem to be following a similar method. They are shown loosing off arrows at any reindeer they can see and most of the animals shown have arrows sticking in them. The hunters would then follow the crippled animals until they could be brought down.
A variety of new weapons were also developed, the bow and arrow – which never reached the Australians, spear throwers, specialised fish spears, fish nets, specialised arrows for bringing down birds, barbed harpoons, fish hooks, heavy axes and adzes – for woodwork and significantly – in the Mesopotamia – reaping knives. Carvings and artifacts of this time show a high degree of skill and beauty.
Hunting And Pastoral Religion
As might be expected the religion associated with hunting societies and partial hunting societies has much to do with animals. It must be remembered that societies that depend 100% on hunting were few – although there are some examples.
To understand the hunters attitude in religious terms we have to understand their comprehension of their world -in other words, try to see things through their eyes. The hunting society existed and functioned as a society – not as a group of individuals, they drew no distinction between themselves as individuals and themselves as a society. The animals around them, both their prey and their wild competitors existed in their perception in the same way. Animals, as far as they were concerned, lived in societies like human beings, the hunters did not distinguish between one animal and the species in general.
The ancestral spirit that guided their behaviour and society guided the animals as well. The animals to the hunters, therefore, were the equals of human beings in every way, in intelligence, organisation, and most hunting societies believed that humans and animals were closely related. Some animals were regarded as superior to humans, particularly competitors, those that hunted but could not be hunted by people.
Example (1) Acagchemen – California
This American people this is an example of a pre-horse hunting society with a very low level of surplus production. Their staple diet was buzzard but they also gathered wild millet.
Their chief deity was a god called Chinigchinich who was not a buzzard but a prairie wolf – the coyote. The buzzard was also sacred and once a year a festival in honour of the buzzard was held.
According to their legend, a woman of their tribe ran away to the mountains where Chinigchinich turned her into a buzzard. They believed that although the buzzard was killed the woman lived on – in other buzzards. Further to this, they believed that the more buzzards were killed – or should we say in their terms – the more of the Buzzard was killed, the more she multiplied, for they made no distinction between the individual buzzard and buzzards in general.
How do we account for the fact that the ruling god was male and a coyote? The coyote was their competitor, but also their superior. In a very primitive hunting society armed with stone and bone tipped weapons without the mobility of the horse, the coyote was a far superior hunter than the human. Given that no distinction could be made between one coyote and coyotes in general then the coyote was a superior being -a god. However, the coyote did not propagate the buzzard but merely formed it from a woman. It would be natural to assume – from the Indians point of view that the coyote had done this for his own benefit, so he could eat it, but would allow the humans a share. It had to be a female so that it could continue to propagate despite its frequent death. For the Indians there was only one buzzard and that was female, so she could continue to reproduce herself., For that reason the Indians held the coyote and the buzzard to be sacred.
Example (2) Egypt
In “Ancient Matriarchy” I show that Egypt was an important area of the matriarchal religion of Isis and Osiris. However, Egypt was made up in ancient times of a large variety of societies. From Thebes, the religion of Amon, the sacred ram, was introduced into Egypt. Once a year a ram was killed and an image of Amon clothed in the ram’s skin. In other areas, such as Mendes, the Amon took the form of a goat rather than a ram. The origin of Amon is no doubt similar to the Buzzard.
Further, the sacrificial ram who is himself a god in the origin of the Jewish Passover, a custom which the Bible inform us the Hebrews picked up in Egypt. The Arabian, Ramadan no doubt has the same root. Amon was introduced into Egypt after Isis and Osiris and was incorporated into the Egyptian’s ruling class’s mythology and was for a short period the chief Egyptian deity – until another group gained superiority and relegated Amon to a lower place in the hierarchy.
Example 3 The Zuni and Mogui Indians – New Mexico
Although by the end of the nineteenth century the Zunis had been taught the arts of agriculture and had become settled their recent dependence on hunting was shown in their religion. Their staple prey had been the turtle. Their chief deity was the fire-god Shu-lu-wit-si. Once a year, the priest of the god dressed up in turtle shells and led a procession out of the village to catch turtles. When they came back with basketfuls of them, they were distributed to all the households. The house’s turtle was wrapped up in blankets, as if it was a small baby, yet it was not fed or given any water. J.G. Frazer, in the “Golden Bough relates how he tried to question the Zunis about their treatment of the turtle. He asked one of the household.
“Why do you not let him go or give him some water?
“Poor younger brother! Know you not how precious it is? It die? It will not die, I tell you it cannot die.
“But it will die if you don’t feed it and give it water.
“I tell you it cannot die; it will only change houses tomorrow and go back to the home of its brothers. (Then turning to the turtle). “Ah my poor dear lost child or parent. Who knows which? My sister or brother? Maybe my own grandfather or grandmother?”
The next day with some grief and lamentation the turtle was killed and eaten, the shell was scraped and dried and made into a dance rattle.
Here we see the common hunting belief that humans and animals are one and the same. The belief is here that human beings were once turtles and will revert back after death. Also the individual is immortal because the individual lives as part of the society and while society lives the individual lives. Turtle society and human society are one and the same thing.
The Mogui – a related tribe held a similar belief. Here they divided themselves into totem clans such as the Deer Clan, the Wolf Clan, the Bear Clan. This was not done because they wanted to identify themselves with the swiftness of the deer or the ferocity of bears, but because they believed that each clan were these animals in human form. After death, they believed, each clan member would return to deer society or bear society whichever. Again they saw humans and animals as one.
Example (4) The Ainu – Japan
The Ainu were the original inhabitants of Japan and are now few in number and confined to the Islands of Hokkaido, Sukhalin and Kunil. Both in language and appearance they are unrelated to the Japanese. They are a Caucasian people and are distinguished by their exceptional body hair. Their language appears also to be unrelated to any other known language. Before the arrival of the Japanese from Korea – probably around 400-500 A.D. – they occupied much of present day Japan. Much of early Japanese history is concerned with the conquest of the Ainu. It appears that during the 9th century there was a major campaign against the Ainu after which they were confined to the three northern islands of Japan.
The Ainu live today in small villages near the sea depending on hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. Their traditional houses were pit dwellings – rather like the Upper Paleaolithic hunters, covered with reed thatch. Their clothes were exclusively made from either skin or from a fabric made from tree bark. In recent times, the Japanese have tried to encourage them to take up small scale agriculture but despite this the Ainu population is now a tiny remnant and is probably on the verge of extinction.
The main prey of the Ainu was the bear, but they also hunted eagles and foxes. The bear is a difficult and dangerous animal to hunt and the level of production must have always been very low but they had no alternative animal to base their production on. As a consequence of their low level of surplus production, their lack of other alternatives their society – like that of the Australians has evolved not at all, except in a negative sense – towards extinction. The bear was the main source of their production, salted bear meat provided their staple diet – supplemented by gathering, bearskin their clothes, and their bones made their tools and weapons. It would be no surprise therefore to find that the bear was their god.
The successful hunted bear was therefore treated with great respect and care for the god continued to live in other bears. The dead bear brought home had to be treated with proper ceremonial, otherwise it may not return in the form of another bear. The bear brought into the village – either dead or wounded was immediately offered food and drink and profuse apologies made to it for having to kill it. The skulls of hunted bears were always mounted on posts outside the houses – alongside the skulls of foxes – a lesser god.
The Bear Festival
The importance of the bear to the Ainu can be shown by their annual bear festival which took place each year at the end of winter. Households of the village took turns to stage the festival for the rest of the village. The staging of the festival required three to four years’ preparation by the particular household.
First a bear cub must be captured, preferably a suckling one. The captured bear cub was brought into the village and suckled at the breast of a woman who had milk. It was put into the hut where the children were kept, and was treated as if it were a child of the village, being suckled and weaned like the other children, played with and cared for. When the bear cub grew too big to be treated in this way, then it was put into a wooden cage, despite this it was treated with great care and affection – being well nourished on wild millet porridge and fish. The bear was also treated with great respect and reverence – the Ainu regarded him as the god.
After three years, the bear is mature enough for the festival and the householder who is staging it invites the rest of the village to this house, where they are all given a lot of millet saki to drink.
When all are assembled, the householder begins the ceremony. He starts by apologising to the god he is about to kill. He asks the bear/god to attest to the fact that it has been well treated during its stay, but now it is too big and he is obliged to kill it.
“My friends, he says to the gathering “come to the feast and we will unite in the great pleasure of sending the god away.”
The bear is then tied down with ropes and blunt arrows fired at it. This does not kill it but infuriates it. However, the bear is killed by strangling, a process in which most can play a part for its neck is enclosed in a split tree bough and all unite to push the ends together and strangle the bear. It is considered exceptionally bad luck to spill this bear’s blood at the wrong time. The carcass is then decapitated and all the men are given a drink of the blood to give them courage. However they must take care that no blood falls to the ground. The bear’s head is then set in a window and a piece of its own cooked flesh is given as an offering. The bear is then cooked and the feast shared by all making sure that all of this bear is eaten and none is left. The ceremony was witnessed by a Dr B. Schenke in the 1880’s, however, it is described also by a Japanese writer in 1652 and this is what he says.
“When they find a young bear, they bring it home and the wife suckles it. When it is grown they feed it with fish and fowl and kill it in the winter for the sake of the liver, which they esteem an antidote to poison, the worms, colic, and disorders of the stomach. It is a very bitter taste, and is good for nothing if the bear has been killed in the summer. The butchering begins in the first Japanese month For this purpose, they put the head between the two poles, which are squeezed together by 50 or 60 people – both men and women. When the bear is dead, they eat his flesh, keep the liver as medicine and sell the skin, which is black and commonly six feet long, but the longest measured 12 feet. As soon as he is skinned, the person who nourished the beast begin to bewail him, afterwards they make little cakes to regale those who helped them.
It is remarkable that two accounts, one from a visiting European, another from a Japanese, separated by nearly 250 years should be so similar. Provided that the Ainu could rely on the bear, then there was no reason to evolve either economically or socially, their slow decline was probably due to the loss to the Japanese of the better hunting areas of the country.
Although we see here all the typical aspects of hunting society and religion, the bear as a god, the lack of distinction between the individual bear and bears in general, its immortality, its equality with humans, and so on there is another extremely important lesson to be learned from the Ainu. For in this society, we see – petrified – the beginnings of domestication.
The Ainu took the first step in domestication by capturing the young bear cub and nurturing it in the village. Unfortunately, they could go no further because the bear is not able to be domesticated, it is too fierce, being a hunter itself so domestication never progressed beyond the first stage -the capturing and nurturing of the young animal – but it had to be destroyed before it was mature enough to be dangerous.
If we transfer this scene from Japan to early Europe where animals like sheep and goats were the prey – and not bears – it is possible to see how domestication began. It is also possible to see in this Ainu bear festival the beginnings of religions like Amon of Egypt and the Jewish feast of the Passover.
The Ainu, however, being stuck with the bear as their basic source of food were unable to domesticate it and evolve their society into a more productive pastoral one, which would have set their society off on a new course.
Example (5) The Gilyaks – Siberia
There were many other societies in the world similar to the Ainu, but it is worth giving another example to show despite the fact that they are in completely different parts of the world exactly how similar they are.
The Gilyaks were one of many peoples who inhabited the vast area of Siberia in the nineteenth century. Despite their remoteness at that time, L. von Shrenke, a another German traveller, witnessed the bear ceremonies of Gilyaks in Tebach.
Like the Ainu, the bear was the staple prey of Gilyak people, but the Siberian bear was a much larger and fiercer animal than the one the Ainu hunted. Like the Ainu, they tried to capture the young, but this involved a fierce struggle with the she-bear. Men were killed very commonly in this struggle, it happened often enough for the Gilyaks to accept it as nothing unusual. Men who died fighting the bear were thought to join the bear spirit.
Like the Ainu, the cub was taken home and fattened on fish, but here the whole village had to take turns to feed it. When it was mature enough it was ready for the festival – held like the Ainu – at the end of winter. However, in Tebech if more than one bear was ready they would all be used. In the feast witnessed by von Shrenke three were used.
The festival began with the bears being led in ceremony to each house in the village where it was given some food. On the eve of the feast day, the bears were led on to the frozen river. The following morning, once again the bears were led onto the frozen river – to the hole where the women drew the water.
From there the procession returned to the village where the bears were shot with arrows. The bears were then taken to a selected house to be skinned and cooked. Only the male heads of families were allowed to take part in the skinning and cooking, young men, women and children were not allowed in. The bears meat was placed in a large cooking pot and the pot filled with snow – to cook the bear in water was forbidden. When the bears were cooked, everyone else could now enter – the bears’ heads were mounted and the women tied bandages over the bears eyes to dry their “tears . The cooked meat is offered to the bears and then shared out. After the feast and all the bear meat had been eaten, the bones were put back in the cooking pot and every one left. As people filed out the door, the oldest father gave each person a light blow on the shoulder with a fir branch – a retribution on the bear’s behalf for eating it.
In the afternoon, the men carried the bear bones deep into the forest where they were buried except for the skulls which were impaled on stakes. While they were away, the women of the village held their own dance. The dance consisted of all the women doing a dance in turn with the fir tree branch while the other women accompanied her on drums.
The Gilyak’s god was, of course, the bear which they called Lord of the Mountain and they believed that if the god is properly respected he will not only keep coming but protect them from other evils.
The hunting society sees around it, not a hierarchy where man is the “lord of creation” but a world of closely related and equal species living in similar societies. In the case of the Californian natives, the coyote was seen as a superior hunter to man and therefore was elevated in the minds of hunters to god status. In other societies too, where sometimes the competing species are more fierce and dangerous to human beings, these animals are treated as equals. They are treated in the same way as competing human tribes, peace is easier than war and many tribes attempted to make non-aggression pacts with animals.
A good example was the Dyaks of Borneo and their relationship with crocodiles. The Dyaks will not hunt or kill a crocodile for fear of starting a feud with the crocodile tribe. If, however, the crocodiles start the trouble by taking a human victim, then, in return the Dyaks hunted down one crocodile in vengeance.
There was a similar practice on Madagascar, here the various tribes who lived around Lake Itasy believed the crocodiles and humans were kinsfolk and descended from the same ancestor. Annually the tribes would go to the lake and the chief would make a pact with the crocodiles – addressing them as “brothers . Basically, the chief indicated that if no humans were killed by crocodiles than no crocodiles would be killed by humans. If humans were killed then an equal number of crocodiles would be killed also. The people believed that the crocodile chiefs agreed to this and so when someone fell victim to a crocodile, the crocodiles would deliver the murderer to their vengeance.
When a crocodile had killed one of its human “kin” then the village went to the lake where the chief demanded that the crocodiles give up the murderer to them. A hook was baited and thrown in and the crocodile thus caught was believed to have been put there by its tribe and was the actual guilty crocodile. It was therefore dragged ashore, subjected to a trial, and executed. However, the dead crocodile was now treated as one of their own kinsfolk and buried in the tribal grave and tribal funeral rites.
In Bengal, the people had the same attitude towards tigers and they disapproved strongly of gratuitous tiger hunts by the British and Maharajahs, believing that the tiger tribe would blame them and seek vengeance. The Bengalis only went on a tiger hunt if one of their village had been killed by a tiger. If they succeeded in killing one then they tried to renew the pact by promising over the dead body of the tiger that they would never kill another.
Snakes And Wolves
Amongst the Seminole and Cherokee people of North America, the rattlesnake was recognised as Chief of the snake tribe. Therefore, rattlesnakes were left well alone for if one is killed then the rattlesnake will ensure that one of the murderer’s family will die of snake bite. Here again we have the lack of distinction between the individual and the general, the rattlesnake is one, killing one does not wipe him out, he exists in all rattlesnakes.
However, relations with snakes and wolves became more complex for obviously under certain circumstances it was necessary to kill a snake or a wolf. If a snake is killed then the medicine man had to make a long ceremony to appease the snake. Also, if wolves raided one of their fish-traps or food supplies, then a formal declaration of war might be made on the wolves. In this event, specially selected men, protected by strong magic from the consequences of their deeds, were sent out to hunt the wolves. It was generally regarded as preferable to keep the wolves away and avoid the necessity of hostilities.
The Choice Of Prey
The choice of a particular animal for prey is not haphazard. Generally one or two species are selected as staples with others as supplements. Hence the Ainu killed the bear as the staple but supplemented bear with foxes, fish, and eagles. The Californian natives subsisted on buzzard with buffalo as supplement. The choice of prey is determined by the greatest productivity – animals that have no productivity are generally left well alone.
The greatest productivity came if the prey animal available was a herding ruminant like sheep, goats, and cattle. Hunting these particular animals gave an opportunity for further evolution of that society – through domestication a pastoral economy can be evolved which had a much higher and reliable level of productivity than a hunting economy.
If, however, an animal like the horse was domesticated, then this animal instead of being a means of production i.e. meat, skin, bone, can be converted to an instrument of production – for riding and later, hauling. This vastly increases the efficiency of both a pastoral economy and a hunting economy and makes a combination possible – herding sheep and goats and hunting reindeer. It was among the latter forms of society that property – instruments and means of production developed first.
However, in every case where an animal was killed, the spirits of the animal societies had to be propriated or mollified. As in Siberia and Japan, bear hunters in North America would offer the dead bear food and drink and, in their case, a smoke from the peace pipe. Amongst the Nootka , the dead bear would be dressed in the chief’s war bonnet, put in the chief’s place and the best delicacies placed before it; only then could it be skinned and eaten. The Caffres of East Africa treated the elephant in a similar way as did the Bagurda treat the buffalo.
As a final example, we can take the Koryaks of North Eastern Siberia who hunted whales. They believed that whales lived in tribes and villages just like they did. When a whale was killed, it was hauled into the village and treated as if it was a visitor, a guest from a kin tribe. The Koryaks believed that given all the hospitality the whale would want to return and visit them again. Indeed they believed that every whale caught was the guest who had visited the year before.
The Blood Tabu
Here we approach an area that has been much misunderstood and will lead directly on to topics which have been even more misunderstood such as infanticide, puberty and menstruation and initiation.
A hunting society and, to an extent, a pastoral society lives by causing death. The death of animals is the life of society, so therefore life and death are inextricably interwoven. When an animal dies, it bleeds, its blood is its life, the animal’s life flows out of it in the form of blood. It was natural to suppose therefore that blood was life, in the blood rested the spirit, release the blood and the spirit of the animal emerged as the body dies. Therefore the blood was treated with care and fear and was subject to many tabus.
The successful hunters, although producing the means of life for society put themselves and the rest of the tribe in great danger from the spirit they had released and were in danger until the spirit had returned to its own tribe.
“Unclean” is a common concept amongst hunting and pastoral tribes, but it has no connection with a concept of “dirty” – unhygienic. The contamination associated with “unclean” is a spiritual one, blood makes people unclean which meant around them was a spirit, not yet departed, which was highly dangerous until it had returned home. A few examples will serve to show the rites undergone by the successful hunters.
Amongst the Inuit of the Bering Strait the successful hunters of a whale were not allowed to re-enter the village for few days during which time they had to stay with the body of the whale. At the same time, no one in the village was allowed to use a sharp instrument for fear of injuring or antagonising the whale’s spirit. After a few days of isolation, the spirit was thought to have re-entered the whale’s bladder. The Inuit held an annual festival in December where all the bladders of hunted animals caught during the year were returned to the sea and rejoined their own tribes – to return again as whales, seals, etc.
A similar practice was carried out amongst the Aleut of Alaska. Here the hunter was shut in an isolated hut where he sat and made snorting “dying whale” noises for several days. He was then allowed to emerge to return to the whale. The parts where the whale had received its wounds were cut out, and if, by chance, the whale was still alive, then the hunter returned to the hunt and waited a few more days.
Moving back to bears, in this case, the Lapps. The successful hunters were again regarded as “unclean and were shut for three days in an isolated hut. Also the sledge and reindeer used to bring back the bear’s carcass were unclean and could not be used again. After three days, the secluded men may emerge but must strip off their clothes while the women spit the red juice of alder bark into their faces. Now the men may dress and look for the bear meat and, like the Kilyaks, the women are excluded from this. After the feast there is a complicated fire dance and all except the hunt leader may rejoin their women, he must remain isolated a further two days. Moving into Africa, we find the Hottentot hunter isolated for three days after the hunt. In Borneo, the hunter has eight days isolation. Nearly every hunting society has similar restrictions and tabus on hunters.
Tabus On Warriors
The warrior and the hunter are one and the same – amongst hunting society the warrior is not a specialised soldier, the instruments of hunting are turned in this case against rival human tribes. The purpose of this is economic. A hunting society requires a certain range to support itself, encroachment onto this range will result in a drop in production, with possible catastrophic results. Even so most tribes preferred to avoid war where possible. Even if war was necessary, the aim was not to annihilate the rival but to push them away – bloodshed was generally kept to a minimum. Amongst the American Plains tribes, the killing of enemy carried no specific recognition except bringing to play, the blood tabus and rites. Recognition of courage amongst the Indians went with counting “coups – the touching of an enemy with the hand.
The killing of other humans was a more serious matter than of animals, and the warrior was generally unclean from the time that it was known that they were to set out for battle until well after he returned, particularly if he had killed. Amongst the Maoris, warriors could not touch anyone before or after battle, for a certain period. The Nootkas could not eat for a week before hunting or fighting and were unclean afterwards for several days. Amongst nearly all the American Plains tribes special eating and drinking bowls had to be used for the hunt and the warpath and were destroyed afterwards. In nearly every hunting society, there was a ban on sex before and after the hunt or the war. Warriors who had actually killed generally had to undergo an elaborate cleaning ceremony to rid them of the blood and spirit of the dead enemy. Amongst the Natchez , the warrior was forbidden sex and meat for six months and most American natives had to undergo similar rites after killing.
Most unclean of all was to kill one of your own tribe. Such an act involved the blood-feud vengeance far less than people imagine. The blood-feud tends to
be a feature of a class society which has a warrior ruling class, rather than a hunting society where the hunters are warriors solely in order to protect the tribe’s production of food. Unlike a class society where warriors exist to enforce their own class rule. In a hunting society, life is rarely taken for life inside a tribe although vengeance may be sought against a killer outside the tribe.
Most of the American Plains peoples had customs the same as or similar to that of the Omaha. The murderer was isolated from the tribe for four years. He was not allowed to eat warm food of any kind, nor to wear shoes, nor to speak, nor to take off his robe, nor to comb his hair. His tent had to be pitched about a quarter of a mile from the rest of the tribe. After four years he would be formally forgiven by the murdered person’s relatives and would be allowed to rejoin the tribe.
In conclusion, it can be seen that blood was thought to be the source of life and in blood was the spirit of the living and the dead. The way that blood was treated was extremely important. The mingling of blood in ceremonies made people related by blood and responsible for each other’s welfare. The blood of an animal was treated with reverence. It may be drank to infuse the drinker with the courageous spirit of the animal, or out of fear it may be avoided. The Jewish and Islamic custom of “koshering” meat stems from this belief. Amongst the Semites generally, the blood of an animal was considered highly dangerous and had to be buried in the dust before the animal’s body could be eaten.
FEMALE TABUS – PUBERTY, MENSTRUATION, AND CHILDBIRTH
In the 70’s the Women’s Movement was concerned about the oppression of women expressed in terms of puberty rites, menstruation tabus, slavery, veiling and barbaric practices like excism. Unfortunately, historically these practices are very much misunderstood being seen as the result and symbol of the violent oppression of women. Matriarchalists asserted that these practices were a perversion of a previous situation – a previous practice of veneration of these female occurrences, puberty, menstruation, and childbirth. This is not to say that such practices are not in themselves oppressive and as I have said brutal and barbaric, but they do have particular historical causes which initially was wrapped up in hunting and was part of the generalised blood tabus which all were subject to in these societies.
In no “Neolithic” Matriarchal Agricultural society that I have examined show any signs of any evidence of any religious significance either positive or negative attached to puberty, menstruation, virginity, or child birth. Yet these rites are still fairly widespread. What is significant is that they occur only in societies based upon hunting/gathering, hunting and pastoral economic structure. They have survived only in these societies which had a strong historical component of one of these societies.
Even in patriarchal Greece they faded, for Greece although ruled by a warrior aristocracy was built on the foundations upon the matriarchal economy and in such an economy menstruation rites are entirely unnecessary as I hope to show.
These rites, although modified have survived into Judaism and Islam but not into Christianity. Where female rites occur they always have their male counterpart in form of initiation and virility rites. In all the societies where female rites exist, male ones exist also. These male rites have also survived in Judaism – again modified – in the form of circumcision and Bar Mitzvah. These rites also did not survive into Christianity. Why did Christianity which was built upon the Jewish religion specifically reject both male and female rites?
Christianity, from a purely religious point of view was indeed based upon Judaism but it is also based upon the matriarchal religions of the Mediterranean area, and it owes as much to them. Christianity was not formulated
as a religion for pastoral people but a religion for an agricultural based slave economy.
Menstruation, puberty, virility etc. are all entirely meaningless to an agricultural economy, as the evidence will show. Islam on the other hand is likewise based upon Judaism, was a religion was formulated for a pastoral people who ultimately became a military ruling class. For this reason both female rites and male initiation still form part of the Islamic fabric. Such practices and others not specified in the Koran – excision is not mentioned in the Koran or Old Testament but probably predating it are the strongest in these countries that remained nomadic and pastoral.
Blood – as we have seen – was very important in hunting societies and this goes back to hunter/gatherer societies too. The spilling of blood was vital to life – so vital that it did not merely symbolise life but was held to the spirit itself.
The spilling of blood also meant death, death for the animal, death for those who fell hunting or fell in battle, the release of blood as well as giving life also released a vengeful and death-dealing spirit from the body – the paradoxical nature of blood.
Thus was the mystery of women, from the very place that the woman brought forth life from her body emerged also blood, the spirit of a dead being, malevolent and vengeful – all the more so since it had not been embodied. A woman’s body, therefore, held within it, both life and death. She might bring forth a child – a new life – she might bring forth blood – a bodiless spirit which could mean death. Certainly, the fear of death in a woman’s menstrual blood was strong enough to cause death in many who accidentally came into contact with it.
The Australian understanding of conception seems to enforce this idea. Many people think that primitive people have no idea of paternity; but the fact that a line is traced maternally does not mean that sex and conception are not linked.
There are economic reasons why matriarchy existed and it has nothing to do with ignorance. The Australians, far more primitive than any patriarchal society, who depended on hunting and gathering had a logical theory to explain conception.
The woman’s womb contained blood, not her own, but the blood and spirit of a new life. This blood would become the flesh and blood of a child, the man’s semen, being white in colour, would become the child’s bones. When the blood and semen were combined then the child grew. If no child grew then the spirit would be released from the mother in the form of blood and was was held to be highly dangerous until it departed. The woman passed on the class of the child for she had contributed its blood, its spirit. The mixture of substances was commonly held all through the ancient world. In India, for instance, it was held that a woman could not conceive unless she reached orgasm, as she ejaculated semen internally which mixed with the male semen. It was only when patriarchal class rule became the norm that women were seen as the vessel for the male seed.
Examples of Puberty and Menstrual Rites
For reasons that shall be explained later, in all hunting societies, the very first menstrual flow that indicates that a girl has reached puberty was held to be more dangerous and more significant than the subsequent monthly cycles. Subsequent menstruation involved a shorter and more modified version of the very first rite.
1) Australian Aboriginals
In this society, as already seen, property and class relations do not exist, hunting/gathering has the seeds of both male hunting society and matriarchal society. Therefore, despite their belief in the Great Goddess they practiced puberty or menstrual rites. The girl at puberty was isolated from men only during the period of menstrual flow itself. During this time an old woman was assigned to look after her although contact with other women were not forbidden. However, she had to stay inside a hut during the hours of daylight for if she saw the sun it was believed that her nose would become diseased. She was not allowed to eat any sea food or salty food for they thought that if she did so she would be bitten by a snake – significantly both a female and male divinity in Aborigine religion.
2) Zulus (South Africa)
During the nineteenth century these were an extensive and mainly pastoral people with developed property relations – property being cattle. Diet was supplemented by some agriculture, gathering, and occasional hunting. Hunting was still the form of male initiation but in a girl, when the first flow appeared she hid herself in the reeds for the rest of the day so as not to be seen by men. She covered her head carefully with a blanket so that the sun did not shine upon it and shrivel her up into a skeleton. After dark, she returned home and was secluded for the remainder of the period.
3) New Ireland (Papua New Guinea)
Here we see a warrior society developing and the daughters of the chiefs in particular were subjected to a severe puberty rite – very much modified in the case of the rest of the population. At the age of eight, the daughter of the chief was shut inside a small hut. Inside the hut were small, conical huts each on a raised platform – so that the girls would not touch the ground. Each daughter was kept, trapped and confined in the small hut for a period of five years. Only the old woman who was assigned to look after them were allowed to see and talk to them. When the time was up, the daughter was brought out and married off more or less immediately.
Here a similar rite to 3), above, was practiced on all girls. At the age of eight, the girl was shut into a tiny cell inside the family house, in almost total darkness. She was not allowed to leave this cell at any time for any reason. A slave woman was assigned to look after her. After seven long years, she emerged, her growth stunted and her complexion pale and waxy. When she emerged a slave man was sacrificed in her honour and her body smeared with his blood to symbolise her rebirth as a woman. This society – hunting and pastoral – had already developed property relations in cattle and slaves.
5) Chinook (North West United States)
A hunting, fishing society with no developed property/class relations. The girl at puberty was thought to be possessed with a malevolent spirit for a period of five days during which time she was hidden from view. It was believed that if she looked at the sky during this period, the weather would turn bad – if she picked berries it would rain or if she hung up her menstrual towel in a tree it would wither. After the five days she bathed in a creek which washed the spirit away and she could continue her life normally.
6) Nootka – Vancouver – Canada
A hunting, fishing society (beaver and salmon) – again no class property relations, here the girl is placed in a cage in the house, covered with mats for a few days. During this time she had to fast and not sit but squat. She could not touch her own body or hair, believed that scratches would scar and hair would fall. For a subsequent period of eight months she was forbidden to eat salmon.
7) Tsetsaut – British Columbia
A hunting tribe, here the girl at puberty was not confined or secluded but had to follow certain rules. She had to wear a hat so her exposed face would not cause rain. In her mouth she kept an animal’s tooth (to prevent her teeth from rotting) and had to avoid the sight of blood which would blind her. She lived in a hut specially built for her, although she was not secluded. Apart from these rules, she lived normally. After two years her hat was ceremonially thrown away by a man.
8) Tlingit – Alaska
This tribe lived almost exclusively by hunting and productivity was low. The puberty rite in this society was particularly severe. The girl was locked in a tiny cage with only a small air hole. Only her mother or a female slave may look after her. For a whole year she was locked up, only being allowed to drink from the wingbone of the white headed eagle. It was thought that her mere glance at a hunter would ruin his hunting for life. At the end of her confinement, her old clothes were burned and new ones made for her. She was initiated into womanhood by a slit being cut below her lower lip and a piece of shell inserted into it.
9) Koniag, Inuit
An exclusive hunting economy and a severe rite. The girl at puberty was placed in a tiny hut and was supposed to remain on her hands and feet. After six months like this, the hut was enlarged and she lay down for a further six months.
These are just a few examples of puberty rites amongst hunting and pastoral societies. Certain features can be inferred from them.
1) The more developed the relations of property or the lower the level of productivity of the society – the more severe the rite.
2) All are practiced in hunting and pastoral societies, there are no examples from agricultural societies whether matriarchal or class exploited.
3) All involve the fear of evil and its effect on the society i.e. weather, hunting.
4) All involved some kind of seclusion from contact with others – particularly men.
5) They all involve seclusion from the light. In relatively stable and prosperous societies, where property relations are undeveloped many restrictions are imposed to protect the girl from the consequences of the evil spirit escaping from her.
Apart from the sacrifice of individual men (See Next Section – Matriarchy) – in the form of a god no comparable rites were carried out in matriarchal society. There is no evidence that puberty, male or female, had any significance in matriarchal society. The reason for this has to be given, but we get a clearer answer if we put into the same context the practice of Infanticide and Geriatricide.
INFANTICIDE AND GERIATRICIDE
Nearly every school student knows that the Vikings had a practice of leaving some of their children out on the rocks to die just after birth. These were weak boys and surplus girls. This practice is regarded as proof of their barbarism. Yet nearly all hunting and pastoral societies have some provision in their culture for killing off old people or children under certain circumstances. Despite the civilised “horror” of such practices or blaming them on violent and aggressive men, such practices have an economic function, often vital and, therefore, incorporated into the ideology and social structure.
In some Polynesian societies up to two thirds of children born were killed. The Lagas, a hunting tribe in Angola, were said to have killed all their children when the tribe moved. The Mbaya of South America – the women killed all of their children except for one.
In the Ethiopian Highlands, the tribes who hunt wild sheep kill their old people by abandoning them in the mountains.
Each of these customs, there are many other examples, are regarded in these societies as perfectly normal acts and are sanctioned by their religion. It is not enough to call them “savage” or “patriarchal” for they are neither.
Each of these societies had a very low level of surplus production. The lower the level of social surplus the less able the society is to support non-productive members, – children, the sick, the elderly.
However, a constant turnover of population is absolutely essential for such societies to ensure a maximum proportion of productive members at any one time. Should the proportion become imbalanced. – too few producers, too many children and elderly then the whole society faces extinction. To maintain the proportion a constantly high birth rate and a constantly high death rate is absolutely essential. In such societies, the productive members have a priority over the others.
When the Lagas moved and went on the march, their production of necessities ceased altogether, they lived on accumulated surplus product. During this critical period it was essential that the productive members survived – so the children were killed. Once settled in their new hunting ground they could have more children but death of adults meant a great loss in productivity. The Lagas were much feared in Angola for when they did settle they raided other tribes and kidnapped children as a quick way of making up their own enforced losses.
The Significance of Puberty
The economic necessity of infanticide gives the clue to the significance of puberty in these societies. The easiest and simplest explanation for male virility initiation rites and female puberty rites is to call these societies “patriarchal” , “male-dominated” and say that men were feeding their own instinct for power and aggression and were in the business of controlling and degrading women.
Given the evidence of modern every day life – the aggressive “machismo” displayed by men and youths, the level of rape, sexual abuse, wife and baby battering and so on, then such an empirical explanation has a ready appeal.
However, such an explanation would be “biologically” determinist, that it says that this male violence exemplified in their puberty tests of courage and pain and the locking away and condemnation of women out of perverted jealousy for the creative function is in built, part of the biological structure of the human species.
Such an explanation may satisfy bourgeois apologists of male behaviour such as Desmond Morris, or radical feminist “anti classists”; but it does not satisfy the facts. Biologically determined behaviour has to be uniform throughout a whole species. If it is not – then it is not biologically determined. In fact, in many societies – as we shall see – puberty rites both female and male did not exist. There was neither an emphasis on masculinity, neither did the first or subsequent menstrual periods hold any significance. These rites were there because of economic conditioning in these particular societies.
In a hunting or pastoral society, the priority in the share out of produce – food, clothes, etc, is given to the adult population because it is they who do the producing. These societies produce a relatively low surplus product to support their non-productive members. As we have seen, in times of hardship, children may be sacrificed for the sake of the adults. Although it may offend our sensibilities, for a hunting society production takes first priority, reproduction of the species is a secondary matter and has to be fitted in at a convenient time. If the adults do not survive then the society will become extinct, if the children do not survive – then there will be time later to have more.
Puberty rites initiate children into adult society. From the time of their initiation onwards they receive the priority of adulthood and the responsibility as a productive member of the society. Male puberty rites are roughly aimed at ensuring that the boy can fulfil the role in production required in a hunting society to hunt and to protect the tribe from competition. Amongst the American plains peoples – the hunting ones – men who failed the initiation or refused it, had to take up the female side of the productive process, and could become wives of hunters.
Conversely, there were occasions when women insisted on taking male initiation rather than the female one, if they passed the test, they became warriors and were given wives. In theory, it was possible to have a female husband and a male wife. Whether this ever happened I do not know. However taking on the productive role of the opposite sex was a rarity. It proves though that male and female roles are economically not biologically determined. Female rites were also tied up with the question of menstrual blood, but the special significance of the first one, was the girl’s initiation into womanhood and the rights of an adult. In hunting society, male aggressiveness, virility, courage, strength and so on performed an economic function. Without these characteristics society would be vulnerable.
In capitalist society and all other forms of class society, these traits previously essential conditioning for the good of a hunting society as a whole, take on an oppressive character. Male aggression and female degradation which we witness and experience at any time today serve no function for the ordinary members of society as a whole. The function they do serve is part of an ideological structure which keeps the ruling class and its system controlling society. Male control of women benefits the ruling class -whichever society it is, society would function better without it .
In neolithic (matriarchal agriculture) society – a communistic system of production initiation at puberty was not necessary. Firstly, the productive power of these societies was much greater than hunting or pastoral societies. It was, therefore, better able to support none productive members. Children were given priority because they represented the productive power in the long term future – a hunting society can never plan ahead except in the short term. Also old people were venerated because experience is a productive factor in an agricultural community.
The Sun and the Moon
It is clear therefore that the religious significance of the two heavenly bodies, the sun and the moon are different for the two types of society.
The moon cycle was used in hunting and pastoral societies to measure the passage of time. The exact length of the year was not as important for hunters and pastoralists, so they tended towards a lunar cycle. So today, Islam and Judaism both use the lunar calendar – since their society stems from pastoralism. Christianity uses the solar cycle, which stems from the ancient matriarchal societies of Sumer.
However, Christianity has two parents, Judaism and the old matriarchy, so the moon features in order to make Easter coincide roughly with the Passover and the resurrection of Adonis. The Jewish religion itself has some matriarchal features and Passover does not move backwards every year. There are no matriarchal features in Islam, so their calendar is lunar based, thus Ramadan moves through the slowly through the solar year. I have never seen any specific religious connection with the female menstrual cycle and the lunar year.
Secondly, there was no particular significance attached to puberty because it had no economic significance. Children were introduced to the process of production at a very early age. At first they would be occupied in the simpler tasks, bird scaring, sowing and helping with hay making, harvests, and feeding animals. As they got older, their skills would be developed, shearing, butchering, tanning, sowing, spinning, weaving, preserving, cooking building, etc.
By the time any child in neolithic society reached physical puberty she/he had already been a productive member for many years and by that time had probably acquired a number of important skills. Therefore, the onset of puberty had no particular significance, growing up was a gradual process rather than the sudden achievement of adulthood.
Perversely, it is our modern capitalist society that has to some extent reintroduced the ideas of childhood – puberty, and adulthood in society. The technical requirements of the capitalist system means that children are banned from the productive process until a certain age, when they become producing adults.
Although the bourgeois rulers were slow to realize this, it is in the nature of capitalist production but it helps to lay greater ideological emphasis of becoming “a man” or becoming “a woman “ . Being banned from the production process also removes any rights from children, they are “owned” until they are initiated into earning their own “living” or having their “own” children. In the feudal village community the concepts of “childhood, “manliness , “virginity “ “chastity” and so on were issues for the patriarchs in the Manor House, not for the villagers themselves.
Childhood as we understand it today has a very short history. – probably a little more than 100 years, together with many other concepts like “dependency . “unemployment “ , and so on.
Where matriarchal agriculture formed a strong base of society, despite a patriarchal ruling class puberty rites declined and disappeared. Thus in Greece, even in Classical Mythology there is only the tiniest echo of female puberty rites once existing amongst the Greek invaders – in the story of Zeus and Danae and even that may be a misinterpretation. It is the strength at the base, that meant while patriarchal society ruled the Roman Empire and feudal Europe using Christianity as its ideology, puberty rites were not picked up from Jewish religion, in Europe it would have been alien and unnecessary and was, therefore, rejected.
Rinaldo Frezzato Religion – Marxist Analysis