IT was in this restless, anxious situation that a "new" religion suddenly sprang to popularity. Roman soldiers, returning from Persia about 60 B.C., brought with them a religion, long practised there, but new to the West. It was a typical mystery religion, practised in secret conventicles. Its members, who called each other brethren, believed in baptism, confirmation and the resurrection of the dead, and they celebrated a Eucharist of bread and wine in commemoration of their Mediator's last meal. They believed in Heaven, Hell, the immortality of the soul and the Last Judgment, and thought that immortality could only be attained through asceticism and self-control in this life. But in one important respect this religion differed from most other mystery religions: its central figure was a god, not a goddess. Its hierophants were priests, not priestesses, and its chief priest was known as Pater Patrum, the father of the fathers. Moreover he was not the Supreme deity, but his deputy; his function was to watch over mankind and to intercede for it with the heavenly father. This (except perhaps for the Egyptians) was a new notion in eschatology: that there could be a divine being who was prepared to act as Mediator between man and God. In the Roman world, we may suppose, where the size and complexity of the state had made the ordinary man feel remote from the central authority and that he was unable to approach it direct, he may have felt the same sense of remoteness from the deity. Or we may consider that the more man became aware of his own individuality the remoter he would feel from God. Whatever the reason, the new religion spread rapidly over the Roman world. The common people immediately felt its superiority to existing myths; the poor, the enslaved, the soldiery, flocked to it, delighted to find a Mediator who would intervene on their behalf. Roman legions carried it to Dacia, to Africa, to Spain It seeped through the Italian Alps into the Danube basin; to be welcomed enthusiastically by the Germanic tribes. It flowed up the Rhone valley, sending rivulets out into Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and western France. Reaching Boulogne, it leaped the channel to England, where temples to the new god were erected in Chester, Caerleon and York, as they had been in Cologne, Bonn, Dommage and a hundred other places. But, strangely enough, it was never welcomed in the Grecian peninsula, nor in Africa and Spain, except in the camps of the legions.
This religion was Mithraism. (49) Like other mystery religion its ritual sought to induce a theoleptic state by the contrast of bright lights and sudden darkness, by the prolonged contemplation of sacred pictures, and by austerities. Its main interest to us, however, lies in its central myth: this is the story of how Mithra, the mediator, slays — unwillingly — a mighty bull. This myth corresponds to the central ritual, the Taurobolium, in which a bull was actually slain, and the candidates for initiation were "redeemed by its blood" — a process which was symbolized by their crouching in a pit beneath the altar so that the blood of the dying bull would drip upon them.
Though at first a religion of the lower classes, it spread rapidly upwards through society, until at the end of the second century A.D. Mithraism became the officially favoured religion of Rome. From this time on Mithraism had a permanent chaplain at court. The Roman emperors, in their programme of self-deification, had already adopted the radiate crown which symbolized the sun, with which Mithraism's supreme deity, Ahuramazda, was identified. Mithraism was a doctrine to their liking, for Asiatics had always held that the king received his authority from God, by grace, and not, as did the Roman monarch, from the senate, by permission. Aurelian, therefore, identified the Mithraic deity with "Sol Invictus", the Lord of Hosts, the unconquered sun, which was simultaneously the name of the Emperor. In A.D. 304 Mithra was officially made the protector of Rome, and three years later Diocletian showed his approval by ordering the enlargement of the Mithraeum at Carnuntum.
Rome seemed on the point of being Asiaticized. Many observers have noted the similarity of the court of Diocletian to that of Chosroes I. A flood of Iranian and Semitic conceptions was sweeping the Mediterranean world, threatening to submerge the elaborate culture erected by Greece and Rome. Yet in fifty years Mithraism had collapsed — at the hands of a rival creed whose mythology and ritual were substantially similar, except in one crucial respect. This was Christianity.
The significant feature which both Mithraism and Christianity have in common, but which differentiates them from the previous mystery religions, is that they concern the relationship of a son with a father, not with a mother. The feature which distinguishes them is that, in Mithraism, the son slays the father, symbolized by the bull— a traditional symbol of father deities— while in Christianity the son submits to the father and himself is slain. Mithraism is a religion of conquest, Christianity a religion of submission. In Mithraism aggression is turned outwards (sadism); in Christianity, it is turned inwards (masochism). Mithraism specifically preached that the good lay in action, in conquest, in grappling with the world; Christianity preached that the good lay in passivity, non-resistance. Not surprisingly, Mithraism became the religion of soldiers, administrators and extroverts, but offered no place for women. In contrast Christianity, in the early days, not only attracted introverts but attracted many women and gave them important roles, and also attracted slaves, whom it constantly urged to obey their masters.
In these two myths we may see, as Ernest Jones pointed out long ago, two new solutions for the Oedipus situation; in the first, the son conquers and replaces the father; in the second, he avoids conflict by submitting to him. (139) But to do so he must also deny his own sexual desires. The myth depicts an attempt to avert Oedipal guilt by tabooing sexual activity altogether. And while Mithra survives, Christ dies. The choice of Christianity in preference to Mithraism therefore not only represents a choice of masochism as against sadism, and a turning in of the death instinct against the self, but also a victory for death instincts as against life instincts. Mithraism adopted as its symbol the life-giving sun, the source of energy. Christianity adopted as its symbol the Cross, an instrument of torture and death.
The adherents of the new religion soon developed an obsessional horror of sex and a system of self-torture quite different from the asceticism of the mystery religions. Wild-eyed monks retired to the burning deserts of North Africa to mortify their flesh: fasting, flagellating themselves, going without sleep and refusing to wash. Ammonius tortured his body with hot irons until he was entirely covered with burns; Macarius went naked in a mosquito ridden swamp and let himself be stung until unrecognizable; St. Simeon ulcerated his flesh with an iron belt; Evagrius Ponticus spent a winter's night in a fountain so that his flesh froze. (81) How closely connected with sexual desire these extravagant practices were is shown by the confessions of the fathers themselves. Thus Jerome says:
How often when I was living in the desert which affords to hermits a savage dwelling place, parched by a burning sun, did I fancy myself amid the pleasures of Rome. I sought solitude because I was filled with bitterness.... I, who from the fear of hell had consigned myself to that prison where scorpions and wild beasts were my companions, fancied myself among bevies of young girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled from fasting, yet my mind was burning with the cravings of desire, and the fires of lust flared up from my flesh that was as that of a corpse. I do not blush to avow my abject misery.
The attraction of Christianity was that it confirmed the sense of guilt and authorized self punishment to relieve it. It was the inevitable culmination of forces which had been at work for many hundreds of years. A steadily increasing sense of guilt and isolation demanded some new myth. The early fathers skilfully provided the rationalisation which was needed to justify men's desire to turn Thanatos against themselves and to deny Eros.
How closely the whole psychological process depended upon the suppression of sexual desire is shown by the preoccupation of these early Christians with the subject of castration. The tonsure of the priest is a recognized symbol of castration, and his adoption of a skirted cassock perpetuates the adoption of female clothes, in just the same way as the priests of Astarte, after castration, assumed female attire. The Jews had adopted circumcision— another symbolic castration— as part of a religious convention which made every man a priest, and thus entitled him to read the sacred books. The Christians perpetuated this. But symbolic castrations were not enough for many of them. Thousands hastened to castrate themselves in truth— Origen is only the best known instance— and a sect sprang up so enthusiastically addicted to the practice that its members castrated not only themselves but also any guest rash enough to stay under their roofs. (124)
This development was obviously inimical to the survival of Christianity, since every religion depends for most of its following on the fact that children usually follow the religion of their parents, and a sect which did not reproduce itself would be in danger of dying out. The Church therefore strictly forbade it. Moreover, as we saw in the case of the Cathars, the Church was more concerned to struggle with sex than to eliminate it, and always avoided a resolution of the battle, since this removed its raison d'être.
Just as later in the mediaeval period, this fear of sex was generalized into a fear of all pleasure.
"The acquisition of knowledge, the exercise of our reason or fancy, and the cheerful flow of unguarded conversation, may employ the leisure of a liberal mind", says Gibbon in one of his most exquisite passages. "Such amusements, however, were rejected with abhorrence, or admitted with the utmost caution, by the severity of the fathers, who despised all knowledge which was not useful to salvation, and who considered all levity of discourse as a criminal abuse of the gift of speech."
Let the Age of Reason speak further:
The unfeeling candidate for heaven was instructed, not only to resist the grosser allurements of the taste or smell, but even to shut his ears against the profane harmony of sounds, and to view with indifference the most finished productions of human art. Gay apparel, magnificent houses, and elegant furniture were supposed to unite the double guilt of pride and sensuality: a simple and mortified appearance was more suitable to the Christian who was certain of his sins and doubtful of his salvation. In their censures of luxury the fathers are extremely minute and circumstantial, and among the various articles which excite their pious indignation, we may enumerate false hair, garments of any colour except white, instruments of music, vases of gold and silver, downy pillows (as Jacob reposed his head on a stone), white bread, foreign wines, public salutations, the use of warm baths, and the practice of shaving the beard, which according to the expression of Tertullian, is a lie against our own faces, and an impious attempt to improve the works of the Creator.
The fathers ordained the minutest details of dress— for instance, a signet ring must be worn on the little finger only— and prescribed the mechanics of sexual intercourse. As Gibbon says:
"The enumeration of the very whimsical laws which they most circumstantially imposed on the marriage bed would force a smile from the young and a blush from the fair."
Here is Christianity in very much the form in which we saw it under Calvin's rule. Historically, it was inevitable that Christianity should have become a guilt ridden religion. It seems equally clear that this was not what Christ himself intended, for it is patently obvious that He never intended to set on foot this frenzy of masochism and sexual repression. Even in the accounts which the Church has officially approved, at no point does He advocate or practise masochism. He made one long fast in order to undergo a spiritual experience, but in general we find Him recognizing the importance of satisfying human needs— feeding crowds, defying Jewish law to relieve His own hunger on a sabbath, and even turning water to wine for a wedding feast. Nor did He anathematize sexual pleasure. It is, as a matter of fact, somewhat surprising that He never gave any indication of His views on these matters, and avoided a direct answer to the only direct question put to Him on a marital matter. His consideration for the woman taken in adultery hardly suggests a puritanical attitude to sex. Furthermore, He declared himself against violence, and indeed against Thanatos in its widest sense, for He said:
"I came that ye might have life and that ye might have it more abundantly."
On the face of it, then, the teaching of Christ has the air of an attempt to relieve guilt. Christ said that He came to "take away the sins of the world" — that is, to reduce the sense of guilt. He claimed the power on earth to forgive sins, provided only that the listener believed in His power. It was a wholly reasonable claim, for the sense of guilt vanishes as soon as we cease to think it exists. In primitive peoples, guilt is often disposed of by selecting a goat, asserting that the sins of all present are henceforth borne by the goat, and killing it. Christ's death provided, once and for all, such a scapegoat and even a rationalist may suppose that He may have seen that His own death was a necessary feature of His scheme.
If this was His intention, no formal organisation, and few rules of conduct, were necessary. The essential feature was only that the news that sins were forgiven, and that Christ had died to this end, should continue to be propagated.
From these considerations alone, one would suspect that some drastic change in the character of Christianity took place in the first few centuries after the death of Christ. The great mass of scholarship which has been devoted to the subject of the Early Church in the last half-century confirms this, and since it was this change which was responsible for the attitude to sex which dominated the Church in the Middle Ages and which has influenced attitudes to sex to a greater or lesser extent for two thousand years, it will be worth our while to examine it in rather more detail.
Despite the existence of a vast literature of commentary, there are still many who imagine the New Testament to be the only source of information on early Christianity, and who imagine that the texts have been preserved exactly as they were written. Actually, the early Fathers engaged in the systematic suppression and rewriting of these early documents— Celsus says that even the gospels were rewritten to suit the needs of controversy, and they certainly contain many interpolations of later date. (106) Three of the gospels seem to be inaccurate copies, with later additions, made from an original document now lost. (67) At the same time, the Fathers excluded from the New Testament many books whose validity was just as great as some of those they included, because they did not like the account they gave. Streeter says:
"Had the Church waited until the year A.D. 500 before drawing a sharp distinction between inspired scripture and all other religious writings the greater part of the literature contained in Dr. James' Apocryphal New Testament would almost certainly have been included among the sacred books of Christianity."
The picture of early Christianity which emerges when this source material is considered on a comprehensive comparative basis is appreciably different from that which most people carry in their minds. What we find is numerous small congregations, held together by a vivid religious experience, helping one another, trying to live in brotherly amity, but totally uninterested in doctrine as we know it. They do not celebrate either the birth of Christ or His death as festivals; they do not claim that He was divine. (The divinity of Christ did not become official doctrine of the Church until A.D. 269 and then only over the protests of the patriarch of Samosata, who said it was nonsense.) Nor, of course, did they claim that He was miraculously born of a virgin, a claim which was not made until the second century. (67) Augustine denied this story as late as the fifth century.
They do not, of course, celebrate the Eucharist, for, as Clover says, "There is a growing consensus of opinion that Jesus instituted no sacraments". That it was Paul who borrowed this rite from the mystery religions and introduced it into Christianity seems to be beyond doubt. Paul, as Reitzenstein has shown, was soaked in the mystery religions. (The similarity of the Eucharist with pagan rites was so obvious that the Christians were driven to declare that the Devil had inserted parodies of it in the pagan religions, prior to the birth of Christ, especially to discomfit them.) What they do celebrate is the Agape, a real meal to which the brethren brought real food, but which was also the occasion for prayers, inspired speaking and the evoking of a mystical experience. And it is this which they regard as the essential and central feature of their religion.
That these early congregations were held together by an actual theoleptic experience, felt at each meeting, seems quite clear. Even so orthodox an authority as Mgr. Duchesne tells us that in these assemblies
"inspired persons began to speak and to manifest before the assembly the presence of the Spirit which animated them. The prophets, the ecstatics, the speakers in tongues, the interpreters, the supernatural healers absorbed at this time the attention of the faithful. There was, as it were, a liturgy of the Holy Spirit after the liturgy of Christ, a true liturgy with a real presence and communion. The inspiration could be felt; it sends a thrill through the organs of certain privileged persons; but the whole congregation was moved, edified and even more or less ravished by it and transported into the divine sphere of the Paraclete."
Paul indicates the theoleptic character of early Christianity in I Corinthians xiv.
Dancing seems to have been an important part of the proceedings. Ambrose writes in On Repentance,
"For this reason the dance must in no wise be regarded as a mark of reverence for vanity and luxury, but as something which uplifts every living body instead of allowing the limbs to rest motionless on the floor or the slow feet to become numb.... But thou, when thou comest to the font, do thou lift up thy hands. Thou art exhorted to show swifter feet in order that thou mayest thereby ascend to the everlasting life. This dance is an ally of faith and an honouring of grace."
Clement, who writes in similar terms, Augustine, who criticizes dancing, and several other Christian teachers reveal that the theoleptic dance persisted for several centuries. (9) According to the non-canonical Acts of John, it was Jesus who instituted this dancing:
"Jesus gathered us all together and bade us make a ring, holding one another's hands, and himself standing in the middle."
The words of the chant which followed are given; it contains such expressions as "Divine Grace is dancing". "The Holy Twelve dance with us. All things join in the dance. Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing." At another point Jesus says: "Give heed unto my dancing."(219)
There thus seems a strong case for the supposition that the religion instituted by Christ was one which, like those preceding it, was based upon an actual experience of divinity by living persons, and not merely upon the promise of post-mortem salvation. This makes intelligible the matter-of-fact way in which the early Christians referred to the Holy Spirit. "Received ye the Spirit?" asks Paul, as if it were something as definite as an attack of influenza. It was an experience about which there could be no doubt. Having once experienced it one could not deny it, and Christians went to martyrdom rather than recant, with just the same rapture that witches were to go to the stake 1,500 years later. ("I will not be other than I am; I find too much content in my condition," as one of Mme. Bourignon's girls told the Inquisitors.) This presumably was what the Christians meant when they said: "We now that we have passed from death into life." For, no doubt, by comparison with this intense experience ordinary life was colourless.
It is interesting, too, to note the reason which they give as the cause of this knowledge. It is not, as one might have expected, that they have been baptized, nor that they believe a certain doctrine, nor that they have renounced mundane interests; it is, quite simply, "because we love the brethren". Early Christianity seems to have been a movement based, in a quite literal sense, on love. Paul, indeed, devotes a whole chapter to saying that, without love, all other gifts are vain. Hence it was part of this filling of the heart with love, of this revelation of the soul's potentialities for love, that men and women took to living together— and called themselves Agapetae, that is, people who put Agape into practice. There is much other evidence of this desire to establish a new, loving relationship, regardless of sex, on a group basis. The deacon Nicolas offered to share his loved wife with the other members of the group, for instance— an offer which later writers interpreted as merely immoral, but which was probably chaste as far as sex was concerned. (124) No doubt, in some congregations the desire for a loving relationship was not modified by the ideal of chastity, and may have led to licence, as was alleged to have been the case with the Carpocratians. In others, as — already noted, the ideal of chastity was carried to the extreme of castration, as with the Valesians.
In short, the characteristic of early Christianity seems to have been the existence of loving groups in which sex distinctions were forgotten, in which members greeted each other with the kiss of peace, and whose "raison d'être" was a genuine religious experience, a religion which has been termed Charitism. If so, then the—Cathars, the Beghards, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and those other mediaeval sects which treated women as the equals of men and tried to maintain a chaste relationship between them, must be seen as continuing the earliest Christian tradition.
The transformation of this charitic religion into the very different sort of religion which we have seen at work in the mediaeval period seems to have been carried out chiefly in the third and fourth centuries after Christ. The most important move was obviously to abolish the Agape. So radical a move had to be carried out in stages. (143) The first step was to introduce the Eucharist into the Agape, as part of the proceedings. The next was to ordain that no Agape should be held without the presence of a bishop, who was to bless the food. Then it was ordered that the bishop should remain standing through out — thus leaving him somewhat apart from those taking part, and above them. Then the kiss of peace was modified by ordering that instead of kissing each other, the brethren should only kiss the priest; later this was modified to saying that the brethren should kiss a piece of wood which was passed round and was handed to the priest. Finally, the kiss of peace was abolished altogether. The Eucharist became definitely established as the major Christian ritual in 363 when the Council of Laodicaea ruled that Agape should not be held in churches, which had the effect of separating it from the Eucharist. For a while it was customary to hold it outside the church door immediately after the service, but, towards the close of the century, the bishops, urged on by Augustine, prohibited it altogether. In the Eastern Church, and in Roman Africa, the Agape persisted much longer: in 692 the Trullan Council found it necessary to reissue the canon of Laodicaea against it, and to make excommunication the penalty. Excluded from the church, these love-feasts became a feature of funerals and marriages, and Theodoret says they often replaced the festivals of Dionysos. So when we drink the nuptial champagne or the obituary port, we may enjoy the melancholy satisfaction of knowing that we are commemorating the last vestige of the Christian religion!
Recognition that there was this deliberate substitution of a symbolic for a real meal enables one to understand some otherwise confusing incidents: for instance, the Artoqritae were declared heretical for putting cheese on the Eucharistic bread— that is, for attempting to preserve the character of the ceremony as a real meal. (124)
When the charitic and theoleptic character of Christianity had finally been destroyed, the Early Church was able to assert that those who had formerly met in theoleptic groups had been heretics, and to treat them as part of the considerable tradition of theoleptic religious experience under the general heading of gnosticism. The word "gnosis" from which such groups received their name, means knowledge, but in the sense not of intellectual knowledge but of knowledge of God through a divine experience. (Cf. the exclamation of the dancers: "Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing!")
The significant feature of this transformation is that it was a change from a group experience, in which all participants were equal, to a religion in which each individual was individually in relation with God, and individually responsible to a priest who was in authority over him. There were those in the new Church who had experience of divinity, but it was as a result of private meditation, and unsynchronized with the experience of others. It was a natural concomitant of this new authoritarian conception of religion that, whereas Christ had said that no one could become a Christian without deserting his family, now the Church laid great stress on the importance of the family, and of subservience to parental authority.
As the living religious experience was squeezed out of Christianity, it became necessary to substitute something. The substitutes found were masochistic self-torture, and the creation of an elaborate body of doctrine. The criterion of being a Christian ceased to be the ability to experience a certain change in oneself, and to manifest love as a result, and became willingness to believe in certain doctrines. The first step in this direction was the claim that Christ was both completely human and completely divine, which led to a very satisfactory series of disputes and the establishment of a corresponding number of heresies. Early Christians seem to have believed that He was born a man, but received divine powers at His baptism, and His baptism was the principal feast of the Church. The decision that He was divine from the moment of conception made is necessary to establish the Nativity as a major feast. Internal evidence suggests that Christ was born in the early autumn; it was not until the Church decided to try to overlay pagan feasts with Christian ones that the date was switched to January 6, and later to December 25 (the date of the principal Mithraic feast), which date was not claimed as the natal date of Christ until A.D. 354-77 When we consider the comparative uncertainty of our knowledge of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, despite the existence of printed records, we can imagine how speculative must have been many of the matters settled so definitely by Church councils in the third and fourth centuries A.D.
Parallel with the creation of doctrine went other changes, such as the building up of an ecclesiastical hierarchy, and a gradual depression in the status of women, who were deprived of the right to preach and baptize, which they had enjoyed in the Early Church. The transformation must have been effectively completed by 385 when the death penalty was introduced for ecclesiastical offences. Clearly the original glowing sense of love for one's fellows had gone when one could coldly sentence them to death for disagreement on a doctrinal point. At almost exactly the same date, the Church, having concluded an agreement with the State, was empowered to persecute the followers of Mithra, which it did with immense savagery, slaying the Mithraic priests where they stood and pulling down their temples on top of them. So violent was the persecution, according to Marmotius, that farmers dared not look at the setting sun, nor sailors observe the sky, for fear of being slain as Mithraists. (49) Some of the fathers, such as Tertullian, protested against the Church's abandonment of the doctrine of turning the other cheek, but in vain. Similar persecutions were launched against the worshippers of Serapis, and the books of those early teachers, such as Porphyry, who had sought the theoleptic experience, were burned.
From the psychiatric point of view, we can sum up the revolution wrought by the Early Church in different terms. The earliest Christians had sought to substitute the transcendence of sexual instincts for the technique of dealing with them by catharsis. The Church abandoned this device of sublimation for the principle of repression. But the issue was not Irrevocably decided. Interest in the alternative techniques was to flare up again and again in the centuries which followed, and his I shall now describe.