William Edelen: Myth Plus Ritual Equals Religion


The Contrary Minister

Practically all of our rituals in 20th century American cathedrals had their origins in primitive superstitions, and yet, today, we still practice them. Ritualistic behavioral patterns that are so basic they are still being practiced in churches, with the congregations totally unaware of what they are doing. Our rituals are saturated with primal superstitions and are only a vestige of an origin going back hundreds of thousands of years. Some examples:


Dr. Paul Dumont, professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington writes: “The purpose is to take on the qualities of the person you eat and by eating the God you acquired the powers of the God.” Vestiges of this are obviously found in the Protestant and Catholic communion rituals. The traditional invitation by the presiding clergy is this: “take, eat, this is my body. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. This do as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Obviously cannibalistic even if it is symbolic cannibalism.

“TABOO” NOT TOUCHING, NOT EATING, NOT DOING CERTAIN THINGS. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF THE BIBLE ARE A CULTIC CODE OF TABOO’S WRITTEN BY MEN, FOR MEN… as the actress Ruth Gordon put it, “One commandment I have never broken. I have never coveted my neighbor’s wife.”

IMITATIVE OR SYMPATHETIC MAGIC. Voodoo dolls or the Cro-Magnon caves are examples. It is the principle of like influences like. The law of sympathy. This includes the sacrifice of a human or an animal. “Jesus died for your sins” etc… on behalf of the community.

RECITATION OF THE CODE. THE CODE will include the Mythology and Pantheon and Cosmology of the group… the creed said in Christian churches…”I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son… our lord…” etc… There you have all three elements that are needed… The Code will include resurrected hero myths as well as myths of origin.

MANA. It is supernatural power, like ten million volts of electricity. It can be in a person… object. A fetish… holy man… shaman… holy woman… four leaf clover… a necklace… bracelet… anything you feel the power is there.

BELIEF THAT A PERSON COULD TALK WITH THE GODS. THIS could be prayer… exorcism… sorcery… the belief that the divine energy and power of the universe actually listens you… you… on this cosmic beach called ‘earth’.

I could continue for many more pages on our habits in religion today and our rituals that are only vestiges of rituals and beliefs whose origins were hundreds of thousands of years ago.

I am always amazed at the response to this lecture, or essay that only proves the mass religious illiteracy that comes from the churches and schools. As Joseph Campbell told me, “About 95 percent of Christian ministers do not even understand their own material.”

I first gave this lecture at the invitation of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, back in the 1970s. The audience response was: “My minister has never talked about this”… “I have never been taught about that… WHY?”

The answer is easy, even though your minister has been totally indoctrinated in your Christian tradition, he is probably a very religiously ignorant and illiterate man, or woman. The vast majority whom I have known certainly are. The Senior Minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA… asked me one day, “Bill, who was Zoroaster?” I remember thinking at the time… “Oh my god.” And then I told him he was preaching Zoroastrianism every Sunday from his pulpit… and that Christianity was saturated with Mithraism and Zoroastrianism.

In every major university where I have given this lecture on ORIGINS AND RITUALISTIC BEHAVIOR… I am always met at the finish with similar responses of the total absence and lack of serious religious education from the churches. I presented this material many times over KGO in San Francisco… and the response… via call ins… was always, “My minister has never talked about that.” “Well… of course not,” I would answer, “for money and attendance would go downhill on a greased slide.”

Newspaper “religious” columns are often so filled with Junk and Pablum and hog wash and falsehoods they would be laughed out of every major RELIGION Dept in every Major University. Remember the comedy of the Billy Graham columns… ? Graham said in one interview that quote, “All I need to do is go on the stage and say…’ GOD SAYS TO ME’… and people believe it.”

If you have an interest in religious literacy, education or enlightenment, you have now been made aware of the evolution of ritualistic behavior. And don’t forget the formula… “MYTH… ACTED OUT IN RITUAL… EQUALS RELIGION” ….whether in a primitive forest or in the CATHEDRAL OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE.