The Sacred Marriage - Lecture III

III. A Tale of Two Trees

The cult of the sacred marriage, together with the religious and social values and philosophical worldviews it has produced in human history, is the referent of the symbol of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Genesis story of the Garden. This goes without saying in the field of comparative religion. As Joseph Campbell shows in his series, The Masks of God, the symbols in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden – garden, serpent, tree, fruit of knowledge – are not original to the bible. They are drawn from a much older mythology in which the sacred principle of life was imaged not as a Father God but as a Mother Goddess. [1]

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the Goddess. The serpent hanging from its boughs is the uroboros, the son/lover of the Goddess. The fruit of her tree is the religious sustenance of all her intellectual thought, whether religious or philosophical or scientific, that gives one to know the materia, the substance of her life which, according to the wisdom of the serpent, is a cycle of “good and evil” or “birth and death”, “sweet and bitter”, “pleasure and pain”, or rarefaction and condensation (Thales); the upward and downward movement of fire (Heracleitus); the Tao or the constant alternation between yin and yang (ancient China); the life instinct and the death instinct (Freud). That means that the template of worldly wisdom that I’ve been describing is the knowledge gained by eating the fruit of that tree.

What, then, is the Tree of Life that we hear tell of in the opening chapters of Genesis, standing alongside the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the Garden? What is its fruit? Is there a serpent, a “Son/Lover”, hanging from its boughs? I believe there is. I believe that because of certain fairly explicit indications in both the Scriptures and in the liturgical texts of the Church. What or who might it be?

For one thing, it represents the Spiritual Marriage of the Church, to which the sacred marriage is similar as we have seen, but significantly different beneath the surface of the similarities. Scripture calls Wisdom or Sophia a “tree of life”; liturgical texts of the Church refer to the Theotokos as an evergreen tree – a cryptic image of a tree of life. And, the iconography of the Lady of the Sign shows the Theotokos like the Cross, which we hear at the Elevation of the Cross is the Tree of Life, carrying Christ as does the Cross like “a cluster of grapes full of life” – again from the Feast of the Elevation. Christ, that is to say, is the Fruit of Immortality. The Serpent of the Tree of Life, of course, is Christ. He is foreshadowed in the serpent of Aaron’s Rod, which is given again in liturgical texts (Nativity of the Theotokos) as an image of the Theotokos, that swallowed the serpents of the Egyptian priests’ rods – i.e., it swallowed the uroboros. It is foreshadowed in the serpent Moses put up in the wilderness that, looking on whom, healed those who had been bitten by the venomous serpents in the camp. Finally, St Anthony the Great sees Christ as the Tree of Life. This imagery of the Church with its complex and variegated richness introduces us to the profound mystery hidden in the image of the Tree of Life.

Now, what are we to make of the fact that the bible begins first with a theological vision of the creation of the world and of Adam and Eve, and then goes immediately into the drama of the two trees in the Garden? From what we’ve just said, we can now see that it is a drama constituted of a contest between two lovers vying for the heart of man; the one lover is the serpent of the sacred marriage of pagan antiquity, who steps onto the pages of the bible in the Canaanite cults of Ba’al and his Asherah, and as Tammuz whose devotees in Israel are found weeping for him in the temple of Israel. The other Lover is the Lordly Serpent of the Spiritual Marriage of Christ and the Church. The contest between these two lovers for the heart of man is the drama that unfolds in the heart of man (in spiritual texts of the Church, the Garden of Eden is taken as a symbol of the heart, i.e. the nous or the intellect). It is the hidden principle that determines the movement of history (this is the thesis that would determine my History of the World in answer to Arnold Toynbee’s). The whole drama of the bible proceeds from the outcome of that drama in the Garden. And the history of the bible is the real history of the world, the hidden principle in the history of the world.

Let us therefore understand very clearly that we are the children of the serpent and the Goddess; we are descended from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For, our ancestors, Adam and Eve, ate her fruit, and in her iniquity, our Mother, Eve, brought us forth; in her sins, she conceived us (Ps 51). We were born in the coils of the uroboros, and we have lived our life caught fast in the branches of the serpent’s tree. Involuntarily and voluntarily, unconsciously and consciously, we have submitted ourselves to the wisdom of our own opinions and looked for meaning in the material principle of our own soul as the measure of all things.

My remarks so far have served to direct us mentally down from the branches of that tree into its roots, down into its dark fourth so that you can see this hidden drama in the heart of man that determines your own autobiography as a microcosm of the history of the world. We delineate the contours of this drama when we peer with our minds into the mystery of the Goddess’ womb, as the image of our own soul, to see where the end and beginning of the uroboros are one and to stand in this spot with the ancients and discover the ultimate question: concerning the material principle of our life. Who are we; why are we? The wisdom of the pre-Socratic philosophers, e.g., was captured in a short saying inscribed on the temple of Apollo in Delphi: “Know thyself.” Arguably, the central question in the Enneads of Plotinus is “What are we?” The Psalmist asks: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” Against the backdrop of this history of human religious and philosophical thought, is it not significant to note how Christ asks the question: “Who do you say that I am?” In other words, Christ’s question directs us away from ourselves and towards Him; as though clearly to say, know Me in order to know thyself. At any rate, here in the dark fourth, I want to show you another path that leads to the other tree, the Tree of Life.

The Church points this path out to us at the Theophany of the Savior: “For, the Lord most powerful makes haste (at His Baptism) to bear the creation down into the stream, bringing it to a better and a changeless path.”[2] This path takes us even further into the dark fourth, all the way to the tomb of Pascha and to another set of gates that lie beyond even this point where the uroboros ends and begins. They are the narrow gates of Eden that open onto the Tree of Life.

First, it may be necessary for us to come to terms with the default mode of mindset, which is not shaped by the Church, quite frankly, but by the world. In this supposition, I propose we “grab the bull of our mindset by the horns” and look it squarely in the eye, so that we can know how to repent, how to turn around in order to see the other path. To do that, I’m going to engage the studied assertions of the late scholar of comparative mythology and religion, Joseph Campbell, in which he argues that the biblical story of the Garden is a perverted variant of the sacred marriage.

Campbell’s Nervous Discord

In his study, Occidental Mythology, Campbell argues that in their biblical adaptation, the original meaning of the symbols – garden, woman, tree, serpent, fruit – has been inverted to render an argument that is just the opposite to that of their origin: the religion of the Goddess and the sacred marriage.[3] In societies of the Goddess, Campbell tells us, the ultimate mystery of being is said to be transcendent. It lies above or beyond human knowledge, thought, sight and speech. However, since the ultimate mystery of being is explicitly identified with the mystery of our own being and of all being whatsoever, it is declared to be immanent as well. In fact, that is the main point of most Oriental, as well as of most pagan, primitive and mystical initiations.[4]

From this the biblical idea of God must be clearly set apart, says Campbell. That represents “a principle nowhere else exclusively affirmed; namely, of the absolute transcendence of divinity. God and his world are not to be identified with each other. There can therefore be no question of seeking God and finding God either in the world or in oneself.”[5] The Bible, so Campbell believes, does not want the individual to realize what the student of the Upanishads – i.e. anyone in the religious milieu of the Goddess – is led to know from his own inner experience: “That art Thou.” “I am imperishable!” in which the individual comes to see that in his true identity, he is God’s very self.

From Babylonian mythology c. 2000 BC onwards, says Campbell, “the female principle, represented in the earlier Bronze Age by the great Goddess-Mother of all things is reduced to its elemental state, and the male deity alone creates out of himself, as the mother alone had created in the past.”[6] A very important note here is that this male deity is the child of the Goddess. His substance, to speak in philosophical terms, is her substance, whatever that might be. This is noteworthy because it shows that the Goddess is the higher deity, meaning that the religious/philosophical world view she engenders is more natural and wholesome than that of the Father God, whose world view is imposed unlawfully on the soul. The Goddess, as a result of this unlawful usurpation by the father God, becomes almost exclusively associated with Nature as the chaotic force to be mastered, and the God takes the role of conquering or ordering nature from his counter pole of ‘Spirit’.[7] Consequently, the female principle has been devalued in our western culture, together with its point of view; and “as always happens when a power of nature and the psyche is excluded from its place, it has turned into its negative, as a demoness, dangerous and fierce.”[8]

This nervous schizophrenia finds its symbolic expression in the biblical story of the Garden. In the mythology of the Goddess, there is one tree of both knowledge and life. Its fruit is “yielded willingly to any mortal, male or female, who reaches for it with the proper will and readiness to receive.”[9] But in the biblical story, there are two trees: one of knowledge and the other of life. When Adam and Eve partake of the tree of knowledge against the command of God, the tree of immortal life is made inaccessible to them through a deliberate act of God (Gn 3:23-24).[10] Man is thereby set religiously against himself, for he is placed at enmity with the very principle of his life. (The Father God, man’s lord, who doesn’t like the Goddess, the material principle of man’s being, to begin with, forbids him to eat from and so become one with the fruit of the serpent’s tree, the principle of human life.) Thus, the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, having lifted its symbols from out of their native religious milieu of the Goddess, sends a “pictorial message to the heart that exactly reverses the verbal message to the brain,” to create in biblical psychology a “nervous discord,” punctuated by a sense of divine wrath and human guilt in contrast to the idyllic atmosphere of “substantial accord” with the principle of being that prevails around the cosmic tree in the mythology of primitive, pagan, and Oriental religions.[11] In the Christian view, on the other hand, the “optimistic notion that by introversion one may come, of oneself, to rest in a realization of godhood within is absolutely rejected; for there is nothing within, according to this view, but a corrupt, creaturely soul, neither godly in itself, nor capable of achieving, of itself, any relationship with God.”[12] (Here, Campbell reveals his Roman Catholic upbringing, and his ignorance of Eastern Orthodoxy, since what he identifies as “Christian” is Augustinian, a giant in Latin theology, but whose theology is quite at odds with Orthodox Christianity.)

At the Serpent’s Tree

Fair’s fair. As Campbell has subjected the biblical God to his own critique, governed by his own suppositions, let’s subject Campbell’s take on the biblical God to the theological perspective of the Church. See if you can find the mythological base of that “common template” we spoke of earlier, and see how it determines Campbell’s epistemological method, i.e., the method he puts his trust in to lead him to knowledge. From his perch in the serpent’s coils drooping lazily from the arms of the Goddess, Campbell looks bleary-eyed out on the world and sees everywhere only identity. To all and sundry he drones: “That art thou. Thou art imperishable.”

He looks out onto the world from that point in the center of the dark fourth where end and beginning are one, seeing nothing outside the Goddess, and so nothing outside the material principle of his own soul. His eyes are open to see only what lies on the horizon in front of him; they are closed to anything behind him. From the perch of his initiation there in the dark fourth where the uroboros ends and begins, he looks out on the horizon of his world and sees only one tree, and in the mystical illumination of his initiated wisdom he declares the rumor of a second tree in the Garden to be but a psychic filament broken off from the original cosmic tree of the all-encompassing Goddess.

Let’s stand here for a moment and take in what we see at this point in the dark fourth where the uroboros ends and begins. Observe how the horizon of our perspective as we look out onto the world from this central point where end and beginning are one follows the inner contours of the serpent’s coils. That is to say, our horizon is constricted by the limits of our own vision, which are focused on what we can see within the confines of our own mind, our own studied wisdom – i.e., our own material principle. Our horizon is a circle that follows the contours of our mind’s own limits so that the inner eye that is the “lamp of our body” always comes back to its beginning; in other words back to where it started: viz., the wisdom of our own mind. Or rather, no matter how far we progress on the horizon ahead of us, we never leave the wisdom of our own mind. We are stuck in the material principle of our soul, mind, so that everything we see collapses into the material principle of our soul, the noetic substance of mind. We’re like a ship sailing on the ocean of our mind: wherever we go, however distant the land we sail to, when we get there, we’re still on the ocean of our mind, just as we were at the point where we began; and the water we’re in on this shore could easily be the same water that was on that shore. Here we are sailing on what the wisdom of the serpent would have us to believe is the irreducible essence of our being, the material principle of our soul; and so what choice have we but to conclude that we, in the material principle of our soul, in the irreducible essence of our being, are the measure of all things? In our true identity, we are God’s very self. Listen to Campbell. He’s still droning on:

The initiate, returning in contemplation to the Goddess Mother of the mysteries, becomes detached reflectively from the fate of his mortal frame (symbolically, the son who dies in the sacred marriage), and identified with the principle that is ever reborn (the son risen from death), the Being of all beings (the serpent’s father): whereupon, in the world where only sorrow and death had been seen, the rapture is recognized of an everlasting becoming.

Look around in this mental place where we are standing right now here in the dark fourth, and you’ll see why Campbell scoffs at the biblical doctrine of God’s absolute transcendence. There’s no room for it – no room because our vision is circumscribed by the serpent’s coils, i.e., the wisdom of our own opinion, and we can’t see an absolutely transcendent God. All we can see is our own material principle. So of course we’ll deny the biblical witness to God the Father as the Creator of the world and everything in it, so that he is not of this world neither as a part of it nor as its natural principle.[13] Following directly from this, we’ll deny the biblical witness to Jesus as the Christ, the Word of God incarnate. If we deny a priori, as Campbell does, the existence of anything beyond the Goddess, i.e., beyond the soul’s own material principle, we will have nowhere to go to account for the Father God of the bible but somewhere within the confines of the soul’s own material principle – somewhere within the serpentine coils of the uroboros. And so we will see the biblical portrait of God, as well as of the Tree of Life in the Garden, as the image of some element of the soul broken away and alienated from its psychological mother, the Mother Goddess. We will see the patriarchal culture of the Semites, and every other patriarchal culture, as the sociological dimension of this underlying psychological disorder in which one aspect of the psyche sets itself against the other (like the conscious ego against its unconscious “Mother” or the masculine against the feminine) to produce a “nervous discord” because man’s psyche, we will say, has set itself religiously against the principle of its own being.

So also, if we deny the biblical witness to Jesus as the Word of God who is begotten of the uncreated Father, then again we will be constricted to the confines of the human psyche to make sense of him, and we will see Jesus as a purely historical figure, if we can prove he existed at all, or as a mythological symbol symbolizing the psyche’s drive to individuation. He is but one of the masks worn by the “hero with a thousand faces”.

Proceeding from the supposition that there is no God “outside” heaven and earth and that any deity, whether a God or a Goddess, is but an image of the psyche, academia presents the many striking similarities between the sacred marriage of pagan antiquity and the spiritual marriage of the Christian Faith as confirmation of its supposition: if Jesus existed at all, he was but an ordinary man extraordinary only in his zeal for the eschatological vision of the prophets. But whether or not he in fact existed, the Gospel Jesus is but a mythologem or a psychologem in regard to which the historical question is irrelevant. The supposition determines a priori the limits of the investigation, and voila! The investigation confirms the supposition. It is academia’s own version of the ancient uroboros; only instead of a serpent swallowing its tail, it’s the supposition swallowing the ink of its own inquiry to regurgitate itself back onto the pages of academia again and again and again.[14]

Whatever path or paths are illumined in the shadow of the serpent’s tree are of the soul and all of them circle back to where they began (like lost sheep). Time, history, people, places are fleeting shadows and deluding dreams because in their materia they, too, are of the soul and so in the end they all collapse back into the soul where they all began. And so it goes on and on and on – unless it reaches some distant goal, like the fully integrated Self, or is it Atman or Brahman, or is it just the Void? And then what? Then I suppose it rests in itself in a bliss of absolute Identity – until it gets restless and sets out to do the adventure all over again.

A Call From Another Tree.

I’ve brought you here to this point in the dark fourth to see how the illumined wisdom of the uroboros, which denies the existence of any Father God or of any incarnate Word of God who are not psychologems, is measured by the bias, the serpentine coils, of its own perspective and can see only itself. I invite you to consider the possibility that if one would but turn one’s head the other way – you know, repent – one might suddenly detect something like serpentine scales falling from one’s eyes, and for the first time notice a gentle wind that has been caressing one’s cheek; and it’s blowing from somewhere beyond the uroboros from deeps one hadn’t known were there. Listen closely and you will hear Someone calling out: “Come!” He cries. “Let him who is thirsty, come to me and drink. Let him who desires take the water of life without price! For as the Scriptures have said, whoever believes in me, from out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”[15]

The call is coming from the Spirit and his Bride of the Church’s Spiritual Marriage. They are calling out to the lost sheep; and they are calling from another tree, from another sanctuary, from a point in space-time called by those whose God is so despised by the princes of this world, Pentecost, whose living waters are not the waters of Enki. Brothers and sisters; there is another tree. It’s not a rumor; it’s not a splinter broken off the Goddess’ tree. It’s not a neurotic filament broken away from the psyche. It is an altogether different tree that produces an altogether different fruit that alone heals and cleanses, sanctifies and makes whole the materia of the Goddess, whose Seed alone stops her hemorrhaging. There is a path that will take us there. It’s a narrow path, but it’s the better and changeless path that begins to ascend from precisely this point in the dark fourth where the uroboros ends and begins to the immaterial Father who in his Son and through his Holy Spirit is in the world but not of it. This other tree is the Spiritual Marriage of Christ and his Holy Church; and, it is the destination of our last lecture.

[1] The Masks of God. vol. II, Occidental Mythology, Penguin, Arkana (1991), p. 17.

[2] Festal Menaion, p. 377

[3] Ibid, p. 9.           

[4] Ibid., p. 109.

[5] Ibid., p. 108

[6] Occidental Mythology, p. 85.

[7] Ibid, pp. 72-73.

[8] Ibid., p. 86.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] Ibid., p. 106.

[11] Ibid., pp. 13-17 & 109.

[12] Ibid., p. 114.

[13] Cf. Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb.

[14] The uroboros is an image of the scientific method, as well. It is governed by and moves according to its own a priori suppositions. When those a priori suppositions are of a god or of the material principle of the soul that thou art, the scientific method begins where it ends, in the same place, specifically in cosmic matter, the Mater or the materia. In itself, the scientific method, when incorporated into the theological world view of the Gospel, becomes an ascetic discipline, a form of prayer and a form of stewardship. That is to say, just as prayer can be the instrument of uniting oneself to a false god or to the “material principle” of one’s own mind when it is governed by the suppositions of another religious (or a-religious) world view, so also it becomes an ascetic discipline opening the eyes of the heart to the true God, when it is governed by Faith.

[15] Rev 22:17 & Jn 7:37