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Background to Metahistory

Origins and Originators

 

By definition, metahistory looks beyond history. Its ultimate aim is twofold: to surpass the limits of historical perspective and to introduce new views of human potential, represented in new versions of our story. Although it is a visionary path that goes beyond history, metahistory has an historical basis. It did not just spring up out of nowhere, for it has its origins in a specific time and place. There is a long process of maturation behind it. A set of historical precedents support it, and through twenty five centuries numerous pioneers have laid the groundwork for it. The purpose of this essay is to present a brief overview of the origins and originators of metahistorical inquiry.



The Father of History

There are two initial questions to ask regarding the background of metahistory: When did the writing of history (as we now define it) first occur? How soon after the writing of history was inaugurated did the first signs of metahistorical inquiry emerge? Surprisingly, perhaps, the record shows that these two developments, each of immense importance in its own right, were simultaneous. Most historians agree that the writing of history began with the Greek historians, Herodotus [c. 484 — c. 425 BCE] and Thucydides [c. 460 — c 400 BCE]. The elder of the two, Herodotus, has traditionally been called "the father of history." He traveled widely in Asia Minor and Egypt, leaving an important account of Egyptian religion and the wonders of the pyramids. Seemingly prone to political intrigues, Herodotus may have ended his life in exile in Italy. His work is regarded as "the first comprehensive attempt at secular narrative history, a classic of world literature as well as the starting point of Western history writing." (Columbia, 889)

His younger contemporary, Thucydides, was primarily a military historian whose scope of interest was more narrow, but he is noted for his impartial and accurate reportage, especially the speeches he records, such as the funeral oration for the hero and statesman, Pericles.

Debate continues over the accuracy of some passages in Herodotus, but that need not concern us here. More significant is the fact that he was critical of some of his sources. Drawing upon many ancient traditions and oral accounts, he was careful in some cases to question the narrative structure of the stories he was recording. Traveling widely and encountering diverse cultures, Herodotus could not help notice the similarity of heroic tales preserved in different parts of the world. He was especially struck by the recurrence of events in stories of heroes who resembled the Greek Herakles (Latinized name, Hercules).

Assuming a viewpoint that was quite radical for his time and place, Herodotus stated that Herakles was not a figure unique to Greek myth. He even berated his countrymen about adopting tales of this hero uncritically from other races: "The Hellenes tell many things without proper examination. Among them is the silly myth they tell about Herakles." (Book 2.45, cited in Finley, 23).

In his travels Herodotus encountered many variations of a plot formula known to the Greeks as the "labors of Herakles." Cults dedicated to this mythical figure occurred all over the Near East under various names such as Melkart in the Lebanon, Samson in Jewish legend, and Ogmios among the Celts, to name but a few variants.

"Herodotus engaged in a study of comparative mythology" and so "it became necessary to manipulate the traditional accounts — manipulate, but not discard. They were checked for inner consistency, corrected and amplified with the knowledge derived from the very much older records and traditions of other peoples — Egyptians and Babylonians, in particular — and rationalized wherever possible." (Finley, 25) Clearly, the father of history was the first writer to attempt a metahistorical treatment of his materials. In the Herakles variants Herodotus identified the universal solar hero* who plays a key role in later theories of metahistory. His writings demonstrate the two primary steps for metahistorical analysis of scripts: the collection of the materials (the task of inventory), and observation of the patterns in the materials (comparative approach). Although these steps were not put into extensive practice by Herotodus, they were definitely introduced by him.

NOTE. To answer the possible objection that Herodotus was not truly the first historian, let me say this: quasi-historical chronicles from Asia may precede the writings of Herodotus, but even if they do, and even if the Asian annals contain a large component of genuine historical reportage, their content is uncritically compounded with folk lore and metaphysical speculations. The work of Herodotus demonstrates critical distancing from the materials, the primary mark of a metahistorical attitude. As far as I know, this factor initially appears in the era and setting of Greek rationalism, and not elsewhere, but I would be happy to be corrected on this point, if I am wrong.)

The Vulture Oracle

After Herodotus comes a long transitional period that presents little evidence of metahistorical attitudes in Western history-writing, with one outstanding exception. Historical treatments of the Roman Empire are strongly slanted by a superstitious belief that its duration was predetermined by cosmic factors. The date of the founding of the city of Rome is a solid chronological datum: 747 BCE. This is the date reported by Cicero’s contemporary, the antiquarian Varro, and universally accepted by historians today. (Grant, 11) The Latin phrase, ab urbe conditis, "from the founding of the city," indicates the calendric benchmark widely used up to the time when the AD calendar was introduced in the 5th Century. Before calendars were computed from the birth of Jesus Christ, they were dated from the founding of Rome.

There is a remarkable factor in the Roman calendar. Technically, it is called a mytho-historical nexus, an event in which myth and history converge. It so happens that the historical event of founding the city of Rome, which is the seminal moment for the founding of the Roman Empire, coincides with a mythological event, a purely imaginary incident involving two non-historical characters. The mythical twins, Romulus and Remus, cannot be identified as historical persons, yet they are said to have founded Rome at that precise historical moment, 747 BCE.

The Roman legend is a hybrid script involving racial, familial and political elements. It states that Romulus and Remus were twins born of the Vestal Virgin, Rhea Silvia, and left to die in the wilds where they were found and raised by a she-wolf. Coming to manhood, the twins claim their birthright by the murder of their mother’s uncle, Amulius (familial element), who threatened to usurp the hereditary power of the kings of Alba (racial element). To instate the Roman royal lineage and found the Empire (political element), they choose the place sheltered by seven hills near the river Tiber, close to the spot where they had been abandoned as infants. Here the mythical event recorded in history transpires. "To consult the gods, Romulus chose the Palatine, while Remus took his station on the Aventine hill. It was Remus who saw the first augural sign: a flight of six vultures. But Romulus saw twelve, and to him fell the honor of founding the city." (Eliade, HRI, 2, 107ff)

Like all ancient peoples, the Romans took their omens very seriously. To a large extent, the Roman view of the founding of the Empire was coloured by the legacy inherited from mysterious predecessors, the Etruscans, known to have been masters of divination. "The prestige that the Etruscan’s methods of divination, the orientatio, and of the building of cities and sacred edifices enjoyed from the beginning of Rome indicates the cosmological structure of their theology and seems to explain their efforts to solve the enigma of historical time." (Eliade, ibid. ) At the moment Rome was founded, the archaic, non-historical view of life based in divination was uniquely merged with a sense of historical conscience, just then emergent in the proto-European mind-set. Astrology also contributed to this outlook through the theory of recurrent cataclysms believed to be due to astronomical factors. According to the astral fatalism of the time, every event comes, rather like a carton of milk today, with a pre-assigned expiration date. So did the Roman Empire.

The End of the Roman Reich

From the seminal moment, there was considerable concern about the longevity of the empire founded by Romulus. Speculations were rampant. The entire population went through periodic panic attacks about the predicted term of expiration. The duration of the twelve vultures was calculated in dozens of ways, resulting in a range of different end-times. Although there was no universal agreement on the date the Empire would end, the belief that it was predestined to end was never shaken. It was widely believed that its demise would be due to estrangement from the guiding powers who oversee human affairs.

All this may look rather remote and foolish from our advanced viewpoint in the years post-2000 AD, but in metahistory we are careful not to dismiss archaic forms of perception too lightly. Is there anything to be learned from the chronological pattern of the twelve vultures? And what, if anything, can this divinatory fable reveal about the background of metahistorical inquiry?
Well, if the twelve vultures are read as twelve centuries, the duration of the Roman Empire extends from 747 BCE to 453 CE with the midpoint at 147 BCE. This timeframe encompasses with near perfect accuracy the period in which the Empire rose, peaked, and fell. Attila the Hun, who notoriously sacked Rome, died in 453 CE, right on time, and the invasion of Italy by the Vandals two years CE, 455 CE, is the date generally accepted by historians for the end of the Empire and the beginning of the Dark Ages. At the exact midpoint, 147 BCE, the Roman historian Polybius wrote a forty-volume "universal history" in which he argued that the Roman republic was the greatest manifestation of Cosmic Necessity on earth, yet he predicted that its days were numbered and it must ultimately decline due to cosmic law.

147 BCE was also the epoch of the great Jewish revolt in the occupied territory of Palestine. Zealots and other diehards of the Jewish liberation front united to resist Rome and establish a theocratic state ruled by the Messiah, he who would be King of the Jews. Although they were defeated, the apocalyptic script by which these revolutionaries were driven survived to become the core of Christian ideology and eventually, in the hundred years of the twelfth vulture, Christianity became the state religion of the Empire. Thus at the midpoint of the 1200 year cycle, its closure was predetermined.

Polybius demonstrates some metahistorical insight, but not true critical acumen. In his treatment of the fate of Rome, he assumes that some kind of cosmic pattern pervades human experience and determines the flow of historical events. This is not a novel assumption — far from it. The belief that a transhistorical pattern pervades history, a perennial feature of Asian philosophy and metaphysics, can also be found in Plato. The oracle of twelve vultures belongs to a long and rich tradition, but it comes to expression for the first time in the West in the historical timeframe of the Roman Empire. In addition to the two factors introduced by Herodotus — inventory and the comparative view — there is now a third factor that might be called the cosmic format of history.

Since the turn of the year 2000, interest in the cosmic format has been revived. This is no doubt due to reaching the millennial notch on the Christian calendar, but even more so to the implications of sacred timekeeping systems among the Maya, Aztec, Egyptians and Hindus. The Maya "end-time" of December 21, 2012 AD, continues to be a focus of wild debate. (I hope to treat this fascinating issue in an upcoming essay for VIEWS.) The system of World Ages timed by the Zodiac is the oldest construct of metahistorical imagination, and the most obscure! It represents the ultimate, all-encompassing version of a cosmic format for human experience.

Word Games in the Dark Ages

Through the Dark Ages, metahistorical inquiry was precluded by the totalitarian view of history enshrined in the Judaeo-Christian agenda of linear time. This vision of history assumes that everything pivots on a unique moment when God intervenes in history. This scripting formula is one of the most powerful instruments ever conceived by the human mind to control how the mind thinks about its own experience. Wherever this formula prevails, it precludes and "overwrites" all other versions of history. Historical scripts by the Church Fathers and other writers who endorsed the Christian ideology of salvation were cosmically formatted on a pivotal moment, the Incarnation. This version of history totally cancels out the vision of eternal recurrence characteristic of pagan philosophy and ethics. Consequently, metahistorical inquiry had to go underground where it assumed cryptic forms, as suppressed knowledge tends to do.

The Etymologies of Isadore of Seville [560? — 636?] represent one strand of this underground trend. This vast, encyclopediac work resembles certain works published today in the genre of alternative history, works that presume to detect hidden patterns in history through the ages. Isadore presents a cosmic format of six ages, the fifth being the period from the Babylonian Exile of the Hebrews to the Incarnation, and predicts a sixth age when the world will end. The Etymologies demonstrate all three primary marks of the metahistorical view — inventory and comparative view, originating with Herodotus, and cosmic format, exemplified by Polybius — but Isadore was not critical toward sources. This work exerted a tremendous influence for centuries. This indicates that the hunger for metahistorical insight persisted, even though it was malnourished and undernourished.

In some passages, Isadore’s free associations jump wildly from Hebrew words to Greek gods to Roman emperors. This recalls the crypto-historical style of modern-day writing at the lunatic fringe. For instance, in "The Hoffman Wire" distributed on the Internet (Hoffman-info.com), rampant speculation about the DC Sniper who has killed ten people in the USA takes the form of a free-associative slide through the collective unconscious:

The goyim imagine that brand names like Prozac and Kodak (both have the hard "K" sound indicating daring and courage); Expedia (a trek, an adventure) and Exxon (several meanings, the "double cross play of the cunning," being primary) were conjured by accident or coincidence or with dumb luck, or for fun, but, while these matters are indeed within the parameters of a game, the process of naming is deadly serious, with sometimes billions of dollars at stake or, in the case of the U. S. government, a game of Black Jack where the stakes are the very continuing existence of its own system of Cryptocracy.

Etymologies means "the origins of names." Isadore certainly thought that "naming is deadly serious," and he pursued allusive links as wild as any to be found in the fringe media today. Like many people communicating on the underground wavelengths, Hoffman infers that the "system" is due to fail, or ought to fail, to self-destruct on its inherent lies and contortions.

The anticipation that the dominant social system will break down is consistent with the perennial theme of world-ending found in the earliest instances of metahistorical inquiry. This view clashes with conservative ideology because conservatism always assumes that the dominant system is the best and most enduring.

The underground writings of Isadore must have been consoling to people of anti-establishment sentiments in the Middle Ages, who had no free and open channel to express their discontent. Typically, those who understand the secret meaning of words (and hence, of scripts and the behavior they determine) will also be privy to the secret course of events. Like the "Hoffman Wire," the Etymologies were subversive.

Metahistory can be subversive as well, but it does not operate from a preformulated agenda of reform or revolution. Metahistory always questions assumptions about social order, and it takes a critical view of the fashionable ideology inherent to any such assumptions, while at the same time it seeks to discover the inherent patterns that might insure sanity and stability for human society over the long term.

The Trinity of Ages

After Isadore of Seville, six centuries pass before a full-blown metahistorical model emerges. This occurs in the work of Joachim of Floris (pronounced JO-ukim), a Cistercian monk who lived in Calabria, southern Italy, at the end of the 12th century. In this case, the model was the result of a visionary experience. In a vision Joachim saw the end of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the rise of a new belief-system that would emerge from the lifeless carapace of Christian doctrine. His visionary view of history reflects cosmic formatting charged with a new and enriched content.

A reflective man who believed that compassion was the focal point of Christian faith, Joachim was deeply concerned about the violent opposition between Catholics and two other groups: heretics from within their own ranks and infidels from without (specifically, Muslims). Initially, he felt that his mission was to announce the ultimate reconciliation of these groups. In his diaries Joachim recorded two mystical experiences. In the first, he was illuminated about the concordance of the Old and New Testaments. In the second, he was taught about the nature of the Trinity. These revelations altered his sense of mission. "Disclaiming the title of prophet, he believed that through the gift of spiritual intelligence he understood the inner spiritual meaning of history." (EP 4, 277) To elaborate his vision, Joachim worked out a three-phase variation of the traditional model of seven World Ages. He described history as a tree that grows from an initial stage, dominated by the Law of the Father, through an intermediate stage dominated by the Grace of the Son, toward a final stage dominated by the Holy Spirit, the agent of mystically illumined spiritual understanding. With the third stage comes the apotheosis of history — in effect, the end of history.

Although the culminating moment he foresaw was beyond history, Joachim assigned to it the specific date of 1260, some sixty years after his death. This was the moment when the Ecclesia Spiritualis, the spiritual brotherhood of humanity, would emerge, so he believed, and take over the role previously played by the Church. Heading the future congregation would be John the Evangelist, a spiritual leader of a higher stature than Peter or Paul. In the "Eternal Evangel," Joachim saw the ultimate spiritual authority capable of overthrowing the authority of the Catholic hierarchy and, in effect, rendering all ecclesiastical institutions obsolete. Needless to say, this was (and still is) an heretical position. Nevertheless, elements of Joachim’s Trinitarian vision of history were duly appropriated by Dominicans, Franciscans and other monkish orders, and even by some Jesuits!

For centuries after Joachim lived, his vision served as a focal point for the hope of renewal within orthodoxy. The notion that John the Evangelist, rather than Peter or Paul, was the true agent of the message of Christ belongs to a deep-rooted underground tradition in the West. (For a relatively clear and coherent version of this alternative scenario of history, see The Templar Revelation by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. Oddly, the authors do not include Joachim of Fiore in their list of proponents of Johannine Christianity.) The effect of Joachim’s system was far-reaching. Gordon Rattray Taylor claims that "the most influential political system known to Europe before Marxism was devised by Joachim of Fiore about 1200 and still existed, influencing Lessing, Schelling and Fichte, and perhaps also Hegel, in the nineteenth century." (P, 4) Although Joachim’s system was not politically incisive, something in the kernel of it seems to have inspired programs of political reform. Although his name is hardly a household word, Joachim was a visionary whose legacy cannot be underestimated. He may have been the most influential exemplar of the metahistorical approach, so far, but he is not a true metahistorian because he assumed a preformulated agenda.

The most passionate modern advocate of the Third Age predicted by Joachim was the Russian Christian existentialist theologian, Nicholas Berdyaev [1874 — 1948]. Berdyaev’s manifesto of "New Medievalism," published in 1924, announced the disintegration of modern society due to internal instability and lack of authenticity. What would emerge to replace it, Berdyaev believed, was a purist version of medieval life and culture, but spiritually elevated by the realization of the brotherhood of man and free engagement in class-free sobornost (Russian for "solidarity"). All this is clearly a remake of Joachim’s Ecclesia Spiritualis, and Berdyaev repeatedly cites Joachim as his predecessor.

Denouncing the atomization of modern society and what he considered to be a delusional notion of individualism, Berdyaev celebrated freedom as the highest human value, but added the qualification that "the free spirit is communal and not individualistically isolated." His visionary scheme was developed on the rebound from the Russian Revolution, but it contains genuine mystical elements reminiscent of Joachim. In fact, in passage after passage of his prolific work, Berdyaev writes as if he were the incarnation of Joachim. (For a resume of Berdyaev’s life and work, see http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Sui-Generis/Berdyaev/essays/

The Leap Beyond History

From 1250 on, metahistory developed on a long, slow trajectory that culminated dramatically at the threshold moment of 1900. After Joachim came the European Renaissance and the introduction of movable-type printing by Gutenberg in 1450. The combination of Humanist values with the new technology of printing launched an era of historical writing, and the tool-kit of metahistorical inquiry was fitted out and widely implemented in the centuries to follow.

Many important stages occurred in the great leap beyond history that began in the Renaissance, far too many to be detailed in this orientation essay. It is difficult to focus on a single, crucial event, but it is possible, and necessary, to designate one specific moment that epitomizes the leap. This occurred in 1795 with the publication in French of a massive work in comparative mythology, The Origin of All Cults. Its author was an independent scholar, Charles François Dupuis. If the name rings no bells, there is good reason that it doesn’t. "As the great 20th century historian of science Giorgio de Santillana has pointed out, it is no accident that Dupuis is so little known today. His beliefs continue to form a coherent challenge to both Christianity and the myth of Greece as a cultural beginning; thus he and his work had to be buried." (Bernal, I, 182) An intellectual heretic and reformist deeply involved in the French Revolution, Dupuis was the forerunner of metahistorians like Santillana and Martin Bernal (cited here and listed below in the "Seven Classics"), especially in his effort to get behind the established interpretation of Western history to its archaic, non-European origins. With Dupuis and others, the great leap forward drew its momentum from a long, searching look backward.

In The Origin of All Cults, Dupuis develops the clue initially detected by Herodotus: the plot formula in cross-cultural legends of the solar hero. He cites many versions of the solar hero mythology, noting how they all reveal the same inherent pattern: twelvefoldness, seasonal parallels, the confrontation with monstrous forces, magical or supernatural reward, descent into the underworld. Correlating the twelve labors of Herakles to the twelve months of the year and the corresponding astrological signs, he identifies Christ with the universal solar hero and concludes that "the Christians are mere worshippers of the Sun, and that their priests have the same religion as those of Peru, whom they have caused to be put to death." (Feldman and Richardson, 287). With anti-clerical fervor typical of the Enlightenment, Dupuis castigated Christianity for its attempt to monopolize universal mythology — that is, to hijack the script for the human species. He argued that pagans were closer to the reality of the world because they saw divinity in the forces of natures and read the book of nature, and particularly the Zodiac, like a divinatory text.

Due to the strong rationalist element of the Enlightenment, Dupuis assumes a non-metahistorical bias against the supernatural, but he elevates myth to its true value "by his continual and deliberate effort to relate it to the present." (Ibid., 278) His systematic method of interpretation provided the background for the "solar mythology" of the 19th Century, and all comparative mythology to follow, right up to Joseph Campbell. His emphasis on the intensity of natural experience was typical of the Romantic Movement in which he can be included. (Roughly, Romanticism flourished from 1775 to 1850 in Europe.)

The momentum that begins to swell in the work of Dupuis crested into a wave that took a century to break. When it did, the very way we view humanity was permanently altered.

In the two centuries before 2000 AD, metahistorical inquiry was wound into a single braid with another genre of scholarly and academic investigation: comparative mythology. Although the capacity for a comparative treatment of myth had been present since Herodotus, comparative mythology only became feasible as a systematic method due to the discovery of linguistic parallels. Sir William Jones, founder of the Royal Asiatic Society, was an English Orientialist who knew thirteen languages well and twenty-eight others moderately well. His most influential work, "On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India," was published in 1799, five years after Dupuis’s magnum opus. Jones is the first scholar on record to systematically develop cross-linguistic parallels between mythological names. His assertion of the common origin of Greek and Sanskrit was the signal flare for the inauguration of comparative studies by many generations of scholars.

Immediately following Jones came the breakthrough by the Grimm brothers, two German philologists who in 1822 established the law of consonantal shift, known as Grimm’s Law. It defines the predictable manner in which consonants shift through different languages, while the meaning of the word remains constant: for instance, the English word "father" shifts in Latin to pater, in German to vater; the English "draw" appears as dhar in Sanskrit, tragen in German. These correlations have allowed scholars to trace common motifs in many diverse cultures. Grimm’s Law was the main tool of comparative mythology in its initial century.

At exactly the same moment that Grimm’s Law was defined, the French polymath Champollion deciphered Egyptan hieroglyphs by comparing them with parallel Greek and demotic passages inscribed on a slab of basalt found in the Nile delta. Unlike the work of the Grimm brothers, whose importance remained confined to a small circle of scholars, the decoding of the Rosetta Stone was a matter of vast public interest and its impact was sensational. In one stroke, Champollion’s deed cracked open the gateway to the mysteries of the past and incited a new imagination of human origins.

Esoteric Syncretism

This signal came out of Egypt, as did the initial metahistorical insights of Herodotus 2300 years earlier. The focus on Egypt became crucial in the introduction of alternative versions of history that depart from the script of Judaeo-Christian religion, dominant since the fall of the Roman Empire. After 1822, it was as if a dam had ruptured… Debugging the Bible

Throughout the 19th century, metahistorical insight continued to develop by leaps and bounds, always in close association with comparative mythology and philology (the study of languages). As soon as the tools were available and a methodology had been roughed out, scholars began to take on the most challenging material: namely, the Judaeo-Christian version of "sacred history" recorded in the Bible.

Let’s recall that Dupuis had dared to suggest that so-called Christian history was merely pagan myth pirated from pre-Christian sources. It did not take long before the heretical and anti-clerical notions such as these were widely expressed by exponents of the new comparative studies. With ruthless scrutiny, historians, ethnologists, mythologists and even theologians delved into the revered texts of the Old and New Testaments. At the midpoint of the 19th Century, in the heady era when Darwin published The Origin of Species, scholars were intently focused on what was to become known as the "higher criticism" of the Bible. The theosophist and Gnostic scholar, G. R. S. Mead, expressed the credo for the new discipline in his book, The Gospel and the Gospels, published in 1902:

This collection of books, considered by the whole of Christendom to contain the New Covenant of God with man, is called into question on innumerable points by the test of the analytical reason which is accepted by all other fields of research as the providential means of removing error, and attaining to a just estimation of the nature of fact, knowledge, and truth. (G, 38)

This single sentence could as well be taken for the credo of metahistory as it emerged in its own right, distinct from comparative mythology. Mead clearly indicates that calling the Bible into question also calls into question the fundamentals of Christian faith. If the Biblical texts are shown to be full of errors and inconsistencies, and if the stories they contain can be traced back to older, pre-Christian myths, then the "New Covenant of God with man" scripted in the Old and New Testaments cannot be taken any longer at its self-declared value.

As a pioneer of Gnostic studies, Mead must have been acutely aware that opposing the human faculty of reason to Biblical revelation was an heretical act. This is precisely what the Gnostics did when they argued against the rituals and ideology of the early Christians. Mead would surely have known that the word "error" is a key term in the Gnostic vision of spiritual liberation. Gnostic teachings were largely destroyed by Christian fanatics, but those few that survived assert in no uncertain terms that the Judaeo-Christian ideology of salvation is an error, a deviation from the proper course of evolution for the human species. Mead’s summary comment is a crucial one because it indicates that the Gnostic assertion of reason against the errors of belief is inherent to metahistorical inquiry. Metahistory is an historical gnosis, a higher knowing of history. The Gnostic edge of metahistory has been widely developed by contemporary exponents such as William Irwin Thompson and Morris Bermann. (See also The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, in Basic Reading.)

The higher criticism concerns itself with the relation of text to historical fact and with the consistency of expression across variant texts. It contrasts with the "lower criticism," concerned exclusively with variations in manuscripts and successive printed versions of Holy Writ. Mead observed that in his time at least 150,000 discrepancies has been found in the manuscripts of the New Testament alone. While studies in the lower criticism tended to make scholars painfully aware of the unreliability of texts, the higher criticism slowly undermined faith in the Testaments as sovereign works dictated by God. Taken together, these methods represent nothing less than a wholesale attempt to debug the Bible and rid it of unreliable and inconsistent elements.

From 1850 onward the assault on the historicity of the Bible was fierce and relentless. Once the debugging process was underway, doctrines that had long been considered sacred, and hence not to be questioned, were at risk of total deconstruction. Central to the new approach was the persona of Jesus, the Jewish rabbi identified by Saint Paul as the unique incarnation of the Son of God. Although devout Jews themselves reject this claim, it is central to the Christian ideology of salvation based on the racial-religious script of the Old Testament. The effect of the higher criticism was to demolish the assumed historicity of Jesus and, if that were not enough, to discredit the ideology that demanded blind credence in the divine intention operating through historical events. Between 1863 and 1890, French historian Ernest Renan produced a multi-volume history of Christianity of which the first volume, entitled The Life of Jesus, became widely discussed. Renan was a humanist who devalorized the ideological elements of both Jewish and Christian sacred texts. His work contributed hugely to the growing perception that the Bible was just another work of human authorship, and not a very reliable one at that.

Like Dupuis, Renan totally rejected the supernatural. As I have noted, this is not a fair and open-minded approach, for genuine occult and supernatural factors may certainly be included in the vast range of human experience. (In the Gnostic view, reason is a faculty that can accept the evidence of the supernatural and does not try to reduce or dismiss it by rationalizations.) In place of blind belief, Renan proposed the development of the human mind toward ever-widening horizons. In the Positivist spirit of Auguste Comte, he declared that "history is the necessary form of the science of the future," and following Hegelian philosophy he proposed that "the goal of the world is the development of the mind." (EP 7, 179) His humanistic (i.e., non-deified) portrayal of Jesus was decisive in setting later trends. His most well-known heir was Albert Schweitzer, a philosopher and theologian known to the world for his exemplary life of service as a doctor in French Equatorial Africa. In The Quest for the Historical Jesus, published in 1903, Schweitzer unconditionally dismissed both the historicity and the divine status of Jesus the Christ. He maintained that the teachings of Jesus, interpreted purely along humanistic lines, could be guidelines for human ethics, but the textually based beliefs about Jesus ought to be discarded by any rational person. This remains today the view of moderate humanism that admits the significance of Jesus and other religious figures, by contrast to "secular" humanism which is strictly opposed to religious affiliations of any kind.

Frazer to Feminism


The year 1900 was more than a chronological benchmark for the start of the 20th Century. It was a nodal point for a number of developments that would be crucial to defining metahistory in its current form, post-2000 AD. The high-water mark of the era was the appearance in twelve volumes of The Golden Bough. Its author, Sir James Frazer [1845 — 1941], was a Scottish anthropologist whose fine literary style effectuated the influence of his work beyond the realm of specialists. Frazer made a grand inventory of classical sources of the materia mythica, and he included a mass of contemporary ethnographic evidence drawn from field work with "primitive peoples" in various parts of the world. (For a review of The Golden Bough, see the Seven Classics of Metahistory.) His contribution to metahistory consists in the vast overview he presented, but equally in his detection of certain motifs or script-factors inherent to cross-cultural mythology. "One schema proposed by Frazer was especially attractive: he suggested that after prehistoric cultural specalization generated the role of the technician or magician, it further generated that of the priestly office, and finally that of the ultimate power-wielder, the king." (Doty, 171) This scheme provided a model for later attempts to understand the origins and structure of patriarchy, the form of rule whose seminal figure is the sanctified king, or theocrat. Frazer’s three-stage progression from magician (or shaman) to priest to king is now regarded as a degenerate trend by many critical historians, especially those aligned to feminist revisions of history. (More on feminism below.)

By identifying recurrent themes in mythology, Frazer’s work "provoked wider recognition of the transpersonal factors in social behavior." (Doty, 170) In other words, his inventory showed how mythological themes permeate human experience on personal, social and historical levels alike. One scholar has described The Golden Bough as "less a compendium of facts than a gigantic romance of quest couched in the form of objective research." (Ibid, 170) The model for the quest explored by Frazer was the Trojan culture-hero, Aeneas, who ventured into the Underworld to commune with ancestral spirits and thereby realize his calling to found Latium, the Latin culture-matrix where Rome arose. Thus there are two mythological scenarios at the origin of the Roman Empire: the rivalry of Romulus and Remus, and the mission of Aeneas. The latter was crucial to the organization of Frazer’s materials in 1900, as the former had been to Polybius' scheme of universal history in 150 BC.

Contemporary with Frazer, four other key works were published at the watershed of 1900: Cosmic Consciousness by Richard Bucke, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James and Pagan Christs by J. M. Robertson (reviewed in Basic Reading). The first three contributed respectively to introducing evolutionary, psychological and parapsychological perspectives on history, while the fourth presents the first rigorous comparative study of the script-factors in the life-story of Jesus Christ. Robertson’s work was as important for that epoch as Frazer’s, though far less known. Pagan Christs contains the first comprehensive inventory of cross-cultural materials on savior-gods. Robertson found this evidence so convincing that he concluded it was no longer possible, or necessary, to believe that a unique historical Jesus ever existed.

Frazer, Robertson and others comprise the first generation of metahistory in its current expression. If the materia mythica were compared to the content of the Internet, they would be comparable to the "search engines." The computer format called "Hypertext," which allows searching across categories, may be compared to the methodology developed by these pioneers for sorting through the mass of mythological and ethnographic lore. Their work on thematic organization prepared the ground for the later efforts of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, master synthesizers of the second generation. A transitional figure in the first generation was Lewis Spence, a Scottish anthropologist who wrote a number of books of esoteric bearing. Despite his association with the fringe zone of Theosophy, Spence was a legitimate scholar who compiled huge masses of comparative data in thirty or so substantial books. An Introduction to Mythology, published in 1921, stands as one of the first attempts at a systematic inventory of the materials. (In The Panorama of Myth, Part One, I have cited the "Spence inventory.")

The Hero Scripts

The work of first generation comparative mythology developed until the 1930s, when a new element emerged. The shift to the next phase of metahistory was signaled by The Hero, published in 1936 by a British aristocrat, Fitzroy Richard Somerset, the 4th Baron Raglan, known as Lord Raglan. Here is the theme originally treated in a comparative manner by Herodotus, and revalorized by Dupuis. The Hero takes for its subject matter over a hundred examples of the heroic quest, drawn from a wide array of cultures and races. Lord Raglan assumes the strictly anti-historical view typified by Robertson on Jesus: none of these characters ever existed, or had to exist, as historical persons. (For my caveat on this viewpoint, see the review of Myths to Live By in Seven Classics of Metahistory.) By a rigorously systematic analysis of the elements contained in diverse hero-tales, he concludes that mythic and legendary materials on the hero were never meant to record historical events. Instead, they were intended as fictional narratives to accompany ritual dramas celebrating the power and prestige of kings and regents.

This interpretation is striking on two counts: first, it shows that the heroic narratives were deliberate fictions, literary works invented to serve a specific purpose in a specific time and place. Furthermore, it shows that the purpose of the non-historical scripts was to indemnify and enforce the power of historical figures, namely, theocrats, kings and regents. For instance, the heroic tale of the labours of Herakles presents a schema that could be ritually enacted in a royal drama to symbolize the authority of a newly enthroned king. In every instance, the king becomes endowed with the power and prestige of the hero, without necessarily having been a hero.

Hero scripts were custom-made to flatter the regents who commissioned the royal scribes to write them! Narratives from different cultures resemble each other because scribes in different cultures used the same set of scripting formulas.

Lord Raglan argued that the greater part of myth that survives in written form -- such as the Epic of the Sumerian hero, Gilgamesh, written in cuneiform on clay tablets dating from around 1600 BCE — are leftovers from texts used for performing ritual dramas. It is hard for us to evaluate these myths correctly, he insisted, because we do not see them enacted dramatically in their original setting. It is as if we had the stage-notes and some dialogue for productions of Shakespeare, but never had the opportunity to see a play staged or to participate in the social and cultural setting in which such dramas would be mounted.

Lord Raglan’s thesis delineates twenty-two plot-elements found in almost all variations of the heroic quest. His work provides an important inventory of scripts, but it does much more as well. It also demonstrates the new critical methodology that will come to be applied in future stages of metahistorical inquiry, leading up to the present version. By arguing that myths and legends are deliberately scripted to indemnify and preserve the rule of patriarchy, Lord Raglan gave the signal (inadvertently, perhaps) to the feminist critique of male domination. By exposing the skeletal elements of the patriarchal scripting formulas, he prepared the way for a thorough and in-depth expose of the ideologies and beliefs carried in the inherited scripts. The Hero is the breakthrough work that initiates the second wave of metahistory.

As noted above, in its second generation comparative mythology produced the two great synthesizers, Mircea Eliade [1907 — 86] and Joseph Campbell [1904 — 87]. Other members of this wave were Karl Kerenyi, Georges Dumezil and Alain Danielou. In From Primitives to Zen and Patterns of Comparative Religion, Eliade produced a master inventory, the first of its kind since Spence. Campbell proceeds along the same lines in his massive, four-volume study, The Masks of God, and a single volume summary, The Mythic Image, although these works are highly discursive and tend to be over-weighted by commentary. For present purposes, From Primitives to Zen is the most user-friendly synthesis of the materia mythica produced by the second wave. (Cited for short as the "Eliade inventory." See inventory in Lexicon.)

If we date the rise of the second wave from The Hero in 1936, the following shift may be located around 1980. In the interim occurred a tremendous development that would forever change both the theory and practice of metahistory: the feminist movement. The feminist contribution to metahistory is so vast and so profound that it requires a full treatment in its own right, but this lies beyond the limits of the current essay. Suffice it to say that feminism challenged the world to look at the way history is written, and to question the motives of its authors. Echoing Lord Raglan’s proposal to view myths and legends as deliberately crafted scripts, feminist historians like Elaine Morgan (The Descent of Woman) and Rosalind Miles (A Woman’s History of the World) looked over the accepted scripts and then looked beyond them toward different versions of human experience in history and prehistory.

The feminist assault on history-writing is important for all the new versions of our story that it introduced, and for the critical impact it brought to the interpretation of scripts written with the intent to indemnify and preserve the rule of patriarchy. Feminist critique reveals the political edge of metahistorical inquiry.

The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler was published in 1987, six years after The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light by William Irwin Thompson. (Both books are reviewed in Basic Reading) The former is far more widely known, but Thompson’s book is also radical feminism at its best and it makes the perfect companion volume to Eisler. Since I am unable to go further into the feminist revision of history in this essay, I would advise those interested to consult the notes and bibliography in The Chalice and the Blade for a full reading list. (See particularly note 21 to the Introduction, note 9 of chapter One, note 4 of Chapter Six, and note 10 of Chapter Seven on ecofeminism. See also Merlin Stone in the Seven Classics of Metahistory.)

Naming Metahistory

The defining moment in the second wave of metahistory occurred in 1973 when the American historian, Hayden White, published Metahistory: The Historical Imagination of Nineteenth-Century Europe. With this work, metahistory was formally introduced as a term in academic discourse. White pursued the analysis of history-writing in terms of style of exposition, which is a far cry from close investigation of scripting formulas or exposure of scripted beliefs. For the most part, his work is dense to the point of inaccessibility. Here is a typical paragraph from Metahistory:

If the Comic conception of history produces the historiography of social accommodation, the Tragic conception is the basis of what might be called the historiography of social mediation. The Ironic perspective has a meditative aspect, when it is written in the spirit of benign Satire, which is the point of view which begins beyond the Comic resolution. But, in general, Ironic historiography begins on the other side of Tragedy, with that second look which the writer takes after the truths of Tragedy have been registered and even their inadequacy has been perceived. Tocqueville sought to resist the fall, out of a condition of Tragic reconciliation with the harsh truths revealed by reflection on the history of the modern age, into that resentment which was on the basis of Gobineau’s Ironic historiography and that spirit of accommodation to "things as they are" which inspired Ranke’s Comic historiography.(223)

And so on, more or less, for 434 pages. The capitalized terms, Comic, Tragic, Ironic, refer to the categories or genres of historical style defined by White and used rather like pitons to advance through the steep textuality of European historical writing. His aim is to show how "the deep structure of historical imagination" is revealed in the styles of expression of famous historians. White assumes that a "precritically accepted paradigm" informs these styles: by which he means that assumptions and beliefs about history shape and sometimes distort the historian’s treatment of materials. His critique does not extend to full-bore detection of those paradigms, or scripted beliefs as they are called in the current version of metahistory. Although he puts metahistory on the map of intellectual discourse, White does not advance or upscale the work of previous generations. Rather, he wallows down in his own terminology. It is extremely difficult to extract any helpful guidelines from Metahistory.

White’s second book, The Content of the Form, published in 1987, is perhaps more helpful though equally challenging to read due to the high saturation of specialist terminology. In this book he examines "the value of narrativity," which is to say, the value imbued in the way things are narrated.
White opens with a fine phrase, "To raise the question of the nature of narrative is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and, possibly, even on the nature of humanity itself." (1), but his language in the rest of the work is rarely this lucid. Nevertheless, he strikes the signal note for the third wave of metahistory by suggesting that "narrative is a meta-code, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of shared reality can be transmitted." (1) This high-blown rhetoric reduces to one simple and practical challenge: by learning to read the meta-code of mythological and historical scripts, we can detect the messages that are directing human experience at collective and personal levels. This is the aim of metahistorical inquiry in the present shift, beyond the third wave.

Metahistory in White’s formula belongs to an emergent vein of academic discourse called "historicism." This is a huge, highly technical and hotly controversial issue in some universities around the world, but it is peripheral to the metahistory being developed on this site. (For an introduction see The New Historicism, edited by H. Aram Veeser.) The Fourth Wave The brief period from 1981 to 2002, when Metahistory.org was launched, may be considered as the culmination of the third wave of metahistory, corresponding to the third generation of comparative mythology. Sometime in this twenty-year interval, the two strands tend to become separated and metahistory finally emerges on its own terms.

It may be fair to say that Metahistory.org represents the fourth and future wave of this overall development.

The background to metahistory is situated in an historical timeframe with a depth of 2500 years (since Herodotus) and a defining profile at 200 years (since Dupuis). This is quite an impressive perspective, needless to say, yet the future of this discipline matters more than its past. We have not yet seen what can be done with metahistorical insight. With the fourth wave comes the task of examining the beliefs scripted in all kinds of narratives with the intent to challenge those beliefs. Metahistory in the fourth wave is different from anything preceding it, because it carries the option to question beliefs rather than merely to interpret them. It assumes that we behave as we believe and it proposes to test this assumption by offering a critical discourse on belief and belief-systems. As stated in the home page for this site, the aim of metahistory is liberation from the blind compulsion of beliefs.

It may be significant that the fourth wave emerges in a unique moment of historical opportunity predicted in various traditions of sacred timekeeping. Maya/Aztec chronology correlates closely with Hindu and Egyptian traditions that identify the two centuries after the year 2000 as the culminating phase of a cosmic time-cycle of 26,000 years. If the entire period of 260 centuries were compared to a twenty-four-hour day, we would be living in the last eleven minutes of that day. The cosmic clock is ticking down to the end of the Kalpa, the great precessional Age measured by star-motion in the Zodiac. The Internet is heavily loaded with sites dedicated to the debate on the meaning of this nexus.

Prospects November 2002

Eventually I will contribute an essay on the Great Precessional Cycle as a metahistorical format, but for the moment I will just indicate that the 200-year closing phase of the Cycle contains a kind of time-window in which the closure of the Cycle can be determined. This window is best defined by the Maya-Hindu correlation that defines an age extending from 3102 BCE to 2216 AD. The much-discussed "Mayan End Time" falls precisely on December 21, 2012. My studies indicate that the window of opportunity for facing the closure of the entire Great Precessional Cycle and understanding its implications for humanity extends from February 1999 to December 2012, a period of just under thirteen years. We are now just a quarter of the way into the time-window.

If it is really possible to understand the course of human experience in such a vast perspective, it may be due to the grounding in metahistory that we, as a species, have achieved in the last 2500 years, and especially in the last 200. But there is still a great deal to be done before we can really benefit from the insights that metahistory has to offer. The work of the three previous waves has left some problems to resolve. The inventories of mythological themes and scripting formulas need to be revised and upscaled.

The relation of myth to actual historical and prehistorical events (discussed in The Panorama of Myth) and its seemingly contradictory role (according to Lord Raglan) as a contrived script, needs to be resolved. The central emphasis on the solar hero has to be counterbalanced by reclamation of the Goddess Mysteries, such as we see in the work of Barbara Walker and Merlin Stone. The role of the shaman as primary religious figure has to be re-evaluated, and the status of the hero-healer who is enigmatically wounded has to be re-interpreted in terms of what it tells us about the human condition. Finally, a clear, concise and user-friendly method for critiquing belief has to be developed, so that all the theoretical and interpretive aspects of metahistory can be put into practice. The purpose of Metahistory.org is to present an open forum and a setting for collaboration around these exciting challenges.

Commitment is the key word for the fourth wave of metahistory. Each one of us has a life-story, a personal narrative densely interwoven with familial, racial, sexual, national and religious elements. Our life-stories are highly conditioned by these contingent factors, but for every individual the core of the personal narrative carries a pure strand of belief — about oneself, about society and humanity at large, about God and all that lies beyond us — and it is this strand that determines how we choose to live our lives. Metahistory looks at the stories of our lives so that we can redirect the course of our lives. The signature of the work ahead is applied insight that leads to changed behavior, one story at a time.


JLL: Nov 2002

 
 
 
 
 

Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2016 exclusive to John Lash.