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Monday, 23 April 2012

Ancient Symbol Worship, by Westropp & Wake, Reviewed.

This is a modern version, not the one I read,
and may contain more information.
Subtitled, Influence of the Phallic Idea in the Religions of Antiquity, this book came my way as one of a small collection given me by my brother when he was sorting stuff out prior to a move to a new house with less space. He used to work in a book store and has a number of fairly unusual titles in his library. This was one he hadn't got round to reading, but the title and subtitle intrigued me.
This small volume, first published in 1875, sets out to examine the influence of the phallic, or male, component in ancient religion. But it takes this idea into modern religion, suggesting that the ancient beliefs, customs and rites have been absorbed and altered by modern celebrants in forms recognisable to those who wish to see.
There's some Latin, untranslated, and a colossal amount of reference to often obscure issues that were, presumably, well known to scholars of the time. But, for a modern reader, these references remain unexplained and would require a great deal of research to track down and more time than most people have these days for such esoteric issues. Whilst those who already have a deep interest in the symbolism employed in worship will undoubtedly understand the references, the rest of us will remain confused. However, much is clarified by context and, having an interest in many subjects, I was able to apprehend a lot of what the authors allude to, though other items consisted of listings of arcane information lacking any hook on which I could hang it.
That the book was written in the Victorian era, with its dreadful hypocrisy regarding all matters sexual, shows in the circumspection that rules the writing. Where, today, we would name the penis, testes, vulva and breasts without fear or embarrassment, the authors are constrained by the customs of their times and therefore have to express much of their ides in convoluted form or by the use of metaphor, much of which is couched in classical references that will be lost on many modern readers.
A second factor in preventing the authors expressing themselves frankly and with clarity is their sensitivity to the feelings of those who profess a faith. Again, today, such sensitivities can be dealt with more openly, showing respect rather than reverence. In the time the book was published however, such frankness, leading to real clarity, would have probably prevented publication.
So, an already difficult subject is made more obscure for reasons that are no longer valid. As the ideas and information explored are still valid and in need of wider publicity, I'd love to see some modern scholar produce a similar volume for today's reader with a much clearer text. Perhaps it's been done and I simply haven't come across the book.
As it is, this book can really only be read by the general reader as a partial glimpse into the subject. Those with a good knowledge of ancient history, religion and symbolism will glean a good deal more, however. Many of the ideas expressed as certainties have, of course, been placed in doubt or even refuted by more recent discoveries of texts from such sources as the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient records and parchments retrieved from many different sources by modern archaeologists.
Members of religious organisations will no doubt be outraged by suggestions that the roots of their current dogma and rites grew from ancient forms of worship that were definitely based in reproduction and sexuality, often in very explicit acts of devotion, sacrifice and propitiation to the early deities. But a dispassionate and disinterested examination of the rites, customs and beliefs of such groups quickly establishes their ancient links with many practices and myths no longer considered either right or sensible.
A demanding read, not for the faint-hearted.

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