A recent trip to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford brought us face to face with history, covering many centuries and many cultures. One of the things that struck me was the quantity of objects that were associated with the sacred. It is perfectly understandable that this should be so as those things that are considered to be sacred, or be representative of the sacred, would doubtless have had a special value, both artistically and emotionally, and would thus have been more likely to be preserved for posterity than a cooking pot or hair comb, for instance and even more so than a simple jewel of mere financial value.
The details of religious belief have differed widely throughout human history and across the world, but the underlying idea of sacredness in itself is common to all. There is a veneration of something we see as being greater than our human selves, worthy of respect and reverence. For our early ancestors the Earth itself was sacred. Later, gods and goddesses personified aspects of Deity with stories not unlike our own; we could begin to understand the abstract principles behind the Forces that were given such forms and understanding them began to be an intellectual pursuit as much as a question of faith.
Many of the symbols of these ancient beliefs seem strange to our eyes, yet they are no stranger than, say, a crucifix would look to someone who knew nothing of Christianity. The symbols of religious belief encapsulate stories… and the stories themselves are symbols for a greater reality beyond conscious thought, but which speak to us on a level deeper than emotion. It is as if we have a capacity to understand the message of a symbol, even if we do not know its story. We have an inherent, if basic, understanding of common symbols. The Horus Hawk speaks to us of soaring flight… the crucifix of suffering… the solar disc of light… and the green gods of fertile life.
We recognise the sacred from across time and space, even if its symbols are not familiar and not our own. We may couch our understanding of them in terms of our own beliefs and fail to see their depth of meaning… but we recognise them as having been symbols of the sacred once upon a time. Some will reject them utterly, others accord them respect because of the faith they once inspired, but even to reject them as ‘pagan’ is to own their erstwhile sacrality.
What is perhaps the oldest faith needs no symbols. We have only to look. We live, breathe and have our being within it. The fruitful earth is beneath our feet, the starry canopy of the heavens above us, the great fiery eye wakes every morning and warms the soil and its tears fall as life-giving rain. Our world qualifies as ‘bigger than Man’ and worthy of revernce.
The sacred nature of our home is all too often overlooked and our modern consumer society treats our planet as a soulless resource upon which it can prey or scavenge without consequence, even though we, as individuals, know that to be untrue. If we render our home unfit for human habitation, it is we who will perish, not our planet. It may take a few thousand years, but Man’s depredations will be erased by the fertile earth when we are no more than a crumbling forgotten memory.
Our ancestors knew a thing or two worth the knowing. We have only to look at the inner meanings of ancient myths to realise their phenomenal understanding of the human psyche. We have only to study the stellar alignments and geometries of their monuments to see how advanced their practical knowledge may have been without the benefit of our telescopes and computerised instrumentation. Perhaps it would be worth according their belief in the sacredness of the earth a little respect too. We are surrounded by miracles every day. They are not forgotten symbols of ancient faith… they are cherry trees in flower… bluebell woods… a soaring hawk… a loving touch or a laughing child. They are all the small, familiar things that are not gods, not gilded or jewelled… but they are reminders, symbols, of a life greater than our own and worthy of reverence.