Christian Hierarchy

Note 2: Augustine: Against Manichaeanism. 5/21/99

In his Introductory Essay on the Manichaean Heresy, a piece written as an introduction to Augustine's invectives against various Manichaean theologians at the beginning of the fifth century, Albert H. Newman notes that "[r]ecent scholars have brought to light facts of the utmost interest with reference to the pre-Babylonian (Accadian) religion. A rude nature-worship, with a pantheistic basis, but assuming a polytheistic form, seems to have prevailed in Mesopotamia from a very early period." The problem with Newman's characterization of Accadian religion is one we have encountered before in which a European scholar confuses the idea of spirit with the idea of God. This is made apparent from the language used in a description Newman quotes from Lenormant's Chaldean Magic (1877) where it is stated that

"Spirit everywhere dispersed produced all the phenomena of nature, and directed and animated all created beings. They caused evil and good, guided the movements of the celestial bodies, brought back the seasons in their order, made the wind to blow and the rain to fall, and produced by their influence atmospheric phenomena both beneficial and destructive; they also rendered the earth fertile, and caused plants to germinate and to bear fruit, presided over the births and preserved the lives of living beings, and yet at the same time sent death and disease." (Lenormant 144).

Lenormant's passage is relatively typical of the way Europeans have always described animistic religion. One problem with his description concerns the fact that he separates the spirit, as cause, from the effect it is said to produce or generate. Strictly speaking, that assertion is not precisely accurate, at least in terms of native American belief. While the Chaldean religion may well have perceived spirit in the way Lenormant claims, opening the way for confusing spirit and god(s), since god(s) always cause whatever happens in the world under their domination and control, a more accurate explanation is that the effect produced by a spirit, wind for instance, cannot be separated from the spirit that produces it. In other words, a hurricane is not produced by a spirit, rather a hurricane is a kind of spirit that belongs to the larger category of wind-spirits in general. A spirit is the effect produced, but is not the cause of that effect. Nothing causes the effect that spirits embody; spirits simply exist as part of the natural order of the cosmos. Hence, when a spirit passes, its effects are felt and experienced by the people who live in its path.

In a world view where everything is animated by spirit-power, there is little, if any, room for the concept of god(s) because everything which can be seen or experienced or imagined has its place in nature and nothing in the natural world depends on the supernatural for its existence or its behavior. The fact that Newman employs the terms "pantheistic" and "polytheistic" in his prelude to Lenormant's description of animistic spirit-power makes it obvious that he does not comprehend the nature of the religion about which he has written. This essential, and nearly universal, confusion in Eurocentric discourse about the nature of spirit-power, and the tendency to confuse it with the idea of divine and supernatural intervention in the normal course of natural life, makes it both possible and easy to denigrate as inferior the belief system of animistic people when compared to the pre-determined superior status of Christian ideology. Belief in spirits, as a kind of inferior conceptualization of god(s), has always already been perceived as a characteristic of the tribal, primitive, barbaric, savagery of people who are not white, ego-centric, greed-driven murderers prone to appropriating everything that belongs to the other if it is perceived as having any value at all in filling the absence of value that exists at the center of the Eurocentric gaze.

Take an example: in his account of adventures in the New World (Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, 1542), Cabeza de Vaca gives this account of a first encounter with native Americans fifteen days after his band of explorers sets out on their journey into the interior:

"They gestured so menacingly that we fell upon them and seized five or six, who led us to their houses half a league away. There we found quite a quantity of corn ripe for plucking. To our Lord we lifted infinite thanks for succoring us, who were yet young in trials, in our extremity; we were weak from hunger and weary." (Chapter 5)

The menacing gestures occurred after the Governor of the European party attempted to communicate with the natives through sign-language, since none of the members of de Vaca's company could speak any native language at all. Cabeza de Vaca himself had spent several weeks prior to this encounter trying to convince his fellows that they were collectively unprepared in every way imaginable for a journey into the interior of the newly discovered continent. No one in the group is ever seen to hunt or fish for food; they are soldiers after all and soldiers feed themselves by plundering supplies from the enemy, which is precisely what happens in every native settlement they manage to find. The natives, of course, respond by trying to protect themselves from the invaders, which any reasonable community of human beings would do when confronted by a pack of 300 ravenous wolves who show up one day out of no-where and nothingness demanding to be fed with every grain of corn you have produced for your own survival simply because the invaders do not have sense enough or knowledge enough to provide for their own subsistence. Good Christians and true expect God to provide, as we all know from the fable of the fishes and the loaves that fed the multitude, and if it becomes necessary to murder a few savages who do not sacrifice themselves and their children for the sake of your survival, as an enactment of the fable itself and out of Christian charity toward the other, as it were, then why not fall upon them and seize whatever it is they have that you need? This is especially justifiable when the other makes a few menacing gestures of refusal. In this context, of course, the absence of preparation and planning for satisfying your own needs is fulfilled by sustained and repeated acts of violence against the other.

Another method of evaluating this fundamental absence in Eurocentric ideology as it frames itself against perceptions of the other is to look at the way Augustine concludes his discourse against the Manichaeans in his treatise Concerning the Nature of Good, Against the Manichaeans. In Chapter 46 (entitled "The Unspeakable Doctrine of the Fundamental Epistle"), for instance, Augustine describes an apparent ritual practiced by contemporary Manichaeans which was taken from and inspired by the way in which, according to Manichaean doctrine in the Fundamental epistle, the Prince of Darkness went about the task of creating Adam. One thing worth noting in passing is that, in a work which contains only 48 chapters, Augustine probably deferred this part of his discussion to the end of his invective both to accentuate the essential horror of the doctrine (as he sees it) and to stamp it with the rhetorical significance of being the last word said on the subject. The passage in question is rather lengthy and complex and so it might be best to break it into several parts with brief commentary between:

"Since there was a promiscuous throng of those who had come together, females and males of course, he impelled them to copulate among themselves: in which copulation the males emitted seed, the females were made pregnant. But the offspring were like those who had begotten them, the first obtaining as it were the largest portion of the parents' strength. Taking these as a special gift their Prince rejoiced."

The "throng" participating in this orgy is composed of lesser spirits or gods in the Manichaean "pantheon." The Prince of Darkness is the supreme being in Manichaean theology and these lesser, non-human entities are arranged in hierarchical structures under his authority. Whether they are spirits or gods, or some other form of life (angels for instance), is difficult to say because of the long and tangled development of Middle Eastern religions which interanimated each other over the long history of their parallel evolution in the region. Jewish belief, of course, was monotheistic; Zoroastrianism was probably polytheistic by the beginning of the fifth century but traces its roots back to animism and a belief in spirits, not gods, in its essential origin. A point of significance here is the notion that the first-born has the largest share of his (nor hers) parents' attributes ("strength"). This idea in patriarchal cultures justifies the right of primogeniture and carries that essential sense in this context as well. The reason the Prince of Darkness rejoices in the first-born is made clear in what follows:

"And just as even now we see take place, that the nature of evil taking thence strength forms the fashioner of bodies, so also the aforesaid Prince, taking the offspring of his companions, which had the senses of their parents, sagacity, light, procreated at the same time with themselves in the process of generation, devoured them; and very many powers having been taken from food of this kind, in which there was present not only fortitude, but much more astuteness and depraved sensibilities from the ferocious race of the progenitors, he called his own spouse to himself. . . ."

In this continuation of the prior passage, we are informed that the Prince devours the offspring of his subordinate spirits, daemons, or gods and through that act appropriates into himself all the powers and strengths of his followers. This ritual act of "cannibalism" takes on two separate and distinct directions in Christian theology. On the one hand, and in the first place, the ritual cannibalism celebrated in the Christian Mass, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the risen Christ, who was both wholly man and wholly God, mirrors the concept being expressed here since the body and blood of the sacrament confers on the believer the restoration of his/her pre-sin innocence, which is consumed as sanctified food harvested from Christ's absolutely sinless state in the resurrection of his body from the corruption of death itself. The ground of this idea, on the other hand, already existed in Middle Eastern religions before Christianity appropriated it in the animistic notion that a hunter who consumes the heart of his prey takes on and appropriates for himself the strength and courage and power of the animal he has hunted and killed. The difference between one concept and the other is minimal and confined mostly to the idea that a Christian takes on Christ's sinlessness through the sacrament rather than some other aspects of his essential being. The notion of becoming Christlike through the ritual of the Mass is not significantly different from the animistic notion expressed here by the Manichaeans, except for the fact that the Prince of Darkness is consuming evil rather than good.

The Manichaean Epistle goes on, according to Augustine, to explain what happens after the Prince of Darkness calls forth his own spouse (no surprises here, of course):

"springing from the same stock as himself, [he] emitted, like the rest the abundance of evils that he had devoured, himself also adding something from his own thought and power, so that his disposition became the former and arranger of all the things that he had poured forth; whose consort received these things as soil cultivated in the best way is accustomed to receive seed. For in her were constructed and woven together the images of all heavenly and earthly powers, so that what was formed obtained the likeness, so to speak, of a full orb."

In other words, after copulating with her spouse, the mother of all creation gives birth to the "full orb" of Adam's being. He, of course, is a composite of all the evil the Prince of Darkness has consumed from the orgy of his subordinate spirits and from certain elements of himself which are left unspecified. After revealing the nature of this "Unspeakable" doctrine of the Manichaeans, Augustine goes on (in Chapter 47) to give it a practicable flesh, so to speak:

"That they do this some are said to have confessed before a public tribunal, not only in Paphlagonia, but also in Gaul, as I heard in Rome from a certain Catholic Christian; and when they were asked by the authority of what writing they did these things, they betrayed this fact concerning the Thesaurus that I have just mentioned. But when this is cast in their teeth, they are in the habit of replying, that some enemy or other has withdrawn from their number, that is from the number of their Elect, and has made a schism, and has founded a most foul heresy of this kind."

The point here, of course, is to recognize the fact that having a doctrine about what the Prince of Darkness did in the long ago and far away mythical past of religious origins, is not at all the same thing as claiming that contemporary Manichaeans, like maybe the family next door, is in the practice of stealing children from the street, even your very own child, and serving them up for dinner in the utterly horrific and sacrilegious manner described in the Manichaeans' Fundamental Epistle. If all Augustine has to offer as proof of this claim is what he says above, and that is all the proof he offers, no court in our world would fail to judge him guilty of slander, if he said it about anyone, or guilty of libel, if he published such claims, with no more ground than his word that some "certain Catholic Christian" told him about it in Rome.

Since animistic people believe that some part of the spirit-power of the animal they hunt is transmitted to them when they eat that animal, it seems only logical to assume the same thing would be true if they hunted and ate other human beings. There may even be a few cases where this or that tribe of native people actually have practiced a cannibalistic ritual of this kind. If any of those accounts are actually true, and not merely projections of Christian guilt over their own practice of cannibalism in the sacrament of the Mass, one cannot assume on that basis that the tribe who does it perceives the other as an available source of food. To say that Augustine may be, and probably is, guilty of this kind of excess in his assessment of Manichaean people, can be put more in retrospect (1999 A. D.), given the fascination Europeans have always harbored about the existence of cannibals in the New World, where there is virtually no reliable documentation to support such claims at all, than it can be in the present moment of his actual discourse (404 A. D.). In the context of 1542, of course, and given the circumstances of extreme privation that accompanied Cabeza de Vaca on his journey into the "unknown" interior of America, one could just as reasonably argue that the reason only a few members of the company of 300 survived was because only a few of them were able to convince themselves that eating the others as they died was as justifiable, from a religious point of view (after the body was suitably prayed over, say), as was their more widely accepted practice (among themselves) of murdering the natives for their stores of self-sustaining food, food not gathered and preserved for the subsistence of an invasion of ravenous wolves, Christian or otherwise.

The point is that making a leap from "civilized" to cannibal in a religious ideology that already privileges the consumption of a human Savior's flesh and blood is much less difficult to imagine, perhaps only because I do not embrace that point of view, than it is to accept the notion that eating an animal's flesh in order to acquire its power is the same as being or becoming a cannibal any and every time ordinary sources of food go scarce. I can see Europeans doing that. Native Americans never have.

In fact, if Cabeza de Vaca's account can be taken as truth-preserving, several documented cases of cannibalism occurred among the Spaniards on the journey along the Texas coast. In Chapter 21, for instance, he reports that

"Five Christians quartered on the coast came to the extremity of eating each other. Only the body of the last one, whom nobody was left to eat, was found unconsumed. Their names were Sierra, Diego Lopez, Corral, Palacios, and Gonzalo Ruiz."

After making this rather bland statement about the cannibalism among his fellow Christians, and one must surely note that he makes no effort to condemn the act itself, he tells us that "[t]he Indians were so shocked at this cannibalism that, if they had seen it sometime earlier, they surely would have killed every one of us." Indeed! Later developments, the fact that the surviving Spaniards were all treated as the vilest kind of slaves by the natives they encountered, tend to suggest that a reputation for outrageous and barbaric behavior traveled along with and well ahead of the actual bodies of the survivors, encouraging the natives to treat them as they deserved, like animals, like beasts of burden, which the natives certainly did not hestitate to do.

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