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The exoteric Path and totemic religions

by Athos A. Altomonte

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I think that considering religious conflicts from the point of view of their exoteric and popular contexts is a false objective.

Highlighting the conflict between the spiritual, inner and esoteric thesis and its exterior antithesis, viz. exterior and exoteric profane religions, we have found precisely, I think, the core of the apparent conflict between sacred and profane. These are two elements that, like two sides of the same coin, can coexist only if they are recognized for what they really are.

Spirituality is the inner essence (the ‘life' substance), whilst a cult, any cult, is the exterior expression visible to the physical eyes (the ‘dead' form).

The spiritual thesis is an ‘inner' elevation of the energy of human conscience (true initiation), whilst the purpose of exoteric and popular cults (without distinction) is to ingratiate ourselves with the provident help of a Deity. Initiatory spirituality has been passed on to us from the East with the cult of the inner sun (culture=Cult of Ur, the inner sun, which is placed in the central chakra of the human form, the ‘solar plexus'). This inner and spiritual sun is the source of the ‘first' inner illumination. This means that it is the first initiation that ‘unveils' or ‘separates' Isis' veil (the astral lunar-emotional illusion, Maya for the Easterners), giving visibility to a first reality of the ‘world', that of a clear vision of conscience, not dimmed by passion (even mystic) and desire (even the aspiration to good is a desire, although devotional).

Cults, on the contrary, are the legacy of taboos originated by totemic cultures, where offers were elevated to the Deity in order not to incur in its fury, such as exorcising the lack of animals to hunt, exorcising the fear for hostile atmospheric elements, exorcising accidents and illnesses, personal and collective misfortunes. The tribe, the Clan – as it later happened with their development in peoples' cultures – had their ‘own' deity, which was represented by various totemic forms. Many of these representations have undergone, even if only in their exterior form, the evolutions of people's imagination connected to the formation of a group (people's) conscience; this was the beginning of exterior religions, which came up thanks to the evolutions of primitive exoteric cults.

Man dreams and when his dreams are shared by other men, they become myths and legends of popular beliefs.'

It is a true fact that the myths at the origin of most religious cults have oneiric nature; they originated from the dreams or visions of an altered conscience. Therefore, we must be very cautious when we deal with exterior beliefs.

It is possible to differentiate an initiatory and spiritual path from an exoteric totemic path (which is idolatrous because it uses idols, images and exterior representations), through two of their main characteristics.

Spirituality is the reason for any journey that leads ‘inside' ourselves, in search of our own spiritual barycenter (egoic barycenter that pivots on the impersonal conscience of the superior Ego), whilst the cults of exoteric religions look for their truths outside. They do this through exterior phenomena that can perhaps be seen and touched; in doing so, though, they take man away from the center of his conscience.

Esonet is a paladin and messenger of ideas of elements on the initiatory path; therefore I don't need to add anything else. On the exoteric path, though, it is appropriate to study a few elements that can help understand the origin of its cults and forms.

Among Freud's works we find a theory that is very useful for our research; we would like to point it out to the attention of the scholar. It is shared by Theodr Reik in ‘The Ritual', the preface to his work on ‘Problems of religious psychology'.

At one point in his argument the author states that if we deal with the prehistoric and ethnological material we have on the topic from a psychoanalytical point of view, we reach an unexpected as well as precise result; God Father once walked on earth in a corporeal form and he exerted his sovereignty as head of the primordial human horde, until his ‘children' joined together to kill him. What emerges is the fact that this liberating killing, and the reactions that followed, originated the first social bonds, the fundamental moral boundaries and the most ancient form of religion, totemism. Nevertheless the religions that followed have the same content and on one hand they try to delete the traces of that killing or to atone for it, proposing other solutions to the conflict between the father and children; on the other hand, they cannot help appealing, once again, to the elimination of the fatherly figure. On this subject we can reveal that in myths as well we find an echo of this monstrous event, which casts its shadow on the whole course of human evolution.

What Reik said must be related to the symbols of man's and woman's sensitivity towards the parents' figure. The assonance with generating - from genitus , past participle of gignere , to generate ( note from translator: in Italian the word ‘parents' is translated genitori ', ) through the procreating activity of sexual organs, genitals, goes back to the activity that has a primary role in the hierarchy of ‘exoteric' morale.

Certain complexes and allegories start from them for reasons that we can simplify in the following terms. At the childish stage of the emotional mind the father is always seen as an obstacle to be removed and an image to be destroyed because it is in the way of the child that wants to reach the mother. The father can be an obstacle to several maternal (oneiric) images. The most common and least perceived of them is the mother as a symbol of ‘food' on which to feed, for the imprinting in the unconscious stage of childhood. Feeding on her, by eating her day by day, develops a bond of morbid dependence with the mother that remains unsurpassed and censored throughout life.

It is necessary to consider how in any common philosophy, religion and moral ethics there is the prevalence of a deeply phallic and male perspective that has ruled out, censoring it, the presence of the female imagination of matriarchy, removing any element that formed its sexual religions. This male perspective must not be underestimated, especially because in the adult stage of the mind (adult but not necessarily mature or advanced) the father figure is the obstacle between the young man and the mother figure. The mother, as well as food (oral stage) is then experienced as an intense symbol that precociously excite the form of sexuality. Indeed, ‘sucking' and ‘licking' remains a primary erotic activity in the adult sexuality of both sexes.

In the boy the desire for his mother, to eat and own her, originates the desire to ‘destroy or kill' the obstacle. A submissive character will repress and censor this feeling into hatred; a dynamic character will transform it into a competitive, even violent relationship.

The taboo that prevents this approach, instinctive as well as deeply desired, sets the foundations for the Oedipus complex that, both in the oneiric and waking stages, will affect the emotional and sexual sphere of the adult.

In the psychological attitude that originates from this first emotional conflict, the representations of an anthropomorphic God are representations of the Father figure, in which man recognizes himself, idealizing his image and projecting his own attributes. These feared and worshipped figures are also killed in order to feed on and become similar to them (see totemic sacrifice).

This totemic and anthropophagic concept of actually feeding on the symbol or the object of desire, veneration, loving drive, fear and dread (taboo in its various natures, from sexual to religious) originates from the memory of the maternal bond; whilst the killing is the removal between oneself and the desire for fatherly authority.

This Father-Mother dualism is reflected, by the human unconscious imagination, in every religious belief which, with its ceremonies, increases in man that childish stage called ‘oral' (the psychological childhood has nothing to do with the physiological childhood). In this stage of egocentric emotions, man doesn't know how to apply speculative or spiritual introflection, he pursues (goes towards) a loved or desired model and he tries to interiorize it by taking it physically, phagocytizing it. By having it inside himself, he thinks that he will also take the qualities that cause the admiration or adoration of the visionary.


Notes on the phenomenon of the Totemic Banquet

In order to better illustrate these short notes, we will quote some parts of the essay Totem and Taboo (1913) from ‘Works 1886-1905 vol. II' by Sigmund Freud.

W. Robertson Smith (‘Lectures on the religion of the Semites', London 1894), physicist, philologist, critic of the Bible and archaeologist, universal, witty and unconventional spirit, in his work on the religion of Semites, expressed the opinion that a strange ceremony, the so-called totemic banquet, was part of the totemic system since the origins. The only element he had as a foundation for his theory was a description of this rite passed on from the V century B.C.; nevertheless he was able to make it sound plausible by analyzing the sacrifice among ancient Semites. Since the sacrifice exists because of the existence of a deity, it was only a matter of going back from a relatively advanced stage of the religious ritual to a primitive one, totemism.

I will try and quote, from the excellent work by Robertson Smith, the most interesting parts that refer to the origin and meaning of the rite of sacrifice; we will omit the often enchanting details and the development of this rite.

Certain language elements that survive through time demonstrate with certainty that, at the beginning, the part of sacrifice destined to the god was considered as its real nourishment. Gradually, with the acceptance that the divine nature was not material, this conception appeared quite inappropriate. Only the liquid part of the banquet was attributed to the divinity. Later, the use of fire that dissolved the flesh of the victim in smoke, gave the possibility of a manipulation of human food that was more worthy of the divine essence. At the beginning the blood of sacrificed animals was offered to the gods; it was later replaced by wine. Wine was considered by ancient peoples as the ‘blood of the vine'.

The ethical force of the public sacrificial banquet was due to ancient ideas about the meaning of communally eating and drinking. To eat and drink together was at the same time a symbol and a strengthening of social community and reciprocal duties. The banquet in the sacrifice directly expressed the fellowship of the god and his worshippers and this fellowship implied all the other relations allegedly existing between him and them.

The rule according to which every participant to the sacrificial banquet must eat the meat of the sacrificed animal (totem, Note of the Author ) has the same meaning as the prescription where a member of the tribe that has committed a crime must be executed by the whole tribe. In other words, the sacrificed animal was treated like a member of the tribe; the community offering the sacrifice, its god and the animal had the same blood, were members of the same clan.

Despite the fear (taboo, Note of the Author ) that protected the life of the sacred animal as if it was part of the tribe, now and again it was necessary to solemnly sacrifice it, in the presence of the whole community, and to distribute its flesh and blood to the members of the tribe.

The reason that inspired these actions reveals the deepest meaning of sacrifice. We know that in later ages every communal meal, the sharing of the same substance that enters the bodies, created a sacred bond between fellow guests; in ancient times this meaning was attributed to the communal eating of the flesh of a sacred victim.

The sacred mystery of sacrificial death is explained by the fact that it is the only way to establish a bond between the participants and them and their God.

This link is nothing but the life itself of the sacrificed animal, this life in its flesh, its blood; in the sacrificial banquet this is communicated to all those who participate to it. This concept is at the basis of all the blood ties that men have with each other, even in recent times.

But what does the mourning mean as a consequence to the death of the totem animal, which also introduces this joyful feast? If people are happy for the killing of the totem, an action generally prohibited, why do they mourn it? We know that the members of the clan sanctify themselves by eating the totem and they strengthen the identification between them and with it. The joyful attitude and what follows can be explained by the fact that men absorbed the sacred life which the substance of the totem was the personification, or, even better, the vehicle.

Psychoanalysis revealed to us that, in actual fact, the totem animal replaces the father and this explains the contradiction we noticed earlier. On one hand the prohibition to kill, on the other the feast preceded by an explosion of pain that follows its death. The ambivalent emotional attitude which, still today, characterizes the father complex in children, and which is sometimes carried further into their adult life, would extend to the totem animal that replaces the father.

If we link the idea of the totem suggested by psychoanalysis with the totemic banquet and the Darwinian hypothesis on the primitive state of human society, we can obtain a better understanding and grasp the intuition of a hypothesis that can appear fantastic, but has the advantage of creating a connection between a series of isolated phenomena.

The origin of religious totemism is the submission to a violent, jealous father that keeps all the women to himself and gets rid of the children as they grow; this is what it assumes. This primitive state of society has never been the object of analysis. The most primitive organization that we know of and that still exists in certain tribes consists of a community of men that enjoy the same rights and are subjected to the limitations of the totemic system, included the motherly heritage.

Could this organization derive from the organization supposed by the Darwinian theory? And how did we get to it?

By referring to the feast of the totemic banquet we can give the following answer. One day, the brothers that were driven away joined together, killed and ate the father, ending the fatherly horde. Once together they became bold and were able to perform what each of them, individually, was not able to carry out. It is possible that a new process of civilization or the invention of a new weapon gave them the awareness of their superiority. It is not surprising that they ate the body of the father, since they were cannibal primitive people. The violent parent was certainly the model envied and feared by each of the members of this brotherly association. With the act of eating him, they achieved their identification with him; each took part of his strength.

The totemic banquet, which is perhaps the first form of feast of the humankind, is the reproduction and commemoration of this memorable and criminal action that was the starting point for many things: social organizations, moral limitations, religions.

In order to find these consequences plausible, independently from their premises, it is sufficient to recognize that the group of rebel brothers was driven by contradictory feelings towards the father. As we know, these feelings are the ambivalent content of the father complex of our children and neuroses. They hated their father which so violently opposed their desires and sexual needs; nevertheless they loved and admired him.

After killing him, after soothing their hatred and fulfilling their identification with him, they had to express the emotional impulses that had been repressed. They did it in the form of repentance; they felt a sense of guilt that in this case matches with the collective remorse. The dead person became more powerful than the live ones; we can find all this in human events nowadays. What the father used to forbid with his presence, now is forbidden to the children by themselves, in the psychic state known in psychoanalysis as ‘posthumous obedience'. They denied their action by forbidding the killing of the totem, the replacement for the father figure, and abandoned the idea of enjoying its results by refusing to have sexual relationships with the women that were now free. Therefore filial remorse generated the two fundamental taboos of totemism, which then match the two repressed desires of the Oedipus complex. Whoever infringed these taboos was guilty of the only two crimes that interested primitive society (the taboos of murder and incest could destabilize the solidarity and collaboration between members of the same group).

There was no longer a man above the others that could take the role that belonged to the father. Therefore if the brothers wanted to live together, they only had one possibility; after overcoming serious disagreement, they instituted the prohibition of incest. Therefore they all renounced the women they had desired so much, which were in fact the reason for the killing of the father. In this way they saved the organization that made them strong and that was probably based on homosexual feelings and customs acquired at the time of their exile. Perhaps this situation originated the institution of matriarchy described by Bachofen, which remained active until the creation of the patriarchal family.

The totemic system was a kind of contract concluded with the father, for which he promised all that children's imagination could wish from him, protection, care and benevolence, in exchange for the commitment to respect his life, which means to not repeat the action of those who killed the true father. In totemism there was also an attempt for justification. ‘If the father had treated us like we treat the totem, we would have never been tempted to kill him'. Therefore totemism was used to smooth things out and help forget the event it originated from. Therefore there was the appearance of certain characters that will be found in any religion. The totemic religion is originated by the sense of guilt of the children as an attempt to appease this feeling and to obtain the reconciliation with the murdered father in a posthumous obedience. All the religions that follow are as many attempts to resolve the same problem and they differ for the level of civilization they were born into and the path followed to find this solution. Indeed they all represent reactions against the great event where civilization started and that, since then, hasn't stopped tormenting the humankind…

A long time passed before this prohibition, overcoming the clan's limitations, took the simple and short form of commandment, ‘do not kill'. The paternal horde has been replaced by the brotherly clan founded on blood ties.

Modern society lies on a common sense of guilt for a crime were everybody was an accomplice; religion, on the contrary, is based on repentance. We have therefore two elements adding up: morale and need for atonement, both generated by sense of guilt.

Robertson Smith showed us that the totemic banquet goes back into the primitive form of sacrifice. The meaning of the action is the same: consecration through participation to the communal meal. The sense of guilt remains as well, which can be appeased by the solidarity of all participants. The new element is represented by the clan's deity which, in invisible form, attends the sacrifice and takes part in the banquet, exactly like a fellow tribesman, and with which people identify themselves by participating to the same action. How come God finds himself in this situation which was alien to him at the beginning? We might answer that the idea of God had somehow come up in the meantime, had taken possession of the whole religious life and that the totemic banquet, like anything else that wanted to survive next to him, had to adapt to the new system. But from the psychoanalytical examination of the individual, we can see very clearly that each person adapts his own god in the likeness of his own father, that the attitude of people towards the god depends on their attitude towards their carnal father and it changes like this attitude; finally that God is nothing but a father of a higher level. In this case as well, like in totemism, psychoanalysis suggests that we listen to the believer when he talks about his god as if he was his father, just like when we listened to him when he talked about the totem as if it was an ancestor of his.

Nobody could or had to reach the omnipotence of the father, which everybody aspired to. Therefore the resentment towards the father which led to his killing disappeared and gave place to love and an ideal of absolute submission to the same primitive, unlimitedly powerful father that had been fought. Because of the deep changes occurred in the state of civilization, the primitive democratic equality of all the clan members cannot be maintained. We can see, then, the tendency to find the ancient paternal ideal, elevating to the role of gods individuals that, thanks to certain qualities, were superior to the others. It appears absurd to us that a man can become a God or that a God can die, but in classical ancient times this was absolutely possible and natural.

The elevation of the killed father to the role of God, from which the tribe derived its origins, was, indeed, a bigger means of atonement than the pact agreed with the totem. I couldn't tell where maternal deities can be placed in this evolution; perhaps they have preceded the Gods-fathers everywhere. But certainly the change of attitude towards the father wasn't limited to the religious field; it reflected in the social organization that had already undergone the effects of its elimination.

The importance that the sacrifice has acquired is in the fact that, with the same action through which the father had been humiliated, he is now offered satisfaction for this humiliation, even perpetuating its memory. Later, the animal loses its sacred character and the relationships between sacrifice and totemic feast stop.

The sacrifice becomes a simple homage given to the deity, a self-deprivation in favor of God.

God is by now so much above men that the only way to communicate with him is through the priest. At the head of the social organization we find kings covered by a divine character that extend the patriarchal system to the state.

We must say that the father, re-established in his rights, now takes cruel revenge and exerts a despotic authority. The subjected children take advantage of the new conditions to get rid, even further, of the responsibility for the crime committed. At this point, in actual fact, they are not responsible any longer for the sacrifice. It's God himself that expects and orders it. There are certain myths where God kills the animal consecrated to him and which actually represents himself; they belong to this stage. It is the extreme denying of the great crime that marked the origins of society and the arising of sense of responsibility.

This way of conceiving sacrifice has a further meaning, which can be easily understood; it is the satisfaction that men felt by abandoning the cult of totem for that of deity, which is a lower surrogate of the father for a higher one. The openly allegorical translation of the scene at this point matches its psychoanalytical interpretation. It tells us: God overcame the animal part of his being.

Nevertheless it would be a mistake to believe that hostile tendencies towards the father are now totally extinguished. On the contrary, during the first stages of the two new formations replacing the father, viz. gods and kings, we find more than ever the manifestations of this ambivalence that is characteristic of religion.


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