AND EVOLUTION OF RELIGION
E. Washburn Hopkins, 1923
Why Three should have become a "holy number" has long been the subject of speculation. One modern theory suggests that, as man has three finger-joints, his reckoning arose from his fingers and three became the base of order, hence holy. Another contends that three is the base of all rhythmic movements and man is a rhythmical creature. Still another theory is that, as some savages cannot count beyond two, three became synonymous with the all or perfection. Aristotle said long ago that three represents all and hence is the perfect number.
Now it is true that we think in triads, because three are natural divisions, yesterday, today, and tomorrow; childhood, youth, and age; here, above, below; sunrise, noon, sunset; sun, moon, stars; earth, air, sky; father, mother, child; three is the whole, the all. But is it not quite as natural to think in pairs, as savages are apt to do, past and present, here and elsewhere, day and night, sun and moon, earth and sky, strength and weakness, male and female? As for rhythm, the childish swing of "one, two, three, and away we go" adds a fourth; and as a matter of fact four among some savages was a holier number than three, notably over all the Western world, where, both in North and South America, four, based on the four directions (cardinal points), was the really religious number. Five, too, has a limited sanctity, especially in India, where groups of gods and peoples appear in pentads. Then again, seven is, if anything, the truly religions number, as sacred in India as in Greece. In India, the sub-divided month gave weekly holy days at. seven-day intervals, but long before such days were known seven formed a group of itself, the Seven Stars, the Seven Rivers, etc. Seven may at first have connoted merely "several" and then, from the group itself, become ritually sacrosanct.1
But there is a difference, not hitherto noticed, between the holiness of three and that of seven. Seven is religious; three is first magical, before becoming a religious number. Its primitive connotation of completeness or extracompleteness leads to its universal use in magical compulsive operations, such as lustrations, exorcisms of all kinds, oaths, etc. Thus it is rather adopted than originated by religion, whereas seven is practically not recognized at all until advanced religions employ it as a sacred number. A sure test may be made by comparing savage religious rites, which employ three and seven, with savage magic, which ignores seven and everywhere (in Australia, Africa, India, America) employs three, the cogent number,2 while in lustrations three even intrudes upon the province of the sacred (American) four. The oath, repeated three times by savages, tends in religion to become the "oath by three gods" (Zeus, Athene, Apollo),
1. Seven as an indefinite number (above, p. 62) remains for a long time synonymous with "several," as in the Greek Seven Seas, Seven Islands, 94seven mouths," "seven-fold courage" (Aristophanes). Strabo, c. 602, gives Heptaporos as synonymous with Polyporos, the name of a river (compare the "seven-mouthed" streams of India). In the great Hindu epic, Vishnu is called sapta-mahdbhdga, "seven-fold blessed." Shakespeare's "this seven years" means only several years.
2 That is, when a tribe has not yet been affected by missionary or Mohammedan influence, as among the Guinea Africans, where baptism alone is affected by seven (a girl is baptized "after seven days" from birth). Burial rites are based on three. Mourners may not wash for three days; on the third day after death the dead man is three times asked to depart, etc. The Amerinds also occasionally use seven as a ritual number, but probably not of their own initiative. Three was the magic number in Greece and Rome.
such as was usual in Greece, but its compelling force came first from the three.3 Sick people among the old savage Slavs climbed three times through an aperture in a holy oak. Both India and China have the threefold ambulation around the grave. When Babur "sacrificed himself " for his dying son he walked three times around the couch, thus extracting the sickness and compelling it to enter his own body. The Chinese ghost is placated by a threefold oblation of water. Asseverating, cursing, spitting, exorcisms of all kinds, are well done when thrice done; this is the binding number. Hence the threefold lustration of savages and (inherited) of civilized peoples. Baptism follows lustration; hence it is threefold, with three invocations. The earliest employment of the trinitarian formula was in connection with baptism. In the case of the death-ritual, the special sanctity of three may be based on natural causes, since the corpse clearly demands burial within three days except in cold climates. So the Scythians buried after weeks of waiting but generally, as in Australia and Africa, the ghost lingers about for three days and then rises and departs from the body. Even a dead god rises "after three days," as in the resurrection of Attis in the Megalesia rite.
It is possible that three in this and similar instances is first a natural rather than a sacred number, yet by reason of its already holy significance it sanctifies itself afresh. There was, for example, a very good natural reason why the Hindus offered oblations to the sun thrice daily; for sunrise, noon, and sunset were natural points at which to make obeisance. Hence it is not quite obvious that the Hindus offered oblation to the gods thrice daily because three was a holy number. From an earlier
3.Touching wood (originally the Cross) three times to avert evil began religiously as an invocation of the three persons of the Trinity; the rite has now relapsed into a magical form.
stage the number was holy anyway and this seemed to be a fresh case, so they reasonably enough spoke of the "holy threefold offering," but if there had been a fourth point naturally indicating an oblation the three would have been ignored.
The sanctity of three is not explained by any god Is delight in odd numbers"; the odd number is another instance of the binding force of super-completeness, as in the baker's dozen and the Vedic god-group reckoned as three times ten-plus-one and the "hundred and one" of popular Indic use (priests, diseases, veins, etc.), the magical idea in religious use. Three in magic is cogent; it binds. In religion, three simply gives an air of holiness, except, of course, when religion preserves a magical content, as it does often in particular instances. The religion of Greece, like that of India, was a mixture of prayer and curse, religion and magic. "Thrice seven," trisapta, is especially ritualistic in India, though it also indicates an indefinitely large number.4
Divine triads also, like the threefold oblation, really owe but a small part of their superior holiness to the triadic form. National mythological triads usually include gods who, being themselves superior or markedly different from other gods, make a natural group, triadic only because the three components represent strikingly different spheres. A palpable instance is that of the early Shinto triad of primeval gods, sun, moon, and storm (or
4. Thrice seven are the symbolic fire-sticks in the spirit-sacrifice; thrice seven the hills rent by Indrals lightning, and thrice seven seventies are his steeds (Rig-Veda, 8, 46, 26; 96, 2, etc.). Three and seven are often grouped without connection, as when the Fire-god and the fiery dragon are both described as having three heads and seven flames (ib. 1, 146, 1; 10, 8, 8). The Vedic gods were reckoned first as 33, i.e., three times eleven (10+1) ; then as 34 (33+1), and then as 3339 in number. In imitation, the Nats, or spirits, of Burma are 37 in number, headed by Indra (the rest being heroes) and enlarged by four local deities.
water). Similar is the Babylonian triad, Anu, Enlil, Ea (sky and sea, with storm, dubious, between). Homer's triad, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, personified as brothers, represent sky, sea, and under-world. Now such a group is triadic but it lacks the essential element of a trinity; it consists not in homogeneous but in heterogeneous elements. Its oneness is because the group is diverse from other groups, not because its parts are triune. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades are as a group the great spiritual powers ruling three different realms; but they are not united in any way till made into " brothers, I I and then they are mutually antagonistic. So in the case of triads not mythological but ethical. The Zoroastrian triad, "thought, word, deed,21 and the Buddhistic triad representing the aims of life, "religion, pleasure, wealth," contain not identical but antithetical constituents. This is the case also with the small popular mythological triads of Greece, three Fates, three Graces, thrice three Muses; not unity, but differentiation distinguishes their elements, as may be clearly seen when they can be traced back. For example, the older form of the Moirai was one, not three; and either one or two were originally Nymph, Grace, Siren, and Kabir (usually these triads are feminine). Only later reflection converts them into a triad; but the triad is never a mere triplication; it introduces a fresh conception.
Failure to recognize the distinction between a triadic group of heterogeneous gods and a real trinity has vitiated the work of various scholars.5 Anu, Enlil, Ea, and the corresponding Japanese gods and the Homeric group (above), form respective triads, not trinities. Osiris, Isis, and Horus are distinct gods, later joined in a family relationship. The several Zoroastrian triads, such as Or-
5. This error has, for example, affected The Ethnic Trinities of Rev. L. L. Paine (1901). To Mr. Paine, any triad appears to be a trinity.
muzd, Anahita, Mithra, are far from being a trinity, as may be seen clearly in the triad, Orm-uzd, Mithra, Ahriman. There is really only one early triad in Zoroastrianismi the Wise Spirit, (its) Right (order), and (its) Good Mind, but the last two are in fact personified attributes of the One Wise Spirit.
It is unnecessary to catalogue all such "trinities," as careless writers call them. The triad Zeus, Poseidon, Hades yielded to Zeus, Hera, Athene,6 and this in turn to Zeus, Athene, Apollo. Scandinavia had its Odhin, Thor, Frey; Babylonia had sundry triads besides the one mentioned, Shamash, Sin, Ramman (sun, moon, storm), Sin, Shamash, Ishtar, etc. Often the group, as in Egypt, adds a fourth member; it is not static, or, when it remains the same in number, the members shift; there is no real triunity.7
In these mythological triads, especially where there is a family relationship imagined between the members, there is sometimes developed the belief that one member
6 The Roman triad, Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, copies the Greek model. A Phocian town between Delphi and Daulis had this group, worshipped together in one hall as land-guardians (Paus., 10, 5, 2), so that the establishment of the three in one edifice is not uniquely Roman. In one particular there is a difference. Hera sits on the right of Zeus and Juno on the left of Jupiter; but in each case the goddess has the seat of honor, which in Greece was on the right hand and in Rome on the left.
7 In regard to Babylon, Sayee erroneously calls sky, earth, and sun an Accadian "trinity," an idea curiously expanded by Rev. Hugo Radau, who, in Bel the Christ of Ancient Times, was content (in 1903) to see a tendency toward monotheism in Babylonian religion, at most an almost pure monotheism. But the same material a few years later (1908) appears as "a monotheistic trinitarian religion," patterned after a Nippur group of Enlil, Ninib, and Ninlil, interpreted as father, son, and mother, the "Nippur Trinity," as it is called thereafter. Here a vagueness of divine functions leads the author to imagine a trinity where there is a triad. In The Creation Story (1902), the author was more judicious and spoke merely of two triads, Anu, Ea, Bel, and Sin, Ramman, Shamash. Nielsen's Der Dreicinige Gott (1922) assumes a general Semitic trinity of father, son, and mother, but his evidence is far from conclusive.
is a mediator between man and a higher member of the divine group. But it is another error on the part of those who have discovered trinities everywhere to assume that the mediatorial principle arises first within the trinity. It has in reality nothing to do therewith, for it is far older than any trinity.
The savage Shaman is the earliest mediator, being himself no ordinary fellow but a man supernaturally inspired. The savage quite generally recognizes (1) the Power, (2) himself as seeking supernatural power, and (3) the power-filled man (he may be priest) mediating between man and the Power. Such a human mediator represents a union of human and divine, who labors for the safety or salvation of the mere man, and he appears in history as priest or prophet, or, in higher form, as a revealer or a revelation. This conception may fit into a trinitarian scheme, but it has in fact a broader basis. Many of the messenger-sacrifices already discussed are virtually mediatorial; the Ainu bear is a mediator. So wide is the conception that Dr. Soederblom does not hesitate to interpret all religions as mediatorial, because each recognizes a supernatural Power, a union of divine and human, and an ethical result, such as taboo, new spiritual life, the Holy Spirit, and in this sense he also calls them all trinitarian. But this is merely an exaggeration producing a scheme into which anything will fit. For example, Dr. Soederblom gives, as types of the mediator, Christ and a fetish. But a fetish has no mediatorial function whatever; man coerces it or appeals to it directly.
Before discussing the real trinities furnished by religion it will be convenient to speak of certain illusive forms which in themselves offer no difficulty save as modern interpreters misinterpret them. These are the three-headed and three-bodied monsters of Indic, Greek, and Gallic antiquity, best known through the figures of three-headed Shivas, the Kerberos, and Geryon trimembris. The threeheaded dragon is Greek as well as Indic. Kronos as dragon has a goat Is head between the heads of a bull and a lion. A three-headed dragon or worm is mentioned in the Vedas. Now it is the contention of Usener that the Keltic (Gallic) figures with three heads and all other tricipites, wherever found, revert, as trinities, to three forms of one god, first duplicated and then made threefold.9 As an illustration, he cites the Arabian Uzza, worshipped in three trees and regarded as threefold. But Usener overlooks the fact that the bipartite or tripartite form introduces a specialization or differentiation, just as the different Roman Jupiters or the saints of today of the same name but of different shrines are practically different persons arising in most cases from a consolidation of a totally different power with a form of the nominal power. A virgin of Lourdes cures only at that shrine; a Jupiter Dolichenus is not the same as a Jupiter Heliopolitanus. Nor is it at all probable that three heads imply three persons in every case. Three heads as well as three eyes (also in Usener's view indicative of three persons) belong both to Shiva and to the demon slain by Vishnu, but neither the god nor the demon had three bodies. Hekate as three-bodied is the result of a late identification with two other goddesses or (the ancients were not sure) of the idea that she had three powers or represented three forms of the moon. The three goddesses of destruction in the Rig-Veda called Nirritis, perhaps of the under-world, are an esoteric development ("known to the wise") of
9 Usener in Bheinisches Museum filr Phil., 1903, pp. 31 ff., followed by Soederblom, op. cit., supports this aa one of three theses, namely, that all three-headed gods revert to three separate forms as duplicates of an original one form; that all triads revert to duads; and that three was higher than man could originally count and hence became, as Diehls before Usener said, "the typical end-number."
one earth-goddess (Nerthus?). Priapus is triphallus not because he had three but because he had one huge phallus. So Geryon's three forms may have meant an original huge form. The three heads in any case do not imply three bodies in the case of Marici or of three-faced Maya (mother of Buddha).
An Egyptian goddess with a human face and the face of a dog and of a goat or cow is an exact parallel to uniform three-headed Marici. Hermes Is three heads merely meant that he watched all ways, as Janus watches two ways, and the Zeus Herkaios of Argos had three eyes for the same reason. An excellent example is Argus, whose many watchful eyes appear as three according to Pherekydes. If in this case the three eyes implied bodies, as Usener says (p. 183), then Argus Is usual form would imply a multiplicity of bodies. But, as already shown, primitive artistry indicates the supernatural by multiplicity in designing superior powers, the many-breasted Artemis, the eleven-headed Avalokiteshvara of Tibet, the three-eyed guardian gods, the three-headed monster robbed of cattle and slain by Indra. His counterpart was robbed of his cattle by Herakles. But if in fact this monster is the original of Geryon, the Hindu type is distinctly not three-bodied, though three-headed. Unless we are prepared to believe that an eleven-headed god is a development from a god with eleven bodies we may not assert that a three-headed god implies one with three forms.
But there is one three-headed god who actually is trinitarian in that he appears in three distinct manifestations embodying one spiritual power. This is the Vedic "threeheaded Fire-god" Agni (Latin ignis), whose threefoldness gives him a number of epithets and invocations based thereon, "with threefold protection be kind," etc. He is the "bull with three faces" and is "born of three mothers," the "god of three places," and his ritual is based on the same number. Three times he goes about the sacrifice; the bride thrice circumambulates the god Fire; his earthly sacrificial places are three. As the Orphics identified Helios and fire, so the Hindus identified sun, fire, and lightning and, as the Rig-Veda says, "they called variously him who is really one." He mediates between man and the gods by carrying offerings to the gods and bestowing in turn divine blessings; but he does not mediate between man and any one high god. He is simply the I' messenger" to and from all the gods and he himself is the first receiver of the oblation, petitioned directly, not only as mediator, with prayers for help and wealth. As Fire, he is heat and creative power both in the sun and in all reproductive powers; hence a creator-god, both Father-god to man and a cosmic creator; but at the same time he is a destructive force, burning houses and sinners. He is invoked as protector of law and destroyer of sinners (perhaps implying a fire-ordeal); he was born in the sky and brought to man by the will of the gods (not against the divine will, as in the Prometheus story), or by certain "fire-priests."
The trinitarian character of Agni is made manifest in the descriptions of him as sun, lightning, and fire, "the threefold light, the eternal fire, the Creator with many names, to be worshipped as Vishnu, as Indra, as Varuna, as Rudra, the maker [creator], the sun, Bhaga [the Slavic form of this name means 'God'], who blesses even when he burns." Mystically, he is the priest and the oblation (the divine in the offering), as he says: "I am the three-fold Light, the heat, and the oblation." He is Indra and Varuna because these gods are those of the storm and rain of the sky and Agni is born as lightning in rain, "the son of the water." 10
10. References to the Vedic passages cited will be found in the writer's Religions of India.
This is indeed a trinity, the earliest known. But it is a trinity of a peculiar sort. There is no interrelation of the constituents. Agni is not son of the sun; he is the sun. At most, in a mystic hymn, RV., 1, 164, 1, fire (of the sacrifice) is a brother to the lightning and to the sun. But usually these three are not three forms of one but the one in three places. Lightning is not a form of fire or brother of fire, but fire in the clouds, as the sun is fire in the sky; hence Agni's standing epithet is not "having three forms," but "having three abodes," on earth, in the clouds, in the sky, or, as the ritual prefers to interpret it, having three altars. He has also three names, rather than three forms, and is so called, trindman, "having three names." 11
Of these fires, in the course of time, two became members of the later popular trinity, but under different names, the sun as Vishnu, lightning as Shiva, identified with Rudra the lightning-god. The third member preserved only the idea of the Creator-god, one of the many aspects of Agni.
With this introduction we may turn to the history of the only real trinities, those of the Brahmans, the Buddhists, and the Greeks or Christians. They are not, like those hitherto considered, mythological, but philosophical, though they are ensconced in a mythological nomenelature.
11. Compare Eros, Himeros, and Pothos as names (aspects) of one god. Triads are common in the Rig-Veda, groups such as Mitra, Aryaman, Varuna, and fire, wind, sun, but the parts are not identical and the triad is casual, another god or name being often added to the group. More common is the Vedic grouping in pairs, sky and earth, Varuna and Mitra, Indra and Agni; but there is no Vedic parallel to the " goddess and son pair of Semitic mythology.
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