THE TRADITION OF THE ETHIOPIANS
Indeed the New Religion with its Divine informations has restored to us powers of perception which were impossible in the Jewish and Christian Churches. They become possible on two grounds. Firstly, in the revelation of the spiritual word by which “the Lord has restored the Truths of the Ancients.” The Celestial Church and its primeval man are shown to us in “obscure vision.” Secondly, by good lives (which, led with all our might, and attributed to the Lord, and its salvation) a new ATTENTION is born in all our faculties, and its delighted persistence sees things in the light of the afore said Revelation, and on its firmament begins to see them systematically. The sensual mind, by reason of its quality of desire, is easily fatigued by heavenly considerations, just as the bodily eye is tired in a few seconds by gazing at the stars, and as the same eye is scared away from directly facing the sun. But the New Man’s intellectual eye, simply because he loves and lives in these contemplations, is comparatively beyond fatigue, and builds seeing upon seeing, blind at first, it is more ocular and interested as life goes on, and accumulates both the edge and breadth of its vision. In this way new fields and vineyards of confirmation for highly improbable things are brought to harvest, which become the bread and wine of the truly human mind, and at last the domestic nourishment of common-sense.
Shall this be so with Swedenborg’s position concerning the eminent possibilities lying in the celestial temperament of the African?
We have already alluded to Homer’s mention of the Ethiopians. Our present method, of faith in the Celestial Heavens, and in a once Celestial Church on earth, leads us to consider further what Homer says of the Ethiopians, whether they be African or Asiatic.*
Dr. Blyden says it is well established that Ethiopia means the continent of Africa, and Ethiopians the great race inhabiting that continent. “The country which the Greeks and Romans described as Ethiopia, and the Hebrews as Cush, lay to the south of Egypt, and embraced, in its most extended sense, the modern Nubia, Senaar, kordofan, etc., and in its more definite sense the kingdom of Meroe, from the Junction of the Blue and white branches of the Nile to the border of Egypt” (Smiths’s Dictionary of the Bible, art. “Ethiopia”). Herodotus speaks of the two Ethiopians. “The Eastern Ethiopia,” he says “are straight-haired; those of Lybia (or Africa) have hair more curly than that of any other people.” In Rawinson’s Herodotus we find the following: “The Ethiopians of Asia must represent the inhabitant…of the tract between Eastern Persia…and the mouths of the Indus…It is in the highest degree probable that a homogeneous people was originally spread along the coast from the modern Abyssinia to the Indus” (vol. iv. P. 213: London, 1880). Swedenborg throughout, except when he names Abyssinia, always means by his theological “Africa” a race, or group of races, in the interior of the continent: people which were perhaps the earliest migrants thither from the decadence of the Most Ancient Church. All the churches from the beginning had been in the Holy Land, and hence the geographical and historical places there were representative and significative of the spiritual things of the Church, as may be seen in the Word throughout. It is a conjecture that in the first great declension Africa received many races-as an asylum for the good, and as a place of banishment for the renegade. Owing to its correspondential character, the nation which defiled the land of Canaan were cast out: as it is said, “the land vomiteth out her inhabitants.” This work of judgement went on from age to age. The Lord said to Moses, “Ye therefore shall keep my statutes and my judgements,…that the land vomit not out you also, when ye defile it, as it vomited the nation that was before you” (Leviticus xviii. 26-29). This vomiting out meant death for the offender, and banishment for the polluted race. If this were so, the direct survivals of the Adamic Church came to Africa, and the best of them are the core of that continent. Long afterwards the scattering of the Ancient or Noahtic Church peopled Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria.
Swedenborg says: “All things which were in the land of Canaan were representative. Those in the middle of the land represent the Lord’s internal man, as Mount Zion and Jerusalem; the former celestial things, the latter spiritual things; and those which were last or at the boundaries represented the external man” (Arcana, 1585, 2973). Can this be applied to Africa, so that the best race is in the centre, and the surrounding races to the coast are of graduated lower types?
In Homer, Thetis, speaking to her sons, Achilles, says: “Zeus went to Oceanus to festivities among the blameless Ethiopians, and all the gods were there with him; but on the twelfth day he comes back towards Olympus.” On this passage Heyne annotates: “Thetis, requested by her son to supplicate Jove, tells him that Jove is absent from Olympus, and has gone to Oceanus beside the blameless Ethiopians. With respect to this myth or mythical precept, which occurs again in Odyssey, Book i. 23, and Iliad, Book 23. 205, nothing can be settled with certainty. Nor is this the place to hazard conjectures about it. Suffice it to say that Oceanus here means the God, and is put for the house of Oceanus who has his residence in a fabled river which surrounds the earth; but the place of his palace is not in the west, but is declared to lie in the south, as in Iliad, Book iii. 5; or in the East, where the Ethiopians are, who in pristine phraseology are held to be the uttermost people of the earth. The Olympian Gods are entertained by the God Oceanus in festal banquets for twelve days. The poet himself declares these things. But the bottom of the myth was already lost to the ancients (jam veteres latuit). When the Ethiopians are called blameless,—noble and illustrious is meant, nothing more” (Iliad, Book i. 423-425, and Heyne’s Note).
Another passage respecting the Ethiopians occurs in Iliad, Book 23. 205-207. Achilles prays to the gods of the air, the winds, to quicken the flames which are to consume the funeral pile of Patroclus. “Swift Iris, hearing his prayers comes angelwise to the Winds. They indeed, then assembled in the house of stormy Zephyus, were eating the feast. But Iris ran, and stood upon the stone threshold; and when their eyes saw her, they all rose up; and each one called her to sit beside him. But she refused, and spoke a word:—
“No seats for me. For I am back again over the streams of Oceanus to the earth of the Ethiopians, where they make hecatombs of the sacred things.”
“Iris ran and stood upon the stone threshold.” The personal rainbow standing upon stone,---what does it means? In the Word stones signify ultimate truths of foundation; hard facts substantiated as Divine truths, Stone on the threshold of a building, truths conducing to the good purpose or use for which the building exists. Here also a declaration of a new end which Iris, the new conscience, has to fulfil in the Ethiopians. This new end must be promulgated from the solid stone of present use on which Iris stands, and from which she voyages. Stones have clear spiritual signification. “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.” Mount Sinai was a stone. God’s Commandments were written there, first by Jehovah, and second by Moses, on Tables of stone. Stone was thus the seat of the Godhead, which sent forth the Jewish church with its significative rites and forms to support the heavens by man’s last faculty, Obedience. Homer’s inspiration in the above passage is shown in the contracts between stormy Zephyus in his house with his brother-winds, incited to crack his cheeks in consuming the dead Patroclus, and apparition Iris standing upon a firm threshold of stone, instructing the winds themselves; refusing their company and their feasting; and proclaiming that her food is that of the immortals offered to them by the Ethiopians.
Heyne says in a note: “Iris in this passage conveys the wishes and prayers home to those to whom they are addressed. This is new, and special to this book. For Iris always conveys not the prayer of mortals, but the mandates of Juno or Jupiter….We see the old myth or tradition [about the Ethiopians] turned into a poetical device and expedient in imitation of ancient things.” Note this action and office of Iris, the many-hued Rainbow-Goddess. The Ethiopians are a remnant of the most ancient church or religion. When it destroyed itself, the seed of it was still left among the simple in the land of Canaan and towards the East and the West, in Asia and towards Africa. Noah and his people were of that seed. Instead of the perception born as an instinct directly from heavenly affection, instead of the intellect of love springing from within, the Noahtic people had a different faculty called Conscience, which came by a new Revelation from without, as corrective and educative Divine truth, summoning to obedience and a new spiritual life the Bow in the Cloud, the Rainbow, after the Flood, corresponds. This is Iris bound to the Ethiopians. The celestial Church lived from the warm light of the seventh day on which it was created. The Spiritual Church always begins to live, not from undivided light which it cannot see, or warm light which it cannot feel, because this is the light of celestial love, but from refracted coloured appearances of the true light divinely modified in conscience according to daily life; from the cold light of Commandment. Iris is the scriptural and mythological version of this light. The reader will find the subject explained by Swedenborg in the Arcana Celestia, where the Flood is treated of, and the meaning of the Flood. The study of that alone shows a realm so wonderful and far-reaching, that it ought to convince any willing Church of Swedenborg’s Divine commission to interpret Scripture.
Prayers in the light and on the lines of conscience also reach heaven, and the Divine commandments—mandata—in new light, prescribing increased service, come down as a continuous external revelation. Both the functions of Iris are mythological represented here. The ascent to God, and the descending Decalogue, yea, or Nay,—both in the truly spiritual man.
The tradition of the gods visiting the Ethiopians is repeated in the Odyssey, Book i. 23. There were according to Ptolemy the eastern and the western Ethiopians. “They inhabit,” he says, “east and west, under the Zodiac, and are black of colour.” The geographical limitation seems here to correspond to the great tract of the Negroid races.
These references in heathen literature furnish a side light to the direct statement of Swedenborg about the Africans: the visit of the gods to the Ethiopians; their pious nature; the evidence of an ancient tradition as the source of the myth; the residence of the same Ethiopians near the palace of Oceanus in the uttermost parts of the earth. Oceanus was regarded as a mighty river which wound its arms round the lands of the world. the sea was the Mediterranean. But this small opening of confirmation of Swedenborg’s teaching about the African can be carried further, when the heathen records now disclosed to us by archaeologists are studied with this end. The Ethiopians offer sacrifices, hecatombs, to the immortals. The immortals are the angels who are at hand to instruct the Africans. What the Africans have to offer is the sacrifice or sanctification of their own minds; they yield themselves to the internal perceptions communicated by the angels, and which are for the regeneration of their strong natural affection: see Swedenborg above. Hecatombs are sacrifices of bullocks, and bullocks signify natural affections of which the Psalmist prays that they may be “strong to labour.” Already the Africans do work for the world, in motherhood, wifehood, and fatherhood,—in daily labour. But they need regeneration. It is more easy to sacrifice bullocks to the gods than to sacrifice old and corrupt inclinations to new and pure ones flowing in from the Lord through the angelic heaven. Iris must partake in this sacrifice in both senses. She represents the spiritual Word in the New Conscience, which, when acknowledged to be Divine, is all in all in the appropriation of the good things of sacrifice to a new heart and a right understanding.
There is sublimity in Iris quitting the feast of the Winds, whom, as Gods, she solicits to burn the dead body of Patroclus on the funeral pyre; and when each wind importunes her to sit beside him personally, she says, “No seats for me,---I go to the Ethiopians.” The winds here correspond to reasoning and tumults of opinion with which Iris can have no concern excepting to direct them to their true work, in consuming and dispersing dead things dear to the friendship of the natural mind. In this case they were in the house of stormy Zephyrus, the West Wind, eating his feast. In the East, spiritually, love is in its heat and brightness, in the West in its coldness and dullness. In this house therefore the summons to fan the flame of a pyre was congenial. The pyre was the dead friendship of Achilles for Patroclus, with the revenge of Achilles alone alive and burning. But Iris, after, giving the winds their office,—each wind has his house and his special service,—has other work to do in putting the bow in the cloud into the dark but willing minds of the Ethiopians to whom she is bound.
Another mention of the Ethiopians occurs in the Odyssey, Book i. 22-25. I quote from the prose translation of Butcher and Lang 1879. “Howbeit Poseidon [Neptune] had now departed for the distant Ethiopian, the Ethiopians that are sundered in twain, the uttermost of men, abiding some where Hyperion [the Sun] sinks and some where he rises. There he looked to receive his hecatomb of bulls and rams there he made merry sitting at the feast; but the other gods were gathered in the halls of Olympian Zeus.” This passage is a text for a sermon. The adjectives designating the Ethiopians are distinctive. The distant Ethiopians marks diversity of character, nature, or state: sundered in twain notifies rift and rupture between the good and the evil, and separation of the two portions: uttermost of men, Greek words signifies that judgement has gone over them has as remains of what is most ancient. They are among the last terrene survivals, good and evil, of the Adam race. Some are in the extreme west and some in the extreme east, the west are mentioned first. East and west, the two ends of the sun, are love in its heat and love in its cold. Love in its cold is best when its quality declines. As this is first mentioned, perhaps Poseidon went to the sunset Ethiopians where they were least inflamed or most free from their prevailing lust. There he sensed their affections from afar, and knew of their reception of him in some purity and innocence. He supped with them merrily. For when the gods, now the angels, come to us, it is we who come to them, and when our pieties feed them with incense of prayers to the Lord, He it is who is feeding us. Neptune, the Mythological God of the sea, is different from Oceanus, and lesser in import. Oceanus is the world-embracing and world-completing flood full of arteries and veins, of current rivers, which makes nature round. Neptune is the Lake and inland Sea, which bounds the separate lands of men. Its shores are their ultimate states. So Neptune correspond to the boundaries of the natural mind, and the god’s advent to the Ethiopians to the literal and actual instruction of it, Compared to this, Oceanus has no boundaries unless upwards into that roundness which takes the earth into the firmament. Iris accordingly says “I am back again over the streams of the ocean to the earth of the Ethiopians.” Iris is the many-robed, many-coloured Word, adapted by refraction of Divine light to all future Churches and States. Neptune is necessity of open understanding of the same, and of the last set of reasons called sciences. In the spiritual world,—see Swedenborg,—the general spiritual realms end in the appearances of seas, and the most external classes of mind appear to be in them, in their waters and mists. These are human fishes, and the phenomenon of a sea at which they are, and of which they breathe, is their visible equation and correspondence. In this other-world algebra, when you see people or races at sea, you know at once that they are material outsiders,—waders in those great waters out of which we pray to be rid and delivered.
So we find a spiritual sense in parts of Homer’s legends. When a mythology is primeval, it may, in passing through priesthoods and poets and literary men, and above all, through magicians and spiritualist, be distorted, but there is a root to it, and that root has a soul or internal meaning and influx from which the plant of narrative originated. The myth may originally have been more extensive and complete. But it is a fragment of ancient divination; it will sometimes be found widely diffused; and like the parts of a mechanical map, it may have borders and edges that run into other fields, and bring forward many fitness and explanations. The one thing to hold as a certainty is, that every ancient and prevalent myth, whatever its corruption, has descending from an elevated race which spoke in correspondences and parables: and these can be understood now only by men consenting to be instructed about them in the spiritual sense of Scripture as it has been revealed through Swedenborg for the service of the new religion.
Heine’s conjecture that a more ancient myth is concerned in the visit of the gods to the Ethiopians, direct us to the legend of Gisdhubar on the Babylonian Tablets. The Rainbow is a first connecting point. Noah is supposed to be identical with Sisuthros, the man of the Ark. When Sisuthros landed after the deluge, he sacrificed a sacrifice. I built an altar on the peak of the mountain. I set vessels by sevens. Underneath them I spread reeds, pinewood, and spices. The gods smelt the good savour. The gods gathered like flies over the sacrifices. Thereupon the great goddess at her approach lighted up the rainbow, which Anu had created according to glory. The crystal brilliance of those gods before me may I not forget.”—Ancient History from the Monuments: Babylonia, pp. 45, 46. Here we have Sisuthros (Noah), who, according to Rawlinson, may be a representative of the Asiatic Ethiopians, sacrificing to the immortals; and the Goddess, who has the rainbow which Anu created for illumination at her disposal, lights it up. Some elements of the Homeric myth are here in a more primitive age and form. And Heine’s conjecture appears to be justified. And what is noteworthy, the rainbow or Iris who has quitted the pyre of Patroclus is here at an altar of sacrifice.
And with regard again to the Deluge, observe that the gods go to Oceanus to hold their festivities among the Ethiopians, and it is Oceanus who receives them. Iris also goes back over the streams of the ocean to the earth of the Ethiopians to partake of the sacred things. In the third case, Poseidon, Neptune, the Sea-god, himself the Sea, goes to the Ethiopians, uttermost of men, expecting his hecatomb of bulls and rams, and rejoicing among them as over a deluge overpast. All the intercourse with the Ethiopians seems to be over the waters, no longer diluvial, but for supreme spiritual commerce. This shows that the Homeric Myth can fairly be adjoined to the Babylonian tablets containing the Chaldean account of the deluge. How comes it that a spiritual sense still reigns in the Greek Poet? And going back another step, in the epic of Gisdhubah? Because in the lord’s Providence the Word has given light to all nations, as the heart and lungs give life to all human frame. And as much of correspondence with its inward meaning as could be insinuated has been hidden in the myths and fables, that intercourse with the heavens should be kept up by language understood, though in widely different ways, on earth and in heaven. Intercourse is impossible without in that common tongue; and though they, the earth-men and the heaven-men, do not know of each other’s presence, they syllable the word each in his own world’s way, and are affectionately conjoined by it.
We thus trace the account of the end of the Deluge, the sacrifice of Noah, his building an alter to the Lord, offering burnt-offering thereon, and the Lord smelling the sweet savour; and afterwards God’s covenant with the earth, in setting the bow in the cloud, that the waters no more become a flood to destroy all flesh, as revealed in the Ancient Word in Genesis, through the modified forms which it underwent, in the Babylonian tablets, in the narrative of Berosus, and in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It helps us to admit, by an example, that heathen myths are denuded or outworn revelation.
The letter of the Word is the one only field of spiritual science. Written in correspondences, many natural objects and events, many lives of men, are found in it. These for the Church and the religious life are the sum and substance of things. In them the world is contracted to mere Divine uses. Outlying spacious nature and its science are of an intricacy, which here finds its centre. From this centre light can proceed when natural men and sciences are humble to receive it.