The first signs of mythological awareness we have found are the Neanderthal burial sites from about a thousand centuries ago. The recognition of death gave human consciousness a sense of urgency—the eternal present was bound within a finite time. With the advent, far more recently, of what we call civilization, we see the rise of the great tombs, most spectacularly in the pyramids of
The pyramid was the burial mound of the pharaohs—that is, the kings. Is there not something awful about them? They were built from the dread of death. For we are born into a society—a family, a clan, a tribe, a city, a state. A huge mysterious world confronts us, and we need this society to survive. The single human being finds not only its security, but its meaning, in the many. There is one human being in whom all these single human beings are combined into one symbol, one metaphorical man or woman—a king or a queen.
The burial of the royal person effects the collective survival of death. The ritual killing of the king described by Frazer can never be fully grasped by our modern intellects unless we appreciate the depth of fear inspired by our mortality. Looking at the pyramids we realize that the human heart was gripped by cosmic dread and to this degree—the unimaginable labor expended in constructing these massive tombs. All eyes in the kingdom will see the tombs, just as all hearts will be one with the king who represents us.
The gradual realization of the individual consciousness—what we moderns call the “ego”—has posed endless problems for society. Foremost among these is the perversion of the king. If the king can be just a person, not a merely symbolic entity, then he can be a tyrant. And more often than not, he has been. Why? Because the fear-based society demands conformity to a single cultural norm, and when individuality creates fissures in that conformity, they must be plugged up by force.
The fear-based reliance on authority has persisted down to the present day. The establishment of democracies and republics ameliorated its influence from time to time, but it never died. It has stayed potent because the fear of death has retained its primal power in our minds.
The potentially free human being realizes that she is not projected onto a royal authority figure. She comes partly out of hypnosis, so to speak, but the underlying fear is still a force to be reckoned with. The individual suddenly feels opposed to society, in a contest for freedom that always seems hopeless. Surrender is a common regression, a return to sleep, and in the last century we’ve seen it manifest in the totalitarian regimes, where authority is reduced to its simplest essence.
The beginning of wisdom is the end of the fear of death. All spiritual truth, all poetry, all divinities, return to the self. The self lives in the eternal present. Humankind doesn’t need to attain anything in order to realize this—we need only see through the falsehood of what we think of as self. The struggling, naked little being who seeks to wield power over other beings in order to survive—that is a falsehood, an illusion. It is a creature of the mind. The quest to survive death is futile. We wake up when we know that survival is not an option. Then we can love others in fullness, without inhibition. It’s not just that we realize that we are the same as everyone else—it’s knowing that we’re actually one self, that there’s no real self or other. This is the end indicated by mystics, Buddhists, and other free spirits.
What they don’t indicate, or at least rarely ever hint, is that this end involves the end of the king. Not just the king out there with the crown, but the king in our heads. The sky god and the volcano god and all the other embodiments of the power principle disappear and we realize that no one is watching or listening. The society is embodied in each individual human being, not the other way around. For the mass of humanity (if you’ll pardon the expression) to realize this would require a spiritual revolution. It would not be merely rationalist, contrary to what most atheist thinkers seem to say. It would be emotional and ecstatic as well. It would not be the end of religion, but the fulfillment of religion. Will it ever happen on this planet? I don’t know, and I hesitate to let my pessimistic side have the last word. But I know that fear only leads us deeper into darkness.