Gerald Massey's Published Lectures 1887

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An Introduction
David Shaw.

The author responded to suggestions from readers of his A Book of the Beginnings (1881) and The Natural Genesis. (1883) that he should write summaries of the principal issues that he had developed thematically in those four volumes.  The Quarterly Journal of Science had also proposed it when they commented in a review that,

‘...if the substance of the work [The Natural Genesis] could be presented in a condensed form it would form a valuable—almost necessary—companion to Darwin’s Descent of Man, the one complementing and supporting the other.’

    Massey’s detailed research into the African origin and development of myth, symbol, language and religion is demonstrated principally by the use of a system of typologies that he developed as a method of classification (The Natural Genesis Vols. I & II).  These included totemic typology, primitive customs, numbers, time, the mythical serpent, the cross, the four quarters, mythical creations, etc.  He states that mythology is a mode of representing certain elemental powers by means of living types that were superhuman—like phenomena in nature i.e. representation on the ground of likeness.  They were representatives of certain natural forces, from which the earliest gods evolved.  How these were thought of and expressed constitute the primary stratus of what is termed ‘Mythology’ today.  Early man made use of things to express their thoughts, and these things became symbols—outward and visible shapes of ideas—the beginning of gesture sign-language by imitation being earlier than words.  As an example, Massey notes that the figure of an eye directly represents sight and seeing, but the eye as reflector of the image becomes a symbol.  Myths were therefore founded on natural phenomena and remain the register of the earliest scientific observation.  Massey treats mythology as ‘the mirror of prehistoric sociology’. 

    Throughout his works, when examining racial mythology Massey places particular emphasis on ancient Egyptian myths (the most developed in African culture) and general mystery religions.  He maintains that these myths developed as a necessary and fundamental central core of belief from earliest times and are the roots of modern cultural origins.  Intrinsic to these beliefs are world-wide convictions that support the post-mortem persistence of the human soul.  In Egypt for example, prayers and offerings were made not to the person of the deceased (represented as a type of transformation by the dead Mummy—a mortal likeness), but to the ka-image—a likeness of the person’s eternal soul that lived on after death. 

    Versions of these ten privately published lectures, with their themes of myths and religious origins were presented by Massey in varying format during his lecture tours in Britain and the United States.  The Historical Jesus and Mythical Christ was a favourite amongst the secularists and was translated into French as Le Historique Jesus (San Francisco, Le Caze, 1896).  The Hebrew and Other Creations concludes with an addendum ‘A Reply to Professor A.H. Sayce’.  Sayce (1845-1933) was Professor of Assyrology at Oxford and wrote copiously.  Massey’s ‘Retort’ was in response to certain comments Sayce had written in the Hibbert Lectures.  The Seven Souls of Man contains a further addendum ‘Retort’, and this time Massey responds abrasively to abusive comments made by a writer in the Chicago Religio-Philosophical Journal.

    It will be noted that the lectures were written in 1887 and account must be taken of research and archaeological discoveries made since then.  Some of these must necessarily amend several of his conclusions.

    Massey's comments—and those of some later scholars—regarding Gnosticism were reinforced by the discovery in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, of twelve 2nd/3rd century Coptic Gnostic codices.  Bart D. Ehrman in his Lost Christianities.  The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths we never knew (OUP 2003) quotes from a section of 'The Apocalypse of Peter' in which Peter witnessed the crucifixion.  What was crucified was not the divine Christ but his physical shell.  Jesus replied to Peter's query as to whose feet and hands they were hammering:

    The Saviour said to me, "He whom you see above the cross, glad and laughing, is the living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they are driving the nails is his physical part, which is the substitute..."

(See also Ehrman's Lost Scriptures. Books that did not make it into the New Testament (2003) for the complete text.)

    The Gnostics believed that salvation does not come in the body, but by the divine spirit escaping the body, which is the physical shell, and that the physical death of Jesus was not therefore the key to salvation.  It is not the dead Jesus that saves, but the true self—the Divine Essence.

    Before the publication of Massey's Lectures in 1887, portions of gospel texts associated with Paul were considered corrupt.  Since then, further biblical exegesis (such as the Nag Hammadi cache discovery) has continued to cast doubt on the accuracy of a number of works attributed to Paul and other writers.

    Bart Ehrman—vide supra—Barry Layton's The Gnostic Scriptures (1987) and Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Paul (1975) confirm the multiplicity of groups in that period with diverse ideas that gave rise to conflicting opinions in their writings.  Although known Gnostic writings can not be dated before the early 2nd century, mythological elements may probably have existed from an earlier date.

    It appears also that Gnostics had much in common with early non-Gnostic Christians.  But can Paul be termed a Gnostic as a classic term, as Massey asserted?  A form of philosophical Jewish mysticism comprised an integral part of Gnostic beliefs, and it is likely that Paul understood some of those beliefs.  Both Jesus and Paul as cited in the gospel texts spoke often in parables that were symbolic, and not to be taken literally.  Pagels—supra—notes two conflicting images of Paul.  Traditionally in one image he is viewed is as a Christian literalist and anti-Gnostic, in the other as a symbolic Gnostic—supporters of each both claiming to be authentically Christian.  Massey takes the latter, Gnostic view, giving his thesis a marked bias in that direction.

    It should be stated again that all Massey’s lectures and other works as with similar writers of the time must be read in the light of modern research.

    To some extent also, is Massey's almost overstatement of the importance of the phenomena of Spiritualism that runs thematically throughout many of his works.  Whilst not necessarily doubting the earliest forms of psychic phenomena and its important influence, or some of the more modern exponents, it does appear that Massey is at times straining his case.

    Most of Massey's lectures were written—as had been requested—as introductory to his earlier volumes.  A few are not particularly easy to read, some prior knowledge of the ancient Egyptian Gods and their associated basic myths being assumed.  Nevertheless, these lectures provide a starting point for his main trilogy.  It must also be realised that because Massey's books were written many years ago, they do not take into consideration the results of modern research into genetics, archaeological anthropology, philology and astro-mythology that increasingly confirm various aspects of his hypotheses.  Together with a revised classification of his typologies, these books can provide a firm basis upon which to build an expanding and valid evolutionist system of belief.


For other explanations relevant to Massey's writings, please see: