One of the first revelations of history to the lay person is how much of it there is in the present. This is the case even without any of the anachronistic projection that you find in popular costume drama versions of historical events. It’s obvious, even if we don’t think about it much, that a lot of the built world comes out of the past. It’s more of a shock to find social behaviors persisting or hauntingly similar across epochs of time.
Classical scholar DCA Hillman’s first book The Chemical Muse (2008) was an investigation of the use of mind-altering substances in the ancient Greek and Roman world. He found that in only one sense was there a radical break with the past on this subject: There had never been a general ban on the use of narcotics, cannabis, or hallucinogens before modern times. Drugs were seen then, as they still are by many today, as a gateway to legitimate pleasure and insight. His revelation was that, contrary to the notion of linear progress, it’s possible for societies to be less enlightened than their predecessors, in some respects.
His work was called “the last wild frontier of classical studies,” and it was indeed refreshing to see the traditionally hidebound study of dead languages being used to say something vital and important about the way we are now, by amplifying our understanding of the classical past.
Hillman’s new book, Original Sin: Ritual Child Rape and the Church posits a historical continuity that is even more disturbing than our break with tolerance on mind-altering drugs. There is no better way to describe it than the book’s introductory sentences:
The sodomizing of young children by the Christian clergy is a practice as old as the Catholic Church itself… From the earliest centuries of Christianity, priests, elders, monks and bishops established, promoted and defended the ritual rape of young boys. Child abuse is not an accident of church history; it is an integral, foundational component of Christianity.
In a world where Christianity has become the largest religion, comprising a third of the world’s population (in spite of intimations of its decline) those are fighting words.
Hillman goes on to develop this thesis by describing the rise of Christianity as an early culture war within Roman society: to compete for followers with the traditional cults of the Roman pantheon, Christian leaders sought to disparage every aspect and practice of the traditional religion, from the power of women as temple guardians and priestesses, to the use of plant and animal based drugs as gateways to prophecy and insight. And, of course, the multiplicity of gods was literally demonized, particularly the ever popular god of intoxication, Bacchus, and his supernatural allies. The denigration of the word daemon, the god that inhabits the priestess in her trance, to mean a creature of evil, sent by the devil, is exemplary.
Sodomy, Hillman reveals early on, was practiced on Christian initiates (always young boys, he stresses, since women could not be priests) as a bizarre exorcism, to associate sexuality exclusively with the diabolic and get the initiates to repudiate it definitively.
He does not build his argument chronologically, and this makes it somewhat hard to follow. Instead, he gives a detailed picture of classical religious practices, and shows how early Christianity countered them in a rigorous and self-serving way. For example, by the time Christianity had achieved some kind of official status, in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Christian churches could directly profit by receiving confiscated property from pagans caught practicing rites with newly prohibited intoxicants. So the Christian condemnation of traditional practices was contrived to increase the wealth, as well as the standing, of the church.
Hillman’s book gives illuminating glimpses into a variety of classical era religious practices, and one begins to see in all this the outlines of a larger culture war: between the followers of the gods of nature and the God of anti-nature, the repercussions of which are still playing out today. (Indigenous peoples remain the last true believers, apparently, in nature as both physical and metaphysical world, and they are fighting a desperate battle for their lives all over the globe as a direct consequence of the desacralization of nature.)
But there are also serious gaps in this work. Hillman’s admiration for the classical world is absolute, so he does not investigate how the decaying state of late Roman imperialism may have helped to create a social context where strident and authoritarian calls for purification, and disgust of the flesh, a metaphor for the chaotic physical world, could find a growing hearing. Early Christianity is presented like the mock villain in a stage melodrama, acting from its founding moments sheerly out of a cynical and unbounded greed and lust for power. But institutions, even early ones, do not have personalities, and they always contain contradictory trends. Their rise to power is only partially a result of factors of which they are intentionally in control; historical and physical conditions do the rest.
Hillman hammers home his main revelation by restating it many times along the way, but for all that, the source material seems to be scarce and very guarded in what it actually says. This makes sense, and does not by any means imply there is nothing to conceal—since mystery, as all religions know, is necessary to the preservation of power. But as Hillman never gives an exhaustive list of his sources (there is no bibliography), nor annotates his specific claims with textual references, the reader is left with unnecessary doubt about the factual strength of the argument.
Finally there is no substantive evidence presented in the book to link this ritual abuse to the widespread pedophilia scandals of more recent times. Pedophile priests have not been motivated by initiating children as acolytes, and cover-ups are standard institutional behavior wherever hypocrisy, abuse, and illegality threaten the cohesion of any institution. Hillman would need to do more to show the evolution of ritual sodomy into a pattern of church behavior over centuries, but as it stands, there is too much of a historical gap to make that claim in this slim book.
Still, much of it is fascinating reading, and Hillman’s work remains a valuable resource for anyone who wants to understand our world better by crossing the “wild frontier” of the past. He should be much more widely read and discussed than he is. Analysis of the contemporary should begin with the realization that what’s past is much more than prologue.