The Creative Universe by Arthur Evans
IN THE 9TH CENTURY, a learned Benedictine abbot of Fulda, in what is today called Germany, wrote a memorable hymn in Latin. It has inspired many subsequent thinkers and artists, including Mozart and Mahler.
The abbot’s name is Rabanus Maurus, and his hymn is Come, Creator Spirit (Veni, Creator Spiritus). The work is memorable because of its simple poetic beauty. In addition, it straddles the cultural divide between earlier pagan motifs and the newer notions of Christianity.
Because of this mythological latitude, the hymn has a richness of content that transcends the narrowness of Christian theology. In fact, it may appeal to people today who have developed “cosmic consciousness” (that is, who regard the universe as alive and creative). What follows is an exploration of this richness, along with a new translation of the text.
The hymn’s principle theme is the Creator Spirit (Creator Spiritus), a subject that brings to mind the older pagan concept of the Universal Soul (Anima Mundi). The ancients conceived of the Universal Soul as a creative energy suffusing the cosmos and all forms of life, commonly symbolized by fire.
The ancients saw the Universal Soul as an extrapolation of the various particular energies they experienced in natural phenomena. Every lake, mountain, or vale, as well as every human being, had a characteristic energy that the ancients called its genius (genii in the plural). This term is the source of our own word with the same spelling, but with different meaning.
Each thing’s genius stimulated human beings emotionally and intellectually. The result was a lively personal relationship and dialog with the genii of trees, mountains, and stars. The whole universe had its own genius, too, which was the Universal Soul.
Christian mythology took the Universal Soul and blended it with “the Inspirer,” a divine-like figure sketchily mentioned in the New Testament. The Greek word for this figure is Parakletos. It became Paraclitus in Latin, which is how it appears in Maurus’ hymn. It is often translated as “the Comforter,” which misses its force.
Before the New Testament, a parakletos was an advocate or lawyer who spoke on behalf of defendants in court. In the New Testament, the word means the inspiring force that enables the faithful to stand up and be their own advocates in the trials of life and faith. Such a positive function goes beyond comforting to inspiring.
Subsequent to the New Testament, some early church writers described the Inspirer as the dispenser of seven benefits to humanity. These are commonly understood as various virtues mentioned in the Bible, but the connection is murky.
After mixing the Universal Soul with the Inspirer, Christian mythology added the Old Testament’s Shekhinah, God’s presence in the world. The resulting composite figure was the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity.
Maurus’ hymn has echoes of all these motifs. But the hymn’s principal chord is the notion, derived from paganism, of the universal creative energy that inspires and elevates humanity. A pagan from pre-Christian antiquity would have readily interpreted in this way all his references to the “Creator Spirit.”
Pagan antiquity generally presupposed that everything was to some degree alive. The universe as a whole was no exception. Accordingly, the ancients typically regarded the universe as a huge living organism, the almighty and divine parent of every particular thing that comes into being. The Universal Soul that suffused all things was grounded in this universal parent, from which it eternally proceeded.
Christian mythology fused the fathering universe with the Old Testament’s Lord of Hosts (Yahweh Sabaoth) and Almighty God (El Shadai). The resulting composite figure was God the Father Almighty, the first person of the Holy Trinity. He was conceived as generating from himself all that was or is or will be.
Maurus’ hymn mentions “the Father,” “God,” and “God the Father.” But a pagan reader from classical antiquity, who knew nothing of Christianity, would regard these phrases as referring to the creative universe. Educated pagans, in particular, would be reminded of a familiar Stoic theme. This was the notion of Zeus as the creative, rational order of the universe, made famous by a stirring poem of Cleanthes, written 300 years before the New Testament.
This is just an excerpt from this issue. We are a reader-supported journal and need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going. So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!
Arthur Evans is the author of Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture (1978) The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysus (1988) and Critique of Patriarchal Reason (1997). He lives in San Francisco.