Modern Aspect of Myth

Teilhard de Chardin: A Human Phenomenon

Michael A Rizzotti

Paradoxically the author is more popular today than he has ever been. The renewed interest in Teilhard de Chardin stems from his vision of the “noosphere“, or the “mind layer” hovering the earth that he described more than sixty years ago. When his work was first published, he was mostly regarded as a visionary but esoteric writer. His books were mostly read by the intellectual elite of the time, he had nevertheless become a popular icon. The advent of the Internet somehow confirms his vision of the outcome of a global “planetisation”.

The way and speed in which the Net has swept the planet has caught everybody by surprise. It may have repercussions that are yet to be fully understood. In light of the author’s vision, and the advent of the Internet, we should be living at a “convergence“, or a rebound in terms of human energy, leading us a step closer toward the point Omega. As a consequence, the Net has made Teilhard’s thinking more relevant today then at any other time in the past. Yet, further studies and discussion are needed to fully understand his writings. They are necessary to dispel any misconceptions about his thinking. We will begin with some introductory notes, and more importantly, we will dwell on some fundamental concepts that are essential to fully understand his “scientific memoir” entitled “The Phenomenon of Man”.

Biographical notes

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born on May 1st 1881 in the small town of Sarcenat in the Auvergne, a region of France mostly known for its city of Vichy. At the early age of ten he entered a Jesuit boarding school where he devoted himself to the fields of geology and mineralogy. He was so impressed by the intellectual discipline of his teachers that he decided to join the Jesuit order at eighteen. The next thirteen years would be spent between studying philosophy in Jersey, teaching in Cairo, studying theology in Sussex, all the while pursuing a deeper competence in geology and paleontology.

1912 turned out to be a landmark year for the young student. He was ordained priest and he read Henri Bergson’s (1859-1941) Evolution Creatrice. The book would be a critical influence on Teilhard’s thinking as it set his lifelong interest on the subject of evolution. It explains human existence in terms of a creative evolution. Bergson describes the mind as pure energy, a “vital force” or élan vital, which is responsible for all organic evolution. The author emphasized the importance of intuition over intellect and held to the idea of two opposing currents of inert matter in conflict with organic life as the “vital force” that strives toward free creative action. For his literary and intellectual work Bergson was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1927.

After spending several years abroad studying and teaching Teilhard returned to Paris to pursue his geological studies and started working for Marcellin Boule, the leading French pre-historian and archeologist at the Institute of Human Paleontology at the Museum of Natural History. It is there that he met his lifelong friend and colleague Abbe Breuil who shared his interest in evolution.

World War I put a halt to his studies. As a priest he took part as stretcher-bearer and received the Military Medal and the Legion of Honor. The misery of war further strengthened his religious convictions and confirmed his vocation. It also reinforced his professional goals and soon after the war he embarked on a geological career with special emphasis on paleontology.

After the war he was designated Professor of Geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris and in 1922 he took his Doctorate at the Sorbonne. In 1923 he left for Mongolia on a paleontology mission for one year on behalf of the Museum of Natural History. Although his lectures were popular among the students, when he returned to the Institute he found out that he was forbidden to teach. Some of his ideas on original sin and evolution were considered unorthodox by his religious superiors. In 1926 he returned to China as an adviser to the Geological Survey of China and undertook many expeditions, one of which unearthed the skull of the Peking man (Sinanthropus pekinensis).

The outbreak of World War II prevented him from returning to Paris to undertake an appointment as the Director of the Laboratory of Advanced Studies in Geology and Paleontology. The next six years of isolation spent in China were to become critical in developing and maturing his “dangerous thoughts” that were to be expounded in Le Phénomène Humain. Upon his return to France in 1946 he immersed himself completely in intellectual research and in 1947 suffered a serious heart attack.

After he recovered he went back to Paris to find out that he was forbidden to write about any philosophical subjects. A further setback came in 1948 when he was forbidden to put forth his candidacy as Professor at the College de France, the highest position he could aspire. But his biggest blow came in 1950 when the Church denied him the permission to publish Le Groupe Zoologique Humain (a different version of Le Phénomène Humain).

His presence in France had become increasingly difficult for him and in 1951 he finally accepted an invitation that was made to him a few years earlier by the Viking Foundation (later called the Wenner-Gren Foundation) and moved to New York. The Foundation sponsored two of his trips to South Africa to study first hand the discovery of Australopithecus. He also participated in the important work on paleontology and archeology on the hominid evolution. He spent the last four years of his life at a quiet and secure shelter of the foundation. He died on Easter Day April 10th 1955 in New York city.

The Priest and the Scientist

The Church never gave him the permission to publish any of his books during his lifetime as they were considered to be too controversial. Teilhard was chagrined by the refusal but accepted the decision stoically. Being a Jesuit, he had made an additional vow of obedience to the Pope in addition to the priestly vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The main reasons for the Church’s refusal was the fear that his work would be misunderstood. The Church’s reluctance appeared to be justified when in 1952 a reprint from l’ Agence française de presse was published in a San Francisco newspaper that stated that “The God of Père Teilhard is a God immanent to the evolution of the world”. Teilhard protested vigorously at this faulty reductionism of his work that ignored the core idea of transcendence that is so essential to his thinking.

His works were finally published shortly after his death since the permission to publish only applies to living writers. In 1955, 500 copies of Le Phénomène Humain was published. Most of the book was written between 1938-40 and it was finally revised and completed in 1947-48. The English version was published in 1959 with a valuable introduction by his friend and peer Julian Huxley.

The book was translated in English into “The Phenomenon of Man”. One doesn’t have to be fluent in French to note the major distinction between the original title and the translation. We have no way of knowing what Teilhard would have thought of juxtaposing “human” with “man”. The author was well known for his sensitivity and it seems reasonable to think that he must have waded the distinction between the terms and would have opted, as he did in French, for the term “human” to appear in the title.

In his “warning” at the beginning of Le Phénomène Humain Teilhard states the scopes and limits of his book. As he explains, his “scientific memoir” is not about theology nor metaphysics, but should be seen as an “introduction” to the human phenomenon, the phenomenon of which “man” is at its center but with a particular concern about the “Whole” phenomenon that transcends “man”. The term “man” should be understood here as the process of being human. To describe the “Whole” Teilhard warns that he has undertaken two fundamental options. The first, is the primary importance given to the soul and thought to the fabric of the Universe. The second, is the biological value attributed to the Social Reality around us. The preeminent significance being the interrelation of the spiritual effect of the Human Being in Nature and the biological effect of organic nature in Humanity.

Teilhard was a priest and a scientist. More precisely a Jesuit and a paleontologist in addition to being a geologist. Two outlooks that permeate his book. As it happens one can clearly see the scientist outlining the course evolution in his writing. On the other hand, it is the priest that speaks about Christ being the beginning, the center and the final goal of all things. For him the key to evolution is the presence and action of God on the world, more precisely the presence and action of Christ. As he wrote to a friend in 1936, “my chief interest in life has been to bring about in some way a plainer disclosing of God in the world.” And it is the intellectual, i.e. the Jesuit, that tries to reconcile science and religion with concepts of “hominisation”, “cosmogenesis”, “planetisation”, “noogenesis” and “point Omega”.

Teilhard was a true Jesuit. The order founded by Saint Ignace of Loyola, a former soldier who after being wounded in battle became a priest and founded the order known as the Society of Jesus (S.J.) to help the Church contain the spread of the Reformation with its own Counter-Reformation. As stated earlier, the order has an additional vow of obedience to the Pope. The society is also known as the Soldiers of Christ, and is widely regarded as the Church’s intellectual elite, a claim readily disputed by the Dominicans.

It is the Soldier of Christ that speaks in his writings. The Catholic foot soldier who is trying to reconcile his love of Christ and his love of science. This point is tantamount and must be kept in mind to clearly understand Teilhard. One of the biggest error in interpreting his thought is to give more importance to the scientist than to the priest. Consequently it is the Christian, more precisely the Catholic, a “hyper-Catholic” as he liked to call himself, that speaks in his books. As such Christ is the “Alfa”, the center and the “Omega” of the whole human phenomenon, which he describes as “Le Milieu Divin”. The latter is the title of a book that was translated into “The Divine Milieu”. Again the English translation does not convey the essence of the original title. In French the word “milieu” means center, but it also means environment in which Christ is the center and the whole.

As we have mentioned Teilhard was a true Catholic. The word comes from the Greek katholicos (kata, by + holos, whole) which means “universal” and must be understood in that sense. The term must not be confused with the oxymoron of Roman Catholic that is mostly used in the U.S. Furthermore, Teilhard called himself a “hyper-Catholic” in the sense that he was a true believer in the Universality of the Church. Here again, the Church must be viewed not as the visible and physical body of the Church of Rome, but the invisible and living assembly of faithful who believe in the Universal principles embodied by Jesus-Christ. Although the Church of Rome is the guardian of tradition and doctrine and the administrative agency in charge of the visible body of the hierarchy, the Church of which Teilhard is concerned, is the mystical body of Christ; the Living Church.

The Inauguration of the Washington National Monument

Michael Rizzotti

In an earlier study on the dedication of Quebec’s monuments, I realized that these civil events revealed interesting details about the mythical edification of society as a whole.1 Consequently, I chose to expand my field of research to include at least one of the major U.S. monuments. My goal in doing this is to reveal how the process of dedication of the Washington National Monument, in Washington D.C. is kindred to American civil religion and how it is a mythological showcase of the U.S.’ ideological foundation. As we shall see, the dedication of monuments is a privileged ritual that discloses the consecration of American civil religion in society.2 By the same token, these ceremonials reveal how America’s most celebrated political hero yields a mythological significance of primal importance.3

I will take a close look at two aspects of the inauguration: the ritual and the mythical. The first deals with the festivities of the ceremony that act as an introduction to the orators and their speeches. The second relates to the content of the speeches themselves which eulogize, better yet, mythologize the hero to whom the monument is dedicated.

At the inauguration, the hero whose identity is immortalized in the stone is literally consecrated by the monument. The people who congregate for the ceremony recreate a time of vital significance in history. By the same token, the audience -the elected representatives of society as a whole- endorses the hero as a national figure who is chosen as a prototype of American political foundation. By their presence they acknowledge the hero’s meaningful legacy to history.

As I have described elsewhere, the discovery and foundation of a new territory has a mythological significance. The first to discover a new land, or the first president of a new political reality is a primal event of historical and mythological significance. His name and his role in American history has a unique place above all other historical figures and events.

Thus, the Washington National Monument was erected to celebrate the primordial in the United States’ history, similar in fashion to the erection of temples and sacred buildings dedicated for the most sacred purposes. In that respect, the Monument becomes central in American history. To use Mircea Eliade’s words, the Monument becomes an axis mundi.4 The axis from which everything began and from where everything flows. As such, the Washington National Monument symbolizes the beginning of the nation’s political history built at the center of the political power of the United States of America.

The type of monument chosen is fitting. Nothing could have better represented the hero’s grandeur. No monument could have been more adequate to express how central the hero is to American history and politics. Moreover, the shaft could not have been more appropriate to symbolize the idea of the center, order and hierarchy.

The type of structure and the site were specifically chosen to reflect a symbolic and mythical expression. The people responsible for this task were concerned about finding the most appropriate place.

It may be here remarked, with reference to the site selected for the Monument, that the foundations were laid but a short distance to the east of the meridian line run, at the instance of the President Jefferson, by Nicholas King, surveyor, October 15, 1804…This line, by the president’s instructions, passed through the center of the White House, and where it intersected a line due east and west through the center of the Capitol a small monument or pyramid of stones was placed…5

The center yields an important symbolic significance in most mythologies. As a sacred space it stands apart from the ordinariness of its surrounding. In the world of mythology, the axis mundi is represented in different forms: a tree, a mountain, a ladder, or a pillar. Yet they all symbolize the communication between the two cosmic arenas: heaven and earth, and the center and its periphery.

Similarly, the Holy of Holies was at the center of the temple of Jerusalem, also considered to be at the center of the world. In Greek mythology, the shrine of Apollo at Delphi was also declared the earth’s center. For Islam, the Muslim Dome of the Rock is the sacred place from where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.6


In its proportions the ratios of the dimensions of the several parts of the ancient Egyptian obelisk have been carefully followed.7

These remarks by Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief engineer in charge of the Monument, were made to reveal that it was to be a larger replica of an Egyptian obelisk -an erected stone carved into a four sided pillar crowned with a small pyramid called the pyramidion. The Washington Monument is a much larger replica than the original obelisks found in Egypt. These were made out of a single block of rock, whereas the capital’s structure is made of 36,000 blocks of stone.

The Egyptians usually erected the obelisks in pairs in front of Egyptian temples. They were believed to be sacred. Scholars are still uncertain about their specific use or function. Obelisks are nevertheless a unique symbol of Egyptian culture. Romans were so fascinated by the pillars that they moved several of them to Rome.

In ancient Egypt, the pyramidion that crowned the monolith was probably covered with gold to reflect the sun’s rays.8 The pyramidion, in all likelihood, also crowned the great pyramids of Egypt. Technically, the obelisk symbolizes a ray of light emanating from the sun. The pointed pillars were perhaps relevant symbols of light and life, and the daily course of the sun as opposed to the pyramids that were symbols of darkness and death, and the setting sun. The earliest obelisks are believed to have been erected in the 4th dynasty (circa 2613-2494 BC). No examples from that era remain today.

In the late 19th century, the government of Egypt gave one of the two Ramses’ obelisks ornating the Luxor temple to France where it stands in Paris’ Place de la Concorde. Two other obelisks were shipped to England and to the United States. Both were taken from Heliopolis. They were dedicated to Thutmose III and bear the inscriptions and legends of two pharaohs: Thutmose III, and Ramses II (1304-1237 BC). One stands on the Thames’ embankment, in London, the other is in Central Park, in New York City.

The connection between the Washington National Monument and the gift from Egypt is, to say the least, a suitable symbol of the continuity between an ancient civilization and an emerging one.

History of the Monument

The Washington National Monument Society was founded in 1833 because Congress did not keep its promise to erect a monument deserving of the national hero. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to collect the necessary funds before the Society took over. And it was not until 1884 that the Monument was finally completed.

In 1853, Congress appropriated $50,000 for the erection of an equestrian statue of George Washington. It was unveiled on February 22nd 1860 in the east park of the Capitol. The Society viewed the statue as unworthy of the national hero and persevered to build a monument equal in stature to George Washington.

In 1835, two years after the foundation of the Society, its first president, John Marshall, died and was replaced by the ex-president of the United States, James Madison. Upon the death of James Madison, the Society amended its constitution so that the president in office became ex-officio president of the Society. Andrew Jackson was the first to honor this function under the newly amended constitution.

On the 4th of July 1848, the first cornerstone was laid. To celebrate the occasion a ceremony was organized.

By January 1853, the Monument had risen 126 feet above ground.

On March 8th, 1854, a block of marble sent by Pope Pius IX as a tribute to George Washington and America that was to be part of the giant structure, was stolen.9 The suspicion quickly pointed toward a group known as the Know-Nothings. A secretive anti-Catholic political movement.10 The group had frequently expressed in the daily press the view that the stone sent by the Roman Catholic Church should not be part of the Monument. The theft enraged the Catholics in the U.S. and abroad. It also alienated part of the population from the funding of the Monument.

The Society subsequently fell at the hands of a narrow political faction influenced by the Know-Nothings. It practically froze the progress of the Society toward the funding and construction of the Monument. Finally, in February of 1859 the Society decided to end its internal stalemate and adopted a new charter to eliminate any opposition to the completion of their project.

One year later, the Civil War further delayed progress in the construction. And the poor state of the economy slowed the collection of funds.

Not until 1879 did the construction of the obelisk finally resumed. It was largely due to the interest of the Masonic Order and other organizations like the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Independent Order of Red Men, the Temperance, and other fraternal bodies. But the success of the enterprise was mostly owed to the special interest of the Masonic Order who supervised the completion of the Monument.

The interruption left a visible scar at the level of the work stoppage due to the use of a slightly lighter marble supplied by different quarries.

On December 6th, 1884, the giant structure was finally completed. The last piece of stone was put atop the marble shaft measuring ~ 555 feet and 5 inches.

On February 21st, 1885, the Capitol proceeded to the dedication of the Washington National Monument. All of the capital’s dignitaries were present as Rev. Henderson Suter said a prayer at the beginning of the ceremonies. Shortly after, a Masonic function took place at the base of the Monument, followed by the address of the Grand Master Mason, Myron M. Parker. The dedication was completed by the oration of Hon. Robert C. Winthrop.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to see the Grand Master Mason at the laying of the cornerstone and later at the inauguration of the Monument. The organization played a sizable part in the collection of the funds to build the structure. But there is another reason for the brotherhood’s interest in the building and their overwhelming presence at the ceremonies. George Washington was himself a Freemason.

The dedication

The great show that is the dedication enables us to unveil how the mythical and the ritual work hand in hand in the building of the national identity. The greater the hero, the larger the ceremony, and the bigger the monument. The rank and stature of dignitaries is also akin to the grandeur of the hero. Everything is planned carefully. The order of the march, the sequence of the orators, the speeches, the music, and the dramatic display of the festivities. But the most important feature of the dedication are the speeches themselves. The orators have put forth their best rhetoric abilities to eulogize the hero in all his glory.

Appropriately enough, the first president of the United States of America and the origins of rhetoric have something in common: democracy.

The first rules of rhetoric appear to have begun in Syracuse, circa 500 BC. When exiles returned to their homeland after being dispossessed of their property by a despotic ruler, they had no written records to prove the ownership of their property to the new government. In order to solve the disputes, a newly democratic system of debate was devised where verbal claims of ownership could be settled. To help the litigants improve their persuasiveness, teachers, some of them Sophists, developed rules of elocution and persuasiveness. As a result, a new discipline was born: rhetoric. The term comes from the Greek word rhema which was later translated into Latin as verbum, meaning word.11

The discipline eventually evolved into the science of speaking effectively so to persuade an audience. At about the same time that the Monument was being built, rhetoric was being dropped from the cursus studiorum in the colleges of Europe. In the second half of the XIXth century, classical rhetoric lost its appeal in the schools as a general discipline. Lately, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in the subject.12


Although the Monument is a visible structure that everyone can see, the dramatic effect of the ceremony cannot be reproduced. The only thing that remains for us is an account of the festivities and the record of the speeches. Frederich Harvey’s account in History of the Washington National Monument and Washington Monument Society, published in 1903, holds tremendous value for our study. And although the speeches are devoid of the rhetorical effect of the delivery, their content is a valuable data for analysis. The book reveals the important aspects of the ritualization and mythologizing process of the image of the First President and the Founding Father of the United States of America.

The primal function of rhetoric is to make a speech as convincing as possible, making the content plausible and believable. Yet the ultimate purpose is to convince the audience to believe in the sacred validity of the Founding Father. To achieve these goals the Romans had three principles of elocution: docere, delectare, and movere: namely, to teach, to captivate, and to move the audience.

These functions are also applied to the sermon, from the Latin sermo meaning to talk. Similarly, Rabbis use their rhetorical abilities to instruct the law. The Koran is most efficient and most beautiful when it is read aloud. In Zen Buddhism, the verbal use of paradox, or koans, is most enchanting when spoken. And the elocution of the Tao te Ching of Taoism is considered to be the most beautiful form of expression of the Chinese language. Furthermore, Jesus Christ did not write his message, he proclaimed it. The kerygma of the Word is most effective when it is preached. It is quintessential in the propagation of faith. Similarly, political speeches are essential in the promulgation of ideology.

Hence, the word is used to promote and edify a reality in the mind of the people who listen.

Today, the mass-media applies similar techniques in advertising to influence their audience.

The speeches

Harvey’s document accounts for two ceremonies. The first, at the beginning, at the laying of the first cornerstone, and the second, at the completion of the superstructure. Both are equal in importance, yet are 37 years apart.

The first ceremony was celebrated on the 4th of July 1848. For the occasion, the president of the United States, James K. Polk, and dignitaries of the capital were present, as well as Senators, Representatives of Congress, the Military, delegations from the States, and several Indian tribes. In addition, 15,000 to 20,000 spectators were all gathered for the festivities. On that day, the initial stone, a block of marble weighing twenty-four thousand five hundred pounds, was laid.

The following is a newspaper excerpt that describes the mood of the festivities:

The day was fine. The rain had laid the dust and infused a delicious freshness in the air. The procession was extensive and beautiful…When the lengthened procession had reached the site of the Monument they were joined by a whole cortege of ladies and gentlemen; and we are free to say we never beheld so magnificent a spectacle.13

The whole setting has a central goal: to focus the attention on the speeches that recreate the life and image of the hero who is the object of the celebration. These eulogies, also called panegyric, have for their sole purpose to glorify and consecrate the Founding Father. The rhetorical function is to influence the audience to collectively hail the national hero.

The whole gathering is besieged by the sacredness of the event. As the speeches affect the crowd, the crowd in return collectively sanctions the message. In the process, the image of George Washington is mythically anointed as a primordial hero, vital to the nation’s identity. As the Monument that stands erected toward the heavens in the background, the orators proclaim the hero a primordial symbol, visible to all.

The man is the monument; the monument is America.14

The ceremony began with a prayer delivered by Rev. Mr. McJilton. In it he outlined the purpose of the dedication: “We plant in earth the shaft that points to heaven”. A tribute to the man who was the instrument of God in the fight for freedom. The Reverend also disclosed his concern for peace. He expressed his apprehension about the union. And he condemned the “savages of the wilderness” as an obstacle to the free exploitation of the “unknown treasures” and “limitless territory to the industry and enterprise of man”.

The Reverend also mentioned “Thy church” without reference to any specific creed, except that it is “of a certain faith”. He concluded by asking the blessings and mediation of Jesus Christ, “our most blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.”

The prayer was followed by an oration from Honorable Robert C. Winthrop, Speaker of the House of Representatives. It is the main speech of the ceremonial. Winthrop was presumably a man of renowned oratorical skills since he was to be invited to the dedication 37 years later.

the setting….America
the hero……..Washington, Father of his Country
the quest…….Liberty and Independence
the obstacle…treacherous enemies
the mentor…..Divine Providence
the outcome…the Republic and its Constitution

His speech is similar in content and in tone to the Reverend’s eulogy. He repeated and expanded on the same themes, most of which are summarized in the thematic outline above.

The first category relates to the origin of the American nation and its politics, of which George Washington is the chief protagonist. The New World is the stage for the hero’s actions which were guided by Divine Providence: they led to the Revolution and the Constitution of the United States of America. In his quality of first president, he is hailed as the original founder, the Father of his Country.

The elocution refers to the General by different designations, several of which have already been mentioned. Other titles point to the more ethereal quality of the man: The idol, the favorite of heaven who yielded a magic power and majestic authority.

His star has been seen in every sky, and wise men everywhere have done it homage.15

The hero’s quest outlines a desire for Liberty and Independence. Washington is the embodiment of these goals in the midst of the colonial struggle.

The obstacles to his pursuit are referred to as the foreign powers, the wilderness, the heathen Indians, and the treacherous enemies that he victoriously overcomes by his personal prowess.

The mentor is depicted as the Providence, the Great Spirit, and the Divine Hand that guides the illustrious hero at all times.

The outcome is stated as:

He has built his own monument. We, and those who come after us in successive generations, are its appointed, its privileged guardians. This widespread Republic is the true monument to Washington. Maintain its Independence. Uphold its Constitution. Preserve its Union. Defend its liberty.16

As soon as the Honorable Robert C. Winthrop finished his eulogy, he was followed on the podium by Mr. Benjamin B. French Esq., Grand Master of the Masonic fraternity of the District of Columbia, who began by saying:

Why have we assembled here to-day (sic)? What means this immense crowd around us? For what, beneath a July sun, on this anniversary of the birthday of a nation, has this vast multitude come up, as came Israel of old to the dedication of the Temple of the Lord?16

The rest of the speech reiterates the same themes that we have outlined above, with the exception of stressing the fact that the first president was a Freemason.

After his speech, he descended to the cornerstone and performed a Masonic ceremony at the laying of it.


The dedication, unlike the festivities at the laying of the first cornerstone, were performed at two locations. It all began at the foot of the Monument and continued in a long procession toward the Capitol into the Hall of the House of Representatives.

The first part of the festivities began at 11 o’clock on February the 21st, 1885. The celebrations took place in the presence of a great number of visitors from all parts of the country. The chairman of the Commission, Hon. John Sherman, presided over the order of the proceedings while the band played on. The first to step on the podium was Rev. Henderson Suter who said a prayer. He was followed by Dr. James who read a speech written by W.W. Corcoran.18 Then, Myron Parker, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, performed his Masonic ceremonies and delivered his address. He was followed by the engineer of the joint commission, Col. Thomas L. Casey, who made some remarks about the construction of the giant structure before he delivered the Monument to the president of the United States. Finally, President Chester A. Arthur gave a very brief speech dedicating the Monument to the “immortal name and memory of George Washington”.19

Surprisingly, the dedication was not as elaborate as the laying of the cornerstone. The most interesting part is the peculiar Masonic ceremony performed by Myron M. Parker: the Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia. The brief example below illustrates the dialogue used by the members of the order for their ritual:

GRAND MASTER. Right Worshipful Deputy Grand Master,
what is the proper implement of your office?

DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. The square, Most Worshipful.

GRAND MASTER. What are its moral and Masonic uses?

DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. To square our actions by square
virtue, and prove our work when finished.

GRAND MASTER. Have you applied the square to the
obelisk, and is the work square?

DEPUTY GRAND MASTER. I have, and I find the corners to
be square; the workmen have done their duty…20

After the ritual, the Grand Master gave his address. In it, he described how George Washington was a most distinguished brethren who had openly expressed his love and devotion for the Order throughout his life.


As the first part of the festivities ended, the crowd followed the dignitaries in a procession to the Capitol, clearly visible at a distance. They were escorted by the Army and the Navy. The parade is described as being imposing.

At the Capitol, all the dignitaries were gathered in the Hall of the House of Representatives for the official dedication. The president of the Senate, Hon. George F. Edmunds, presided. He called the assembly to order. He introduced the Rev. S. A. Wallis who offered a prayer.

Then, Hon. John D. Long, a representative from Massachusetts, was introduced. He read an oration written by the same Hon. Robert C. Winthrop who had delivered a speech at the opening ceremonies, thirty seven years earlier. He was unable to attend due to illness.

In between the orations, lively music was performed by the United States Marine Band.

The content of Winthrop’s address is basically the same as the earlier one. The veneration given to the immortal name of Washington can be singly noted:

The glory of Columbus can never be eclipsed, never approached, till our New World shall require a fresh discovery; and the glory of Washington will remain unique and peerless until American Independence shall require to be again achieved, or the foundations of Constitutional Liberty to be laid anew.21

It was followed by a speech from Hon. John W. Daniel, of Virginia, who rendered an “eloquent” oration. He described with verve the great qualities of the national hero:

…the genius of Washington was as full-orbed and luminous as the god of day in his zenith.22

He explained to the assembly that the glorious hero was full of his ancestors’ qualities of a “higher and manlier trait of the Anglo-Saxon”.

The proceedings came to a close. At the end of which a short benediction was pronounced by Rev. John A. Lindsay D.D., chaplain of the House of Representatives.

The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.23

The image of George Washington

The mere mention of the name George Washington can easily stir lively feelings of pride and patriotism in the hearts of Americans. These emotions are hard to explain and describe. Yet the devotion is tangible. Men have died and killed for these feelings. They are at the core of what it means to be American.

The hero’s image unleashes patriotic sentiments that are a powerful source of pride and national identity. With George Washington, the image is immortalized in the monumental stone. The mortal man has been set apart to be consecrated. The ordinary being is transcended into an immortal hero erected at the political center of the U.S. He is literally consecrated as the symbol of America’s political identity. His symbolic image has eclipsed the mundane reality of his being. The mortal has been separated from the immortal which is embodied in the Monument.

The symbolic reality of the Founding Father has overlapped the historical into the mythical. With the dedication he has been consecrated as more than man. The heroic and mythical aspects of the figure have transcended and supplanted the historical. As a consequence, Washington’s name suggests not only images of the hero but a reality bigger than life, an unfathomable entity: the center of political power of the United States of America and the content of an entire cosmology. And the Monument is its metaphor.


Soon after Washington’s death, in 1799, at about the same time that the Monument was being commissioned, a great deal of attention by the country’s elite was focused on the image of the first president. His death swiftly buried criticism concerning any misgivings about his life as a general, and as a president. He soon became the subject of a nationwide movement of eulogies meant to aggrandize his personal standing. As the nation made its first steps toward finding its national identity, George Washington became more and more the focus of a country-wide image making campaign.

Numerous books were written about his exemplary life: The Life of Washington, written by Mason Locke Weems of Dumfries, Virginia, is a typical example of the myth-maker of that era.24 The movement lasted throughout the century and Weems’ book became the prototype for many other biographies that deified the Father hero. Soon, George Washington was not only described as a father figure, but as “more than man”, and as an “immortal Olympian”. His image transcended that of national hero to become in many ways that of a mythical “Father”. Authors and orators were not content to merely extol his image above all other heroes, some even compared Washington to Christ and his mother to the Virgin Mary.25

Among the vast number of biographies of the era, especially those written before 1855, one could easily be led to believe that Washington was a demigod who descended on earth with the sole purpose of creating a new country and  freeing its people, and then returned to heaven as soon as his mission was accomplished.26

The Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865 on the ceiling of the dome in the rotunda of the Capitol  Building is another good example of the deification of the national hero.

The views outlined above show how the mythical and historical processes work hand in hand in the edification of a national identity, and how the boundaries between the two are blurred. These processes were further endorsed by a collective appropriation and recognition of the American hero. The cultural identification set the standards for a social consensus that became central to the development of the country’s identity. As such, the mythologizing of George Washington played a central role in the integration of the American political reality.

Washington the Freemason

The ceremonies we have described are revealing in many ways. At both festivities a representative of the Freemasonry was present to honor their illustrious brethren. Not unusual, since the brotherhood played a substantial part in the funding of the structure. But the Monument is also a great architectural salute to the Masons themselves. It is a worthy tribute to the first president of the United States who was also a brethren.

George Washington was the first, but not the last, president to be a Freemason. Several past presidents of the United States have been Freemasons, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, as well as 9 signers of the Declaration of Independence and 13 signers of the Constitution.27

In addition, many other heroes of the American Revolution were also Masons; Paul Revere and John Hancock are only two examples. Benjamin Franklin was also a leader of the Freemasonry in Pennsylvania, and published the first Masonic book in America in 1734.


To fully understand the foundations of America’s mythical process, a few words about the origin of the elusive brotherhood are in order.

It evolved from the stonemason guilds of England and Scotland. When the major building projects -mostly churches and cathedrals of Europe- came to an end, several stonemasons who did not practice their skills any longer stayed on in the fraternal association and formed lodges, the name given to their basic unit. The first lodges were founded in London, England, in the late  XVIIIth century. It is at that epoch that architecture acquired a more metaphorical sense. The grandiose stone buildings began to symbolize human structures, reflecting an ideal humanity built to the glory of the Great Architect of the Universe.

More legendary stories attribute the origin of Masonry to the Garden of Eden. While other versions link its beginning to the building of the pyramids of Egypt, and to Hiram Abif, King Salomon’s Master Architect, the legendary builder of the first temple of Jerusalem.

Currently, there are more than ~6 million Freemasons in the world.28  Most of them live in the U.S. and Canada. As a nonsectarian and nonpolitical association, the fraternity appeals to a wide cross section of the male population. They believe in a Supreme Being and emphasize the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Freemasons are said to admit in their rank men of every nationality, religion, and political persuasion. In order to join, a new member must be introduced by an existing brethren.

Most of the operations and activities of the Society are shrouded by an aura of mystery. Most of it results from the oath of secrecy they must make in regards to the identity of its members.

The early American brotherhood was able to survive an anti-Masonic wave following the abduction and possible murder of Captain William Morgan in 1826. Morgan had planned to publish an article about Masonic secret dealings. Evidence of his murder was linked to the Masons. The public outcry against the organization lasted 10 years and slowly boiled down afterward.

During World War II, the Masons were outlawed and dispersed by Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco. After the war, they soon regained their popularity in non-communist countries, particularly, the United States.

Among its most popular members: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Henry Ford, Charles A. Lindbergh, Irving Berling, Gen. Douglas McArthur, John Wayne, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

Because of its Anglo-Saxon origins, nineteenth century Masonry in the U.S. might convey the idea that the order was predominantly male, white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. But a closer look at a cross-section of its members reveals that a more accurate description would be: a white, generally non-Catholic, male organization. In San Francisco of last century, for instance, most of the Jewish adult male population belonged to the brotherhood. Which prompted an anonymous Jewish brethren to write, in 1865, in the San Francisco’s Hebrew:

If there be any religious system more closely connected with the institution [of Masonry] than others, it is Judaism.29

Although the order claims to be open to all races and all religions, the American lodges refused to initiate any Americans of African descent as a brethren and rejected the legitimacy of any of their Masonic lodges. In 1775, the Grand Lodge of England instigated the first lodge of Americans of African descent in Boston, which eventually assumed the status of grand lodge.

During the time the Monument was built, the organization was mostly a middle class order that mirrored the mores and mentality of the epoch: piety, sobriety, moral responsibility, thrift, and industry. In many respects, it exemplified the Protestant ethic at its best.

The raison d’être of the brotherhood was to promote charity, equality, fraternity, morality, and faith in the Supreme Being. It supplied its members with a sense of fraternity, prestige, and occasionally financial aid. It also provided business connections and networking. On a national level, Masons claimed among its members presidents, senators, and other dignitaries who established the rules for accessibility in the political arena.

The fraternity’s activities however were not entirely reclusive and esoteric. The order also participated in social events. A typical example here is the role they played in the ceremonies at the inauguration of the Washington Monument. Another example of their social acceptance and popularity is further evidenced by their participation at the laying of the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty, in 1885.

Sociologically, the Masonry  reflected the craze for associations, brotherhoods, fraternities, and women’s clubs that became prominent throughout the country during the second part of the nineteenth century.30 Between July and September of 1874, over two hundred pledges were received by societies and organizations from every part of the country to help fund the construction of the Monument. The trend underlined an important facet of the American social fabric of that era.

The social disruption brought about by  industrialization and massive immigration had a major impact on the political institutions of Washington D.C. During these social changes, a great number of Protestant churches were affected by the transition. The development of the scientific vision of the world, brought forth by the Darwinian evolutionary theories, challenged some fundamental beliefs and tenets of the Christian faith. Fraternities like the Masonry provided its members with a network of sanctuaries for Old Testament precepts.

The great influx of immigrants disrupted the basis of a stable social order inaugurated by the Anglo-Saxon elite, of which George Washington was promoted as a symbol. Hence, the brotherhood was a male political haven against the foreign invasion that threatened the nation at its foundation. It gave its members a sense of cohesion against the constant changes and chaos of the outside world. But mostly, the organization was a stronghold to promote true Americanism.31

The order relied on a national network of loyal members, some of whom were among the most powerful men in the country. These ramifications made it an effective hierarchy. To protect their efficiency as a group, and to keep the higher hierarchy from public scrutiny, the new members were sworn to secrecy of its rituals. Yet the fraternity was not so much preoccupied with any esoteric purpose inasmuch as to keep from public view a number of secret procedures, signs, and passwords used in the rituals which brought the brethren step by step one echelon closer to the “light”.

The oath of secrecy also enforced among the members a sense of cohesion and fraternity which inspired unity and the idea of belonging. It also delineated and separated their sacred internal male world from the profane and chaotic world outside. The brethren, in other words, set themselves apart from the uninitiated masses.

The ritual of initiation gave the brethren a sense of election, while the boundaries of the Masonic temple reinforced the separation between the inside and the outside world. The temple morally and physically edified a sacred asylum against the non-initiated profane world.


At the outset the brotherhood view the Roman Catholic Church with suspicion. The distrust was equally shared by the Holy See in Rome. The mutual distrust is but a distant echo of the split brought about by the Reformation and counter Reformation. The ensuing religious antagonism in Europe explains the scope of the animosity between Catholics and Protestants that continued to thrive in North America.

On April 20th, 1884, less than a year before the inauguration of the Monument, Pope Leo XIII issued the Encyclical Humanum Genus, condemning Freemasonry.32 The Papal letter criticized the brotherhood for “rising up against God Himself” and “despoiling the nations of Christendom”. The Pope further argued that the reason for the brotherhood’s obsession with the secrecy of its members was devised to hide the insidious designs of its leaders so to escape any retribution. Not surprisingly, Freemasonry was increasingly seen as a danger and a challenge to the Church’s authority in a politically troubled Italy. They were suspected of secretly fomenting to infiltrate all political ranks in order to promote secular ideas and finally to unseat the Church of its political powers.33

It is during the XIXth century that a schism between the regular and the irregular Masonry lodges appeared. The first, which were not condemned by the Church, upheld the reference of “the Great Architect of the Universe” -God. They did not get involved in politics, respected all faiths and churches, and were not secretive.34 The second group, however, deleted the reference to “the Great Architect of the Universe”, it called for the ruin of the papacy and the Church in Italy. In France, it was responsible for the anti-clerical laws of the Third Republic. It even proclaimed its Masonry as “the Counter Church”. It is this secretive type of Masonry that was condemned by the Church.

The Masons’ ample involvement in the funding as well as at the inauguration of the Monument provides proof of their extensive influence on American politics as a whole. The project embodied a conviction in the American way of life of which George Washington is the prototype. They made sure that the erected structure laid the foundation for a healthy Americanism so to endure the onslaught of any moral degeneracy from the chaotic world outside. The man, the Monument, the brethren, stand visibly erect at the center of the capital and point at all these ideals.

As we have seen, the distinction between the purely secular, the mythical, and the religious is blurred in the  process of the edification of the Monument of George Washington. The mythical preempted and transcended any divisions between any strict religious denominations and political factions in society to become a supra-religious reality. A religion above all other religions, an American civil religion.

C. Moody Plummer of the Trestleboard was only more extreme than most when he declared Protestantism itself to be a religion of warring sects “as intolerant often of each other as human action can be,” while Masonry was “the only religion which can become universal and is [therefore] true religion.”35

American civil religion

The term civil religion comes from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the social contract.36 Robert N. Bellah applied the title to the American political arena to outline the religious content of the inaugural speeches delivered by American presidents.37

The idea of an American civil religion first came to his attention with John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address on January 20, 1961. He noticed that his address was full of religious references to God and the nation, described in very idyllic form. He also noticed that most of the past presidents’ inaugural speeches had the same type of references: a call for devotion to the nation described in its ideal form, where the divine Providence plays a guiding role in shaping the destiny of the United States of America.

Four statutes of the J.F.K. inaugural speech:

a) The right to independence: “Laws of Nature and
Nature’s God”.

b) All “are endowed by their Creator with certain
inalienable Rights”.

c) God is witness to America’s good will: “The Supreme
Judge of the world for the rectitude of our

d) The U.S. reliance on God’s Providence: “a firm
reliance on the protection of divine Providence”.

Except for the references that allude directly to a biblical God, Bellah observes that the content of most speeches do not advocate any particular religious creed. There is no specific mention of Jesus Christ or Yahweh, for instance, since the purpose of the discourses is to form a consensus and represent the multicultural aspect of the society to which they are addressed.38

Yet Bellah notes that among the first presidents many also use references to the Bible. Especially to suggest a connection between the New World and Israel, the Exodus, the Chosen People, the promised land and the New Jerusalem. These analogies, in the context of a predominantly Protestant background of the first presidents, were inevitable.

Although Bellah acknowledges the connections with Judeo-Christian tenets, he carefully dispels any suggestions that American civil religion has any doctrinal Christian content, or is a substitute for Christianity. He contends that civil religion has a different role than religion, since it is specifically political. As such, it appeals to all the people of all backgrounds. To Bellah, American civil religion is an understanding of the American experience in terms of a “transcendent ethical vision”.39 This interpretation of the universal and transcendental is only meaningful if made in relation to the origin and destiny of the U.S. political model of freedom and democracy. Bellah further points out that the God of civil religion is a God of order and freedom rather than of love and forgiveness. It is a God mostly concerned with the history and destiny of the United States.

The American civil religion attracted a great deal of attention among the intellectuals of the nineteen seventies. Despite Bellah’s success there was plenty of criticism, most of which was directed at the author’s definition of religion. Especially questionable was the universal validity of its meaning. In this respect, a more appropriate term to describe it is Paul Tillich’s definition of quasi-religion.40

Most of the Founding Fathers had a Christian background, more specifically, Protestant, since most of them emigrated from Europe. With this in mind, the American civil definition of religion is limited by these cultural and geographical parameters. This view of religion, for instance, ignores the aboriginal cultures that were present at the time of the foundation of this nation. It makes the natives  conspicuously invisible.41 Furthermore, there is no mention of the cultures brought by the Americans of African descent.42

American civil religion, as outlined by Bellah, is a supra-political institution predominantly concerned with Judeo-Christian precepts. The historical foundations and later developments edified and maintained the image of George Washington as the prototype of the American civil religion. This ethical model and the hierarchy of political power was set at the beginning. The American New Order originated by the Founding Fathers was appropriately sustained to preserve their sacred power, as illustrated by the number of presidents since Washington who have been Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and white.  That premise was consecrated at the outset by the inauguration of the George Washington National Monument, the primal model of the presidency. The only exception is John Kennedy, a Catholic.

To that effect, the Latin saying captures the essence of rule of politics, cujus regio, ejus religio: the religion of the rulers becomes the creed of the land.

As we have seen, myth plays a considerable part in the evolution and integration of ideology. The power behind the language of myth is to define, confine, and control the scope of the national identity. By the same token, it shapes a meaningful consensus in culture and society.

American civil religion, as it relies on its governmental institutions and on the presidency, in terms of the charisma of the office, embodies and fulfills in many respects the same function as religion. As Bellah observed: “The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm of a religious dimension.”43 This remark introduces yet another very complex point of contention: the separation of church and state. Bellah brings up the question briefly but does not clarify the issue. No doubt there is a danger, more so today because of the effective use of mass-media in the creation of a national consensus. But also because the religious and the political may be identified or confused as a single and legitimate reality by a greater number of people living in a secularized world. As a consequence, the State becomes the only unquestionable source of economical power and political truth. This theological truth is amply suggested by the symbol that epitomizes the relation between Freemasonry, politics, the economy, and civil religion in America.

1$      IN GOD WE TRUST      1$

On one side of the dollar bill we have the portrait of our celebrated hero. On the other side, a symbol of Freemasonry: the pyramid crowned by the all-seeing-eye inside the pyramidion. The latter also represents the zenith of political power overseeing the pyramidal order of hierarchy. And at the center of the bill is the caption that embraces the ultimate icon of American civil religion.


1 I turned my attention to this subject in my Masters’ thesis entitled: Interpretation Religieuse de l’Origine Mythique de la Nationalite: L’Inauguration de Monuments Nationaux (1840-1900), Montreal, UQAM, 1978.
2 Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial, New York, Seabury Press, 1975; and Beyond Belief; Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, New York, Harper & Row, 1970.
3 The whole ceremony is related in Frederick Harvey’s, ed., History of the Washington National Monument & Washington National Monument Society, Washington D.C., Government Printing Office, 1903.
4 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper & Row, 1959, 12.
5 Idid. F. Harvey, 43. Taken from the National Geographic Magazine, vol. 6, 149.
6 In myths, the hill and the mountain are important places where the earth and the heavens meet. It is where the divine greet the human, where the above touch the below, and the sacred and the profane converge.
7 Ibid. F. Harvey, 224.
8 For more about the obelisks of Egypt see Labib Habachi’s, The Obelisks of Egypt, Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, 1984.
9 The same year the Immaculate Conception became an article of faith.
10 The movement also fought unsuccessfully to minimize the anti-slavery sentiments of that time.
11 Rhetoric was later developed by Aristotle in works like Rhetoric and Topics. It eventually became the means of putting into practice, especially with the help of argumentation, the wisdom one acquires in philosophy. Later, the art was most skillfully applied by the Roman master orator and statesman Cicero, as described in his De Oratore (55 BC). In the first century ad, rhetoric became the subject of an important educational treatise entitled Instituto oratoria by the Roman Quintinllian. It evolved until the middle of the XIXth century into a major educational discipline and one of the seven liberal arts. But, as the last century faded, rhetoric as a “general” science was slowly being supplanted by the increasingly popular natural sciences. See Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, New York, Methuen, 1982, and, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1971.
12 See Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1977.
13 Ibid. F. Harvey, 46.
14 Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington, Man and Monument, Boston, Little, Brown Co., 1958, 213.
15 Ibid. F. Harvey, 126.
16 Ibid. F. Harvey, 130.
17 Ibid. F. Harvey, 136.
18 The speech is not included in Harvey’s book.
19 Ibid. F. Harvey, 104-105. For some unknown reason the president’s dedication was overshadowed by the other addresses.
20 Ibid. F. Harvey, 214.
21 Ibid. F. Harvey, 252.
22 Ibid. F. Harvey, 278.
23 Ibid. F. Harvey, 285.
24 Mason Locke Weems, The Life of Washington, ed. Marcus Cunliffe, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1962.
25 Bernard Mayo, Myths and Men, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1959, 33, and the whole chapter on Washington, 25-49.
26 William A. Bryan, George Washington in American Literature, 1775-1865, New York, Columbia University Press, 1952, 118. Also, Richard V. Pierard & Robert D. Linder, Civil Religion & the Presidency, Grand Rapids, Academie Books, 1988.
27 They are: George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James Knox Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Jonhson, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, both Roosevelts, William H. Taft, Warren G. Harding, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Jonhson, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
28 In 1964 the Masonic Order enrolled about 1 out of every 12 men in the U.S.
29 “Perhaps the most surprising representatives in the Masonic non-evangelical alliance were the large number of Jews. In Gilded-Age San Francisco, Jews comprised 12% of the brotherhood’s membership, about the same proportion which they formed in the city’s adult, white, male, non-catholic population as a whole. Considering the strictly Protestant origins of Freemasonry, this high proportion of Jewish members is extraordinary.”  Carl Guarneri, and David Alvarez, ed., Religion and Society in the American West, New York, University Press, 1987. p.240.
30 Between 1880 and 1900, more than 460 associations were formed in the U.S.
31 See the book by Lynn Dumenil, Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880-1930, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1984, 70.
32 Leo XIII, Humanum Genus, April 20th 1884, in, The Papal Encyclicals, 1878-1903, Raleigh, McGrath Publishing C., 1981, 91-101. He was not the only Pope to condemn the brotherhood. Others were: Benedict XIV, Pius VII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI, Pius IX. The Catholic Church was not the only denomination in the U.S. to warn against lodge affiliation. Among them: the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Christian Reformed Church, Church of the Brethren, Assemblies of God, Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites, Church of the Nazarene, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), United Brethren, Wesleyan, the Free Methodist churches, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. General Booth of the Salvation Army also condemned the organization. Finally, in 1874, the National Christian Association coordinated a Protestant opposition to secret societies. However, the ban was not strictly enforced.
33 These hostilities go back even farther in time; as early as 1738, Pope Clement XII had already threatened to excommunicate anyone belonging to the order.
34 In Great Britain, the “regular” Masonry scrupulously obeys a law requiring it to provide its membership list to Justice.
35 Ibid. Carl Guarneri, 236.
36 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, in, The Essential Rousseau, New York, New American Library, 1974.
37 Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief, New York, Harper & Row, 1970, 168-189.
38 George Washington’s first inaugural address of April 30, 1789 alludes to God as the “Almighty Being”. It is a good example of his deist Masonic interpretation of the divinity.
39 Robert N. Bellah, The Broken Covenant, New York, A Crossroad Book, 1975, 142.
40 Paul Tillich distinguishes pseudo from quasi-religion. The first is an intended and deceptive similarity with religion, whereas the second indicates a genuine similarity which is not necessarily intended. See, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, New York, Columbia University Press, 1963, 5f.
41 Charles H. Long, Civil Rights, Civil Religion: Visible People and Invisible People, in, American Civil Religion, ed. by Russel E. Richey and Donald G. Jones, New York, Harper Forum Books, 1974.
42 Appropriately labeled by Ralph Ellison as the “Invisible Man”. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, New York, Vintage Books, 1972.
43 Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief, New York, Haper & Row, 1970, 171.

The Mythical Quest for Independence

Michael A Rizzotti

When I switched my major from economics to theology at Loyola College in the fall of 1970, the province of Québec was in the midst of a political turmoil. During what is now known as the October Crisis, British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Québec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte were both kidnapped by the Front de Libération du Québec (F.L.Q.). James Cross was later released, but Pierre Laporte was found strangled in the trunk of an abandoned car on the eastern outskirts of Montréal. The Crisis triggered the adoption by the Liberal Government of Canada of the War Measures Act and the army was sent into the province.

The circumstances that led to this dramatic turn of events could be traced back to the British invasion of a small but growing French colony of Nouvelle-France in 1760. The Conquest –la Conquête- was to be the beginning of a people’s ongoing struggle for survival.

In order to maintain peace in the newly conquered colony, the English undertook a policy of laissez faire toward the Catholic Church. As the new spiritual leader, the Church promoted in the minds of the people a distinct vision of its own identity and destiny. Looking back, hardly any political party could have inspired such a collective will to overcome the unforeseeable obstacles of history.

From the time I first left Italy to immigrate to Montreal. I witnessed enormous changes in the people of Quebec in the sixties. The Catholic Church was omnipresent when we first arrived, and had been for at least three centuries. All aspects of French Canadian life was imprinted with the Church’s authority.

In the early nineteen-sixties, two major events were to change the Church’s hold over the people: Vatican II in Rome, and the emergence of the Quiet Revolution –La Révolution Tranquille– in Québec. In a matter of years, the Church’s power rapidly eroded. In less than a decade, the priests and nuns who dominated schools and hospitals were replaced by lay people. The Church was losing an increasing number of its believers. Those who lost their faith embraced the growing nationalist fervor. And as the québecois progressively abandoned the Church, they joined the ranks of the emerging political quest for independence.

It is this quest that is the subject of this chapter. We will try to explain how a desire for spiritual salvation was transformed into a movement for political liberation. As Claude Levi-Strauss observed, nothing in today’s society is more mythical than political ideology. He wrote:

But what gives the myth an operational value is that the specific pattern described is timeless; it explains the present and the past as well as the future. This can be made clear through a comparison between myth and what appears to have largely replaced it in modern societies, namely, politics.1

It is this quest for independence that is the focus of a message of mythical proportions.


Ironically, myth and history appear today as conflicting in meaning as in function. They are both stories, yes, but each relates to different aspects of events that are recounted. Both are equally considered to be true stories by those who relate their content. Yet myth is primarily concerned with accounts of the origins taking place in a primordial time, a so called time beyond the realm of history. History, on the other hand, is a chronological compendium of historical data.

One can best differentiate myth from history as two distinct forms of language. Foremost, history is the realm of the historian and his work, whereas the narrative of myth reaches out to all men, women, and children regardless of class, position, and age. All are captivated by myth. Everybody is enchanted by the mythical stories that have been generated by different cultures.

Myth is concise, symbolic, meaningful, and efficient. Its stories relate to events and heroes beyond the ordinary human sphere. These stories are concerned with god(s), super-heroes, and their heroic deeds. What separates myth from history is its description of a special class of beings and their activities. They deal mostly with the powers that rule the world: wherein God or the gods are metaphors for the unfathomable powers -subliminal and inconspicuous hierarchies- that rule the world. For the most part, these stories have an enduring quality that reflects the intrinsic and significant aspects of a mentality derived from the different cultures they emerged from.

Myth relates how a new reality came into being, how a new world was created. It describes the actions of the super-heroes or the god(s) in their creative endeavor. Why are certain things forbidden? What legitimates a particular authority? Why do people suffer and die? To sum it up, myth decodes the meaningful events of the world. These events evolved in a time beyond history; ie, in illo tempore.2 Thus, this ethereal dimension in time and space is the primary gap that separates myth from history. It is a fuzzy boundary between the sacred/supernatural that is set apart from the profane/ordinary world.

History is foremost an exhaustive and detailed account of all significant events that occurred in the past. With the scientific application of historiography, history has been stripped of any mythical content. However, this was not the case of the history books of several decades ago. One look at older history books reveals how they were filled with heroic embellishment which have nothing to do with historical facts. The interpretation of the events surrounding General Custer’s battle at Little Bighorn, for instance, has varied tremendously over time. Some of the earlier versions were, to say the least, mythical, and particularly unfavorable toward the aboriginal people.

The above comparison between myth and history is well illustrated in the example of the discovery of Nouvelle-France (New-France). According to Mircea Eliade, myth is essentially an account that describes the events that are at the origin of a new reality founded and created by civilizing heroes or gods in the beginning of time. The discovery of New-France, for example, has been inscribed in history as the legitimate origins of a new national reality. The new beginnings inaugurate the grounds of mythical significance. The ancestral heroes are the founders of a new national identity at the beginning of a new chapter of history. The founders’ identities are celebrated as heroic and are separated from the mass of historical events. In the U.S., for instance, Columbus day is a national holiday.3 The national event celebrates the hero as the prototype of a new cultural and national reality. The pioneer is not so much famed as a person but as a symbol of a new cultural identity. As history shows, because of Amerigo Vespucci, the New World became known as America on maps as early as 1507.

Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492

Jacques Cartier discovered New-France in 1594

These national heroes were the first to inaugurate a new historical and national reality. They were elevated above ordinary human beings and other historical characters. As a result, society will commemorate these super-heroes by erecting monuments in their honor. These monuments consecrate the significant part they played in the foundation and creation of a new national entity and identity.4

There is an inherent contradiction in the concept of the discovery. How could the New World be discovered when it was already inhabited by native cultures? To validate the Christian discovery, these natives had to be dismissed as having no cultural and moral value of their own. Being labeled as heathen and pagan justified their need for civilization. Therefore, the discovery was strictly an European colonialist imposition upon the native cultures to justify the taking of the biggest piece of free real estate ever discovered. Today, such historical value given to the discovery is debatable, since it is more mythical than anything else. But it shows how the mythical process is a propaganda tool for the justification of any form of colonialism and imperialism.


The chronicle of the origin of a new reality has an important mythological significance in history, yet the struggle for the nation’s identity is also essential.5

sacred   vs  profane
the colonialists   vs  the natives
the Christians   vs  the pagans

The opposition establishes the sacredness of the colonial endeavor, especially in respect to the belief of the mission to civilize and to convert the savage heathen who represented an obstacle to the development of the new nation. We have typified elsewhere the Zuni as the heathen reality to be converted. As a profane reality, they were seen as an obstacle to the development of the New World.

Christian civilization  vs  the heathen
British civilization  vs  the pagan
French civilization  vs  the savage

New-France will evolve dramatically from the time of its foundation. Its historical discovery allowed the  consecration of its origin as a legitimate nation regardless of the fate of the aboriginal cultures who lived in their ancestral lands.


The discovery of New-France that fills the first pages of history books of that nation was to be undermined by a tragic turn of events. In 1760, the colony was conquered by the British army and abandoned by France. In the process, the conquerors set their own political rules while recognizing the authority of the Catholic Church so as to appease the population.

The defeat and the abrupt change in the political allegiance left a deep scar in the collective memory of the French people. The result was to imprint ambivalent feelings of being a nation of colonized-colonialists, and to mark a Lord-victim approach in regards to their history and their fate. The people were in political exile in their own land. The French, who were originally the Lords and colonialists in the New World, had become themselves the victims of colonialism imposed by the British. This turn of events will have enduring effects in the development of their destiny and history. It will set off the beginning of a peoples’ struggle for survival.

The British conquest of New-France also reinstated the old rivalry between England and France and exported to North America the ancestral antagonism between Reformed Church/Protestantism and Catholicism that had endured in Europe for several centuries.

The political struggle that emerged because of the conquest clearly outlined two distinct and rival cultural entities.

English   vs   French
Reformed/Protestants   vs   Catholics

Abandoned by France, the people congregated under the leadership of the Catholic Church. From then on the French mentality would be shaped into a Catholic mold. With her new found authority the Church became preoccupied with the redemption of its people. The hierarchy promoted the principles of obedience to the Church as the only visible sign of salvation: extra ecclesiam nulla salus; ie, there is no salvation outside the Church. The Church encouraged students to shun the evils of business and commerce and to embrace liberal professions such as law, medicine, and the priesthood. The clerics preached to the population the benefits of agriculture as a privileged way of salvation. They urged women to marry young and have numerous children.

Meanwhile, by the end of the XVIIIth century, signs of the Industrial Revolution were visible all over England. The Kingdom was in a rapid transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. The roots of the cultural and economic development of capitalism had Protestant ethical overtones. Individual responsibility, freedom, industry, and success were believed to be visible signs of salvation. Max Weber described the ethic in terms of a “secular asceticism”.6 This spirit of capitalism would soon spread to all the British colonies of North America.

Suddenly, Canada became a battleground for two rival cultures, two languages and two religions originating from two rival European colonial powers. On one hand, we have the French culture led by the Catholic Church whose authority lay in the hierarchy and in the assembly of believers as a visible sign of its invested power, described in terms of collective asceticism. This belief implied a faithful obedience to the principle of the Church as the only way toward salvation.

On the other hand, we have the English culture influenced by the Protestant ethic, described in terms of secular asceticism. The ethic favored individual initiative, industry (hard work), responsibility, and financial success as a sign of election.

Hence, two cultures and two visions of the world  inspired an antagonism that put the two collective entities against each other. Each was living in their world of sacred beliefs, opposing the other as a profane reality.

French Catholics  vs  English Reformed/Protestants
collective asceticism  vs  secular asceticism
other-worldly  vs  this-worldly


Not until the first half of the 18th century did the French-Canadian people begin to challenge the political rules set by the English and the Church.

During 1837-38, a movement emerged that began to question the authority of the Church and the political advantage of the English. A growing number of people from the French middle-class, as well as intellectuals, expressed their unhappiness with their share of political power. Louis-Joseph Papineau, the leader of the Parti Canadien, succeeded in rallying a majority of French people against the Catholic Church and the English. The nationalist outburst was brief. In 1838 the English crushed an armed insurrection and dispelled the leader and its followers.

As a result, the people were left in a political limbo. In time, the French-Canadians rallied back to the Church for guidance. The majority of the people who were tempted by the political solutions proposed by the nationalists returned to the Church’s promise of collective salvation. Redemption would not be won through political means, but through obedience to the Church and through faith.

By the end of the XIXth century, the rapid changes brought by industrialization and urbanization began to undermine the Church’s control over the faithful. Priests began to preach to people to have large families in order to overcome the English by number.7 The policy of la revenge des berceaux -the revenge of the cradle- worked. As the population grew rapidly, people left the farm for the city. The cities were unable to handle the increasing number of people moving in. And because of the high level of urban unemployment a great deal of the people emigrated to the U.S. In order to limit the exodus, the Catholic hierarchy pioneered the development of agricultural lands in the northern parts of Quebec. These policies were devised to keep the people away from the evils of industrial cities controlled by the English. But despite the courage and endurance of the inhabitants, the harsh climate and poor economical benefits failed to keep the people on their farms.

Urbanization was seen by the clerical elite as a threat to their authority. They had complete control over the farmer who lived in relative autonomy and isolation on his land. Not so for the people living in the cities who were being hired by the English industrialists and traders.

The rapid industrial development, which was out of the Church’s control, was perceived as threatening the integrity of their flock. The economic power of the English was seen as an incursion in their clerical jurisdiction. Especially in light of the overwhelming presence of the Anglo-Saxon culture of Canada and the U.S.

Even though the French-Canadians renewed their allegiance to the Church in the years following the rebellious outburst, their vision of salvation underwent some fundamental changes. Out of the defeat arose a new kind of collective mysticism, more patriotic in tone. A national messianism began to take shape.8

Between the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, a new form of collective mysticism with messianic overtones  emerged among the clerical elite. Mgr. Laflèche and later to a lesser extent, Canon Lionel Groulx, prophesied a messianic role for the French Catholic people of North America. They proclaimed that the French-Canadians were destined to be the chosen people of God. They exhorted the population to obedience to the Church in return for a glorious call to the promised land. Mgr. Laflèche compared the plight of the French-Canadian people to Israel. For him “American France…is nothing other than the New Israel of God since it is the heir of the Old France and therefore the heir to the promises made to the Church, and the promise made before that to Israel.”9

As we have seen already, colonialism has broad and sometimes ill effects on the culture it is imposed upon. Extensive ethnological studies show that when cultures are oppressed by a foreign power they instigate movements of messianic salvation, some with revolutionary goals.10 In some cases, the revolt takes the guise of a religious movement but ends in violent outbursts. The conquest and later the defeat of the Rebellion of 1837-38 inhibited the “normal” evolution of the national identity. The strong sense of religious conviction inspired by the Church led the people to shift their desire for national freedom into a mystic vision upheld as a national messianism.

As a result, the ideological boundaries that usually exist between what is believed to be strictly nationalistic and religious fade. National aspirations become intertwined with deep expressions of collective mysticism. The messianic movement described above reinforces the distinct calling of its people and polarizes even further the gap between the French and the English mold of cultural differences and divisions.

collective asceticism  vs  secular asceticism
French language  vs  English language
Catholics  vs  Reformed/Protestants
farmers  vs  merchants
labor  vs  industrialist

At this point, it is crucial to stress the importance of the dynamic of opposition in the development of a national identity. The antagonism separates and reinforces the cultural differences and identities on both sides of the dynamic. As we have explained already, the stronger the opposition, the greater the belief in being set apart and of sacred identity.


Although the Catholic Church imposed on its believers a stoic acceptance of the political reality of the British rule, it nevertheless fought any form of assimilation. While the Church was preaching a passive submission to the English rule, it maintained a strong sense of cultural identity. Since the Conquest of 1760, the Church had promoted among its faithful the urgency of its collective survival. Under its guidance the people were kept together by two things: la langue et la foi; eg, the French language and catholic faith. Both were instruments of social unity and a barrier against foreign intrusion. They became the two main vehicles for social integration. They were the two major components of contemporary nationalism.


Language and a desire for emancipation have been vital forces behind the renewal of nationalism that began in the nineteen sixties. As the nationalist movement began to spread, the Quebec society underwent rapid cultural changes. The Quebec people perceived themselves as other and apart from the rest of Canada. It is this perceived sense of distinctness that allowed the separatists to make political headway among le peuple québécois.

As the Spirit of renewal and openness swept Vatican II, Quebec society as a whole was undergoing its own la Révolution Tranquille -Quiet Revolution. In less than a decade, the power of the Church eroded. Meanwhile, political changes were spreading throughout society. The educational system, formally the stronghold of the Church, was rapidly becoming secularized. The medical system, under the control of the clerical hierarchy, was nationalized. Little by little, Quebec society became more secular. Secularization was undertaken so swiftly that it appeared as if the people wanted to be rid of the heavy moral burden the Church had imposed on them during the last two centuries.

Simultaneously, from the late fifties and throughout the sixties, television took center stage in a majority of  homes. People indiscriminately plugged into the power of its message. TV began to shatter the mold of the insular mind as it opened a window to the outside world. Inadvertently, this medium began to challenge the old religious and cultural models by the power of its images. Its mass appeal precipitated even further the secularization of society. The images presented on TV eventually supplanted the ethical models preached by the Church. The Chapel was no longer the center for the preaching of the Word.

Until the 1960s, business signs in Montreal were predominantly in English, reflecting the Anglo-Saxon economic control over the city. It revealed the disproportionate supremacy of the minority over the French majority. Things would rapidly change.

As the desire for emancipation grew, a new wave of radical nationalism arose. The new breed of nationalists demanded more control of their political and economical destinies. They felt, with reason, that their language and culture were threatened by the overwhelming Anglo-Saxon presence in North-America.

An alarming decrease in the French birthrate and a dramatic increase in the immigration of people who would rather learn English sparked fears of assimilation. Quebec, the only bastion of French language and culture in America, was threatened. In the late sixties and early seventies, radical movements like the F.L.Q. –Front de Liberation du Québec– undertook to promote social awareness about such threats. The radical movement advocated complete political control over the province’s destiny. Among their demands was the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. To show that they were serious, they planted bombs in the mail boxes, a symbol of the Federal Government, of the affluent English section of Montreal.

From the more radical Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale (R.I.N.), emerged a moderate indépendantiste party under the leadership of René Lévesque, a former Liberal provincial cabinet member.11 The movement appealed to the masses as it revived memories of broken dreams and shattered hopes. The promise of independence rang out as a clear message of liberation. To implement these goals, the Parti Québécois (P.Q.) proposed the option of “sovereignty-association” with the rest of Canada.

Quebec  vs  Canada
Parti Québécois vs  Federal Parties of Canada
French  vs  English

The idea of independence rekindled memories of lost aspirations. It captured the hearts of the people who longed to transcend their past. It allowed them to hail their own future. As such, the movement inspired what the more radical nationalist detractors derisively called “the religion of René”.12

To promote the idea of independence, the P.Q. used metaphors like “paradise” and warned against “old demons” and “abortionists” that opposed their goal.13 People who were close to Rene Levesque were called the “evangelists”. One of his closest ministers was even described as “the disciple that Rene Levesque loved”. These quasi-messianic references consecrated even further the cause in which they believed. The leader himself became the embodiment of a sacred mission of quasi-religious proportion.14 The collective passion among its members became vivid and intense as the nationalists became spirited by its crusade. The quest for independence became more and more mythical in meaning and function as the movement grew more popular among a greater segment of the population.


The historical development of nationalism outlines the desire to be distinct. It prompted opposition to whoever challenged this assumption. The dynamic opposition to the other cultural entity reinforced the Quebecers’ sense of conviction in their own separate identity. What existed outside the periphery of the linguistic and religious boundaries –la langue et la foi– was considered a threat to the social makeup. As we have already explained, the stronger the antagonism to the outer cultural reality, the greater the inner identity. This opposition first began with the profane reality of the heathen, which was an obstacle to colonization, and eventually, it was transposed into the struggle against the English adversary.15

The French language became the main bond among the people. It also became a communication barrier against les anglais. Religion, on the other hand, further consolidated the conviction of being set apart and of having a distinct identity as Catholics. The mythical quest for independence became the noetic integrator of the Quebecers. These thematic symbols captured the core of the historical experience of the people. It originated from a legitimate desire to recreate a golden age, a Paradise Lost, if you will, that was denied to them by history. Independence became the rallying quest of that legitimate desire.

It is one of history’s paradox that as soon as the secularization took hold in Quebec, nationalistic concerns arose. What was unique about the people of Quebec prior to the nineteen sixties was the strength of their separate religious identity as well as their language. The province was the only bastion of French Catholicism in North America. The ensuing spiritual vacuum that came as a result of people leaving the Church propelled the faithful quest to be distinct in a secularized world. As a consequence, the collective mentality was politicized. Yet the advent of the political and cultural emancipation of French society also increased the danger of assimilation into the greater North American melting pot. As a remedy, a dose of nationalism was embodied by the quest for independence.

As we have tried to show above, the mythical aspect of history thrives in the minds of the people who are deeply affected by its significance. The quest for independence embodies the collective spirit of the people in search of their own integrity and identity.

1. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, New York, Basic Books Inc., 1963, 209.
2. Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, New York, Harper & Row, 1963.
3. Although it was soon found out that Columbus did not find his way to India, the inhabitants he met on the continent are still referred to by the wrongful appellation of “Indians”.
4. My work on the inauguration of monuments shows that the fine line between historical figures and mythical heros disappears at the dedication; L’Interpretation Religieuse de l’Origine Mythique de la Nationalite, Montreal, UQAM, 1978. More on the subject in the next chapter.
5. The connection between nationalism and the principle of opposition was first proposed by Maurice Lemire, Les Grands Themes Nationalistes du Roman Historique Canadien-Francais, Québec, PUQ, 1970.
6. Of course, when Max Weber talks about capitalism it is in terms of the “spirit” of capitalism, which implies an ethical and spiritual dimension to it. Not to be confused with the capitalistic anomalies of greed, speculation, and corruption we have witnessed. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York, Scribner, 1958.
7. From a mere sixty thousand French-Canadians in 1760, their number grew to six million in 2000.
8. Gabriel Dussault, L’Eglise A-t-Elle “Oublie” ses Promesses?, in, Relations, 386, 1973, 264-267.
9. G. Dussault, Ibid. 266.
10. See reference on messianism and bibliography, p.78.
11. Under the leadership of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Lesage.
12. See Peter Desbarats’, René, Toronto, Seal Books, 1977, 192.
13. Political Pamphlet, Quand Nous Serons Vraiment Chez-Nous.
14. Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, New York, Columbia University Press, 1963.
15. Ironically, at the time of this writing, Quebec with only a quarter of the country’s population turns out 40% of the business school graduates of Canada. In 1988, the province yielded half of the 50 fastest growing, publicly-held companies in the nation. It is a characteristic of antagonist acculturation for cultures to finally embrace whole heartidly the cultural principles that they opposed at the outset. See George Devereux on “antagonist acculturation” in, Ethnopsychanalyse Complementariste, Paris, Flamarion, 1972, 201-231.

A Preface to The Quest for Independence

Michael A Rizzotti

The article entitled The Mythical Quest for Independence was written several years ago. I decided to post it here because I consider it pertinent information in regards to the current quasi-religious emergence in our cultures. I added some additional personal observations about Montreal.


As a young immigrant living in Montreal I saw Quebec’s cultural development through the eyes of an alien and an outsider. In retrospect, I realize the impact it had on my own personal life as I eventually picked the fields of theology and religious studies in order to make sense of the religious zeal and nationalism that pervaded in Quebec during my youth. The province’s historical development became a fertile groundwork for my research in religion and mythology.

When I first moved to Montreal I was 5 years old. At that time the bulk of my relatives lived in Friuli, Italy. I also had relatives living in Argentina, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Morocco and the United States.

As soon as we moved to Montreal I was of age to enroll in school. Contrary to all other European and Italian immigrants who sent their children to English school, I was sent to French school. The small northern Italian city where I came from had many immigrants living in France. Maybe that explains why my parents had no objections sending me to French school. However, for most other immigrants in Quebec, English was considered to be the language of business and they made sure their children learned it. This caused an increasing amount of resentment from the Québécois who felt betrayed and threatened by the overwhelming Anglo North-American continent. Eventually the politicians would change the laws to direct all non English speaking immigrants’ children to French schools.

I was an alien in a predominantly French school, but I was also an outsider in respect to other Italian children enrolled in an English school. In addition I was living in a French speaking culture that was a minority within an English speaking majority in Canada as well as a minority within an even larger dominant North American Anglo culture.

At the time of my arrival, the québécois had been religiously sheltered from the outside world by the Catholic Church and had lived in relative isolation for almost two centuries. One of the triggers that led to the political upheaval in Quebec and the emancipation of its people was the incursion of television in people’s living room. The québécois were no longer captives to their religious leaders or Church. In a matter of years the medium was systematically implanted in all homes feeding them the culture made in New York and Hollywood. Marshall McLuhan who is famous for stating that the medium is the message, forgot to add that who owns the medium owns the message.

During the nationalist upheaval in the early 1960s, I was amazed to realize how people could so readily surrender their will to a cultic or political belief system. After years of research I came to the conclusion that the hierarchical system, symbolically represented by a pyramid, is at the core of all power schemes. The Catholic Church is built on it and all political systems either from the left or right are based on it. These systems are now being replaced by the tribal corporate body.

For those who have never visited the city, Montreal is an island that is surrounded by the majestic Saint-Laurence river. To the north of the city lies another slightly smaller island of Laval. At the time of the Révolution Tranquille the city was linguistically divided between east and west. To the east lived the French people and the great majority of catholic immigrants. To the west lived the English speaking population joined by the other religious denominations. The dividing line between the two solitudes was ironically Blvd. Saint-Laurent, baring the same name as the river.

The French portion of Montreal located east of the Blvd. Saint-Laurent was called la ville aux cents clochers or the city with one hundred bell-towers. In contrast, the most prominent and imposing buildings in the English west side were banks and tall commercial buildings.

On the southern part of Montreal stood Mount Royal, a lone mountain overlooking the downtown’s city scrapers. On the eastern section of the mount was a park on which stood a huge cross that could been seen from miles away. Saint-Joseph oratory was perched high on a slope overlooking the French the city, competing for prominence and height with the University of Montreal also located close by.

The western section of le Mont-Royal was the area appropriately named Westmont. The richest Anglo population lived there. Reinforcing the cultural and linguistic wall between east and west.

Mayor Jean Drapeau who ruled Montreal with an iron fist for 26 years, best personified the city and the era of which we are talking about. He was responsible for the World Fair held in 1967 that opened up Montreal and the province to the world. The fair was held on a man-made island built on the Saint-Laurence river just south of downtown. In 1976 the Olympics where also held in Montreal. The extravagant and uncompleted Olympic stadium was located in the eastern section of the city in close proximity to Mayor’s modest residence of Rosemont.

I admit that I am as fascinated by the current subliminal corporate doctrine that has permeated our cultures, that is quasi-religious to say the least, as I was by the nationalist fervor that took hold of the more radical québécois.

Zuni Cosmology

Michael A Rizzotti

This short essay allows us to display the splendor of Zuni mythology. In many respects, the Zuni represent a beautiful example of the aboriginal cultures that thrived in North America. It allows us to disclose the Zuni’s conception of the world which was inaugurated long before the so-called civilized world made its imprint on the whole continent.

The metaphorical aspect of Zuni language is at the core of its cosmology. In their rituals and their everyday life the Zuni use numerous metaphors to depict how “everything” is related to the “same thing”. Language is a dynamic principle of the whole Zuni spirituality.

Finally, among the many native cultures of North America the Zuni still live by the word of a compelling cosmology. Their self-enclosed cosmos is a typical example of what Emile Durkheim calls sociocentrism.1 The composition and arrangement of their collective order is typical of many other native cultures. But what is particular to Zuni mythology is some analogies it shares with the creation myths of Genesis. While the Bible describes the creation of the world in terms of time; namely, seven days, the Zuni relate the creation of the world in terms of space; namely, seven orientations. In Genesis the seventh day is sacred. For the Zuni the seventh space is also sacred. The etymology of the Hebrew word to swear, for instance, literally means to seventh oneself.2 In Zuni mythology the seventh space is referred to as the sacred Center: it is described as the Middle Place, and the Middle Time. Similarly, in the Bible the tree that lies in the midst of the garden is a metaphor for the divinity Asherah. In Zuni Mythology the center is a metaphor of Earth Mother.


Zuni is the name of a people. It is also the name of their small Pueblo ─village─ located on the Indian Reservation in the McKinley county of New Mexico.3 Zuni is situated thirty miles south of Gallup, and about the same distance west of the Continental Divide.

The Zuni Pueblo are noted for their skills in making silver and turquoise jewelry. They are also famous for the ceremonial dance of the Shalako.4

The Pueblo lies in a small valley of the Zuni River which takes its source from the Little Colorado. It is one of the oldest farming communities in the United States. They are the descendants of the people of the Seven Cities of Cibola. They were given that name by a Spanish expedition led by the Franciscan Friar Marcos de Niza in 1539. His embellished accounts of the Seven Cities of Gold lured another expedition led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado the next year. The first expedition of the Spaniards apparently mistook the golden reflection of the mica, the material that the Pueblo used to cover their windows, for the precious metal.

The Spaniards didn’t find any gold, but nevertheless they tried to impose their rule until 1680. At that time a Pueblo revolt tentatively liberated them from the colonial rule. Since, they have earned a reputation for being a fiercely independent people, deeply religious, loyal to their traditions and proud to speak their language. This is one reason why the Zuni survived through the centuries despite the attempts made by the missionaries to convert them.5 Of the seven cities that the Spaniards discovered in the sixteenth century, only Zuni remains today. The village, as seen today, bears the marks of acculturation and modernization.

Zuni cosmology is closely akin to its environment. Their whole culture reflects the beauty of nature that is all around them. Like many other native people of the continent, the symbolic representations of their fauna and flora are omnipresent in all their art and rituals. What makes Zuni cosmology particularly noteworthy though, is their semantic description of space. The movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars, altogether with changes in the winter and summer solstices, have inspired a dynamic conception of the world.

The beauty of the surrounding landscape is overwhelmingly present in all of their artistic endeavors. Not surprisingly, Zuni cosmology reveals that the beautiful is dynamic.6 This dynamism is also revealed in their lore and in every other aspect of their collective life. Everything in their social arrangement reflects the aesthetic and kinetic aspect of nature. Zuni cultural life is in effect a metaphor of the dynamic in nature, and everything is symbolically arranged in its image. Their art, their elaborate rituals, their dances and their pantomimes, everything is a mimetic expression of their perception of the cosmos as one and the same thing.

Zuni society is based on a system of symbolic classifications described by Frank Hamilton Cushing as mytho-sociologic.7 Zuni mythology and cosmology are so closely intertwined with their social and religious order that they are in effect the same thing.

Social life was originally divided into regions according to a four-cornered world.8 The number and orientations of these spaces reflect the basic composition of their cosmological perception of the world. All the members of the Zuni Pueblo belong to one or the other of these respective regions. The divisions involved all of the Seven Cities of Cibola. These areas are systematically parted into clans, which are split into totems depicted as animals. These totems are then separated into parts or attributes of the animal. Each member of the Pueblo belongs to a clan, and each member of the clan assumes the name of the part or attribute of the totem. Through this intricate classification, which they believe is made according to the mirror image of nature, each Zuni participates in the cosmological and social life of the Pueblo.

Zuni society is matrilineal and matrilocal. The mother’s household is the basic social unit. The children have to marry outside their parents’ clans and when they marry they live in the household of the bride’s mother. This pattern was the traditional norm in the past.9

What impressed the Spaniards during their first expedition to the Seven Cities was the architecture of the villages: the multi-story dwellings were harmoniously built one on top of the other. The only access was an opening on the roof accessible through a ladder that leaned against the outside wall.

Although invisible to the visitor, these villages were divided into several orientations. These partitions have an important significance to the inhabitants since they position each member in relation to the whole community. Each quarter is placed according to a spatial direction. They reflect the four fundamental orientations of the sunrise and sunset of the summer and winter solstices: namely, the north-east to the north-west, and, the south-east to the south-west. In addition, two other orientations complete the foursome order of the world: the zenith -the above- and the nadir -the below. The whole cosmic reality is finally rounded out by the seventh point described as the Middle. The Center, for the Zuni, acts as a synthetic metaphor for all the orientations.

This classification is meant to reflect the dynamic movement of the planets in harmony with the Zuni’s whole cosmological perception of life. This kinetic movement of the planets inspired the concept of directionality. The four orientations represent the daily movement of the sun in concert with its seasonal change on its axis during the winter and summer solstices. In addition, the zenith and the nadir become a six-fold directionality, and, finally, with the seventh point at its center, the whole arrangement inspires a dynamic multi-dimensional quality of space.10

The beautiful and the dangerous

Zuni mythology does not escape the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. These two principles are categorized as the beautiful and the dangerous.11 Their interaction reflects an aesthetic and dynamic vision of nature, and numerous metaphors are used to portray the balance of nature:

the sacred  vs  the profane
the beautiful  vs  the dangerous
the dynamic  vs  the dull
the colorful  vs  the dark
the clear  vs  the indistinct
the multi  vs  the plain

The duality is also expressed in terms of time and space:

morning  vs  evening
summer  vs  winter
above  vs  below

Furthermore, according to Zuni beliefs, there are two types of beings:

the cooked   vs  the raw

The cooked ─or ripe─ are called the daylight beings because they live on cooked food and live under the special protection of the Sun Father. The second group of beings rely on the raw food as well as the cooked food prepared by the daylight people. The daylight people are also split into:

the valuable  vs  the poor

Women are valuable by virtue of their gender, whereas men have no value until they are initiated into the religious Kachina Society. To the Zuni, poor literally means without religion.12

The Water Skate

The number four is a key number in Zuni mythology. It is central to the origin and foundation of Zuni. According to their creation myths, the first people traveled through the darkness of the four underworlds before they reached the surface of our present world. At that time, they were blinded by the light of the sun. They spent four time periods ─four days or four years, depending on the version─ searching for the Center. The Center Place was finally found when the Water Skate, with the magical powers given to him by the Sun Father, stretched out its four legs, one on each of the four directions of the sunrise and sunset of both the summer and winter solstices. The place where he rested his heart and navel marked the Center Place. This point also identifies the heart and navel of Earth Mother.13 The Cente revealed by the Water Skate is the site on which the Zuni village is built.

The numerical sequence of number four becomes, with the extension of the zenith and the nadir, number six. The number six, with the addition of the Middle, finally adds up to the sacred number seven. The arrangement completes the spherical balance and dynamic directionality.

All six orientations are centered around the Middle place where Zuni is built. Yet under the center of the village itself is another center. In the fourth underground, in the house of the chief priest, below the altar, lies a heart-shaped rock, which is described as the heart of the world. Its arteries reach out toward the same four directions as did the Water Skate when he stretched his four legs to find the Center.

The significance of the center remains in effect equivocal. More specifically, polyonymous, since the Center has many different names. It is, simultaneously, the middle, the center, the heart, the navel of the Water Skate, and the center of Zuni and the world. The middle is all these things because, as the Zuni say, they are all the same thing.14 This way of thinking is quite characteristic of the Zuni. The words describe different things, yet they are all ─related to─ the same thing.

At the beginning of the world there were both the spatial center and the temporal center: the Middle Place and the Middle Time. They may appear as two different concepts, but to the Zuni they are the same thing. Accordingly, the Zuni name for the village is ‘itiwana, which means Center but also winter solstice. The first is the Center in space, while the second is the Center in time. Therefore, all the symbols that relate to their cosmological world are a succession, a repetition, and a substitution of metaphors into a whole dynamic asymmetry that reveals ─or relates─ that everything is the same thing.15

This polyonymous aspect of Zuni symbolism is best depicted by the dynamic relation between the beautiful and the dangerous. The beautiful is described as having a multi quality as opposed to the plain and indistinct aspect of the dangerous. The beautiful is multilayered, multicolored, multitextured, multisensory, and multilingual.

Although the tautology of Zuni language may appear redundant at first, a closer look reveals that the repetition suggests the idea of relatedness. It is not the expressions by themselves that are meaningful, but rather the connection between them in relation to the whole cosmological outlook.

Zuni ritual life is filled with this multi aspect of meaning. This aspect of their culture is equally applied in their profane arena. The Zuni Tribal Fair, for instance, which is considered a mundane activity, is organized in the same manner. The symbolic representations of sacred places, objects, sounds and colors, repeated incessantly during the dance, become a meaningful repetition that links each symbolic part together in one cosmic being, as the same thing. The symbols are parts that are related to the whole order of things.16

To the Zuni, the sun and the moon are living beings. As such, they play a significant role as they move across the sacred space. Some of their rituals and dances duplicate the planetary movement. Every single aspect of the environment is described as a living being. Both the outer and inner spaces are fused together into the sacred ritual. Celestial objects are not seen as external but as active participants in the ceremonial. The cosmos is perceived as one whole intertwined entity. Accordingly, the whole array of symbolic representations operates in connection with the principles of continuity and similarity based on the idea of unity and balance of all life. To the Zuni, the whole world is a dynamic being with a multi facet quality.

The Zuni’s conception of time shares the polyonymous principles also. The world was created in the beginning of time, and the beginning is re-enacted, re-created, and re-lived in the ritual. Past, present, and future coexist. There is no temporal separation between the time of creation and the here and now of the ritual. It accounts for the symbolic presentness of Zuni cosmological life represented in the ‘itiwana, the Center, the here and now of time and space. The creation of the world in the past is transcended into the present and in the future by following the ways of the ancestors.


The Zuni Pueblo is a good illustration of the cosmos as a self-enclosed, self-sufficient social and cultural reality, comparable in many ways to the religious reality of Israel. In a similar fashion, the word Zuni stands for the people, the village, the language, the religion, the mythology and the social organization.


1 “It has quite often been said that man began to conceive things by relating them to himself. The above allows us to see more precisely what this anthropocentrism, which might better be called socio-centrism, consists of. The center of the first schemes of nature is not the individual; it is society. It is this that is objectified, not man…It is by virtue of the same mental disposition that so many peoples have placed the center of the world, “the navel of the earth”, in their own political or religious capital, i.e. at the place which is the center of their moral life. Similarly, but in another order of ideas, the creative force of the universe and everything in it was first conceived as a mythical ancestor, the generator of the society.” From Emile Durkheim & Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1963, 86-87.

2 See Gen. 21:31. Originally, the Sabbath was apparently related to the Babylonian day of moon cult called shabattu. See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, New York, The Free Press, 1952, 149.

3 In Febuary 1988 the population was 8299. Data from the Zuni Area Chamber of Commerce 1989.

4 Gregory C. Crampton, The Zunis of Cibola, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1977, 56.

5 “The Zuni faith, as revealed in this sketch of more than three hundred and fifty years of Spanish intercourse, is as a drop of oil in water, surrounded and touched at every point, yet in no place penetrated or changed inwardly by the flood of alien belief that descended upon it.” Frank Hamilton Cushing, from Zuni, Selected Writings of Frank Hamilton Cushing, edited, with an introduction by Jesse Green, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1979, 181.

6 Barbara Tedlock, The Beautiful and the Dangerous: Zuni Ritual and Cosmology as an Aesthetic, in Conjunctions: Bi-Annual Volumes of New Writing no.6, New York, MacMillan Publishing Co., 1984.

7 Frank Hamilton Cushing, Ibid 185-193.

8 Barbara Tedlock, Zuni and Quiche dream sharing and interpreting, Dreaming, Barbara Tedlock, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 107.

9 This custom is not strictly applied anymore.

10 Jane Young, Signs From the Ancestors, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1988. For more insight about the Zuni cosmology see Ms. Young’s book.

11 Barbara Tedlock, Ibid.

12 See Barbara Tedlock, Zuni and Quiche Dream Sharing and Interpreting, in, Dreaming, ed. by Barbara Tedlock, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 108-109.

13 It is interesting to note that the Zuni word for Earth Mother -‘awitelin tsitta- has the same root as the word “four” -‘a:witen’-. Jane Young, Ibid. 99.

14 Jane Young, Ibid. 106.

15 Barbara Tedlock, The Beautiful and Dangerous, Ibid. 259.

16 When Zuni people pray, they ask for “more”; namely, more rain for their crops. All is related to the concern that the Sun Father continues his daily journey and that the rain falls in abundance. The sun’s light coupled with water and Earth Mother are the essence of all life. “More” is also related to the idea of “everything” associated with the desire for the accumulation of things and prosperity. The Zuni pray for more success in hunting, many children and a long life, as well as an increase in jewelry sales.