Childhood Trauma and the Origins of Religious Myth

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Childhood Trauma and the Origins of Religious Myth

Post by Didge on Fri Jul 15, 2016 9:44 pm

In this article, I present evidence that an intimate and largely unrecognized connection exists between childhood trauma and religion. In particular, it appears that many of the world religions have been deeply shaped by historically widespread practices of childhood corporal punishment, abandonment, and neglect. These influences have long been hiding in plain sight: close to the surface yet culturally invisible. It is only recently that our understanding of the needs of children, the mechanisms of trauma, and the history of childhood has advanced to the point where the role of childhood trauma in forming religious myths could be clearly described.

Among the religions we will consider are the major monotheistic faiths—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—and those Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, that are based on teachings about karma and reincarnation. The influence of childhood trauma on these religions appears to have taken two main forms. First, the traumas shaped the religious myths during their formative periods, so that themes of child abuse, abandonment, and neglect were built into the core narratives and salvation teachings of the religions. Second, the traumas contributed to the cultural spread and persistence of the religions by helping make them emotionally resonant and cognitively believable. Although many factors affected the development and longevity of these religions, I believe that the influence of childhood trauma has been especially profound, often providing the central organizing principle of the religious myths, and functioning as a key driver of their cultural dissemination.

This article is substantial and much longer than a typical web post. But the topic is important and one cannot do justice to it in an abbreviated or superficial presentation. The best way to proceed is systematically—developing key concepts as we go. Accordingly, to lay a foundation for our discussion of current world religions, we begin by considering several ancient Greek and Roman myths.

Laying a Foundation:
Ancient Myths of Abandonment
In ancient Greek and Roman culture, the abandonment of children, most typically through either exposure or sale into slavery, was common. In Athens and other Greek cities, unwanted infants were placed into terracotta pots or other containers and left outside the city, where they were likely to die from starvation or attack by wild animals. Infants were especially likely to be abandoned if they were deformed, illegitimate, or if the parents (or a single parent, following the death of a spouse) were impoverished; but healthy, legitimate children of non-impoverished couples were sometimes abandoned as well.  Girls may have been at special risk; for example, during the Hellenistic period, the Athenian poet Posidippus wrote, “Anyone, even if he is poor, brings up a son; even if he is rich, he exposes a daughter.” [1]

For the Roman period, evidence of widespread abandonment is extensive. Tacitus considered Jews eccentric because they reared all children they gave birth to. The physician Soranus provided guidelines for “recognizing the newborn that is worth rearing,” as if rearing were the exception [2]—and the Stoic philosopher Hieroclese wrote that the majority of parents abandoned one or more children. The late Yale historian John Boswell, a pioneer in the study of Roman and medieval child abandonment, estimated that, of all children born in Rome during the first three centuries of the Christian era, 20 to 40 percent were abandoned. [3]

Most of these abandoned children died. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian believed it “rare that exposed children survive,” with hypothermia and starvation being the most common outcomes. [4] The theologian Tertullian suggested that death frequently resulted from attack by scavenging wild animals. He wrote with sarcasm of the mythical Saturn’s decision to eat his children: “[B]etter he than wolves, if he had exposed them.” [5] Although some exposed children were rescued from immediate death, most of these were brutally exploited. Many were raised as slaves; in fact, some scholars believe that the majority of Italian-born slaves in the Roman Empire derived from this source. Other rescued children were reared as child prostitutes, gladiators, beggars (sometimes being maimed to increase profits), and castrated as eunuchs. [6]

These widespread practices of abandonment are reflected in many ancient myths. Historian Boswell summarizes as follows:
Oedipus was found by a shepherd and reared by a childless king…. The eponymous founder of the Ionians, Ion, was abandoned by his mother…. Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, had been abandoned and brought up by a herdsman and his wife, according to Herodotus; as had Paris, who began the Trojan War, which ultimately led to the founding of the dynasty overthrown by [the abandoned and rescued twins] Romulus and Remus. Telephus, a king of Mysia in Greece, and Habis, a ruler of the Cunetes in Spain, had both been exposed as children, according to tradition.  Jupiter himself had been abandoned as a child, and his twin sons, Zethus and Amphion, were exposed, as were Poseidon, Aesculapius, Hephaistos, Attis, and the goddess Cybele. [7]
These myths reflected a pervasive social reality. They likely emerged in multiple forms and became culturally pervasive because they resonated with actual, lived experience. Many of these myths end happily, with the children being reunited with their biological parents and going on to great things, most typically kingship. This “happy ending,” of course, was much different from the outcomes experienced in reality by most abandoned children. Perhaps one can see in these happy, or ameliorated, endings a form of cultural wish fulfillment, a way to make bearable a terrible reality by holding in mind the image of a glorious outcome.

The narrative inversions required for these happy endings are sometimes remarkable for their idiosyncratic features. For example, the abandoned children Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of ancient Rome, were said to have been suckled by a wolf—the very animal that Tertullian says was most likely to kill and eat abandoned babies. Here we see not only a generic and formulaic happy ending, involving the rescue and ascension to kingship of the abandoned children, but a complete inversion of the context-specific risks that the abandoned child faced: the animal that, in reality, posed a great threat of death is mythically rendered as protector and nurturer. [8]
Myths about abandoned children, with ameliorated endings, extend back toward the beginning of recorded history. For example, King Sargon the Great of Akkad, who ruled in the 23rd century BCE, was abandoned as an infant in the river Euphrates, according to myth.  Unlike the apparently more typical historical experience of children, which likely involved deliberate infanticide by drowning [9], it is said that Sargon was placed into a reed basket that was carefully waterproofed with pitch, from which he was subsequently rescued and declared king. Moses, too, of course, was said to have been rescued from a river, in his case the Nile. Having been placed into a pitch-covered basket, Moses was not only rescued but also was nursed by his own mother. In fact, according to this myth, Moses was not even abandoned in the usual sense but was placed among the reeds, out of love, to protect him from an infanticidal Pharaonic decree. Here the narrative amelioration takes the form of not only a happy ending but a happy beginning as well. The myth of Moses, like that of Sargon, follows the typical pattern: the infant is rescued, ascends to power, and goes on to lead a great nation.  In his commentary on the biblical book of Exodus, historian and biblical scholar William H. C. Propp writes about the psychological resonance of these stories:

The abandonment of children is probably universal…. Mesopotamian texts, our oldest sources, refer to real or symbolic abandonment…. In societies practicing exposure…childhood fears of abandonment, and suspicions (or hopes) of being a foundling, would be widespread. Tales of adoption would be particularly fascinating. Listeners would identify with the endangered infant, who embodies their primal fears and fantasies…. We must leave open the question of whether the Moses story depends directly upon an Assyrian, Egyptian or Hittite prototype…. But whether Israel inherited the Floating Foundling Tale or created it anew, its truth must be sought within the human psyche…. [10]

Loads more to read on the link, very interesting and very much based on truth

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” – Maria Robinson,

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