Looking Backward

By Hugh W. Nibley

Hugh W. Nibley, “Looking Backward,” in The Temple in Antiquity: Ancient Records and Modern Perspectives, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 39–51.

Looking​ Backward

Hugh W. Nibley


In his volume The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, Nibley describes in great detail initiation and ritual and coronation procedures among the Egyptians. The appendix in this book includes temple-related lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem and other early documents. In the present essay Nibley provides a context for this study and his many others which, almost without his being aware of it, have formed the background of his temple preoccupation over three decades. He shows how incredibly mixed and diffuse and varied are traditions growing out of temple worship in the religions of the Far East, as with those of the Middle East. The power of the temple idea to invade the minutest detail of life is demonstrated. Inconclusive though many scholarly studies remain about a philosophy or matrix to make sense of all the data, Nibley believes there are connections and symmetries and correspondences which again point to one conclusion: historically, civilizations—indeed civilization itself—have revolved around the temple. This essay and his preceding one provide an omnibus introduction to the more specialized studies that follow.

T. G. M.


The preceding article in this volume was written twenty-five years ago when the London temple was dedicated. Since then the “scientific” study of ancient temples has completed a full circle—back to where it started some three hundred years ago. We hasten to explain.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was the habit of English country gentlemen, fired with the scientific interests of the former century and the romantic sensibilities of the latter, to survey, sketch, describe, and speculate about the many and mysterious prehistoric stone circles, avenues, passage-graves, and mounds on their estates and elsewhere. In their papers read before local learned societies and in their letters to antiquarian journals, they debated endlessly without reaching any consensus of agreement as to whether those often imposing monuments were the work of some mysterious unknown race or that of the ancient Britons, Druids, Romans, Saxons, or Danes. But on one thing there was almost unanimous agreement, namely, that the most impressive of the structures were temples. In the light of local folktales and legends, immemorial rustic seasonal festivities, and other quaint customs and observances, supported by occasional illuminating passages from classical and medieval writers as well as the Bible, they could imagine vast concourses of people gathering at these great ceremonial centers at times set by sun, moon, stars, and the growing and harvesting seasons, to celebrate a new lease on life for the individual and the society.

I have called those studies “scientific” because they were undertaken in the same spirit, employed much the same methods, and reached the same conclusions as those of the present generation of researchers, who insist that they are scientific. Here, for example, is a recent cover story from the (very) Scientific American (July 1980), in which the author expresses the same conviction as did Sir William Stukeley and John Aubrey in the mid-seventeenth century. He finds “a succession of what we can only call cathedral architects” at work in the third and fourth millenniums BC. “Most emphatically,” he writes, these “megalithic rings in general [were] sacred and secular meeting places,” and he sees “an impelling faith” behind the immense effort and skill that produced them—”some powerful religious belief including belief in an after-life.” He notes that though the building activity stopped by 1000 BC, “the general population” retained folk-memories of what went on, and he finds it “more than possible that the Druidic priesthood . . . used them as temples.” Finally he notes that even Christian churches in some places did not disdain to build upon their ruins.

After the eighteenth century less and less attention was paid to the megalithic complexes, upon which little remained to be said until new lines of research could be opened up. The first forward step was taken by philology, predictably enough, since the learning of the times was classical and biblical. The British presence in India set such researches in a new and fruitful direction by creating a general interest in the glamour and color of the mysterious East, and by calling the attention of scholars to strange texts in strange languages. By the middle of the nineteenth century comparative philology had become the queen of studies, thanks to the great Max Mueller, who believed that he had discovered in Sanskrit the parent and original of all the Aryan family of languages from India to Ireland, and in the Vedas “the primal form of their mythology and religion.” For the ancient texts on which all such study was necessarily based were profoundly religious documents, combining myth, ritual, pious exercises, edifying doctrine, and bits of history.

Shortly before Mueller, Jacob Grimm, in gathering material for his great Deutsche Grammatik, introduced the comparative study of folktales, folk songs, myths, customs, arts, and artifacts (Grimm’s Fairy Tales have proven to be as scientifically relevant as Grimm’s Law). In the process he anticipated the conclusion of Max Mueller, that if everybody from Ireland to India spoke related languages it was because originally they were all one and the same family, living in the East. Mueller held that what survived of their religion represents a letdown and deterioration from a higher order of things, an archaic original of monotheistic persuasion, from which historic religions betray a moral and intellectual decline. This is a position being taken by some eminent scholars today. Mueller’s Oxford colleagues E. Tylor and Andrew Lang felt that the master was too much under the literary influences of an earlier day (e.g.., Herder), and, discounting the old romantic idea of a primal “nature mythology,” gave second billing to myth, viewing it as an attempt to explain cult and custom, which really had priority. After the mid-nineteenth century, evolution of course became the answer; religion, like everything else, must necessarily have had a primitive beginning—for Lang it was in primitive magic. For Theodor Waitz it was a primitive obsession with ghosts and spirits. Herbert Spencer made it a fixed principle, universally received, that religion is superstition and superstition is primitive, and that evolution required a steady ascent from religion towards the pure light of ever more rational thinking, culminating in the modern civilized man.

At the turn of the century the watchwords were animism and totemism, which for many years explained everything for many students. The determination to reduce religion, like everything else, to scientific laws actually led to simplistic solutions, and with the desire for more thorough and methodical special studies the wide-ranging pronouncements of deep-browed armchair scientists were supplanted by a swelling outpouring of regional monographs and statistical studies aspiring to the status of exact science. The great biologist J. Arthur Thompson made sport of the excesses of the solemn “brass instrument school,” laboriously compiling endless columns of figures giving the physical and mental measurements of tribes and races, which in the end could tell the student no more than a casual association with the natives in question would have provided. Given patience and a body, it was no great task for a thousand investigators to fill the books and journals with information, but beyond the most pedestrian generalities no real progress was made. As Theodor Gaster observes, “It was Frazer more than anyone else who first sought to classify and coordinate this vast body of material.” Today most of Frazer’s main assumptions and conclusions have been discredited—for example, the “magical” origins of religion, which Gaster calls “a mere product of late nineteenth-century evolutionism”; the principle of “homeopathy,” by which the magical action produced a real counterpart; the yearly celebrations of the death and rebirth of vegetation, which neglected the more immediate human experience of life and death; the obsession of an earlier time with solar religion; and above all the idea of a “primitive” level of culture which remains undefined but is the same everywhere and always, the word being worked to death by Frazer’s colleagues (e.g., J. Harrison), many of whom never laid eyes on a primitive. Yet most of these discredited ideas are still accepted and taught in schools everywhere.

To explain the remarkable resemblances between the prehistoric ritual centers and their rites separated by thousands of miles and as many years, Frazer and others took for granted that at a certain stage of evolution the human mind spontaneously fell into the thought patterns that would produce identical myths and rules independently in various parts of the world. Diffusionism was rejected and still is by many. This interesting psychological explanation got some support from the famous psychologist C. G. Jung, a diligent student of ancient myth and religion. Just as in the process of evolution creatures retain vestigial organs from earlier times, so the mind, Jung insisted, being subject to evolution like everything else, retains in its unconscious what he calls “archetypes” or “primordial images.” They are as natural “as the impulse of birds to build nests, and present the mind with whole mythological motifs,” which lead to stories and dramatizations. Where do they come from? “They are without known origin,” writes Jung, “and they reproduce themselves in any time or in any part of the world”—don’t ask how. Thus “the hero figure is an archetype which has existed since time immemorial,” though as to “when and where such a motif originated . . . we do not even know how to go about investigating the problem.” So the cause of evolutionism is saved if we do not ask too many questions.

C. P. Thiele, a Dutch theologian, came closer than anyone else since Max Mueller to combining vast scope and detail of information with meaningful summaries, striking a balance between the old romantic school of Herder, Mueller, and Andrew Lang, and the pedantically limited studies of single tribes, families, and problems, which became as numerous as they were trivial. Few have equalled Thiele’s learning, but how to take account of all that data in a convincing summary with meaningful conclusions is a problem of more urgency now than ever. A promising new development, the TV documentary, seeks to address the public on a high and authoritative level while keeping everything simple and clear, covering an immense expanse of knowledge while giving an understandable presentation of general principles.

The present writer struggled with the problem prematurely, of course, growing up on Spencer’s First Principles, H. G. Wells, and T. H. Buckle, and practically memorizing Spengler. The first half of the twentieth century produced pretentious works purporting to convey all knowledge to Harry Elmer Barnes, the University of Chicago Syntopicon, big “Western Civilization” college texts, the Cambridge histories, various encyclopedias, the Columbia University Chapters in Western Civilization, and so forth. More impressive were the big corroborative works combining contributions of leading scholars in different areas. Such a one was Chantipie de la Saussaye’s Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte, which the present writer acquired hot off the press and perused with dogged diligence—to no avail! The facts were there, but they added up to nothing. The compilers followed the Baconian gospel, that one has simply to collect the facts and let them speak for themselves. However one may accuse the over-eager and ill-prepared of leaping to conclusions, it is precisely that leap that the scholars have never been able or willing to make; for when they finish collecting and typing their notes, they see nowhere to go—but more notes. Will Durant was a full-time philosopher who gathered nine volumes on the history of Western civilization. And what did the philosopher learn from that? Nothing at all that we had not already heard.

A good example of this is Joseph Campbell, one of the latest and best popularizers, who assures us that he is bringing together for the first time “a single picture of the new perspectives . . . in comparative symbolism, religion, mythology, and philosophy, by the scholarship of recent years.” This is merely an updating of the old game, reaching exactly the same conclusions as Grimm, Max Mueller, and the rural clergymen who studied the old stones of the English countryside, that “the comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit,” in which the various motifs, instead of being of wildly exotic, endlessly varied, and without number, as one would expect (and as German scholars once described them), are really “only a few and always the same.” The old biblical picture now emerges as the latest scientific discovery.

The boldest and clearest recent statement embracing the world landscape of culture and religion is in the works of M. Eliade, and he brings it all back to the temple. “The Temple, . . . preeminently the sacred place, . . . a celestial prototype” and holy mountain, typifies “the act of Creation . . . [which] brought the ordered cosmos out of chaos”; it is the scene of the sacred marriage, the ritual confrontation with evil appearing as the dragon, serpent, or other figures of death and destruction, ending in the victory of the King, whose triumphant coronation inaugurates the New Year and a new age of the world. The Combat is an expression of that “ambivalence and polarity” which characterize the rites in which all things must have their opposite, and where an atoning sacrifice is necessary “to restore the primal unity” between God and man, and enable the latter to regain the divine presence. The whole, according to Eliade, is suffused with “memories of paradise,” the loss of which is the result of sin, converting this world into a testing ground in which “suffering always has meaning.”

Thus Eliade shows us how the studies of two centuries have steadily converged on the temple. But before Eliade, your humble informant was bringing out much of the picture in a doctoral thesis, which disturbed and puzzled his committee in the 1930s. In 1940 a section of the Pacific Coast Meeting of the American Historical Association slept through a discourse on the feasting of the multitudes at the holy places, and in the following year a like gathering of the American Archaeological Association in San Diego listened with remarkable composure to a paper on “National Assemblies in the Bronze Age.” This is to show for the record that we were getting in on the ground floor. An article comparing the earliest Roman rites to those all over the ancient world was held up by World War II (which was then considered more urgent), not appearing until 1945 (in the Classical Journal). At that time I had been to the temple only twice, once when I was seventeen and again when I was twenty—both times in something of a daze. So it was not until I moved to Utah and started going to the temple and wrote a mini-series in the Improvement Era on “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times” (1948) that it ever occurred to me that any of what I had been doing had anything to do with Joseph Smith. Beginning to see the light, I started pulling out the stops in a Pi Sigma Alpha lecture given during the centennial celebration of the University of Utah in 1950. Entitled “The Hierocentric State,” it was expanded and published the following year in the Western Political Quarterly.

The dedication of the London temple in 1958 produced, on request, the first part of this effusion (reprinted as chapter 1 of the present volume). This was followed in 1958–60 by a study in the Jewish Quarterly Review on “Christian Envy of the Temple,” demonstrating that “where there is no Temple there is no true Israel,” and showing how the Christian churches have always missed the temple while retaining various survivals of it in their rites and liturgies. In 1966 we discussed those migratory temples, wheeled and domed structures, that moved over the steppes of Asia, and how they took their bearings on the universe, remaining holy centers in spite of their nobility—like the ark of the covenant (Western Political Quarterly, 1966). An article on “Jerusalem in Christian Thought” in the first edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica (1973) dealt with the role in history of the well-known idea of Jerusalem as the Holy Center of the World, thanks to the presence of the temple, and sketched the fierce competitive drives of Christians, Moslems, and Jews to possess it. In the same year, in a study ambitiously titled “The Genesis of the Written Word,” we pointed out that the oldest written documents of the race are temple records. The rich Egyptian documentation justified writing about The Egyptian Endowment (1975), and comparing it in an appendix with some of the ordinances and doctrines contained in the Manual of Discipline (IQS) from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Odes of Solomon, the Pearl, the Pistis Sophia, and Cyril of Jerusalem’s Lectures on the Ordinances (mid-fourth century). An important performance which has very ancient parallels throughout Asia as well as the Near East was “The Early Christian Prayer Circle” (BYU Studies, 1978). A long series of articles in the Improvement Era (1968–70) called attention to sacrificial aspects of the later temple ordinances as anticipated in the “arrested” sacrifice of Abraham himself, of Sarah (in Egypt), and of Isaac. Finally, the book Abraham in Egypt (1981) describes ties between Egyptian and Israelite wisdom and doctrine, a subject being much studied by scholars at the present time.

To resume our story, imaginary reconstructions presented over the past three hundred years of great gatherings of people at imposing ceremonial complexes for rites dedicated to the renewal of life on earth are, over that long stretch of time, surprisingly uniform. In spite of the accumulation of evidence, there has never been a drastic reversal or revision of the picture, which always remains the same.

1. First, we still have the tangible evidence, the scenery and properties of the drama: megaliths; artificial giant mounds or pyramids amounting to artificial mountains; stone and ditch alignments of mathematical sophistication, correlating time and space; passage graves and great tholoi or domed tombs; sacred roads (often discovered from the air); remains of booths, grandstands, processional ways, and gates—these still survive in awesome combination, with all their cosmic symbolism.

2. In the second place is the less tangible evidence of customs, traditions, legends, folk festivals, ancient writings, and so forth, which when put together conjure up (with considerable authority, thanks to their abundance and consistency) memories of dramatic and choral celebrations of the Creation; ritual contests between life and death, good and evil, and light and darkness, followed by the triumphant coronation of the King to rule for the New Age, the progenitor of the race by a sacred marriage; feasts of abundance attended by ancestors and spirits; covenants; initiations (including baptism and clothing); sacrifices and scapegoats to rid the people of a year of guilt and pollution; and various types of divination and oracular consultation for the new life cycle. And what is being emphasized today, after centuries of converging studies, is that they were all doing it, everywhere!

3. To these types of evidence must be added the most impressive—and neglected—of all, those “spin-offs” of the temple which have long attracted my interest as such. The “spin-offs” are things not essential to the temple’s form and function, but the inevitable products of its existence. To begin with, there was an urgent need of accommodations for all those pilgrims from far away, hence those booths, memorialized in the Hebrew Festival of Booths, remains or records of which we find in many parts of the world. Our words hotel and hospital go back to those charitable organizations which took care of sick and weary pilgrims to the holy places—the Hospitalers of the Crusades offered hospitality also under the name of Templars, for it was travelers to the Temple that they were aiding and protecting. Since all who came had to bring food for the festival as well as animals for offerings and sacrifice, those who lived a great distance (more than three days away in Israel; see Deuteronomy 14:22ff.; 26:12ff.), finding the transport of such items of great difficulty, could instead bring the money value of those offerings to the temple, which thus became a place of exchange and banking—our word money comes from the temple of Juno Moneta, the holy center of the Roman world. Along with that, the bringing of a variety of different goods and products from widely separated places inevitably gave rise to a lively barter and exchange of goods, and everywhere a future of the great year rites was the yearly fair, the market-booths of the merchants added to those of the visiting pilgrims, with artisans, performers, and mountebanks also displaying their wares.

The main action at the temple was the actio, for which the Greek word is drama, with parts played by priestly temple actors and royalty. Creation was celebrated with the Creation Hymn or poema—the word poem means, in fact, Creation—sung by a chorus which, as the name shows, formed a circle and danced as they sang. Since nothing goes unchallenged in this world, a central theme of the temple rites was the dramatization (often athletic) of the Combat between the powers of life and death which could take many forms—wrestling, boxing, dueling, foot or chariot races, beauty contests to choose a queen, competitions in song and dance. The temple was the original center of learning, beginning with the heavenly instructions received there. It was the Museon or home of the Muses, each representing a branch of study, and the scene of learned discussions among the wise men who from the earliest recorded times would travel from shrine to shrine exchanging wisdom with the wise, as Abraham did in Egypt. For the all-important setting of times and seasons, careful astronomical observations were taken and recorded at the place with mathematical precision, while the measurements of fields and buildings called for sophisticated geometry followed by great architectural and engineering skill that commands the highest respect to this day. The Garden-of-Eden or Golden-Age motif was essential to this ritual paradise, and the temple grounds contained all manner of trees and animals, often collected with great botanical and zoological zeal from distant places. Central to the temple school for the training of priests and nobles was the great library containing both the holy books revealed from on high, whether as divine revelation or as star readings (both declared the glory of God), and the records of human history including the “books of life,” the names of all the living and the dead—genealogy. Aside from memorials kept in writing (the art, as we have seen, originating in the economy of the temple) were the ancestral pictures—statues, busts, and paintings giving inspiration to the fine arts. The purpose of the rites being to establish and acknowledge the rule of God on earth through his agent and offspring the King, who represented both the First Man and Everyman, the temple was the ultimate seat and sanction of government; our government buildings with their massive columns, domes, marble, and bronze, and so forth are copies of classic Greek and Roman temples. The meeting of the people at the holy place made the new year the time for contracts and covenants, and all of these were recorded and stored in the temple, which was of course the seat of law, both for the handing down of new laws and ordinances by divine authority and for the settling of disputes between mortals. The King was a Solomon sitting as a judge on the occasion, as one who had been tested to the limit and, after calling upon God from the depths, had emerged triumphant, worthy to lead the army of the Lord to spread his rule over the as yet unconquered realms of darkness beyond the holy influence of the temple.

All of these matters and much, much more this writer has treated somewhere or other. The fact that the one thing they all have in common is the temple is enough in itself to indicate that the temple is the source, and not one of the derivatives, of the civilizing process. If, as noted above, “where there is no Temple there is no true Israel,” it is equally true that where there is no true temple, civilization itself is but an empty shell—a material structure of expediency and tradition alone, bereft of the living organism at its center that once gave it life and brought it forth.

Since the temple is the parent and original, it is only to be expected that one should find ruins and fragments of it surviving everywhere, along with more or less ambitious attempts to recapture its lost glory and authority. And since evil cannot create or beget but can only pervert, corrupt, wrest, and destroy what good has accomplished, it is not surprising that the most depraved of practices take their rise in the temple. Let us recall that the mysterious “watchers” in Enoch’s day carefully kept the ordinances that had come down from Adam, and claimed sanctity by reason of possessing a knowledge which they had completely subverted. How roundly Isaiah rebukes and denounces the ordinances of the temple—the new moons, the fasts, the prayers, the offerings, and so on, when performed by the Jews in the wrong spirit! While the temple still stood in Jerusalem, the brethren of Qumran looked forward for the coming of “a true Temple” after God’s own heart. When Satan assayed to try the Lord, it was to the pinnacle of the temple that he took him; did the evil one, then, have access to the holy place? For answer we need only recall that Jesus declared that the House of his Father had been turned into a den of thieves as he drove the money changers from its courts—a reminder that large financial institutions today, as well as government buildings, occupy structures faithfully copied from the classical fanes of ancient temples and add to the bronze and marble the sanctimonious hush of holy places. Thus the temple economy has been perverted along with the rest.

When the symbolic killing and eating of beasts were supplanted by lustful and vengeful rites of human sacrifice; when the feasts of joy and abundance became orgies, and the sacred rites of marriage were perverted to the arts of the temple hierodules; when the keepers of the records and teachers of wisdom became haughty and self-righteous scribes and Pharisees—then was demonstrated the principle that any good thing can be corrupted in this world, and as Aristotle notes, as a rule, the better the original, the more vicious the corrupted version. When “two men went up into the temple to pray” (Luke 18:10), both were ostensibly going about their devotions; yet the one was bringing hypocrisy and vanity into the holy place. So we might seriously consider the proposition that whatever we see about us in the way of the institutions of civilization, good or bad, may in the end be traced to the temple.

Did Joseph Smith reinvent the temple by putting all the fragments—Jewish, Orthodox, Masonic, Gnostic, Hindu, Egyptian, and so forth—together again? No, that is not how it was done. Very few of the fragments were available in his day, and the job of putting them together was begun, as we have seen, only in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Even when they are available, those poor fragments do not come together of themselves to make a whole; to this day the scholars who collect them do not know what to make of them. The temple is not to be derived from them, but the other way around. If the temple as the Latter-day Saints know it had been introduced at any date later than it was, or at some great center of learning, it could well have been suspect as a human contrivance; but that anything of such fulness, consistency, ingenuity, and perfection could have been brought forth at a single time and place—overnight, as it were—is quite adequate proof of a special dispensation.