I often receive e-mails asking for my source material. Where did I learn that Athena and Medusa are flip sides of the same coin? How do I know that the fairy tale 'Beauty and the Beast' descended from the myth about Cupid and Psyche? What makes me think that Christmas has more to do with the calendar than it does with religion? And the most significant question as far as I am concerned, is religion an artifact of Homo sapiens' symbolic brain?
I began comparing religions when I was still a teenager so it is impossible to reconstruct my personal bibliography. I can list some of my most significant sources, but much of the knowledge I have came in bits and pieces. For instance, I know that writing a wish on a piece of paper, then tying the paper on a tree during the moon festival is an ancient oriental custom, but I don't know which book I read that contained that information. Like a detective, I have pieced together most of the things I write about from diverse fragments.
However, my sources are rarely obscure. For instance, Herodotus named Athena as the same goddess as Medusa. Artifacts from North Africa depict icons that clearly trace Athena/Medusa to a calendar goddess that represented duality of destructive/nurturing of the sun. By the time Athena/Medusa is talked about by ancient Greeks, she has become a daughter of the sea/sky god Zeus as Poseidon. I didn't have to learn Greek or Latin to learn these details. I didn't have to do anything other than read sources from my local library and keep a list of the things I learned.
I have learned one archaic language over the years, however, which is indispensable in understanding ancient cultures. That language is made up of symbols, icons, monuments, and decorations. For instance, once I was at a museum in Koln, Germany. I saw many artifacts that I was familiar with from art and archeology books. Small images, statuettes and paraphernalia pertaining to gods such as Zeus and Dionysus decorated drinking cups, lamps, and other small common items. However, on the second floor where a Roman forum had been recreated with placement of artifacts, was a gigantic statue of the Earth Goddess. She was surrounded by huge stone sphinxes that were clearly female in spite of intentional damage to their breast region. It did not take any expertise to realize that the statue of this goddess was extremely important to this Roman settlement. No written word could have more clearly explained this statue's meaning that her size and presentation did.
For those who are interested in seeking information out for themselves, there are several sources that I can recommend, but they aren't easy reading, nor can they be taken at face value. Jane Harrison was the preeminent scholar of oriental religions from a hundred years ago. She wrote for an audience of other scholars, so her books are difficult. She also wrote at a time when Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution was being contorted to fit all areas, scientific or not. Her contemporary, Sir James Frazer wrote 'The Golden Bough' which was a world wide research effort on ancient religions. Both these authors, in spite of their genii, shared the same flaw. Both of these distinguished scholars believed that religion evolved also as people evolved. They were simply wrong. That doesn't mean that I am willing to throw out their lifetime works of translation and documentation of ancient and foreign cultures. I simply filter their conclusions through more modern knowledge.
I know from modern science that humans have not evolved at all in the last 40,000 years. The brain of the ancient Summerian is the same as the modern brain. So when reading any source, including a genius such as Harrison, I am wary of cultural prejudices.
Shakespeare is another resource for obscure fragments. At the time he wrote, England was in the middle of life and death religious disagreements. A standard middle class education of the time consisted of reading ancient philosophers and poets in their original language. Because of religious intolerance, Shakespeare chose the safer path and used Greek and Roman mythology as a basis for many of his plays. 'Coriolanus' is a variation of Hercules saga, and that play contains many references that hint at the back story of Hercules. Many of his other plays contain fragments of archaic beliefs and practices. Generally, Shakespeare plays are so well footnoted that is it easy to find the references.
Because I studied English literature in college, I have run across a lot of enlightening footnotes in prose and poetry. This is how I learned that 'royal purple' is not the same color as Tinky Winky. In poetry, royal purple refers to the color of blood. Royal purple was a sacred and symbolic color. When you see reference to it or to any shade of red or blood-brown, it is possible that a sacrificial hero is being discussed.
So in light of that information, reconsider Agamemnon's sin of pride when he walked on the red carpet. His death was inevitable, not because he violated some supernatural sense of decorum, but because he identified himself as a sacrificial year king.
There are several books that I always go back to when I sort information
The basic question I am trying to answer is this: Why is symbolism such an integral part of the human brain, and how does symbolism contribute to our species' ability to thrive?
The Golden Bough