The esoteric and erotic are sometimes linked, though not often do we find them together in a work of comparative religion. In 1883, James Forlong published a large tome with an equally large title: Rivers of Life, or Sources and Streams of the Faiths of Man in All Lands; Showing the Evolution of Faiths from the Rudest Symbolisms to the Latest Spiritual Developments. Forlong belonged to the “phallicist school of religious anthropology,” a group whose work loosely and lasciviously read religious history as an evolutionary unfolding that, after 10,000 years of maturation, exploded into modern faiths. Forlong’s seminal ideas are encapsulated in a detailed and colorful chart, Rivers of Life or Faiths of Man in All Lands. Despite Forlong’s prodigious and erudite efforts, he gets nearly everything wrong.
Forlong is the strange sort of character that the British Empire regularly threw up in its mission to colonize the world. It’s too bad we don’t have a biography of him because despite being wrong about nearly every aspect of religious history, he seems to have been the kind of crank that everyone can know and love. The working title of such a biography might be The Man Who Would Be Phallic King; God of the Fertile Groves — Interpreting Religious History Through Lord Forlong’s Sexual Lens. Or something like that. Those interested can find volume two of his massive work here. Forlong is not, unsurprisingly, a figure much studied in the anthropology of religion.