By W. Winwood Reade.
There is no study so saddening, and none so sublime as that of the early religions of mankind. To trace back the worship of God to its simple origin, and to mark the gradual process of those degrading superstitions, and unhallowed rites which darkened, and finally extinguished His presence in the ancient world.
At first men enjoyed the blessings of nature as children do, without inquiring into causes. It was sufficient for them that the earth gave them herbs, that the trees bore them fruit, that the stream quenched their thirst. They were happy, and every moment though unconsciously they offered a prayer of gratitude to Him whom as yet they did not know.
And then a system of theology arose amongst them vague and indefinite, as the waters of the boundless sea. They taught each other that the sun, and the earth, the moon, and the stars were moved and illumined by a Great Soul which was the source of all life, which caused the birds to sing, the brooks to murmur, and the sea to heave. It was a sacred Fire which shone in the firmament, and in mighty flames. It was a strange Being which animated the, souls of men, and which when the bodies died, returned to itself again.
They silently adored this Great Soul in the beginning, and spoke of Him with reverence, and sometimes raised their eyes timidly to His glittering dwelling-place on high.
And soon they learned to pray. When those whom they loved lay dying, they uttered wild lamentations, and flung their arms despairingly towards the mysterious Soul; for in times of trouble the human mind so imbecile, so helpless, clings to something that is stronger than itself.
As yet they worshipped only the sun, the moon, and the stars-and not as Gods but as visions of that Divine Essence, which alone ruled and pervaded the earth, the sky, and the sea.
They adored Him kneeling, with their hands clasped, and their eyes raised. They offered Him no sacrifices, they built Him no temples; they were content to offer Him their hearts which were full of awe, in His own temple which was full of grandeur. And it is said that there are yet some barbarous islands where men have no churches nor ceremonies, and where they worship God, reflected in the work of His thousand hands.
But they were not long content with this simple service. Prayer which had first been an inspiration fell into a system, and men already grown wicked prayed the Deity to give them abundance of wild beast's skins, and to destroy their enemies.
They ascended eminences, as if hoping that thus being nearer God, He would prefer their prayers to those of their rivals. Such is the origin of that superstitious reverence for high places which was universal throughout the whole of the heathen world.
Then Orpheus was born. And he invented instruments which to his touch and to his lips, gave forth notes of surpassing sweetness, and with these melodies he enticed the wondering savages into the recesses of the forest, and there taught them precepts of obedience to the great Soul, and of loving-kindness towards each other in harmonious words.
So they devoted groves and forests to the worship of the Deity.
There were men who had watched Orpheus, and who had seen and envied his power over the herd who surrounded him. They resolved to imitate him, and having studied these barbarians, they banded together, and called themselves their priests. Religion -is divine, but its ministers are men. And alas! sometimes they are demons with the faces and wings of angels.
The simplicity of men, and the cunning of their priests has destroyed or corrupted all the religions of the world.
These priests taught the people to sacrifice the choicest herbs and flowers. They taught them formulas of prayer, and bade them make so many obeisances to the sun, and to worship those flowers which opened their leaves when he rose, and which closed them as he set.
They composed a language of symbols which was perhaps necessary, since letters had not been invented, but which perplexed the people and perverted them from the worship of the one God.
Thus the sun and moon were worshipped as emblems of God, and fire as an emblem of the sun, water as an emblem of the moon.
The serpent was to be worshipped also as an emblem of wisdom and eternal youth, since it renews its skin every year, and thus periodically casts off all symptoms of old age.
And the bull, most vigorous of animals, and whose horns resemble those of the crescent moon.
The priests observed the avidity with which the barbarians adored these symbols, and increased them. To worship the visible is a disease of the soul inherent to all mankind, and the disease which these men could have healed they pandered to.
It is true that the first generation of men might have looked upon these merely as the empty symbols of a Divine Being, but it is also certain that in time the vulgar forgot the God in the emblem, and worshipped that which their fathers had only honored. Egypt was the fountain-head of these idolatries, and it was in Egypt that the priests first applied real attributes to the sun, and to the moon whom they called his wife.
It may perhaps interest you to listen to the first fable of the world.
From the midst of chaos was born Osiris, and at his birth a voice was heard proclaiming-"The ruler of all the earth is born."
From the same dark and troubled-womb were born Isis the Queen of Light, and Typhon the Spirit of Darkness.
This Osiris traveled over the whole world, and civilized its inhabitants, and taught them the art of agriculture. But on his return to Egypt the jealous Typhon laid a stratagem for him, and in the midst of a banquet had him shut up in a chest which exactly fitted his body. He was nailed down in his prison, which cast into the Nile floated down to the sea by the Taitic mouth, which even in the time of Plutarch was never mentioned by an Egyptian but with marks of detestation.
When Isis learnt these sad new she cut off a lock of her hair, and put on her mourning robes, and wandered through the whole country in search of the chest which contained the dead body of her husband.
At length she learnt that the chest had been carried by the waves to the shore of Byblos, and had there lodged in the branches of a tamarisk bush, which quickly shot up and became a large and beautiful tree, growing round the chest so that it could not be seen.
The king of the country amazed at the vast size the tree had so speedily acquired, ordered it to be cut down to be hewn into a pillar to support the roof of his palace-the chest being still concealed in the trunk.
The voice which had spoken from Heaven at the birth of Osiris made known these things to poor Isis, who went to the shore of Byblos and sat down silently by a fountain to weep. The damsels of the queen met her and accosted her, and the queen appointed her to be nurse to her child. And Isis fed the infant with her finger instead of with her breast, and put him every night into fire to render him immortal, while transforming herself into a swallow she hovered round the pillar which was her husband's tomb, and bemoaned her unhappy fate.
It happened that the queen thus discovered her, and shrieked when she saw her child surrounded by flames. By that cry she broke the charm and deprived him of immortality.
By that cry Isis was summoned back to her goddess-form, and stood before the awe-struck queen shining with light and diffusing sweet fragrances around.
She cut open the pillar, and took the coffin with her, and opened it in a desert. There she embraced the cold corpse of Osiris, and wept bitterly.
She returned to Egypt and hid the coffin in a remote place: but Typhon, hunting by moonlight, chanced to find it, and divided the corpse into fourteen pieces. Again Isis set out on her weary search throughout the whole land, sailing over the fenny parts in a boat made of papyrus. She recovered all the fragments except one which had been thrown into the sea. Each of these she buried in the place where she found it, which explains why in Egypt there are so many tombs of Osiris.
And instead of the limb which was lost, she gave the phallus to the Egyptians-the disgusting worship of which was thence carried into Italy, into Greece, and into all the countries of the East.
When Isis died, she was buried in a grove near Memphis. Over her grave was raised a statue covered from head to foot with a black veil. And underneath was engraved these divine words:
I am all that has been, that is, that shall be, and none among mortals has yet dared to raise my veil.
Beneath this veil are concealed all the mysteries and learning of the past. A young scholar, his fingers covered with the dust of venerable folios, his eyes weary and reddened by nightly toil will now attempt to lift a corner of this mysterious and sacred covering.
These two Deities, Isis and Osiris were the parents of all the Gods and Goddesses of the Heathens, or were indeed those Gods themselves worshipped under different names. The fable itself was received into the mythologies of the Hindus and the Romans. Sira is said to have mutilated Brahma as Typhon did Osiris, and Venus to have lamented her slain Adonis, as Isis wept for her husband-god.
As yet the sun and moon alone were worshipped under these two names. And as we have seen, besides these twin beneficial spirits, men who had begun to recognize sin in their hearts had created an Evil One who struggled with the power of light, and fought with them for the souls of men.
It is natural for man to fabricate something that is worse than himself. Even in the theology of the American Indians which is the purest of the modem world, there is found a Mahitou or dark Spirit.
Osiris or the sun was now worshipped throughout the whole world, though under different names. He wag the Mithra of the Persians, the Brahma of India, the Baal or Adonis of the Phoenicians, the Apollo of the Greeks, the Odin Of Scandinavia, the Hu of the Britons, and the Baiwe of the Laplanders.
Isis also received the names of Islene, Ceres, Rhea, Venus, Vesta, Cybele, Niobe, Melissa--Nehalennia in the North; Isi with the Indians; Puzza among the Chinese; and Ceridwen among the ancient Britons.
The Egyptians were sublime philosophers who had dictated theology to the world. And in Chaldea arose the first astrologers who watched the heavenly bodies with curiosity as well as with awe, and who made divine discoveries, and who called themselves The Interpreters of God.
To each star they gave a name, and to each day in the year they gave a star.
And the Greeks and Romans who were poets, wreathed these names into legends. Each name was a person, each person was a god.
From these stories of the stars originated the angels of the Jews, the genii of the Arabs, the heroes of the Greeks, and the saints of the Romish Church.
Now corruption grew upon corruption, and superstition flung a black and hideous veil over the doctrines of religion. A religion is lost as soon as it loses its simplicity: truth has no mysteries: it is deceit alone that lurks in obscurity.
Men multiplied God into a thousand names, and created Him always in their own image. Him, too, whom they had once deemed unworthy of any temple less noble than the floor of the earth and the vast dome of the sky, they worshipped in caves, and then in temples which were made of the trunks of trees rudely sculptured, and ranged in rows to imitate groves, and with other trunks placed upon them traversely.
Such were the first buildings of worship erected by man from no reverence for the Deity, but to display that which they doubtless conceived to be a stupendous effort in art.
It may not be needless to remind some of my readers that a superior being must view the elegant temples of the Romans, the gorgeous pagodas of India, and our own Gothic cathedrals with feelings similar to those with which we contemplate the rude efforts of the early heathens, who deemed God unworthy of the fruits and flowers which he himself had made, and offered to him the entrails of beasts, and the hearts of human beings.
We may compare an ancient and fallen religion to the ship of the Argonauts, which the Greeks desiring to preserve to posterity, repairing in so many different ways, that at length there did not remain a fragment of that vessel which had born to Colchis the conqueror of the Golden Fleece.
Let us pass over a lapse of years, and then contemplate the condition of these nations in whom religion had been first born. We find the Egyptians adoring the most common of plants, the most contemptible of beasts, the most hideous of reptiles. The solemnity and pomp of their absurd ceremonies held them up to the ridicule of the whole world.
Clemens of Alexandria describes one of their temples:--(Pœdag. lib. iii).--
"The walls shine with gold and silver, and with amber, and sparkle with the gems of India and Ethiopia: and the recesses are concealed by splendid curtains. But if you enter the penetralia, and inquire for the image of God for whose sake the fane was built; one of the Pastophori, or some other attendant on the temple approaches with a solemn and mysterious face, and putting aside the veil suffers you to obtain a glimpse of the divinity. There you behold a snake, a crocodile, or a cat, or some other beast, a fitter inhabitant of a cavern, or a bog than of a temple."
The priests of Egypt, always impostors, but once so celebrated, had now degenerated into a race of jugglers.
Also the Chaldeans lived upon the fame of their fathers, and upon their own base trickeries.
The Brachmans or Brahmins, those priests of India, once so virtuous and so wise-ah! they too had fallen. Once they had forbidden the shedding of so much as an insects blood: one day in the year alone, at the feast of Jagam, they were authorized to sacrifice the flesh of a beast, and from this many had refrained from attending, unable- to conquer their feelings of abhorrence.
But now they had learnt from the fierce Scythians and from the Phoenicians who traded on their coasts to sacrifice the wife upon her husbands pyre--to appease the gentle Brahmah with the blood of men.
Now the angels who had presided over them became savage demons, who scourged them on to cruel penances, nay to life-times of suffering and famine.
In the sacred groves where once the Brachman Fathers had taught their precepts of love, men emaciated, careworn, dying, wandered sadly, waiting for death as tortured prisoners wait for their liberty.
But worse still, these wicked priests sought through the land for the most beautiful young women, and trained them to dance in the temples, and to entice the devotees to their arms with lustful attitudes and languishing looks, and with their voices which mingled harmoniously with the golden bells suspended on their feet. They sang hymns to the Gods in public, and in private enriched the treasuries of the pagoda with their infamous earnings. Thus a pure and simple religion was debased by the avarice and lewdness of its priests: till the temples became a den of thieves: till prostitution sat enthroned upon the altars of the Gods.
Greece and Rome buried in sloth and luxury did not escape the general contamination. The emblem of generation which Isis had bestowed upon the Egyptians, and which they had held in abstract reverence, had now obtained a prominent place in the festivals of these nations as did the Lingam in those of the Hindus. It was openly paraded in processions in the streets: it was worn by Roman nations in bracelets upon their arms.
The sacred festivals and mysteries which they had received from the Egyptians, and for which the women had been wont to prepare themselves by continence, and the men by fasting, were now mere vehicles for depravities of the lowest kind. Men were permitted to join the women in their worship of Bacchus, of Adonis, of the Bona Dea, and even of Priapus, and so dissolute did the Dionusia become, that the civil powers were compelled to interfere with those of religion, and the Bacchanalia were abolished by a decree of the Roman senate.
And the Jews, the chosen people of God, had not their religion changed? had not God, weary with their sins, yielded them to captivity, scourged them with sorrow, menaced them with curses?
They worshipped Baal-peor, the Priapus of Assyria, they sacrificed their children to Moloch: they had dancing-girls in the holy temple.
I will not go deeper into particulars so degrading to human nature. I will rather invite you to follow me to a corner of the world where, at least for many ages religion was preserved in its pristine purity, and whose priests, through a barbarous soldiery, were received as martyrs in heaven before they had learned to be knaves upon earth.
It was an isolated spot unknown to the world in the earlier ages of vice. It is now a kingdom renowned for its power and for its luxuries from hemisphere to hemisphere.
It was encircled by the blue waters of the German and Atlantic Seas, and abounded in the choicest gifts of nature.It was called The White Island from those cliffs which still frown so coldly upon Gaul, and The Land of Green Hills from its verdant mountains.
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