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Earthdate 2003-06-02

3.  Oriental Religions  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

This mixture of peoples, this new cosmopolitanism, this hurrying to and fro of religious teachers, brought it about that Oriental faiths, at first only the religions of groups of families who had brought their cults with them into the West, made numerous converts and spread themselves over the Roman Empire.  These Oriental religions prospered the more because from the middle of the third century onwards Rome was looking to the East for many things.  From it came the deftest artizans and mechanics who gave to life most of its material comforts.  It largely contributed to feed Rome with its grain.  Its philosophy (for most of the greatest stoical thinkers were not Greeks but Orientals) gave the substructure to Roman Law; and the most famous Law School in the third, fourth and fifth centuries was not in Rome but at Beyrout.  Ulpian came from Tyre and Papinian from Syria.  The greatest non-Christian thinkers of these centuries were neither Greeks nor Romans but Orientals.  Plotinus was an Egyptian; Iamblichus, Porphyry and Libanius were Syrians; Galen was an Asiatic.  Oriental ideas were slowly changing Rome's political institutions themselves, and the Princeps of a Republic, as was Octavius, became, in the persons of Diocletian and Constantine, an Oriental monarch.  Rome, by the discipline of its legions, by the mingled severity and generosity of its rule, by the justice of its legislation, had conquered the East.  Eastern thought, wedded to Hellenism, was in its turn subjugating the Empire.  Its religions had their share in the conquest.

Among those Oriental faiths which spread themselves over civilised Europe some were much more popular than others.  All entered the Empire at an early date and won their way very slowly at first.  Most of them seem to have made some alliance with the survivals of such Greek mysteries as those of Eleusis and of Dionysos.  All of them, save that of Mithras, had been affected and to some extent changed by Hellenism before they entered into the full light of history in the beginning of the third century.

From Asia Minor came the worship of Cybele with its hymns and dances, its mysterious ideas of a deity dying to live again, its frenzies and trances, its soothsayings, and its blood-baths of purification and sanctification.  From Syria came the cult of the Dea Syra, described by Lucian the sceptic, with its sacred prostitutions, its more than hints of human sacrifices, its mystics and its pillar saints.  Persia sent forth the worship of Mithras, with its initiations, its sacraments, its mysteries and the stern discipline which made it a favourite religion among the Roman legionaries.  Egypt gave birth to many a cult.  Chief among them was the worship of Isis.  Before the end of the second century it had far outstripped Christianity and could boast of its thousands where the religion of the Cross could only number hundreds.  It had penetrated everywhere, even to far-off Britain.  A ring bearing the figure of the goddess' constant companion, the dog-headed Anubis, has been discovered in a grave in the Isle of Man.  Votaries of Isis could be found from the Roman Wall to Land's End.

The worship of Isis may be taken as a type of those Oriental faiths before whose presence the official gods of Olympus were receding into the background.  The cult had a body of clergy, highly organised, a book of prayers, a code of liturgical actions, a tonsure, vestments, and an elaborate impressive ceremonial.  The inner circle of its devotees were called “the religious,” like the monks of the Middle Ages; those who were altogether outside the faith were termed “pagans”; the service of the goddess was a “holy war,” and her worshippers of all grades were banded together in a “militia.”  Apuleius, himself converted to the faith, has, in his Metamorphoses, described its ceremonies of worship and enabled us to see how desires after a better life drew men like himself to reverence the deity and enroll himself among her followers.  He has described, with a vividness that makes us see them, the stately processions which moved with deliberate pace through the crowded narrow streets of oriental towns, and drew after them to the temple many a hitherto unattached inquirer.  We can enter the temple with him and listen to the solemn exhortation of the high-priest; hear him dwell upon the past sins and follies of the neophyte and the unfailing goodness and mercy of the goddess whose eyes had followed him through them all and who now waited to receive him if he truly desired to become her disciple and worshipper.  The initiation was a secret rite and Apuleius is careful not to profane it by description; but we learn that there was a baptism, a fast of ten days, a course of priestly instruction, sponsors given to the neophyte, and, in the evening, a reception of the new brother by the congregation, when every one greeted him kindly and presented him with some small gift.  We can penetrate with him into the secret chamber reserved for the higher initiation where he was taught that he would endure a voluntary death which he was to look upon as the gateway into a higher and better life.  We can dimly see him excited with wild anticipations, dizzy with protracted fasting, almost suffocated by surging vapours, blinded by sudden and unexpected flashes of light, undergo his hypnotic trance during which he saw unutterable things.  “I trod the confines of death and the threshold of Proserpine; I was swept round all the elements and back again; I saw the sun shining at midnight in purest radiance; gods of heaven and gods of hell I saw face to face and adored in presence.”  We can understand how such an hypnotic trance marked a man for life.

Isis worship, humanised by Hellenism, extracted from the crude wild legends of Egypt the thought of a suffering and all-merciful Mother-Goddess who yearned to ease the woes of mankind.  It raised the beast-gods of the Nile and the tales about them into emblems and parables.  It captured the common man by its thaumaturgy.  For the more cultured intelligences it had a more sublime theology which appealed to the philosophy of the day.  In all this it was a type, perhaps the best, of those Oriental cults which were permeating the Empire.



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