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Earthdate 2003-06-02

4.  The New Paganism  by the Rev. T. M. Lindsay, D.D., LL.D.

All those religions, whatever their special form of teaching or variety of cult, brought with them thoughts foreign to the old official worships of Greece and Rome; though not altogether strange to the Mysteries which had for long been the real people's religion in Greece nor to the cult of Dionysos which in various forms had preserved its vitality.

They taught (or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the action of the subtle Greek intellect, playing upon the crude ideas which these Oriental religions presented to it, evolved from them) a series of religious conceptions foreign to the old paganism, and these became common parts of the newer non-Christian intelligence which was powerful in the third and fourth centuries.

A sharp distinction, much more definite than anything previous, was drawn between the soul and the body.  The soul belonged to a different sphere and was more estimable than the body.  The former was the inhabitant of a higher and better world and was therefore immortal.  The thoughts of individuality and personality became much clearer.  In the same way the thoughts of Godhead as a whole and of the world as a whole — conceptions scarcely separate before — were distinguished more or less clearly.  Godhead became what the world was not, and yet Something good and great Which was the primal basis of all things.

The earlier philosophical depreciation of the world of matter became more emphatic, and raised the question whether the creation of the whole material world and of the body which belonged to it was not after all a mistake; whether the body was not a prison or at least a house of correction in which the soul was grievously detained; whether the soul could ever become what it really was until it had undergone a deliverance from the body.  Such a deliverance was called salvation, and much practical thinking was expended on the proper means of effecting it.  Might not knowledge and the means it suggested of living purely or with as little bodily contamination as possible while this life lasted, be the beginnings of entrance into the real and eternal life of the soul?  Was it not most likely that souls had been gradually confined in bodies, and must not the process of delivery be gradual also?  The gradual Way of Return to God became a feature in almost all those Eastern cults, by whatever means they sought to accomplish it.

Perhaps however the most novel thought was the conviction that something more than knowledge, beyond any means of living purely which human wisdom could suggest, something outside man and belonging to the sphere of divinity, was needed to start the soul on this gradual Way of Return and sustain his faltering footsteps along the difficult path.  Contact with the Godhead was needed to save and redeem.  Such contact was to be found in a consecration (mysterium, sacramentum, initiation) wherein the soul, in some hypnotic trance, was possessed by the deity who overpowered it and for ever afterwards led it step by step along the path of salvation or Way of Return.  Perhaps something more than any such consecration was needed; might not some surer way be found if only diligently sought for?  It might be in some of the older cults whose inner meaning had never been rightly understood; or in some mystery not yet completely accessible; or in a divinely commissioned man who had not yet appeared.  It might even be found within the soul itself, if men could only discover and use the true powers of the human soul (Higher Thought).  At all events it was held that true religion really implied a detachment from the world, and included a strict discipline of soul and body while life lasted.

Such a paganism was very different from the polytheism with its furred, feathered and scaly deities which first confronted Christianity and was attacked by the early Christian apologists.  The later ones recognised its power.  Firmicus Maternus, writing in the time of Constantine, dismisses with good-humoured scorn the deities of Olympus and their myths, but criticises with thorough earnestness the Oriental religions.  It had, in spite of its external multiformity, a natural cohesion in virtue of the circle of common thoughts above described.  It hardly deserves the name of polytheism; for its idea of one abstract divinity, separate from the world of matter, made it monotheism of a kind; and evidence shews that its votaries regarded Isis, Cybele and the rest more as the representatives and impersonations of the one godhead than as individual deities.  Inscriptions from tombstones reveal that worshippers did not attach themselves to one cult exclusively.  The varying forms of initiation were all separate methods of attaining to union with the one divinity, the different ceremonies of purification were all ways of reaching the same end, and, as one might succeed where another failed, they could be all tried impartially.  Just as we find men and women in the beginning of the sixteenth century enrolling themselves in several religious associations of different kinds (witness Dr Pfeffinger, a member of thirty-two religious confraternities), so in the third and fourth centuries members of both sexes were initiated into several cults and performed the lustrations prescribed by very different worships, in order to miss no chance of union with divinity and to leave no means of purification and sanctification untried.  The tombstone of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, the friend of Symmachus, who took part in the Saturnalia of Macrobius, records that he had been initiated into several cults and that he had performed the taurobolium.  His wife, Aconia Paulina, was more indefatigable still.  This lady, a member of the exclusive circle of the old pagan nobility of Rome, went to Eleusis and was initiated with baptism, fasting, vigil, hymn-singing into the several mysteries of Dionysos, of Ceres and Koré.  Not content with these, she went on to Lerna and sought communion with the same three deities in different rites of initiation.  She travelled to Aegina, was again initiated, slept or waked in the porches of the small temples there in the hope that the divinities of the place in dream or waking vision might communicate to her their way of salvation.  She became a hierophant of Hecate with still different and more dreaded rites of consecration.  Finally, like her husband, she submitted herself to the dreadful, and to us disgusting, purification won in the taurobolium.  A great pit was dug into which the neophyte descended naked; it was covered with stout planks placed about an inch apart; a young bull was led or forced upon the planks; it was stabbed by the officiating priest in such a way that the thrust was mortal and that the blood might flow as freely as possible.  As the blood poured down on the planks and dripped into the pit the neophyte moved backwards and forwards to receive as much as possible of the red warm shower and remained until every drop had ceased to drip.  Inscription after inscription records the fact that the deceased had been a tauroboliatus or a tauroboliata, had gone through this blood-bath in search of sanctification.  Evidence from inscriptions seems to shew that in the declining days of paganism, the energy of its votaries drove them in greater numbers to accumulate initiations and to undergo the more severe rites of purification.



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