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Pagan Christs, by John M. Robertson, [1911], at

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§ 1. Early Forces of Reform.

The main obstacle to a "science of religion," naturally, is the survival either of simple belief in a given religion or of sociological predilections set up by such a belief; and we have seen how a scholarly treatise may still be affected by one or the other. That a learned and thoughtful "Introduction to the History of Religion" should treat the whole vast drama of religious development up till the period of the Roman Empire as "the propaideutic of the world to Christ" 1 is perhaps not to be wondered at in view of English culture-conditions in general; but it is none the less unfortunate. A view of the history of religion which merely ignores or discredits on the one hand the entire religious life of the non-Christian world, and on the other the entire monotheistic or unitarian evolution in the Christian world, cannot meet the needs of scientific thought. The perorational statement that "of all the great religions of the world it is the Christian Church alone which is so far heir of all the ages as to fulfil the dumb, dim expectation of mankind," is but a sectarian shibboleth; and the claim, "In it alone the sacramental meal commemorates by ordinance of its founder the divine sacrifice which is a propitiation for the sins of all mankind," is an all-too-simple solution of the historic problem. We are being treated merely to a new adjustment of "Christian Evidence."

On the side of science, again, there is certainly a danger that the necessary effort to eliminate partisanship and predilection may somewhat sway the balances. Dr. Jevons justly argues 2 that religion is no more to be conceived or classified in terms of primeval superstition than science is to be classified in terms of primeval animism and magic. But the very tactic of his own treatise, aiming as it does at certificating one set of developments on behalf of the special apparatus of the Christian Church, is a hindrance to the recognition of religion as an aspect of the process of civilisation. In terms of the analogy with science, religion ought to be to-day at a far higher level than it was in ancient Syria, or in the Græco-Roman

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decadence. But here the special-pleader reverts to the Newmanian thesis of "special genius," arbitrarily placing the highest genius for religion in antiquity, and implying (apparently) that whatever genius there has been since is joyfully subservient to that.

Now, genius is certainly a factor in every line of mental evolution, in the sense that all marked mental capacity is a "variation"; and insofar as religions have been moralised or rationalised, genius for righteousness or for reason has clearly been at work. But just as certain as the fact of genius is the fact that it is in large part wasted; and we shall utterly misread the history of mankind if we conceive the "religious consciousness" as readily susceptible of impulses from the moral or rational genius of the gifted few. 1 On the contrary, nothing is harder than even the partial imposition of the higher view on the religious multitude; and this precisely because the crowd supposes (with the countenance of Dr. Jevons) that it has "inner consciousness" of the veracity of its congenital beliefs. King Akhunaton of Egypt, presumably, had such consciousness of the truth of his monotheism; but even his autocratic power failed to annul the inner consciousness of the polytheists around him, or, for that matter, the "direct consciousness" of the priests that their bread was buttered on the polytheistic side. 2

There is, I think, no known case in history of a "going" priesthood reforming its own cult, in the sense of willingly making an important change on moral lines. There is indeed abundant reason to credit priesthoods with the alteration of the rule under which the priest himself was the primary subject for sacrifice; 3 but the change consisted solely in laying the burden upon others. Apart from the presumptive changes of view set up in Israel during the exile, it seems to have been always by kings (or queens or heroes 4) that human sacrifices were suppressed in antiquity, never by the choice of priesthoods. 5 Thus King Eurypylus is associated with the abolition of the human sacrifice to Artemis Triclaria; 6 Cecrops with the substitution of cakes for living victims to Zeus Lycæus; 7

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[paragraph continues] Iphicrates 1 and Gelon 2 with the attempted stoppage of human sacrifices at Carthage; King Diphilus with its cessation at Cyprus; Amosis with its abrogation at Heliopolis in Egypt. 3 In the ancient history of Japan, it is an Emperor who, about the beginning of the Christian era, recoils from the practice of burying servitors alive at the funeral of a prince; and it is on his appeal that one of his ministers hits on the device of substituting clay images. 4 Among the Samoans one legend ran that the human sacrifices to the Sun, which were destroying the race, were put an end to by the lady Ui giving herself up and being accepted by the pacified Sun as his bride; while another version makes Ui the daughter of the King of Manu’a, who gave up his daughter as a final sacrifice, and then abolished the practice. 5 In another case a Tongan queen, named Manu, saved alive a number of those destined for her husband's cannibal feasts; and in yet another a cannibal God—presumably the priest or incarnation of a higher deity—is destroyed by the action of a daring youth. 6 The powerful King Finow of Tonga, again, showed a disposition to check some forms of human sacrifice; 7 and King Gezo of Dahome is credited with "materially reducing the number of human sacrifices throughout his kingdom" 8 during his lifetime. King Gelele, again, promising that "by and by, little by little, much may be done" in the way of curtailing the sacrifices, declared: "If I were to give up this custom at once, my head would be taken off to-morrow." 9 Such was the power of the priests. Similarly the abolition of human sacrifices in ancient China was effected only by the action of humane princes; and the attempt in earlier times seems to have involved insurrection and desperate war. 10

Elsewhere such attempts are known to have failed, and the work of King Gezo of Dahome was undone after him. "The

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fetisheer is all-powerful in Dahome. The last monarch was notably desirous of modifying the horrors and the expenses of the national worship: his son has been compelled to walk in the old path of blood." 1 The strongest characteristic of priesthoods is their conservatism; and though moral and religious innovators have arisen among them, practical moral reforms have always to be forced on them from the outside. 2 Where a powerful king resists them from humane motives, even if he put them down by force for the time, he is not unlikely to be the victim in the end. 3 Where substitutes have been made for human sacrifices among "nature-folk" without governmental pressure, as apparently among the Malays and some tribes in India, there is no priesthood to speak of; and these simple people have silently attained what passes for a great "reform" where "religious history" is concerned. 4

For every man of moral genius, probably, who has been able to modify for the better the form or course of an organised religion, there have been ten who were slain or silenced by its organisation. Indeed, if we reckon solely the ostensible historical cases of fortunate innovation on the direct appeal of genius, the balance is immeasurably the other way. What is more, the economic and social conditions in antiquity were such that the man who succeeded even indirectly in modifying a cult or creed for the better did so by some measure of fraud. Dr. Jevons, as we have seen, lightly decides that such reformers "have usually considered be speaking, not their own words or thoughts, but those of their God." If they did, be it said once more, they would only be feeling as did the common run of early priests in their normal procedure. The full significance of the case will come out much better if we say that reformers found they stood the best chance of a hearing when they professed to be speaking the words of the God. What this meant in the way of demoralisation it is depressing to surmise.

It is indeed customary of late to substitute for the exaggerated notion of "pagan" priestcraft that used to be held by most Christians and by some freethinkers the much more arbitrary notion of an absolute rectitude in the pristine "religious consciousness"; but critical science can accept no such fantasy. There are

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evidences of conscious fraud on the surface of the most primitive-looking cults known to us; 1 the majority of travellers unhesitatingly impute fraud to the magicians and priests of savage tribes; and while there is reason to believe that early man and savage man have a less clear sense than we of the difference between truth and falsehood (in this respect partly approximating to the child-mind), there is really no reason for supposing them less capable of resort to wilful deception. On the contrary, they seem in religious matters to have been more prompt at fabrication, in the ratio of the greater credulity they met with. Unless, then, we proceed with Dr. Jevons to make gratuitous exceptions in favour of all cases on the line of evolution of our own creed, we must conclude that the ancient conditions often, if not always, drove reformers to make-believe.


59:1 Work cited, Index, s.v. Sacrifice, end. Cp. p. 415.

59:2 Work cited, p. 9.

60:1 Dr. Jevons, to be sure, has denied that the religious process is either moral or rational; but here we must try to save his thesis from himself. Otherwise it becomes a mere disguised assertion that all religious truth is revealed, that genius consists in getting the revelation, and that beliefs otherwise got are either not true or not religious. Of such a doctrine there can be no historical discussion.

60:2 Cp. Tiele, Egyptian Religion, pp. 23, 179-185; Maspero, Hist. ancienne des peuples de l’orient, 4e édit. pp. 53-54, 285-6; Diodorus Siculus, i, 73.

60:3 Cp. Adolf Bastian, Der Mensch in der Geschichte, 1860, iii, 114; Frazer, Golden Bough, ch. i, § 1; ch. iii, § 1; Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship, p. 291; Jevons. Introd. to Hist. of Relig., pp. 281-296.

60:4 Dr. Frazer gives a list of hero-stories in his note on Pausanias in his edition, ix, 26, 7.

60:5 Cp. Bastian, as cited, iii, 109.

60:6 Pausanias, vii, 19.

60:7 Id. viii, 2.

61:1 Porphyry, De Abstinentia, ii, 56.

61:2 Plutarch, Regum et imper. apophtheg., Gelon, i.

61:3 Porphyry, last cit. ii, 55.

61:4 J. Murdoch, A History of Japan, 1910, i, 69.

61:5 Turner, Samoa a Hundred Years Ago, 1884, pp. 201-2.

61:6 Id. pp. 236-8.

61:7 Mariner, Tonga Islands, 1827, ii, 178.

61:8 Sir A. B. Ellis, The Ewe-speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast, 1890, pp. 128, 136.

61:9 Burton, A Mission to Gelele, 1864, ii, 359.

61:10 Cp. Kurz, Mémoire sur l’état politique et religieux de la Chine 2300 ans avant notre ére, from Nouveau Journal Asiatique, 1830 (7), pp. 74-82; and Miss Simcox, Primitive Civilisations, ii, 36-37. Terrien de la Couperie pronounces all human sacrifices in ancient China to have been introduced under alien influence (Western Origin of the Early Chinese Civilisation, 1894, pp, 134,.362-3, citing in support Edkins, Church Review, xvi., 339; xix, 55-6). The practice of siün—the voluntary submission of servants to be buried alive in grave of their masters—he represents to have begun 678 B.C. in the west State of Ts’in, "undoubtedly under Tartar influence," and to have been common in the fourth century, but to have ceased after 210 B.C., when it had been made compulsory at the funeral of She Hwang Ti. Thereafter wooden figures were buried in the graves as surrogates, as in Japan. M. La Couperie, however, appears to accept simple suttee as indigenous; and it is hard to see how the purely alien character of either siün or human sacrifice proper can be established for all China (pp. 133-8). He notes that the drowning of girls, as brides for the River God, was suppressed in Wei after 424 by a new Governor, but survived elsewhere. (Pp. 90, 359.)

62:1 Burton, A Mission to Gelele, 1864, ii, 149. "To abolish human sacrifice here," says Burton in another passage, "is to abolish Dahome. The practice originates from filial piety; it is sanctioned by long use and custom; and it is strenuously upheld by a powerful and interested priesthood." (Id. ii, 26.)

62:2 See below, Part IV, § 5, as to the similar rule in the lower civilisations of Polynesia, and in ancient Mexico.

62:3 See the case of King Mesi of Porto Novo, narrated by Sir A. B. Ellis, The Ewe-Speaking Peoples of the Slave Coast, 1890, p. 145; and cp. B. Thomson, The Fijians, 1909, introd. p. xi.

62:4 The legend of the saving of Sunahsepa, offered for a sacrifice on behalf of King Harischandra (R. W. Frazer, Lit. Hist. of India, pp. 87-89), is obscure.

63:1 Cp. the author's Short History of Freethought, 2nd ed. i, 27.

Next: § 2. Reform as a Religious Process