The Gnostics and Their Remains, by Charles William King, , at sacred-texts.com
The King of the Shades has formed the subject of the preceding investigation. The natural sequence of ideas requires us to consider by what visible form ancient imagination expressed the direct agency of his power, and represented to the eye the unwelcome apparition of the "Satelles Orci."
Mingling among the Cupids, whether sculptured or glyptic, and easy to be mistaken for one of the sportive group by the casual observer, comes the most popular antique embodiment of what to our notions is the most discordant of all ideas. He can only be distinguished from the God of Love by observing his pensive attitude; his action of extinguishing his torch either by striking the blazing end against the ground or by trampling it out with the foot; otherwise he leans upon it inverted, with folded wings, and arms and legs crossed in the attitude of profound repose. At other times he is divested of wings, to typify the end of all movement, and whilst he quenches his torch with one hand, he holds behind him with the other the large hoop, annus (which the Grecian Ενίαυτος carries before him), to signify that for his victim no more shall the year roll on.
To understand how so charming a type came to be appropriated to such a signification, it is necessary to cast off modern associations, and to recollect that to the ancient mind, arguing merely from the analogy of Nature, death presented itself as merely the necessary converse of birth, and consequently carried no terror in the thought--"nullique ea tristis imago," as Statius happily words it. For it implied nothing worse than the return to the state of unconsciousness, such as was before Being commenced; or, as Pliny clearly puts the case, "Unto all the state of being after the last day as the same as it was before the first day of life; neither is there any more sensation in
either body or soul after death than there was before life." On this account the mere return, as Byron hath it--
inspired no fears beyond those springing from the natural instinct of self-preservation. Many carried this indifference to the opposite extreme--exemplified in the trite story of the Thracians lamenting on the occasion of a birth, and rejoicing on that of a death in the family. Pliny boldly declares that the greatest favour Nature has bestowed on man is the shortness of his span of life; whilst the later Platonists, as seen in that curious chapter of Macrobius, "On the descent of the Soul," termed the being born into this world "spiritual death," and dying, "spiritual birth." But after the ancient order of ideas had been totally revolutionised--when the death of the body came to be looked upon as the punishment of Original Sin, and as the infraction, not the fulfilment of a natural law--the notion necessarily assumed a more horrific aspect; which again was exaggerated to the utmost of their power by the new teachers, for it supplied them with the most potent of all engines for the subjugation of the human soul--"Æternas quoniam pœnas in morte timendum." The ancient type, therefore, which implied nothing but peace and unbroken repose, was therefore at once discarded, as totally inconsistent with the altered view of the reality. Add to this the fact that everything in the shape of Cupid had been forcibly enrolled amongst the Cherubim and Seraphim, and had thereby received a character yet more foreign to that of the newly-created King of Terrors.
Hence the Christians were driven to seek in the ancient iconology for a more fitting representation of the offspring and avenger of transgression--something that should be equally ghastly and terror-inspiring--and such a representative they found made to their hand in the former way of picturing a Larva, or bad man's ghost. This had always been depicted as a skeleton, and such a figure was recommended by old association to their minds in the times when (as Böttiger phrases it) "the Christians creeping forth out of their catacombs
substituted for the Genius with inverted torch, the skulls and mouldering bones of their own martyrs." And that the larva was popularly imagined in a skeleton form, appears, amongst the rest, from Ovid's line in his 'Ibis'--
Seneca also laughs at the vulgar notion of "larva-forms, frames of bare bones hanging together;" and Trimalchio, at his famous dinner, in order to promote conviviality, throws down upon the table a silver larva, so ingeniously made as to bound about on the board with every limb quivering, whilst the host hiccups out the admonition--
Such a larva sometimes makes his appearance on the gem, introduced there for the same purpose--to remind his wearer of the shortness of life, and the wisdom of making the best use of the portion allotted to him--speaking, mutely, the words of Virgil's 'Copa Syrisca'--
Thus upon one gem we behold him holding forth in his bony hand the lecythus (long, pointed vase of oil), that regularly accompanied every Greek interment, whilst he leans with his elbow against a huge amphora of wine, as though recommending the enjoyment of its contents whilst yet in one's power. * Another, a more fanciful composition, depicts Cupid casting the light of his torch into the depths of an immense Corinthian crater out of which a skeleton is throwing himself headlong, as though scared away by the hateful glare--a design whose abstruse meaning may perhaps be interpreted by the foregoing
remarks ('Impronte Gemmarie,' ii. 10, 11). * A skeleton, likewise, was often painted on the wall of tombs; for example, in that pathetic scene at Pompeii, where a mother is represented laying a mortuary fillet over the bones of her child. In all these cases the form is merely intended to symbolise the condition of death by placing before the eye the body as deserted by life, reduced to the state most expressive of mortality and decay, and which cannot be mistaken for one of sleep. But it is easy to perceive how ready was the transition from the hieroglyph of mortality regarded as a state (especially when to the popular mind the figure also represented a restless and malignant spiritual being) to the adoption of the same inauspicious shape for the embodiment of the idea of the actual principle of destruction.
But to return to antique imagery of the same sense. The idea of death is ingeniously and curiously expressed in a fresco decorating the lately discovered vault of Vincentius and Vibia, in the Catacombs of Prætextatus, Rome. In the scene labelled "abreptio Vibie et Discensio," the messenger of Fate, "Mercurius," appears placing one foot and leading the way into a huge urn laid sideways on the ground. The allusion to Orcus in the name of such a vessel, orca, is sufficiently obvious, and in fact both may spring from the same root, ἕρκος, inclosure, prison. But the most common type, perpetually repeated on sarcophagi and tablets, is the Horse, significant of departure, looking in through the window upon a party carousing--life's festive scene. Yet more forcibly is the same notion carried out in an Etruscan sculpture (figured in the Revue Archéologique, 1844), where the angel of death, Charun, armed as usual with his ponderous mall, actually leads this horse upon which sits the deceased with head muffled up, "capite obnupto"--the established form in sentencing a criminal to execution. The same reason, probably, made the horse's heal
so popular a subject for signet-gems; it served there for a memento-mori, like the death's heads so much in vogue amongst the jewels of the Cinque-cento time, although the antique symbol carried with it a widely different admonition. The same notion may possibly lie at the bottom of that immemorial custom in South Wales of the mummers carrying the skull of a horse in their Christmas merry-makings.
Cognate to this is that most ancient representation of the conveyance of the departed soul to the realms of bliss--imagined as some happy island in the far West--upon a fantastic hippocampus, in figure like a winged sea-serpent, and who later became the Roman Capricornus, "Ruler of the Hesperian Wave:"--
as Manilius defines the authority of that amphibious sign. But the original conception is often engraved upon Phœnician scarabic; and no doubt can remain as to its intention, since Caylus has published an Etruscan vase (i. pl. 32) where this same monster is painted joyously careering over the sea, whilst on its other side stands the mourner, præfica, chaunting the funeral hymn over the corpse laid out upon its bier of bronze.
To continue within the earliest portion of the subject, it must be observed that in the most ancient monument of Greek sculpture whereof any account remains--the Coffer of Cypselus (executed earlier than 600 B.C.)--Night was represented carrying in her arms two children, alike in all respects save colour; the one white, the other black, having their legs crossed: * their names being inscribed over them--Sleep and Death--for their mother was hastening to the aid of the expiring Memnon. Thus it is manifest that from the very dawn of pictorial art the crossed legs were the accepted emblem of the most profound repose; whilst the sluggard's wish for "a little more folding of
the hands in slumber" bears the same testimony to the import of the crossed arms of the Roman Genius who leans on his inverted torch. In that master-piece of Roman chasing, the Pompeian discus, "The Death of Cleopatra," the object of the design is indicated with equal truth and pathos by the placing of the beauteous infant genius at the knee of the dying queen, on which he rests his elbow to form a support for his head as though dropping off into a gentle slumber. The traditional attitude * retained its significancy well understood far down into the Middle Ages: witness so many cross-legged effigies of warriors resting from their toils--who for that sole reason popularly pass for crusaders.
But in the whole long catalogue of emblems, not one expressed the abstract idea so definitely as that most frequently employed in such sense--the Gorgon's Head. Accepting the explanation already offered (p. 167), that at its origin this terrific visage was designed for the "vera effigies" of the Queen of the dead, it was the most speaking emblem of her office that could possibly be chosen. In the Heroic ages it was universally painted, or embossed upon the warrior's shield; and with the progress of art, cut in cameo, became the regular decoration of the imperial breastplate; † in which post it served, as Lucian remarks ('Philopatris'), "both to terrify enemies and to avert all danger from the wearer," conveying to all beholders the menace of death exactly as now by an un designed coincidence does the death's head and cross-bones painted upon the pirate's flag. The Byzantines, in the true spirit of their gloomy superstition, discarded the Præ-Italian type for whose beauty they had lost all feeling, and reverted to the image invented by the horror-loving genius of Pelasgic barbarism. They saw in it the most faithful representation of their Μοῖρα, the destroying demon or ghoul, still believed by the Greek peasant to haunt
ruins and desolate places. That the figure was received in such a sense into Byzantine symbolism, the examples of amulets already quoted convincingly declare. From Byzantine the Gorgon passed into Gothic art, which ever revelling in grotesque horror, its inspiring genius being the skeleton which intrudes his ghastliness into every mode of ornamentation, even of a mirror-frame (Lucrezia Borgia's for example) contrived to render the image yet more terrible by converting the face into a fleshless skull, and substituting for the hawk's wings lent by Hermes, which previously impelled its flight, the skinny pillions of her own congenial and much-loved fowl, the sepulchre-haunting bat.
But of all these emblems, not one is so full of poetry and truth as the device of the Winged Foot crushing the Butterfly, Life. The Foot, chosen probably for the same reason as the Horse, as conveying most speakingly the notion of departure, was equally accepted as the emblem of death. Horace's simile must occur to every reader:--
On this account the Foot became the peculiar attribute of the infernal deities; and the figure of one carved in stone was often dedicated in the temple of Serapis *--apparently as an ex voto commemorating the donor's escape from the very threshold of his dark domain. Singularly related to this custom is what Moor notices of the pairs of feet carved in stone commonly seen in the vicinity of Hindoo temples, traditionally said to be memorials of suttees, marking the spot whence the devoted widow stepped from earth upon the funeral pile, that is into the Gate of Heaven.
It has long been a question how the Grecian Hades ("The Invisible One") and the Roman Pluto were depicted in a bodily form as they were originally conceived--for their Egyptian equivalent, Serapis, figures much more frequently in
monuments of Imperial date than either of his brethren, Jove or Neptune. In the latter style he is regularly sculptured as Plutus, "Lord of Riches," seated on a throne, holding a cornucopia, and extending with his right hand a cluster of earth's choicest gifts. But under what form the primitive Greeks had imagined their Aïdoneus, God of the Shades, before Serapis was introduced into their mythology, is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered. We should have found him on the scarabeus of the Etruscans and early Italiotes, had not a long-enduring respect for things divine (expressly enjoined by Pythagoras) prevented their placing in their signets, used for everyday purposes, the actual figures of the gods, whose absence they supplied by their well-known attributes. For this reason a popular Etruscan seal-device is Cerberus, represented sometimes as a man with three heads of a dog, but more commonly in the shape so familiar to us from later arts. But the Egyptians had contrived to make their Guardian of the Shades much more formidable in aspect by equipping him with the heads of a lion, crocodile, and hippopotamus. We are also certified in what shape the Etruscans imaged their god of the lower world, Mantus; for he is painted with serpent legs, like Typhon, wielding a huge butcher's cleaver, and attended by Cerberus, enthroned upon the court placed below the niche of interment, loculus, in the Campana tomb, Cervetri.
The "Helmet of Hades" is named by Homer (v. 845), which Pallas puts on in order to render herself invisible to Ares which helmet the scholiast explains by "cloud and invisibility"--whence it seems but natural to infer that, as this deity was rendered invisible by his very attribute, no attempt would be made to depict his personal appearance. A figure of a god in long flowing robes, and wielding a trident wanting one of its prongs, sometimes painted on the Nolan vases, has been taken for an Aïdoneus, but on no sufficient grounds, there being better reason to consider him a Poseidon in the archaic style. The epithet "Renowned for horses" is given to the same god elsewhere by Homer (v. 445), allusive doubtless to the swiftness of the Destroyer: and in the same title may, perchance, lie the motive which made the Greeks adopt the horse, as above noticed,
for the commonest symbol of his power. If we could meet with any genuine antique and early representation of the Rape of Proserpine it would at once decide the question by portraying the grim Ravisher himself; but the inauspicious nature of the subject (so conspicuously set forth in Suetonius’ anecdote of the ring with the story presented by Sporus to Nero for a New Year's gift) has completely excluded it from the artist's repertory, so far as anything now remaining informs us. Stosch's Collection, amongst its immense variety of mythological designs, contains nothing of the sort, whilst Raspe gives for its representative only a single antique paste (and that, too, of very dubious attribution) where a god with quiver on shoulder is carrying off a Nymph in a car drawn by two swans--attributes properly bespeaking an Apollo; and if really given here to Pluto, proving the work to belong to those latter times of Paganism when Hades, Serapis, Phœbus, were equally interpreted as mere titles of the Solar god.
As for the Roman Pluto, or, to give him his native name, Dis (ditis, from the same root as death), there was the best of reasons for excluding him from the province of art which admitted nought that was hideous or of evil augury. For there can be no doubt, that, to the popular imagination, he still continued the Charun, * whom we still behold lording it over the sepulchres of their Etruscan teachers in the arts, a giant of horrid aspect with pointed ears, and frisky grinning jaws, winged buskins on legs, extending with one hand a hissing serpent, with the other wielding a monstrous mall. It was probably the traditional influence of the idea that caused the same instrument; mazza, to be retained at Rome for the execution of peculiarly atrocious criminals down to the recent introduction of the guillotine.
That Pluto was really so personified in the shows of the Amphitheatre, as late as the third century, may be gathered from the remark of Tertullian (Apol. xxv.), that, "amongst the other scenic cruelties of the afternoon, the spectators laughed at the sight of Mercury raising the dead with his red-hot wand [applied doubtless to the feet of the slaughtered gladiators to
ascertain if life still lingered within them]; whilst the 'Brother of Jupiter,' armed with his mall, escorted the dead bodies of the combatant" [for the purpose clearly of giving them the coup de grâce]. The primitive Etruscan image passed down into the belief of their mediæval descendants, for Dante brings on the stage:--
It is time now to dismiss the Lord of the Shades, and to consider by what Emblem ancient art sought to express the Shade itself, the disembodied spirit. The Greeks of early times appropriately painted it in the shape of a bird with a human head, as on that beautiful vase, "The Death of Procris" (British Museum), where such a fowl is conspicuously seen winging its flight from the month of the wounded Nymph. The celebrated Orléans (now Russian) scarabeus, engraved with the "Death of Achilles," has its back carved into the same creature, tearing her breast in an agony of despair. This expressive type was not, however, the birth of Grecian genius, but adopted, without alteration, from the most ancient symbolism of Egypt. In the "Judgment of the body and soul," regularly painted on the mummy-cases, the former, depicted as a mummy, stands before Osiris, "Lord of the West," to answer for its actions; whilst the soul, in shape of a hawk, with human head and wings uplifted, is brought before the same god under another form, to give an account of its thoughts. And the same soul, purified, and admitted amongst the gods, appears as before, but tranquilly standing with a golden disk, "a crown of glory," set upon her head: figures of the last kind in bronze frequently occurring amongst Egyptian remains, complimentary mementoes of deceased friends. Again, this same bird is often found painted on the mummy-case right over the heart (named in Coptic, "the abode of the soul"), a plain proof of what it signifies there; although Father Kircher, with his wonted extravagance, chose to explain it as figuring the iynx, the bird so renowned in the magical operations of the Greeks. Again, the same notion is expressed by the simple figure of a bird flying away, as often is done in Etruscan works, where the subject represented is the
death of a hero. Latest of all, this somewhat grotesque Egyptian conception was modified by Grecian culture into the graceful girl with butterfly wings--the well-known Psyche--and such a form is seen seated upon the summit of Achilles’ tomb, before which the sacrifice of Polyxena is about to be offered. This ancient human-headed Bird, by a natural transition of ideas, came ultimately to be applied to express a widely different meaning. Instead of the dead, it was made to stand for the destroyer; and the Syrens are always painted in this shape whenever their interview with Ulysses becomes the theme of ancient art, or when they engage in their unlucky contest with the Muses. But here, for the sake of more grace, in the conformation of the monster, the whole of the female bust is adapted to the body of the fowl. Despite their beauty and melodiousness, the Syrens were considered as the most malignant and destructive of beings, for which reason the Harpies likewise were depicted in precisely the same figure. Although identical at first, the more refining art of Roman times introduced a distinction between them by giving to the Syrens the complete bust, to the Harpies the head only of the woman. Inasmuch as the name signifies "Snatcher-away," the Harpy was understood to embody the abstract idea of death, which acceptation explains why she is often represented armed with a sword, or carrying on her shoulder the funeral lecythus, and torch. For the same reason the Harpy holds a conspicuous place in the decorations of many ancient tombs, unless, indeed, the emblem may have been used there in its Egyptian sense.
In what shape Death was personified by Euripides, in his Alcestis, cannot be made out from the insufficiency of data afforded by the lines relating to his appearance on the stage. It is, however, plain that the poet brought forward Θάνατος in a bodily form, perhaps considering him the same with Aïdoneus, for he styles him "King of the Dead;" and Macrobius, speaking of the same event, uses for his name the Roman equivalent, "Orcus." All that can be gathered from the incidental allusions of the other dramatis personæ to this apparition, is that he was robed in black, and carried a sword, wherewith to sever a lock from the head of his destined victim, and so devote it to
the subterranean gods. It is, however, possible that Euripides brought on this Θάνατος in that harpy shape which sometimes is found in antique art where the bust is that of a grim aged man, in place of the smiling female's, and who, as badge of office, carries a naked sword. In such a form the Destroyer must have flitted before the eyes of Statius, when about to make prey of the young and beautiful Glaucius:--
This last word can apply to nothing but the Harpy, of whom claws were the distinctive attribute:--
Nevertheless, a representation like this had in it nothing grotesque or offensive to the Athenian eye. Far different was the Pelasgic Κῆρ, likewise robed in black (according to Homer's normal epithet for her), in the form which the archaic sculptor had given her upon the Coffer of Cypselus, "having tusks as fierce as those of any wild beast." Such a conception was eagerly embraced by the gloomy genius of the Etruscans, ever delighting in the monstrous and the horrible. She therefore figures on their signets in a form to be described in the very words of Pausanias, having a huge Gorgonian head, grinning jaws, arms wreathed with serpents, impelled by quadruple wings, like an Assyrian deity, and her action that of furious haste. So, doubtless, appeared the Furies, brought on the stage by Æschylus, when the horror of their strange aspect struck the Athenian audience with such deadly fright. For his purpose he must have revived a very ancient and forgotten type of the idea, for the paintings on the vases of his epoch exhibit the Eumenides, who persecute Orestes, under a no more terrific form than as shadowy old women brandishing serpents and torches, as they chase their victim from shrine to shrine.
181:* Exactly the same lesson is taught by a drinking-cup in the Orléans Museum, the decoration of which is a dance of skeletons. (Mém. Soc. Antiq. de France, vol. xxxi.)
182:* Such a larva also points the moral of the scene embossed upon a lamp, published by De Witte (Mem. Soc. Antiq. de France, 1871), where a philosopher seated, and grasping a scroll, is apostrophising a skeleton standing before him; at his feet lies an infant in swaddling-clothes. These adjuncts declare the subject of the philosopher's meditations--the destiny of Man coin birth to death.
183:* διεστραμμένους τοὺς πόδας. The very obvious meaning of these words critics have contrived to misunderstand, and to render as "distorted." Nor is this all; entirely upon the authority of this blunder, Propertius "somnia vana" have been turned into "somnia vara," and ever since the whole tribe of Dreams are believed to walk bandy-legged.
184:* The child's skeleton in the Pompeian painting above quoted, similarly folds his feet.
185:* A colossal example of the finest workmanship was exhumed at Alexandria a few years ago. It may have been contemporary with the coin of Commodus from that mint, which has for reverse a head of Serapis placed upon a foot for pedestal, with the date of his seventh year.
187:* As Etruria was the only school of art for Rome until very late times, she supplied the figures equally with the names of all the Roman deities.
190:* The same picture must have been in Horace's mind when he uses the figure . . . .