The Sorceress, by Jules Michelet, , at sacred-texts.com
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THERE are authors who assure us that a little while before the final victory of Christianity a mysterious voice was heard along the shores of the Ægean Sea, proclaiming: "Great Pan is dead!"
The old universal god of Nature is no more. Great the jubilation; it was fancied that, Nature being defunct, Temptation was dead too. Storm-tossed for so many years, the human soul was to enjoy peace at last.
Was it simply a question of the termination of the ancient worship, the defeat of the old faith, the eclipse of time-honoured religious forms? No! it was more than this. Consulting the earliest Christian monuments, we find in every line the hope expressed, that Nature is to disappear and life die outin a word, that the end of the world is at hand.
The game is up for the gods of life, who have so long kept up a vain simulacrum of vitality. Their world is falling round them in crumbling ruin. All is swallowed up in nothingness: "Great Pan is dead!"
It was no new evangel that the gods must die. More than one ancient cult is based on this very notion of the death of the gods. Osiris dies, Adonis diesit is true, in this case, to rise again. Æschylus, on the stage itself, in those dramas that were played only on the feast-days of the gods, expressly warns them, by the voice of Prometheus, that one day they must die. Die! but how?vanquished, subjugated to the Titans, the antique powers of Nature.
Here it is an entirely different matter. The early Christians,
as a whole and individually, in the past and in the future, hold Nature herself accursed. They condemn her as a whole and in every part, going so far as to see Evil incarnate, the Demon himself, in a flower. 1 So, welcomeand the sooner the betterthe angel-hosts that of old destroyed the Cities of the Plain. Let them destroy, fold away like a veil, the empty image of the world, and at length deliver the saints from the long-drawn ordeal of temptation.
The Gospel says: "The day is at hand." The Fathers say: "Soon, very soon." The disintegration of the Roman Empire and the inroads of the barbarian invaders raise hopes in St. Augustine's breast, that soon there will be no city left but the City of God.
Yet how long a-dying the world is, how obstinately determined to live on! Like Hezekiah, it craves a respite, a going backward of the dial. So be it then, till the year One Thousand,but not a day longer.
Is it so certain, as we have been told over and over again, that the old gods were exhausted, sick of themselves and weary of existence? that out of sheer discouragement they as good as gave in their own abdication? that Christianity was able with a breath to blow away these empty phantoms?
They point to the gods at Rome, the gods of the Capitol, where they were only admitted in virtue of an anticipatory death, I mean on condition of resigning all they had of local sap, of renouncing their home and country, of ceasing to be deities representative of such and such a nation. Indeed, in order to receive them, Rome had had to submit them to a cruel operation, that left them poor, enervated, bloodless creatures. These great centralised Divinities had become, in their official life, mere dismal functionaries of the Roman Empire. But, though fallen from its high estate, this Aristocracy of Olympus had in nowise involved in its own decay the host of indigenous gods, the crowd
of deities still holding possession of the boundless plains, of woods and hills and springs, inextricably blended with the life of the countryside. These divinities, enshrined in the heart of oaks, lurking in rushing streams and deep pools, could not be driven out.
Who says so? The Church herself, contradicting herself flatly. She first proclaims them dead, then waxes indignant because they are still alive. From century to century, by the threatening voice of her Councils, 2 she orders them to die. . . . And lo! they are as much alive as ever!
"They are demons . . ."and therefore alive. Unable to kill them, the Church suffers the innocent-hearted countryfolk to dress them up and disguise their true nature. Legends grow round them, they are baptised, actually admitted into the Christian hierarchy. But are they converted? Not yet by any means. We catch them still on the sly continuing their old heathen ways and Pagan nature.
Where are they to be found? In the desert, on lonely heaths, in wild forests? Certainly, but above all in the house. They cling to the most domestic of domestic habits; women guard and hide them at board and even bed. They still possess the best stronghold in the worldbetter than the temple, to wit the hearth.
History knows of no other revolution so violent and unsparing as that of Theodosius. There is no trace elsewhere in antiquity of so wholesale a proscription of a religion. The Persian fire-worship, in its high-wrought purity, might outrage the visible gods of other creeds; but at any rate it suffered them to remain. Under it the Jews were treated with great clemency, and were protected and employed. Greece, daughter of the light, made merry over the gods of darkness, the grotesque pot-bellied Cabiri; but still she tolerated them, and even adopted them as working gnomes, making her own Vulcan in their likeness. Rome,
in the pride of her might, welcomed not only Etruria, but the rustic gods as well of the old Italian husbandman. The Druids she persecuted only as embodying a national resistance dangerous to her dominion.
Victorious Christianity, on the contrary, was fain to slaughter the enemy outright, and thought to do so. She abolished the Schools of Philosophy by her proscription of Logic and the physical extermination of the philosophers, who were massacred under the Emperor Valens. She destroyed or stripped the temples, and broke up the sacred images. Quite conceivably the new legend might have proved favourable to family life, if only the father had not been humiliated and annulled in St. Joseph, if the mother had been given prominence as the trainer, the moral parent of the child Jesus. But this path, so full of rich promise, was from the first abandoned for the barren ambition of a high, immaculate purity.
Thus Christianity deliberately entered on the lonely road of celibacy, one the then world was making for of its own impulsea tendency the imperial rescripts fought against in vain. And Monasticism helped it on the downward slope.
Men fled to the desert; but they were not alone. The Devil went with them, ready with every form of temptation. They must needs revolutionise society, found cities of solitaries,it was of no avail. Everyone has heard of the gloomy cities of anchorites that grew up in the Thebaïd, of the turbulent, savage spirit that animated them, and of their murderous descents upon Alexandria. They declared they were possessed of the Devil, impelled by demons,and they told only the truth.
There was an enormous void arisen in Nature's plan. Who or what should fill it? The Christian Church is ready with an answer: The Demon, everywhere the DemonUbique Dæmon. 3
Greece no doubt, like all other countries, had had its energumens,
men tormented, possessed by spirits. But the similarity is purely external and accidental, the resemblance more apparent than real. In the Thebaïd it is no case of spirits either good or bad, but of the gloomy children of the pit, wilfully perverse and malignant. Everywhere, for years to come, these unhappy hypochondriacs are to be seen roaming the desert, full of self-loathing and self-horror. Try to realise, indeed, what it means,to be conscious of a double personality, to really believe in this second self, this cruel indweller that comes and goes and expiates within you, and drives you to wander forth in desert places and over precipices. Thinner and weaker grows the sufferer; and the feebler his wretched body, the more fiercely the demon harries it. Women in particular are filled, distended, inflated by these tyrants, who impregnate them with the infernal aura, stir up internal storm and tempest, make them the sport and plaything of their every caprice, force them into sin and despair.
Nor is it human beings only that are demoniac. Alas! all Nature is tainted with the horror. If the devil is in a flower, how much more in the gloomy forest! The light that seemed so clear and pure is full of the creatures of night. The Heavens full of Hell,what blasphemy! The divine morning star, that has shed its sparkling beam on Socrates, Archimedes, Plato, and once and again inspired them to sublimer effort, what is it now?a devil, the great devil Lucifer. At eve, it is the devil Venus, whose soft and gentle light leads mortals into temptation.
I am not surprised at such a society turning mad and savage. Furious to feel itself so weak against the demons, it pursues them everywhere, in the temples and altars of the old faith to begin with, later in the heathen martyrs. Festivals are abolished; for may they not be assemblages for idolatrous worship? Even the family is suspect; for might not the force of habit draw the household together round the old classic Lares? And why a family at all? The empire is an empire of monks.
Yet the individual man, isolated and struck silent as he is, still gazes at the skies, and in the heavenly host finds once more
the old gods of his adoration. "This is what causes the famines," the Emperor Theodosius declares, "and all the other scourges of the Empire,"a terrible dictum that lets loose the blind rage of the fanatic populace on the heads of their inoffensive Pagan fellow-citizens. The Law blindly unchains all the savagery of mob-law.
Old gods of Heathendom, the grave gapes for you! Gods of Love, of Life, of Light, darkness waits to engulf you! The cowl is the only wear. Maidens must turn nuns; wives leave their husbands, or if they still keep the domestic hearth, be cold and continent as sisters.
But is all this possible? Who shall be strong enough with one breath to blow out the glowing lamp of God? So reckless an enterprise of impious piety may well bring about strange, monstrous, and astounding results. . . . Let the guilty tremble!
Repeatedly in the Middle Ages shall we find the gloomy story recurring of the Bride of Corinth. First told in quite early days by Phlegon, the Emperor Hadrian's freedman, it reappears in the twelfth century, and again in the sixteenth,the deep reproach, as it were, the irrepressible protest of outraged Nature.
"A young Athenian goes to Corinth, to the house of the man who promises him his daughter in marriage. He is still a Pagan, and is not aware that the family he hopes to become a member of has just turned Christian. He arrives late at night. All are in bed, except the mother, who serves the meal hospitality demands, and then leaves him to slumber, half dead with fatigue. But hardly is he asleep, when a figure enters the room,a maiden, clad in white, wearing a white veil and on her brow a fillet of black and gold. Seeing him, she raises her white hand in surprise: 'Am I then already so much a stranger in the house? . . . Alas! poor recluse. . . . But I am filled with shame, I must begone.' 'Nay! stay, fair maiden; here are Ceres and Bacchus, and with you, love! Fear not, and never look so pale!' 'Back, back, I say! I have no right to happiness any more. By a vow my sick mother
made, youth and life are for ever fettered. The gods are no more, and the only sacrifices now are human souls.' 'What! can this be you? You, my promised bride I love so well, promised me from a child? Our fathers oath bound us indissolubly together under Heaven's blessing. Maiden! be mine!' 'No! dear heart, I cannot. You shall have my young sister. If I groan in my chill prison-house, you in her arms must think of me, me who waste away in thoughts of you, and who will soon be beneath the sod.' 'No! no! I call to witness yonder flame; it is the torch of Hymen. You shall come with me to my father's house. Stay with me, my best beloved!' For wedding gift he offers her a golden cup. She gives him her neck-chain; but chooses rather than the cup a curl of his hair.
"Tis the home of spirits; she drinks with death-pale lips the dark, blood-red wine. He drinks eagerly after her, invoking the God of Love. Her poor heart is breaking, but still she resists. At last in despair he falls weeping on the bed. Then throwing herself down beside him: 'Ah! how your grief hurts me! Yet the horror of it, if you so much as touched me! White as snow, and cold as ice, such alas! and alas! is your promised bride.' 'Come to me! I will warm you, though you should be leaving the very tomb itself. . . .' Sighs, kisses pass between the pair. 'Cannot you feel how I burn?' Love unites them, binds them in one close embrace, while tears of mingled pain and pleasure flow. Thirstily she drinks the fire of his burning mouth; her chilled blood is fired with amorous ardours, but the heart stands still within her bosom.
"But the mother was there, though they knew it not, listening to their tender protestations, their cries of sorrow and delight. 'Hark! the cock-crow! Farewell till to-morrow, to-morrow night!' A lingering farewell, and kisses upon kisses!
"The mother enters furious, to find her daughter! Her lover strives to enfold her, to hide her, from the other's view; but she struggles free, and towering aloft from the couch to the vaulted roof: 'Oh! mother, mother! so you begrudge me my night of joy,
you hunt me from this warm nest. Was it not enough to have wrapped me in the cold shroud, and borne me so untimely to the tomb? But a power beyond you has lifted the stone. In vain your priests droned their prayers over the grave; of what avail the holy water and the salt, where youth burns hot in the heart? Cold earth cannot freeze true Love! . . . You promised; I am returned to claim my promised happiness. . . .
"'Alack! dear heart, you must die. You would languish here and pine away. I have your hair; twill be white to-morrow. 4 . . . Mother, one last prayer! Open my dark dungeon, raise a funeral pyre, and let my loving heart win the repose the flames alone can give. Let the sparks fly upward and the embers glow! We will back to our old gods again.'"
4:1 Compare Muratori, Script. It., i. 293, 545, on St. Cyprian; A. Maury, Magie, 435.
5:2 See Mansi, Baluze; Council of Arles, 442; Tours, 567; Leptines, 743; the Capitularies, etc. Gerson even, towards 1400.
6:3 See the Lives of the Fathers of the Desert, and the authors quoted by A. Maury, Magie, 317. In the fourth century the Messalians, believing themselves to be full of demons, were constantly blowing their noses, and spitting unceasingly, in their incredible efforts to expectorate these.
10:4 At this point of the story I suppress an expression that may well shock us. Goethe, so noble in the form of his writings, is not equally so in the spirit. He quite mars the wonderful tale, fouling the Greek with a gruesome Slavonic notion. At the instant when the lovers are dissolved in tears, he makes the girl into a vampire. She curses because she is athirst for blood, to suck his heart's blood. The poet makes her say coldly and calmly this impious and abominable speech: "When he is done, I will go on to others; the new generation shall succumb to my fury."
The Middle Ages dress up this tradition in grotesque garb to terrify us with the devil Venus. Her statue receives from a young man a ring, which he imprudently places on her finger. Her hand closes on it, she keeps it as a sign of betrothal; then at night, comes into his bed to claim the rights it confers. To rid him of his hellish bride, an exorcism is required (S. Hibb., part iii. chap. iii. 174). The same story occurs in the Fabliaux, but absurdly enough applied to the Virgin. Luther repeats the classical story, if my memory serves me, in his Table-talk, but with great coarseness, letting us smell the foulness of the grave. The Spaniard Del Rio transfers the scene from Greece to Brabant. The affianced bride dies shortly before the wedding-day. The passing-bell is tolled; the grief-stricken bridegroom roams the fields in despair. He hears a wail; it is the loved one wandering over the heath. . . . "See you not," she cries, "who my guide is?" "No!" he replies, and seizing her, bears her away to his home. Once there, the account was very near growing over tender and touching. The grim inquisitor, Del Rio, cuts short the thread with the words, "Lifting the veil, they found a stake with a dead woman's skin drawn over it." The Judge Le Loyes, though not much given to sensibility, nevertheless reproduces for us the primitive form of the legend. After him, there is an end of these gloomy story-tellers, whose trade is done. Modern days begin, and the Bride has won the day. Buried Nature comes back from the tomb, no longer a stealthy visitant, but mistress of the house and home.