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Could'st thou not quench the spark of Freedom's flame,
In those proud times, when Fortune's partial sun
Now that thy power is gone, thy greatness fled,
ON THE DIVINITIES OF THE ANCIENTS.
To a person inquiring into the manners and customs of ancient nations, the religion which they professed, and the gods which they worshipped, will always appear objects of the greatest curiosity. And this will not be wondered at when we remember how intimately the religion of a state must necessarily be connected with its civil policy. In former times, when ignorance and superstition flourished, side by side, the aid of a Divinity was required for the carrying into effect of the most frivolous designs. No poem could succeed until the Muses were called upon in a well-rounded hexameter ;
no war could prosper until Mars was propitiated by a sufficiency of roast beef. The ancients appear to have had some faint idea of the ubiquity of the Deity; but not comprehending how such a faculty had been vested in a single Divinity, they formed to themselves a set of superior powers, calculated to attend upon every emergency, from Jupiter the god of thunder, to Tussis the god of coughing. It is therefore evident that the consideration of the religious ideas of the ancients must be inseparably united with the study of the other parts of their history.
In the remarks which I am about to make upon this subject, I must request that one or two preliminaries may be kept in mind. First, that the characters of the constant supporters of "The Etonian" may not be implicated in the blunders of an occasional correspondent; and, secondly, that I may not be understood as endeavouring to compose a regular essay or treatise upon the topic which is before me. I have no more the inclination than I have the ability to attempt such a task. The observations which I shall have occasion to make, will be merely the unripe fruit of an hour of leisure; merely a few unconnected hints, thrown out at random for your amusement, Mr: Editor, and that of my fellow-citizens. If they are pleased with them, they will thank me, and I am sufficiently repaid: if not--n'importe ;—they will at least give me credit for good intentions.
The first point which I shall notice is the opinion which the ancients entertained of the power and authority of their heavenly rulers. And as the study of fallen religions is principally useful as it shows to us the superiority of that religion which can never fall, let us first see upon what footing Christianity stands in this respect. In my eyes, and in the eyes of every one upon whom the light of revelation has dawned, the mention of a God presupposes an idea of infinite, irresistible, indisputable power. One cannot form the most remote
conception of a Deity, whose powers or existence should be in any way limited. One of the distinguishing attributes of Christianity is, that with its God nothing is impossible. He is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. Can we say the same of the gods of the heathen-" the gods of wood and stone, the work of men's hands ?"
Alas! alas!--they raised ghosts, and they raised, tempests; they scolded, and they thundered; they drank nectar, and drove doves: but when any thing serious was to be done,-when a battle was to be decided, or an empire overthrown, they were frequently as powerless to slay or to save as the sceptre which they wielded, or the cloud which they bestrode. Let us call before us some of the most formidable, and examine into their pretensions to Olympus.
Come down, then, Jupiter, from the little pedestal on which I have placed your plaister effigy ! Come down, Father of men and Gods, counsel-giving, wide-thundering, cloud-compelling! Come down, thou who overthrowest the Titans and abusest thy wife; thou who art so fond of the voice of prayer and the smoke of hecatombs; thou who hast so many epithets, and so many sons; thou who governest Olympus, and meritest Bridewell! Where are thy frowns and thy nods? thy muscles and thy sinews? thy darts and thy decrees? Where are the looks which appal-the blows which destroy? Where is the unbroken chain-the insatiable vulture? Where are the Cyclopes who forge the lightning, and the poets who forge the Cyclopes ? Alas! Jupiter, amidst all your terrors, in Heaven or on Ida, in feasting or in wrath, in poetry or in prose, thou wert a quack, Jupiter, a most contemptible quack; so utterly destitute of every thing that could ensure respect; so miserably deficient in every thing that could inspire fear; such a pitiful compound of ignorance and knowledge, of strength and imbecility, of vanity and vice,that if the days of thy sovereignty could return again,
if thou couldst again be fed upon sacrifice and flattery, I swear by thine own beard I would as soon be an Irus as a Jupiter.
The truth is, that the religion of the ancients, as far as it can be collected from their writings, partook in no small degree of predestination. Yet it is enveloped in so much obscurity, that it is very difficult for us,-nay, it might have been very difficult for them,-to define, where the supremacy of Fate should stop, and the authority of the Gods commence. We find some unfortunate Divinity perpetually endeavouring to overthrow some State which is destined to stand, or to destroy some Hero who is destined to live; although the said Divinity has an innate perception that his struggles in either instance must eventually be fruitless. I know not that these ideas may be said to be founded solely on the marvellous fictions of the poets; but, let me ask, would Diomedes have ever inflicted a wound upon Mars, if Homer had seen in Mars a formidable being? or would Juno have ever strutted and stormed through the Æneid, if Virgil had cared a sixpence for her displeasure? When I see these liberties taken with the Gods in writing, I feel convinced that equal liberties will be taken with them in life; when I find an immortal and an invincible being knocked on the head or run through the belly at the mercy of a terrestrial wit, I naturally conclude that in the country where such a phenomenon takes place, few persons will boggle at a perjury from the apprehension of a thunderbolt. But this is not all!-There seems to have existed an idea, that a time was approaching when the great offspring of Saturn would be hurled down from the seat he occupied, and subjected to an ignominious destiny, if not to utter annihilation. This is one of the most singular and unaccountable points in their system of faith. Without going into discussions, to which I am unequal, upon the origin and import of this notion, I
must express my surprise at the blindness of those who dressed up a figure, loaded with all these debilities, as their Supreme Power, and installed him in the seat of universal dominion.
As I have been making allusions to the introduction of the Gods in the battles of the Epics, I shall proceed to say a few words upon the subject. The worthy gentry of Olympus, resembling men in their vices, their passions, their liability to pain, and their delight in carnage, made a very tolerable figure in a fair stand-up fight. Their characters could suffer very little from their making use of brazen arms, riding in wooden chariots, and wrestling with antagonists of mere flesh and blood. Mars, to be sure, would have done better if he had refrained from howling; and Juno would not have lost in dignity, if she had been a little more cautious in boxing the ears of Diana. But, upon the whole, these people are very good matter for the poet; and I would as lief meet them in an hexameter as in a temple.
But it is a very different thing when the person of the only true God is to be introduced in a poem. A pigmy in poetry may trifle with the thunders of Jupiter; but a Hercules should beware how he handles the terrors of Jehovah. A rhymer may talk what nonsense he pleases of a mythology which consists of fiction and tinsel; but he should be afraid to touch upon a theme in which there is truth, and eternity, and power. It is for this reason that I can never read, without disgust, those passages of Tasso, in which the Divine agency is degraded to the level of the machinery of the poem.
When, however, the description falls into the hands of one who is able to do justice to it, see how the glories of the Heathen Mythology sink before the effulgence of the living God. Search the most celebrated descriptions of heathen writers; and where, where, in the brightest moments of inspiration, will you find a passage that