Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius Part 17

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And yet the two systems were separated by an impa.s.sable gulf, and Mithra had a.s.sociations which could not save him from the fate of Jupiter and Demeter, of Hecate and Isis. It is true that his fate was hastened by hostile forces and causes external to religion. Many of his shrines in the Danubian provinces, and along the upper Rhine, were desolated and buried in ruins by the hordes of invaders in the third century.(3209) And in the fourth century, the fiercest a.s.saults of the Christian Empire were directed against the worship which was thought to be the patron of magic arts, and a device of the Evil One to travesty and defy the Religion of the Cross.(3210) But material force, however fiercely and decisively exerted, although it hastened the doom of the Persian G.o.d, only antic.i.p.ated an inevitable defeat.

A certain severity in Mithraism, which marked it off honourably from other worships of the East, also weakened it as a popular and enduring force.

The absence of the feminine charm in its legend, while it saved it from the sensual taint of other heathen systems, deprived it of a fascination for the softer and more emotional side of human nature.(3211) Although women may, perhaps, have not been altogether excluded from his mysteries,(3212) still Mithra did not welcome them with the warm sympathy which gave Demeter and Magna Mater and Isis so firm a hold on the imagination of women for many generations. The Mater Dolorosa has in all ages been an enthralling power. The legend of the Tauroctonus was a religion for strenuous men. And even its symbolism, with all its strange spell, seems to lack depth and warmth for human nature as a whole. It would indeed be rash to set limits to the power of pious sentiment to transfigure and vivify the most unspiritual materials. And the slaughtered bull in the apse of every chapel of Mithra may have aroused in the end visions and mystic emotion which had pa.s.sed far beyond the sphere of astral symbolism.

Yet such spiritual interpretation of ancient myth is only for the few, who find in a worship what they bring. For the gross ma.s.ses, the symbolism of natural processes, however majestic, could never have won that marvellous power which has made a single Divine, yet human, life the inexhaustible source of spiritual strength for all the future. With all his heroic effort to make himself a moral and spiritual force, Mithra remained inextricably linked with the nature-worships of the past. And, with such a.s.sociations, even the G.o.d of light could not be lord of the spiritual future of humanity. Mithraism, with all its strange moral force, with all its charm of antiquity and sacramental rite, with all its charity and tolerance, had within it the germs of a sure mortality. In its tolerance lay precisely its great weakness. The Christian Church might, in S.

Augustine's phrase, "spoil the Egyptians," it might borrow and adapt rites and symbols from pagan temples, or ideas from Greek philosophy.(3213) But in borrowing, it transfigured them. In all that was essential, the Church would hold no truce with paganism. "Break the idols and consecrate the temples" was the motto of the great Pontiff. But Mithra was ready to shelter the idols under his purer faith. The images of Jupiter and Venus, of Mars and Hecate, of the local deities of Dacia and Upper Germany, find a place in his chapels beside the antique symbols of the Persian faith.(3214) And thus, in spite of a lofty moral mysticism, Mithra was loaded with the heritage of the heathen past. A man admitted to his highest ministry might also worship at the old altars of Greece and Rome.

The last hierophant of Eleusis was a high-priest of Mithra.(3215) Human nature and religious sentiment are so complex that men of the sincere monotheistic faith of Symmachus, Praetextatus, and Macrobius, have left the almost boastful record of an all-embracing laxity of tolerance on their tombs.(3216) On many of these slabs you may read that the man who has been a "father" in the mysteries of Mithra, who has been "born again"

in the taurobolium, is also a priest of Hecate, the G.o.ddess of dark arts and baleful spirits of the night.(3217) Through the astral fatalism of Babylon, Mithra was inseparably connected with the darkest superst.i.tions of East or West,(3218) which covered all sorts of secret crime and perfidy, which lent themselves to seduction, conspiracy, and murder, which involved the denial of a moral Providence of the world. Many a pious devotee of Mithra and Hecate would have recoiled, as much as we do, from the last results of his superst.i.tion. Such people probably wished only to gain another ally in facing the terrors of the unseen world. Yet there can be little doubt that the majestic supremacy of Mithra, through its old connection with Babylon, sheltered some of the most degrading impostures of superst.i.tion.

So rooted is religious sentiment in reverence for the past, for what our fathers have loved and venerated, that men will long tolerate, or even wistfully cherish, sacred forms and ideas which their moral sense has outgrown. Down to the last years of the fourth century, the Persian worship was defended with defiant zeal by members of the proudest Roman houses. In their philosophic gatherings in the reign of Honorius, they found in Sun-worship the sum and climax of the pagan devotion of the past.(3219) Many a pious old priest of Mithra, in the reign of Gratian, was probably filled with wonder and sorrow when he saw a Gracchus and his retinue break into the sanctuary and tear down the venerable symbols from the wall of the apse.(3220) He deemed himself the prophet of a pure immemorial faith, as pure as that of Galilee. He was probably a man of irreproachable morals, with even a certain ascetic sanct.i.ty, unspotted by the world. He treasured the secret lore of the mysterious East, which sped the departing soul with the last comforting sacraments on its flight to ethereal worlds. But he could not see, or he could not regret, that every day when he said his liturgy, as he made the round of the altars, he was lending the authority of a purer faith to other worships which had affrighted or debauched and enervated the Roman world for forty generations. He could not see that the attempt to wed a high spiritual ideal with nature-worship was doomed to failure. The ma.s.ses around him remained in their grossness and darkness. And on that very day, it may be, one of his aristocratic disciples, high in the ranks of Mithra's sacred guilds, was attending a priestly college which was charged with the guardianship of gross and savage rites running back to Evander, or he was consulting a Jewish witch, or a Babylonian diviner, on the meaning of some sinister omen, or he may have been sending down into the arena, with cold proud satisfaction, a band of gallant fighters from the Thames or the Danube, to butcher one another for the pleasure of the rabble of Rome.

Mithra, the Unconquered, the G.o.d of many lands and dynasties from the dawn of history, was a fascinating power. But, at his best, he belonged to the order which was vanishing.

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Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius Part 17 summary

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