Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. XXI.—Of certain deities peculiar to barbarians, and their sacred rites; and in like manner concerning the Romans
Chap. xxi.—of certain deities peculiar to barbarians, and their sacred rites; and in like manner concerning the romans.
We have spoken of the gods themselves who are worshipped; we must now speak a few words respecting their sacrifices and mysteries. Among the people of Cyprus, Teucer sacrificed a human victim to Jupiter, and handed down to posterity that sacrifice which was lately abolished by Hadrian when he was emperor. There was a law among the people of Tauris, a fierce and inhuman nation, by which it was ordered that strangers should be sacrificed to Diana; and this sacrifice was practised through many ages. The Gauls used to appease Hesus and Teutas with human blood. Nor, indeed, were the Latins free from this cruelty, since Jupiter Latialis is even now worshipped with the offering of human blood. What benefit do they who offer such sacrifices implore from the gods? Or what are such deities able to bestow on the men by whose punishments they are propitiated? But this is not so much a matter of surprise with respect to barbarians, whose religion agrees with their character. But are not our countrymen, who have always claimed for themselves the glory of gentleness and civilization, found to be more inhuman by these sacrilegious rites? For these ought rather to be esteemed impious, who, though they are embellished with the pursuits of liberal training, turn aside from such refinement, than those who, being ignorant and inexperienced, glide into evil practices from their ignorance of those which are good. And yet it is plain that this rite of immolating human victims is ancient, since Saturn was honoured in Latium with the same kind of sacrifice; not indeed that a man was slain at the altar, but that he was thrown from the Milvian bridge into the Tiber. And Varro relates that this was done in accordance with an oracle; of which oracle the last verse is to this effect: “And offer heads to Ades, and to the father a man.” 88 And because this appears ambiguous, both a torch and a man are accustomed to be thrown to him. But it is said that sacrifices of this kind were put an end to by Hercules when he returned from Spain; the custom still continuing, that instead of real men, images made from rushes were cast forth, as Ovid informs us in his Fasti: 89 “Until the Tirynthian p. 35 came into these lands, gloomy sacrifices were annually offered in the Leucadian manner: he threw into the water Romans made of straw; do you, after the example of Hercules, cast 90 in the images of human bodies.”
The Vestal virgins make these sacred offerings, as the same poet says: 91 “Then also a virgin is accustomed to cast from the wooden bridge the images of ancient men made from rushes.”
For I cannot find language to speak of the infants who were immolated to the same Saturn, on account of his hatred of Jupiter. To think that men were so barbarous, so savage, that they gave the name of sacrifice to the slaughter of their own children, that is, to a deed foul, and to be held in detestation by the human race; since, without any regard to parental affection, they destroyed tender and innocent lives, at an age which is especially pleasing to parents, and surpassed in brutality the savageness of all beasts, which—savage as they are—still love their offspring! O incurable madness! What more could those gods do to them, if they were most angry, than they now do when propitious, when they defile their worshippers with parricide, visit them with bereavements, and deprive them of the sensibilities of men? What can be sacred to these men? Or what will they do in profane places, who commit the greatest crimes amidst the altars of the gods? Pescennius Festus relates in the books of his History by a Satire, that the Carthaginians were accustomed to immolate human victims to Saturn; and when they were conquered by Agathocles, the king of the Sicilians, they imagined that the god was angry with them; and therefore, that they might more diligently offer an expiation, they immolated two hundred sons of their nobles: “So great the ills to which religion could prompt, which has ofttimes produced wicked and impious deeds.” What advantage, then, did the men propose by that sacrifice, when they put to death so large a part of the state, as not even Agathocles had slain when victorious?
From this kind of sacrifices those public rites are to be judged signs of no less madness; some of which are in honour of the mother of the gods, in which men mutilate themselves; others are in honour of Virtus, whom they also call Bellona, in which the priests make offsprings not with the blood of another victim, but with their own. 92 For, cutting their shoulders, and thrusting forth drawn swords in each hand, they run, they are beside themselves, they are frantic. Quintilian therefore says excellently in his Fanatic: “If a god compels this, he does it in anger.” Are even these things sacred? Is it not better to live like cattle, than to worship deities so impious, profane, and sanguinary? But we will discuss at the proper time the source from which these errors and deeds of such great disgrace originated. In the meantime, let us look also to other matters which are without guilt, that we may not seem to select the worse parts through the desire of finding fault. In Egypt there are sacred rites in honour of Isis, since she either lost or found her little son. For at first her priests, having made their bodies smooth, beat their breasts, and lament, as the goddess herself had done when her child was lost. Afterwards the boy is brought forward, as if found, and that mourning is changed into joy. Therefore Lucan says, “And Osiris never sufficiently sought for.” For they always lose, and they always find him. Therefore in the sacred rites there is a representation of a circumstance which really occurred; and which assuredly declares, if we have any intelligence, that she was a mortal woman, and almost desolate, had she not found one person. And this did not escape the notice of the poet himself; for he represents Pompey when a youth as thus speaking, on hearing the death of his father: “I will now draw forth the deity Isis from the tomb, and send her through the nations; and I will scatter through the people Osiris covered with wood.” This Osiris is the same whom the people call Serapis. For it is customary for the names of the dead who are deified to be changed, that no one, as I believe, may imagine them to be men. For Romulus after his death became Quirinus, and Leda became Nemesis, and Circe Marica; and Ino, when she had leapt into the sea, was called Leucothea; and the mother Matuta; and her son Melicerta was called Palæmon and Portumnus. And the sacred rites of the Eleusinian Ceres are not unlike these. For as in those which have been mentioned the boy Osiris is sought with the wailing of his mother, so in these Proserpine is carried away to contract an incestuous marriage with her uncle; and because Ceres is said to have sought for her in Sicily with torches lighted from the top of Etna, on this account her sacred rites are celebrated with the throwing of torches.
At Lampsacus the victim to he offered to Priapus is an ass, and the cause of the sacrifice of this animal is thus set forth in the Fasti:—When all the deities had assembled at the festival of the Great Mother, and when, satiated with feasting, they were spending the night in sport, they say that Vesta had laid herself on the ground for rest, and had fallen asleep, and that Priapus upon this formed a design against her honour as she slept; but that she was aroused by the unseasonable braying of the ass on which Silenus used to ride, and that the design of the insidious p. 36 plotter was frustrated. On this account they say that the people of Lampsacus were accustomed to sacrifice an ass to Priapus, as though it were in revenge; but among the Romans the same animal was crowned at the Vestalia (festival of Vesta) with loaves, 93 in honour of the preservation of her chastity. What is baser, what more disgraceful, than if Vesta is indebted to an ass for the preservation of her purity? But the poet invented a fable. But was that more true which is related by those 94 who wrote “Phenomena,” when they speak concerning the two stars of Cancer, which the Greeks call asses? That they were asses which carried across father Liber when he was unable to cross a river, and that he rewarded one of them with the power of speaking with human voice; and that a contest arose between him and Priapus; and Priapus, being worsted in the contest, was enraged, and slew the victor. This truly is much more absurd. But poets have the licence of saying what they will. I do not meddle with a mystery so odious; nor do I strip Priapus of his disguise, lest something deserving of ridicule should be brought to light. It is true the poets invented these fictions, but they must have been invented for the purpose of concealing some greater depravity. Let us inquire what this is. But in fact it is evident. For as the bull is sacrificed to Luna, 95 because he also has horns as she has; and as “Persia propitiates with a horse Hyperion surrounded with rays, that a slow victim may not be offered to the swift god;” so in this case no more suitable victim could be found than that which resembled him to whom it is offered.
At Lindus, which is a town of Rhodes, there are sacred rites in honour of Hercules, the observance of which differs widely from all other rites; for they are not celebrated with words of good omen 96 (as the Greeks term it), but with revilings and cursing. And they consider it a violation of the sacred rites, if at any time during the celebration of the solemnities a good word shall have escaped from any one even inadvertently. And this is the reason assigned for this practice, if indeed there can be any reason in things utterly senseless. When Hercules had arrived at the place, and was suffering hunger, he saw a ploughman at work, and began to ask him to sell one of his oxen. But the ploughman replied that this was impossible, because his hope of cultivating the land depended altogether upon those two bullocks. Hercules, with his usual violence, because he was not able to receive one of them, killed both. But the unhappy man, when he saw that his oxen were slain, avenged the injury with revilings,—a circumstance which afforded gratification to the man of elegance and refinement. For while he prepares a feast for his companions, and while he devours the oxen of another man, he receives with ridicule and loud laughter the bitter reproaches with which the other assails him. But when it had been determined that divine honours should be paid to Hercules in admiration of his excellence, an altar was erected in his honour by the citizens, which he named, from the circumstance, the yoke of oxen; 97 and at this altar two yoked oxen were sacrificed, like those which he had taken from the ploughman. And he appointed the same man to be his priest, and directed him always to use the same revilings in offering sacrifice, because he said that he had never feasted more pleasantly. Now these things are not sacred, but sacrilegious, in which that is said to be enjoined, which, if it is done in other things, is punished with the greatest severity. What, moreover, do the rites of the Cretan Jupiter himself show, except the manner in which he was withdrawn from his father, or brought up? There is a goat belonging to the nymph Amalthea, which gave suck to the infant; and of this goat Germanicus Cæsar thus speaks, in his poem translated from Aratus: 98 —“She is supposed to be the nurse of Jupiter; if in truth the infant Jupiter pressed the faithful teats of the Cretan goat, which attests the gratitude of her lord by a bright constellation.”
Musæus relates that Jupiter, when fighting against the Titans, used the hide of this goat as a shield, from which circumstance he is called by the poets shield-bearer. 99 Thus, whatever was done in concealing the boy, that also is done by way of representation in the sacred rites. Moreover, the mystery of his mother also contains the same story which Ovid sets forth in the Fasti:—“Now the lofty Ida resounds with tinklings, that the boy may cry in safety with infant mouth. Some strike their shields with stakes, some beat their empty helmets. This is the employment of the Curetes, this of the Corybantes. The matter was concealed, and imitations of the ancient deed remain; the attendant goddesses shake instruments of brass, and hoarse hides. Instead of helmets they strike cymbals, and drums instead of shields; the flute gives Phrygian strains, as it gave before.”
Sallust rejected this opinion altogether, as though invented by the poets, and wished to give an ingenious explanation of the reasons for p. 37 which the Curetes are said to have nourished Jupiter; and he speaks to this purport: Because they were the first to understand the worship of the deity, that therefore antiquity, which exaggerates all things, made them known as the nourishers of Jupiter. How much this learned man was mistaken, the matter itself at once declares. For if Jupiter holds the first place, both among the gods and in religious rites, if no gods were worshipped by the people before him, because they who are worshipped were not yet born; it appears that the Curetes, on the contrary, were the first who did not understand the worship of the deity, since all error was introduced by them, and the memory of the true God was taken away. They ought therefore to have understood from the mysteries and ceremonies themselves, that they were offering prayers to dead men. I do not then require that any one should believe the fictions of the poets. If any one imagines that these speak falsely, let him consider the writings of the pontiffs themselves, and weigh whatever there is of literature pertaining to sacred rites: he will perhaps find more things than we bring forward, from which he may understand that all things which are esteemed sacred are empty, vain, and fictitious. But if any one, having discovered wisdom, shall lay aside his error, he will assuredly laugh at the follies of men who are almost without understanding: I mean those who either dance with unbecoming gestures, or run naked, anointed, and crowned with chaplets, either wearing a mask or besmeared with mud. What shall I say about shields now putrid with age? When they carry these, they think that they are carrying gods themselves on their shoulders. For Furius Bibaculus is regarded among the chief examples of piety, who, though he was prætor, nevertheless carried the sacred shield, 100 preceded by the lictors, though his office as prœtor gave him an exemption from this duty. He was therefore not Furius, but altogether mad, 101 who thought that he graced his prætorship by this service. Deservedly then, since these things are done by men not unskilful and ignorant, does Lucretius exclaim:—“O foolish minds of men! O blinded breasts! In what darkness of life and in how great dangers is passed this term of life, whatever be its duration!”
Who that is possessed of any sense would not laugh at these mockeries, when he sees that men, as though bereft of intelligence, do those things seriously, which if any one should do in sport, he would appear too full of sport and folly?
Or, lights. The oracle is ambiguous, since the word φωσ signifies a man, and also light. [i.e., φὼς = man, and φω̑ς = light.]34:89
Jace. Others read “jaci.”35:91
So the priests of Baal cut themselves, 1 Kings xviii. 28.36:93
Panibus, loaves made in the shape of crowns.36:94
[See this page, note 6, infra.]36:95
εὐφημια. It was supposed that words of ill omen, if uttered during the offering of a sacrifice, would render the gods unpropitious: the priest therefore, at the commencement of a sacrifice, called upon the people to abstain from ill-omened words: εὐφημει̑τε, “favete linguis.”36:97
Aratus was the author of two Greek astronomical poems, the Φαινόμενα and the Διοσημε̑ια Virgil, in his Georgics, has borrowed largely from the latter. Germanicus Cæsar, the grandson of Augustus, as stated in the text, translated the Φαινόμενα.36:99
αιγιοχος; “scutum habens.”37:100
Ancile, the sacred shield, carried by the Salii, or priests of Mars, in the processions at the festival of that deity.37:101
Non Furius, sed plane furiosus.
Next: Chap. XXII.—Who was the author of the vanities before described in Italy among the Romans, and who among other nations
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