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į AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST.
some of the most useful animals were immolated at their altars, * upon which also milk, oil, and wine were poured. Those who served at the altar were required to prepare themselves, by abstaining even from lawful pleasures for one or more preceding days; and all who entered the temples, on these occasions, dipped their hands in consecrated water. When the people were assembled about the altar, the priest sprinkled them with holy water, and offered up a short prayer for them: he next examined the victim, to ascertain its freedom from defects or blemishes ; prayer was then resumed; frankincense was strewed upon the altar; hymns were sung; the animal was killed with ceremonious precision; pieces of its flesh were offered and burnt as first-fruits, and the principal devotees carried off the rest.
The religious system which Romulus planted on the banks of the Tiber corresponded pretty much with that of Greece as above described. A multiplicity of divine beings, graciously superintending human affairs, formed the prevailing creed. All the deities had priests and ministers, sacrifices and oblations. The augurs, or soothsayers, in whose art or imposture the founder of Rome excelled, were considered as an important and necessary part of the establishment. Each tribe had one of these pretended prophets, who announced the will of the gods, with regard to any future enterprise, from an observance of the flight or the noise of birds, from the feeding of poultry, the movement of beasts, and other appearances. The high priest and his associates not only regulated the public worship, but acted as judges in all cases which had any reference to religion, and exercised a censorial and authoritative jurisdiction over inferior ministers.
The sacrifices in which the different priests officiated did not agree in every particular; but the following usages and ceremonies were the most prevalent:~When a sacrifice was intended, a solemn procession was made to the temple of some deity. In the first place a præco, or public cryer, called the attention of the people to the pious work: then appeared the flute-players and harpers, performing in their best manner. The victims followed, wearing white fillets, with their horns gilt. As soon as the priest reached the altar, he prayed to the gods, imploring pardon for his
* See Acts. xiv. 11-13.
sins and a blessing upon his country. Having commanded all impure and vicious persons to withdraw, he threw grain, meal, and frankincense upon the heads of the animals, and poured wine between the horns of each ; and, having first scored them on the back, he gave orders to his attendants to slay them. The entrails were closely inspected, and, from their particular appearance, omens were deduced, or inferred, supposing the gods to intimate their will by such minutiæ to sagacious and devout observers. Some portions of the flesh were then placed upon the altar, for the gratification of the deity to whose honour the temple had been reared: the remainder was divided among the attendant votaries,
What has been now said of the superstition of the ancient Romans refers particularly to the manner of conducting their worship in the city of Rome, but similar arrangements prevailed in the provinces : and in our own country there were twenty-eight flamens, or pagan priests, according to the number of the cities, and three arch-flamens, namely one at London, a second at York, and a third at Caerleon. But to enter into a more particular detail of these things would carry me beyond the limits of this prefatory discourse; suffice it therefore to say that the whole originated in the vulgar superstitions of the most remote ages of Paganism, and it would be difficult to say which part was Trojan, which Egyptian, or which Chaldean. The Romans in general knew the whole to be an imposition, and many of them ridiculed the pretence that the institution was divine; and perhaps the subject cannot be more fitly and aptly expressed than it has been by Mr. Gibbon, in the following words:-“ The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true ; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.”*
The Religions of the Indians, Egyptians, Persians, and Celts...
In reviewing the various systems of Polytheism which prevailed at this time, those which were cultivated by the Indians, the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Celts, are entitled to distin
* Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. i. ch. 2.
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guished notice. Of these the Indians and Celts are chiefly remarkable for having selected for the object of their adoration a set of ancient heroes and leaders, whose memory, so far from being rendered illustrious by their virtues, had descended to posterity disgraced and loaded with vice and infamy. Both these classes of men believed that the souls of men survived the dissolution of their bodies: the former conceiving that all of them, without distinction, entered at death into other bodies on this earth; while the latter, on the contrary, considering immortality to be the reward which heaven bestows on valour alone, supposed that the bodies of the brave, after being purified by fire, again became the receptacles of their souls, and that the heroes thus renewed were received into the council and society of the gods. Authority of the most despotic kind was committed to their priests by the people of either country. Their official duties were not restricted to the administration of the concerns of religion, but extended to the enacting of laws, and the various other departments of civil government.
In describing the religion of the Egyptians, we must distinguish between the general religion of the country and the practice of particular provinces or districts. The liberty which every city and province enjoyed of adopting what deities it preferred, and of worshipping them under any forms which the inhabitants might think proper to institute, necessarily gave rise to a great variety of private systems. In the choice of their public or national gods, no sort of delicacy was manifested, the greater part of them being indiscriminately composed of mortals renowned in history for their virtues and others distinguished only by the enormity of their crimes : such were Osiris, Seraphis, Typhon, Isis, and others. With the worship of these was joined that of the constellations, the sun, the moon, the dog-star, animals of almost every kind, certain sorts of plants, &c. Whether the religion of the state, or that which was peculiar to any province or city be considered, it will be found equally remote in its principles from every thing liberal, dignified, or rational. Some parts were ridiculous in the extreme, and the whole in no small degree contaminated by a despicable baseness and obscenity. In fact, the religion of the Egyptians was so remarkably distinguished by absurd and disgraceful traits that it was made the subject of derision, even by those whose own tenets and practice were by no means conspicuous for wisdom. The Egyptian priests had a sacred code peculiarly their own, founded on principles very different from those which characterised the popular superstition, and which they studiously concealed from the prying eye of the public, by wrapping it up in hieroglyphical characters, the meaning and power of which were known only to themselves.
The Persians derived their religious system from Zoroaster. The leading principle of their religion was that all things are derived from two common governing causes, the one the author of all good, the other of all evil: the former the source of light, of mind, and of spiritual intelligence; the latter that of darkness and matter, with all its grosser incidents. Between these two powerful agents they supposed a constant war to be carried on. Those, however, who taught upon this system, did not all explain it in the same way, or deduce the same conclusions from it: hence uniformity was destroyed, and various sects originated. The most intelligent part of the Persians maintained that there was one Supreme God, to whom they gave the name of MYTHRA, and that under him were two inferior deities, the one called Oromasdes, the author of all good; the other Ariman, the cause of all evil. The common people, who equally believed in the existence of a Supreme Being, under the title of MYTHRA, appear to have confounded him with the sun, which was the object of their adoration; and it is probable that with the two inferior deities they joined others of whom little or nothing is now known.
None of these various systems of religion appear to have contributed in any degree towards a reformation of manners, or exciting a respect for virtue of any kind. The gods and goddesses who were held up as objects of adoration to the multitude, instead of presenting examples of excellence for their imitation, stood forth to public view the avowed authors of the most flagrant and enormous crimes. The priests took no sort of interest in regulating the public morals, neither directing the people by their precepts nor inviting them by exhortation and example to the pursuit of what is lovely and of good report; on the contrary, they indulged themselves in the most unwarrantable licentiousness, maintaining that the whole of religion was comprised in perform
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ing the rites and ceremonies instituted by their ancestors, and that every species of sensual gratification was freely allowed by their deities to those who regularly ministered to them in this way. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and of a future state of rewards and punishments, was but little understood, and of course only very partially acknowledged. Hence, at the period when Christ appeared, any notions of this kind found little or no acceptance among the Greeks and Romans, but were regarded in the light of old wives' fables, fit only for the amusement of women and children. No particular points of belief respecting the immortality of the soul being established by their public standards of religion, every one was at liberty to avow what opinion he pleased on that subject.
It can excite no reasonable surprise, therefore, that under the influence of such circumstances the state of society should have become in the highest degree vicious and depraved. The lives of men of every class, from the highest to the lowest, were spent in the practice of the most abominable and flagitious vices. Even crimes, the horrible turpitude of which was such that decency forbids the mention of them, were openly practised with the greatest impunity. Should the reader doubt of this, he may be referred to Lucian among the Greek authors, and to JUVENAL and PERsius among the Roman poets-or even to the testimony of the Apostle Paul, in the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. In the writings of Lucian, for instance, he will find the most unnatural affections and detestable practices treated of at large, and with the utmost familiarity, as things of ordinary and daily occurrence. And when we turn our attention to those cruel and inhuman exhibitions which are well known to have yielded the highest gratification to both the Greeks and Romans, the two most polished nations of the world—the savage conflicts of the gladiators in the circus; when we cast an eye on the dissoluteness of manners by which the walks of private life were polluted--the horrible prostitution of boys, to which the laws opposed no restraint—the liberty of divorce, which belonged to the wife as well as the husband—the shameful practice of exposing infants, and procuring abortions—the multiplicity of stews and brothels, many of which were consecrated to their deities; when we reflect on these and various other excesses, to the most ample indulgence in which the