Page images
PDF
EPUB

blance of consistency to the successive developments of error. Divested of its mythic or poetic garb, it will be found that the creative power is the doctrine of fatality. Oppressed by the wretchedness of its nature, without some infallible guide, the human mind shrinks from contemplation, and cowers in its own imbecility ; it reposes in the belief of predestination, which enables us to bear up against every misery, and solves those awful doubts which are scarcely less tolerable than misery.-The Gordian knot is cut, and the web is unravelled, when all things are seen subordinate to Fate, to that stern power which restrains the active intelligences of good and evil, dooming the universe of spirit and of matter to be the battle-field of endless strife between the light and the darkness. Whether the rites of the 'false religions, full of pomp and gold,' have been solemnized in the sculptured cavern or in the resplendent temple, in the shade of the forest or on the summit of the mountain, still the same lesson has been taught. Men and gods vainly struggle to free themselves from the adamantine bonds of destiny. The oracle, or the omen which declares the impending evil, affords no method of averting it. All insight into futurity proves a curse to those on whom the power descends. We hear the warning which we cannot obey. The gleam of light which radiates athwart the abyss only increases its horror. No gift which the favouring intelligence strives to bestow upon a mortal can be received without an admixture of evil, from which the powerful spirit of beneficence cannot defend it; but neither can the malice of the eternal enemy prevail and triumph ; it may scath but not con

sume.

“ Upon fatality and the tenet of conflicting power, popular mythology is wholly founded, the basis reappears in every trivial tale of supernatural agency, and the gossip sitting in the chimney-nook is imbued with

all the wisdom of the hierophants of Greece, or the magi of Persia. As the destroying principle appears more active in this lower world, Oromanes has prevailed in popular belief. Orb is involved in orb, the multiplied reflections become fainter and fainter, the strange and fantastic forms are variously tinted and refracted, some are bright and glorious as the rainbow, others shadowy and grey, yet all turn unto the central image, the personification of the principle of Evil.

“ The legendary Satan is a being wholly distinct from the theological Lucifer. He is never ennobled by the sullen dignity of the fallen angel. No traces of celestial origin are to be discerned on his brow. He is not a rebellious Æon who once was clothed in radiance. But he is the Fiend, the Enemy, evil from all time past in his very essence, foul and degraded, cowardly and impure ; his rage is oftenest impotent, unless his cunning can assist his power. He excites fright rather than fear. Hence, wild caprice and ludicrous malice are his popular characteristics; they render him familiar, and diminish the awe inspired by his name; and these playful elements enter into all the ghost and goba lin combinations of the evil principle. More, the platonist, did not perceive the psycological fitness of these attributes, and he was greatly annoyed in his lucubrations by the uncouth oddity of the pranks ascribed to goblins and elves; they discomposed the gravity of his arguments, and in order to meet the objections of such reasoners as might venture to suspect that merriment and waggery degraded a spiritual being, he sturdily maintains, that 'there are as great fools in the body as there are out of it. He would not observe that the mythological portrait was consistent in its features. Laughter is foreign to the serenity of beneficence. Angels may weep, but they would forfeit their essence were they to laugh. Mirth, on the contrary, is the consort of concealed spite, and if not invariably wicked or mischievous, yet always blending itself readily with wickedness and mischief. Sport, even when intended to be innocent, degrades its object; though the best and wisest of us cannot always resist the temptation of deriving pleasure from the pains which we inflict upon our fellowcreatures by amusing ourselves with their weakness. From this alliance between laughter and malice arose the burlesque malignants whom the mythologists have placed amongst the deities. Such is the Momus of the Greeks, and his counterpart Loki, the attendant of the banquets of Valhalla. And the same idea is again the substance of the Vice of the ancient allegorical drama.

“Equally dramatic and poetical is the part allotted to Satan in those ancient romances of religion, the Lives of the Saints: he is the main motive of the action of the narrative, to which his agency gives fulness and effect. But in the conception of the legendary Satan, the belief in his might melts into the ideality of his character. Amidst clouds of infernal vapour, he developes his form, half in allegory and half with spiritual reality :-and his horns, his tail, his saucer eyes, his claws, his taunts, his wiles, his malice, all bear witness to the simultaneous yet contradictory impressions to which the hagiologist is compelled to yield. This confusion is very apparent in the demons introduced by St Gregory in his Life of St Benedict. A poet would maintain that they are employed merely as machinery to carry on the holy epic. A monk must believe in them more strongly than in the gospel. .“ When the saint was once saying his prayers in the oratory of St John, on Monte Casino, he saw the Devil in the shape of a horse-doctor, but with a horn in one hand and a tether in the other. Satan spoke civilly to St Benedict, and informed him that he was going to administer a drench to the beasts upon two legs, the fa

thers of the monastery. By an interpunctuation the text has been made to import that St Benedict saw the Devil in the more questionable shape of a doctor of physic, riding, as doctors were wont to do before the introduction of carriages, upon a mule. This has been the favourite reading ; and accordingly, when the old painters treated the miracle, they usually represented the Devil in the regular medical costume, with a urinal, and a budget full of doctor's stuff behind him. It is hardly necessary to observe, that the Saint did not allow the Devil to do much mischief in his medical capacity.

Another time a complaint was made to St Benedict respecting the conduct of a monk belonging to one of the affiliated monasteries, who would not or could not pray with assiduity. After praying a little while, he used to walk away and leave the rest of the fraternity at their devotions. Benedict ordered him to be brought to Monte Casino, and when the monk, as usual, became heartily tired of prayer and prepared to go out of the oratory, the saint saw a little black Devil tugging at the skirts of his gown as hard as he could pull, and leading him to the door. “See ye not who leadeth our brother?' quoth St Benedict to Father Maurus and Pompeianus, the prior. “We see nought,' answered they. After two days' prayer, Maurus, who was in training to be a saint, was able to see the little black Devil at the skirts of the monk's gown as clearly as St Benedict himself; but the imp continued invisible to Pompeianus. On the third day St Benedict followed the monk out of the oratory and struck him with his staff. He was not sparing, we may suppose, of the baculine exorcism, for after it had been administered, the monk, as we are told by St Gregory, was never more infested by the little black Devil, and remained always steady at his prayers. .“ Amongst the innumerable anecdotes and histories of the Devil in the lives of the saints, some are more ludicrous, and, if possible, more trivial, others more picturesque. Saint Anthony saw the Devil with his head towering above the clouds, and stretching out his hands to intercept the souls of the departed in their Aight to heaven. According to our modes of thinking we should be apt to consider such representations merely as apologues. But there was an honest confidence in the actual existence of the machinery of devotional romance. The hagiologist told his tale in right earnest: he was teaching matters of faith and edification; and we may be charitable enough to believe that he was persuaded of the truth of his legends. Yet the dullest piety could not peruse them without an obscure though indelible sensation of the affinity between allegorical imagery, and these supposed approaches of the evil one. Obedient devotion thus struggled against the reasoning faculty, which felt the impersonality of the personification, yet without being able to attain either vivid belief in the fiction, or a clear perception of its non-entity. Just as when we dream between watchfulness and slumber; we are conscious that the sounds which we hear, and the sights which we see, originate wholly from the brain, but our reason refuses to obey our judgment; and we cannot rouse ourselves and think, and shake off the delusion.

“ Sometimes the Devil is a thorough monkey, and his malice is merely playful. Year after year did he lie in wait for the purpose of defeating the piety of Saint Gudula. Manifold were the assaults to which her virgin frailty was exposed. But all were vain. At length he summoned up all his power for one grand effort. It was the custom of this noble and pious maiden to rise at cock-crowing, and to go to church to say her prayers, her damsel walking before her with a lantern. What did the author of all malice now do? ..... he put out the candle! The Saint set it a-light again, not by any vulgar method, but by her prayers. And this is her

« PreviousContinue »