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The great poet of Rome has exhibited the principal deities of his religion in action. We behold them gleaming amid the flames of the devoted Troy, heaving the walls of the city from their foundations, overturning the palaces of nobles and of kings, scattering in the dust the temples and altars of the gods, encouraging and delighting in the work of massacre and of havoc, and mingling in the uproar with sublime and terrific energy. But the attitudes they assume are those, not of gods or men, but of furies and demons. They are all governed by the dire malignity of one predominant and flagitious passion ; and they rush forward, with the rage of irresistible vengeance, to afflict, to ravage, and destroy".
In their intercourse with each other, they occasionally revel, and riot, and wanton, and laugh, with little reserve of decorum, of delicacy, or of taste. But their evil passions speedily renew the dissonances of heaven. Divine in power, they are worse than human in discrepancy and discord. The whole Iliad is but a diversified detail of the folly or fury of their dissensions. Mars is bound by the superior strength of the Aloïdes, or entangled in the invisible meshes of the net of Vulcan, or chastised by the hand, and insulted by the sarcasms, of the goddess of wisdom. Vulcan is hurled headlong from the skies, by the offended majesty of his sire. Apollo is subdued by the masculine vigour of Minerva ; or dismissed to tend the herds of an earthly master, by the indignation of Jupiter. Juno is suspended between earth and heaven as a spectacle of terror to the rest of the divinities, and openly
• Æneid, lib. ii.
menaced by her offended lord with the lash. And the mighty father of gods and men is not only perpetually controuled by the dominant authority of the Fates, but insulted by the reproaches, or by the threats, of the greatest and the least of the inhabitants of heaven.
These deities are not more human in their discords, than in their wants, their desires, and their enjoyments. The scandal of low amours is their glory and their boast. Laughter, and jest, and revelry, mingle loudly and rudely in their carousals*. They frequently renounce the cares and the duties of dominion, to visit the fuming temples of the Æthiopian, and regale on the scent of the burning victims. The weariness or the waste of their ethereal frame is to be solaced or repaired by the restoring virtues of the viand and the cup. The repose of sleep is necessary to recruit the spirits which toil or gluttony might have impaired; and the affairs of nations are subjected to the misrule of the wife and sister of Jove, while the thunderer sinks into an oblivious slumber on the flowery and fragrant couch of mount Idaf.
Of the delicacy of moral sentiment the deities of Greece and Rome pretended to little, and possessed
* See the account of the Olympian feast. Iliad, lib. i. fere ad fin.
+ Petronius rivals Homer in the description of this scene :
Idæo qualis fudit de vertice flores
Sat. vol. ii. p. 404.
none. Their votaries are frequently deceived into crime by their inspirations, or instructed in the contempt of virtue by their example. Creusa, the dishonoured victim of the passion of Apollo, is impelled by Minerva, and directed by an oracle, to deceive the credulity of her husband, and to impose on his kindness the child of an adulterous intercourse *. Juno forgets and sullies her high character, while she descends to deceive her imperial husband by a false, hood t, to invoke the fiends of hell to accomplish the purposes of her malice, and to prepare and accelerate the disgraces of the cave, and the destruction of Dido I. The chastity of the meek Diana, which had been so deeply wounded by the involuntary offence of Actæon, is sacrificed in the courted em. brace of the mortal Endymion; and the Ruler of the skies himself descends from Olympus, to accomplish his purpose by a fraud §, assumes the form of a serpent or a swan for the gratification of his licentiousness, or hastens to practise his vile deceptions on the wife of the absent and gallant Amphytrion ||. : Of this last deity, the celestial Atlas, on whose shoulders rested the government of the universe, the priest and the poet have delineated the most inconsistent character. He was immortal, yet he was traced to the cradle of Crete. He was denominated “ the greatest and the best,” yet he violated almost every law human and divine *. He was worshipped as the universal sire, yet was described as a secondary and subordinate power, inadequate to create, and impotent to controult. He was the most excellent of beings, yet he was a libertine, a parricide, a usurper, and an adulterer. He was superior to all the gods, yet every where were temples erected to some ancle, brother, sister, or cousin, his equals in descent, and rendered his inferiors only by the crime of a successful and guilty usurpation f.
* See the lon of Euripides. The whole tragedy is an exemplifi. cation of celestial grossness and fraud. Apollo is a seducer; Minerva a cheat; Creusa an adultress; and Xanthus a dupe. + Iliad, lib. xiv.
1 Æneid, lib. iv. He sends a lying dream to Agamemnon. Iliad. | Plautus details the story with great vivacity and spirit; and the poet makes sufficiently free with the god.
It will not be asserted that the mass of the people were ignorant of these frailties of their gods. Which of the Greeks was not to hear the songs of Orpheus, of Hesiod, or of Homer? Which of the Romans was not to listen to the lyre of Ovid, or of Virgil ? Even on the stage, the deities were occasionally introduced in the very character with which they had been invested by the founders of the religion, sometimes to play their merry and licentious gambols for the entertainment of the multitude 5, and sometimes to swell and aggrandize the scene by the exercise of malignant and capricious power ||. The inferior classes of men were to behold, in these representations, so many examples of frailty and of crime; and the few who were more wise, were to discover addi. tional grounds for the hesitation of their faith, or the incredulity of their scepticism.
* Meziriae, Comment sur les Epit. d'Ovide, vol. ii. p. 377.
† Homer expressly denominates Oceanus and Tethys the original parents of things; and he and Hesiod, and almest all antiquity, ascribe to Necessity and Fate the dominion of the universe. ·† Appendix, note A.
§ Non alii Dii ridentur in theatris quam adorantur in templis; nec alii ludos exhibetis quam quibus immolatis. August. de Civit. Dei. lib. vi. c. 8. p. 117.
|| Æschyl. Prometh. passim. Sophocl. Edip. et Eumenid. Euripides. Orest. The gods, as they are exbibited in these tra. gedies, are monsters of violence, of injustice, or of wrath.
The wild absurdities which were thus displayed, seem not to have diminished the reverence of the people. While the Greek permitted and extolled the strange impieties of the dramatist*, he punished the philosophical heterodoxy of Socrates with death; and while the Roman delighted in the theatrical representation of the unprincipled intrigues of his divinities †, he was singularly attentive to the rites, and singularly devoted to the most superstitious articles, of his creed. The solemnity of the belief was, in no wise, disturbed by the mockery of the representation. It was imagined that nothing was more likely, in times of public exigency and distress, to conciliate the favour and appease the wrath of the gods, than to exhibit their wanton frauds and licentious amours for popular amusement; and there is no doubt that the ludicrous and familiar, or brutal and disgusting character in which those gods were represented by the comic poet, perfectly accorded with the prevailing persuasions of the national faith I.
It may be now admitted that the religion of the Roman and of the Greek was equally corrupt and pernicious in its primary and essential principle, and unworthy of the adoption of the most credulous and superstitious people. To good morals it could lend no aid. To genuine piety it could afford no
• Aristophanes, with the full approbation of almost all Athens, every where makes the gods the subject of his merriment and burlesque. In Nubib. v. 617. In Plut. v. 1120. In Ran. pass. + As in the Amphytrion of Plautus.
Appendix, note B.