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Chapter 37. Oriental Religions in the West
THE WORSHIP of the Great Mother of the Gods and her lover or son was very popular
under the Roman Empire. Inscriptions prove that the two received divine honours,
separately or conjointly, not only in Italy, and especially at Rome, but also in the
provinces, particularly in Africa, Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, and Bulgaria. Their
worship survived the establishment of Christianity by Constantine; for Symmachus
records the recurrence of the festival of the Great Mother, and in the days of Augustine
her effeminate priests still paraded the streets and squares of Carthage with whitened
faces, scented hair, and mincing gait, while, like the mendicant friars of the Middle Ages,
they begged alms from the passers-by. In Greece, on the other hand, the bloody orgies of
the Asiatic goddess and her consort appear to have found little favour. The barbarous and
cruel character of the worship, with its frantic excesses, was doubtless repugnant to the
good taste and humanity of the Greeks, who seem to have preferred the kindred but
gentler rites of Adonis. Yet the same features which shocked and repelled the Greeks
may have positively attracted the less refined Romans and barbarians of the West. The
ecstatic frenzies, which were mistaken for divine inspiration, the mangling of the body,
the theory of a new birth and the remission of sins through the shedding of blood, have all
their origin in savagery, and they naturally appealed to peoples in whom the savage
instincts were still strong. Their true character was indeed often disguised under a decent
veil of allegorical or philosophical interpretation, which probably sufficed to impose
upon the rapt and enthusiastic worshippers, reconciling even the more cultivated of them
to things which otherwise must have filled them with horror and disgust.
The religion of the Great Mother, with its curious blending of crude savagery with
spiritual aspirations, was only one of a multitude of similar Oriental faiths which in the
later days of paganism spread over the Roman Empire, and by saturating the European
peoples with alien ideals of life gradually undermined the whole fabric of ancient
civilisation. Greek and Roman society was built on the conception of the subordination of
the individual to the community, of the citizen to the state; it set the safety of the
commonwealth, as the supreme aim of conduct, above the safety of the individual
whether in this world or in the world to come. Trained from infancy in this unselfish
ideal, the citizens devoted their lives to the public service and were ready to lay them
down for the common good; or if they shrank from the supreme sacrifice, it never
occurred to them that they acted otherwise than basely in preferring their personal
existence to the interests of their country. All this was changed by the spread of Oriental
religions which inculcated the communion of the soul with God and its eternal salvation
as the only objects worth living for, objects in comparison with which the prosperity and
even the existence of the state sank into insignificance. The inevitable result of this
selfish and immoral doctrine was to withdraw the devotee more and more from the public
service, to concentrate his thoughts on his own spiritual emotions, and to breed in him a
contempt for the present life which he regarded merely as a probation for a better and an
eternal. The saint and the recluse, disdainful of earth and rapt in ecstatic contemplation of
heaven, became in popular opinion the highest ideal of humanity, displacing the old ideal
of the patriot and hero who, forgetful of self, lives and is ready to die for the good of his