Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism
by Thomas Inman, M.D. (1874)
Appendix: The Assyrian Grove and other emblems,
by John Newton, M.R.C.S.
Appendix - Page 1
The study of sacred symbols is as yet in its infancy. It has hitherto been almost ignored by sacerdotal historians; and thus a rich mine of knowledge on the most interesting of all subjects—the history of the Religious Idea in man—remains comparatively unexplored. The topic has a two-fold interest, for it equally applies to the present and the past. As nothing on earth is more conservative than religion, we have still a world of symbolism existing amongst us which is far older than our sects and books, our creeds and articles, a relic of a forgotten, pre-historic past. Untold ages before writing was invented, it is believed that men attempted to express their ideas in visible forms. Yet how can a savage, who is unable to count his fingers up to five, and has no idea of abstract number, apart from things, whose habits and thoughts are of the earth, earthy, form a conception of the high and holy One who inhabiteth eternity? Even under the highest forms of ancient civilisation, abundant proofs exist that the imagination of men, brooding over the idea of the Unseen and the Infinite, were bounded by the things which were presented in their daily experience, and which most moved their passions, hopes and fears. Through these, then, they attempted to embody such religious ideas as they felt. They could not teach others without visible symbols to assist their conceptions; and emblems were rather crutches for the halting than wings to help the healthy to soar. Mankind in all ages has clung to the visible and tangible. The people care little for the abstract and unseen. The Israelites preferred a calf of gold to the invisible Jehovah; and sensuous forms of worship still fascinate the multitude.
Whilst studying a collection of symbols, gathered from many climes and ages, such as this volume presents, I feel sure that every intelligent student will have asked himself more than once—Is there not some key which unlocks these enigmas, some grand idea which runs through them all, connecting them like a string of beads? I believe that there is, and that it is not far to seek. What do men desire and long for most? Life. "Skin for skin; all that a man hath will he give for his life," is a saying as true now as in the days of Job. "Give me back my youth, and I will give you all I possess," was said by the aged Voltaire to his physician. And our poet laureate has sung,
'Tis Life, whereof our nerves are scant,
O life, not death, for which we pant;
More life, and fuller, that I want.
But we must add, as necessarily contained in the idea of Life in its highest sense, those things which make Life desirable.
This fulness of life has been the summum bonum, the highest good, which mankind has sighed for in every age and clime. For this the alchemists toiled, not to advance chemistry, but to discover the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher's Stone. But what nature refused to science, the gods, it was believed, would surely give to the pious! and the glorious prize referred to has been promised by every religion. "I am come that they might have Life, and that they might have it more abundantly." Life is the reward which has been promised under every system, including that of the founder of Christianity. A Tree of Life stood in the midst of that Paradise which is described in the book of Genesis; and when the first human couple disobeyed their Maker's command, they were punished by being cut off from the perennial fount of vitality, lest they should eat its fruit and thus live for ever; and in a second Paradise, which is promised to the blessed by the author of the book of Revelation, a tree of life shall stand once more "for the healing of the nations." To the good man is promised, in the Hebrew Scriptures, long life, prosperity, and a numerous offspring. "Thy youth is renewed like the eagle's."§ Ps. ciii. 5.
In the wondrous theology of Ancient Egypt, which at length is open to us, the "Ritual of the Dead" celebrates the mystical reconstruction of the body of the deceased, whose parts are to be reunited, as those of Osiris were by Isis; the trials are recorded through which the deceased passes, and by which all remaining stains of corruption are wiped away; and the record ends when the defunct is born again glorious, like that Sun which typified the Egyptian resurrection.§§
§ St. Paul points oat (Eph. vi. 2) that to only one of the ten commandments is a promise added. And what is the promise? "That thy days may be long." (Exod. xx. 12.) See also Psalm cxxxiii. 3, "the blessing, even life for evermore."
§§ Apuleius, who had been initiated into the mysteries of Isis, informs us that long life was the reward promised to her votaries. (Metam. cap. xi.)
In the ancient mythology of India, it is recounted that of old the gods in council united together to procure, by one supreme effort, the Amrita cup of immortality, which, after the success of their scheme, they partake of with their worshippers. Even for the Buddhist, his cold, atheistical creed promises a Nirvana, an escape from the horrors of metempsychosis, a haven of eternal calm, where "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away;" "there the weary be at rest." Rev. xxi. 4, Job iii. 17.
This idea of tranquillity is in striking contrast to the heaven promised by the religion of the north of Europe, which was the one most congenial to a people whose delight was in conquest and battle. Those who had led a life of heroism, or perished bravely in fight, ascended to Valhalla; and the eternal manhood which awaited them there was to be passed in scenes that were rapture to the imagination of a Dane or a Saxon. Every day in that abode of bliss was to be spent in furious conflict, in the struggle of armies and the cleaving of shields; but at evening the conflict was to cease; every wound to be suddenly healed. Then the contending warriors were to sit down to a banquet, where, attended by lovely maidens, they could feast on the exhaustless flesh of the boar Sæhrimnir, and drink huge draughts of mead from the skulls of those enemies who had not attained to the glories of Valhalla.
The paradise promised to the faithful by Mahomet is full of sensuous delights. The Arabian prophet dwells with rapture on its gardens and palaces, its rivers and bowers. Seventy-two houris, or black-eyed girls, rejoicing in beauty and ever-blooming youth, will be created for the use of the meanest believer; a moment of pleasure will be prolonged to a thousand years, and his powers will be increased a hundred-fold to render him worthy of his felicity.
Thus we see that in all these great historical faiths the prize held out to the true believer has this in common, viz., Life, overflowing, ever-renewed, with the addition of those things which make life desirable for men; whether they are sensuous pleasures, or those which, under the loftier ideal of Christianity, are summed up in Life, both temporal and eternal, in the light of God.
Such being the case, we might anticipate that the symbols of every religion would reproduce, in some shape or other, the ideal which is common to all. The earliest and rudest faiths were content with gross and simple emblems of life. In the later and more refined forms of worship, the ruder types were highly conventionalised, and replaced by a more intricate and less obvious symbolism.