Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. III.: Third System: Worship of symbols, or idolatry. - The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires
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Sect. III.: Third System: Worship of symbols, or idolatry. - Constantin-François Chasseboeuf, marquis de Volney, The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires 
The Ruins: or a Survery of the Revolutions of Empires, 3rd ed. (London: J. Johnson, 1796).
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Third System: Worship of symbols, or idolatry.
“From the instant this agricolar race had turned an eye of observation on the stars, they found it necessary to distinguish individuals or groupes, and to assign to each a proper name. A considerable difficulty here presented itself; for on the one hand, the celestial bodies, similar in form, offered no peculiar character by which to denominate them; and on the other hand, language, poor and in a state of infancy, had no expressions for so many new and metaphysical ideas. The usual stimulus of genius, necessity, conquered all obstacles. Having remarked that in the annual revolution, the renewal and periodical appearance of the productions of the earth were constantly connected with the rising and setting of certain stars, and with their position relatively to the sun, the mind, by a natural mechanism, associated in its thought terrestrial and celestial objects, which had in fact a certain alliance; and applying to them the same sign, it gave to the stars and the groupes it formed of them, the very names of the terrestrial objects to which they bore affinity(50) .
“Thus the Ethiopian of Thebes called stars of inundation, or of Aquarius, those under which the river began to overflow* ; stars of the ox or bull, those under which it was convenient to plough the earth; stars of the lion, those under which that animal, driven by thirst from the deserts, made his appearance on the banks of the Nile; stars of the sheaf, or of the harvest maid, those under which the harvests were got in; stars of the lambs, stars of the goat, those under which those valuable animals brought forth their young; and thus was a first part of the difficulty resolved.
“On the other hand, man, having remarked in the beings that surrounded him certain qualities peculiar to each species, and having invented a name by which to design them, speedily discovered an ingenious mode of generalizing his ideas, and transferring the name already invented to every thing bearing a similar or analogous property or agency, enriched his language with a multiplicity of metaphors and tropes.
“Thus the same Ethiopian, having observed that the return of the inundation answered constantly to the appearance of a very beautiful star towards the source of the Nile, which seemed to warn the husbandman against being surprised by the waters, he compared this action with that of the animal who by barking gives notice of danger, and called this star the dog, the barker (Syrius). In the same manner he called stars of the crab, those which showed themselves when the sun, having reached the bounds of the tropic, returned backwards and sideways like the crab or Cancer; stars of the wild goat, those which, the sun being arrived at its greatest altitude, at the top of the horary gnomon, imitated the action of that animal who delights in climbing the highest rocks; stars of the balance, those which, the days and nights being of the same length, seemed to observe an equilibrium like that instrument; stars of the scorpion, those which were perceptible when certain regular winds brought a burning vapour like the poison of the scorpion. In the same manner he called by the name of rings and serpents the figured traces of the orbits of the stars and planets(51) ; and this was the general means of appellation of all the heavenly bodies, taken in groupes or individually, according to their connection with rural and terrestrial operations, and the analogies which every nation found them to bear to the labours of the field and the objects of their climate and soil.
“From this proceeding it resulted, that abject and terrestrial beings entered into association with the superior and powerful beings of the heavens; and this association became more rivetted every day by the very constitution of language and the mechanism of the mind. Men would say, by a natural metaphor: “The bull spreads upon the earth the germins of fecundity (in spring); and brings back abundance by the revival of vegetation. The lamb (or ram) delivers the heavens from the malevolent Genii of winter; and saves the world from the serpent (emblem of the wet season). The scorpion pours out his venom upon the earth, and spreads diseases and death, &c.”
“This language, understood by every body, was at first attended with no inconvenience; but, in process of time, when the almanac had been regulated, the people, who could do without further observation of the skies, lost sight of the motive which led to the adoption of these expressions; and the allegory still remaining in the practices of life, became a fatal stumbling-block to the understanding and reason. Habituated to join to symbols the ideas of their models, the mind finally confounded them; then those same animals which the imagination had raised to heaven, descended again on the earth; but in this return, decked in the livery and invested with the attributes of the stars, they imposed upon their own authors. The people, imagining that they saw their Gods before them, found it a more easy task to offer up their prayers. They demanded of the ram of their flock, the influence which they expected from the celestial ram; they prayed the scorpion not to pour out his venom upon Nature; they revered the fish of the river, the crab of the sea, and the scarabeus of the slime; and by a series of corrupt, but inseparable analogies, they lost themselves in a labyrinth of consequent absurdities.
“Such was the origin of this ancient and singular worship of animals; such the train of ideas by which the character of the Divinity became common to the meanest of the brute creation; and thus was formed the vast, complicated, and learned theological system which, from the banks of the Nile, conveyed from country to country by commerce, war, and conquest, invaded all the old world; and which, modified by times, by circumstances, and by prejudices, is still to be found among a hundred nations, and subsists to this day as the secret and inseparable basis of the theology of those even who despise and reject it.”
At these words, murmurs being heard in various groupes: “I repeat it,” continued the orator. “People of Africa! hence, for example, has arisen among you the adoration of your Feteches, plants, animals, pebbles, bits of wood, before which your ancestors would never have been so absurd as to prostrate themselves, if they had not seen in them talismans, partaking of the nature of the stars(52) . Nations of Tartary! this is equally the origin of your Marmouzets, and of the whole train of animals with which your Chamans ornament their magic robes. This is the origin of those figures of birds and serpents, which all the savage nations, with mystic and sacred ceremonies, imprint on their skin. Indians! it is in vain you cover yourselves with the veil of mystery: the hawk of your God Vichenou is but one of the thousand emblems of the sun in Egypt, and his incarnations in a fish, boar, lion, turtle, together with all his monstrous adventures, are nothing more than the metamorphoses of the same star, which, passing successively through the signs of the twelve animals* , was supposed to assume their forms, and to act their astronomical parts(53) . Japanese! your bull which breaks the egg of the world, is merely that of the heavens, which, in times of yore, opened the age of the creation, the equinox of Spring. Rabbins, Jews! that same bull is the Apis worshipped in Egypt, and which your ancestors adored in the idol of the golden calf. It is also your bull, children of Zoroaster! that, sacrificed in the symbolic mysteries of Mithra, shed a blood fertilizing to the world. Lastly, your bull of the Apocalypse, Christians! with his wings, the symbol of the air, has no other origin: your lamb of God, immolated, like the bull of Mithra, for the salvation of the world, is the self-same sun in the sign of the celestial ram, which, in a subsequent age, opening the equinox in his turn, was deemed to have rid the world of the reign of evil, that is to say, of the serpent, of the large snake, the mother of winter and emblem of the Ahrimanes or Satan of the Persians, your institutors. Yes, vainly does your imprudent zeal consign idolaters to the torments of the Tartarus which they have invented: the whole basis of your system is nothing more than the worship of the star of day, whose attributes you have heaped upon your chief personage. It is the sun which, under the name of Orus, was born, like your God, in the arms of the celestial virgin, and passed through an obscure, indigent, and destitute childhood, answering to the season of cold and frost. It is the sun, which, under the name of Osiris, persecuted by Typhon and the tyrants of the air, was put to death, laid in a dark tomb, the emblem of the hemisphere of winter, and which, rising afterwards from the inferior zone to the highest point of the heavens, awoke triumphant over giants and the destroying angels. Ye priests! from whom the murmurs proceed, you wear yourselves its signs all over your bodies. Your tonsure is the disk of the sun; your stole its Zodiac(54) ; your rosaries the symbols of the stars and planets. Pontiffs and prelates! your mitre, your crosier, your mantle, are the emblems of Osiris; and that crucifix of which you boast the mystery, without comprehending it, is the cross of Serapis, traced by the hands of Egyptian priests on the plan of the figurative world, which, passing through the equinoxes and the tropics, became the emblem of future life and resurrection, because it touched the gates of ivory and horn through which the soul was to pass in its way to heaven.”
Here the doctors of the different groupes looked with astonishment at one another, but none of them breaking silence, the orator continued.
“Three principal causes concurred to produce this confusion of ideas. First, the necessity, on account of the infant state of language, of making use of figurative expressions to depict the relations of things; expressions that, passing afterwards from a proper to a general, from a physical to a moral sense, occasioned, by their equivocal and synonymous terms, a multiplicity of mistakes.
“Thus having at first said, that the sun surmounted and passed in its course through the twelve animals, they afterwards supposed that it combated, conquered, and killed them, and from this was composed the historical life of Hercules.
“Having said that it regulated the period of rural operations, of seed time and of harvest; that it distributed the seasons, ran through the climates, swayed the earth, &c. it was taken for a legislative king, a conquering warrior, and hence they formed the stories of Osiris, of Bacchus, and other similar Gods.
“Having said that a planet entered into a sign, the conjunction was denominated a marriage, adultery, incest(55) : having farther said, that it was buried, because it sunk below the horizon, returned to light and gained its state of eminence, they gave it the epithet of dead, risen again, carried into heaven, &c.
“The second cause of confusion was the material figures themselves, by which thoughts were originally painted, and which, under the name of hieroglyphics, or sacred characters, were the first invention of the mind. Thus to denote an inundation, and the necessity of preserving one’s-self from it, they painted a boat, the vessel Argo; to express the wind, they painted a bird’s wing; to specify the season, the month, they delineated the bird of passage, insect, or animal, which made its appearance at that epoch; to express winter they drew a hog, or a serpent, which are fond of moist and miry places. The combination of these figures had also a meaning, and was substituted for words and phrases*(56) . But as there was nothing fixed or precise in this sort of language, as the number of those figures and their combinations became excessive and burdensome to the memory, confusions and false interpretations were the first and obvious result. Genius having afterwards invented the more simple art of applying signs to sounds, of which the number is limited, and of painting the word instead of the thought, hieroglyphic pictures were, by means of alphabetical writing, brought into disuse; and from day to day their forgotten significations made way for a variety of illusions, equivoques, and errors.
“Lastly, the civil organization of the first states was a third cause of confusion. Indeed, when the people began to apply themselves to agriculture, the formation of the rural calendar requiring continual astronomical observations, it was necessary to chuse individuals whose province it should be to watch the appearance and setting of certain stars, to give notice of the return of the inundation, of particular winds and rains, and the proper time for sowing every species of grain. These men, on account of their office, were exempted from the common occupations, and the society provided for their subsistence. In this situation, solely occupied in making observations, they soon penetrated the great phenomena of nature, and dived into the secret of various of her operations. They became acquainted with the course of the stars and planets; the connection which their absence and return had with the productions of the earth and the activity of vegetation: the medicinal or nutritive properties of fruits and plants; the action of the elements, and their reciprocal affinities. But, as there were no means of communicating this knowledge otherwise than by the painful and laborious one of oral instruction, they imparted it only to their friends and kindred; and hence resulted a concentration of science in certain families, who, on this account assumed to themselves exclusive privileges, and a spirit of corporation and separate distinction fatal to the public weal. By this continued succession of the same labours and enquiries, the progress of knowledge it is true was hastened, but, by the mystery that accompanied it, the people, plunged daily in the thickest darkness, became more superstitious and more slavish. Seeing human beings produce certain phenomena, announce, as it were at will, eclipses and comets, cure diseases, handle noxious serpents, they supposed them to have intercourse with celestial powers; and, to obtain the good or have the ills averted which they expected from those powers, they adopted these extraordinary human beings as mediators and interpreters. And thus were established in the very bosom of states sacrilegious corporations of hypocritical and deceitful men, who arrogated to themselves every kind of power; and priests, being at once astronomers, divines, naturalists, physicians, necromancers, interpreters of the Gods, oracles of the people, rivals of kings or their accomplices, instituted under the name of religion an empire of mystery, which to this very hour has proved ruinous to the nations of mankind.”
At these words the priests of all the groupes interrupted the orator; with loud cries, they accused him of impiety, irreligion, blasphemy, and were unwilling he should proceed: but the legislators having observed, that what he related was merely a narrative of historical facts; that if those facts were false or forged, it would be an easy matter to refute them; and that if every one were not allowed the perfect liberty to declare his opinion, it would be impossible to arrive at truth—he thus went on with his discourse.
“From all these causes, and the perpetual association of dissimilar ideas, there followed a strange mass of disorders in theology, morality, and tradition. And first, because the stars were represented by animals, the qualities of the animals, their likings, their sympathies, their aversions, were transferred to the Gods and supposed to be their actions. Thus the God Ichneumon made war against the God crocodile; the God wolf wanted to eat the God sheep; the God stork devoured the God serpent; and the Deity became a strange, whimsical, ferocious being, whose idea misled the judgment of man, and corrupted both his morals and his reason.
“Again, as every family, every nation, in the spirit of its worship adopted a particular star or constellation for its patron, the affections and antipathies of the emblematical brute were transferred to the sectaries of this worship; and the partisans of the God dog were enemies to those of the God wolf; the worshippers of the God bull, abhorred those who fed upon beef, and religion became the author of combats and animosities, the senseless cause of frenzy and superstition(57) .
“Farther, the names of the animal stars having, on account of this same patronage, been conferred on nations, countries, mountains, and rivers, those objects were also taken for Gods; and hence there arose a medley of geographical, historical, and mythological beings, by which all tradition was involved in confusion.
“In fine, from the analogy of their supposed actions the planetary gods having been taken for men, heroes, and kings; kings and heroes took in their turn the actions of the Gods for models, and became, from imitation, warlike, conquering, sanguinary, proud, lascivious, indolent; and religion consecrated the crimes of despots, and perverted the principles of governments.
[* ]This must have been June. See Note (46).
[* ]The Zodiac.
[* ]See the examples cited in note (45).
[Page 238. (50).]Men gave to the stars, &c. “The ancients,” says Maimonides, “directing all their attention to agriculture, gave names to the stars derived from their occupation during the year.” More Neb. pars 3.
[Page 240. (51).]They call by the name of serpents the figured traces of the orbits. The ancients had verbs from the substantives crab, goat, tortoise, as the French have at present the verbs serpenter, coquetier. The history of all languages is nearly the same.
[Page 243. (52).]If they had not seen in them talismans partaking of the nature of the stars. The ancient astrologers, says the most learned of the Jews (Maimonides), having sacredly assigned to each planet a colour, an animal, a tree, a metal, a fruit, a plant, formed from them all a figure or representation of the star, taking care to select for the purpose a proper moment, a fortunate day, such as the conjunction of the star, or some other favourable aspect, They conceived, that by their magic ceremonies they could introduce into those figures or idols the influences of the superior beings after which they were modelied. These were the idols that the Chaldean-Sabeans adored; and in the performance of their worship they were obliged to be dressed in the proper colour. . . . The astrologers, by their practices, thus introduced idolatry, desirous of being regarded as the dispensers of the favours of heaven; and as agriculture was the sole employment of the ancients, they succeeded in persuading them, that the rain and other blessings of the seasons were at their disposal. Thus the whole art of agriculture was exercised by rules of astrology, and the priests made talismans or charms which were to drive away locusts, flies, &c. See Maimonides, More, Nebuchim, pars 3. c. 29.
[Page id. (53).]The sun was supposed to assume their forms (the forms of the twelve animals). These are the very words of Iamblicus de Symbolis Ægyptiorum, c. 2. sect. 7. The sun was the grand Proteus, the universal metamorphist.
[Page 245. (54).]Your tonsure is the disk of the sun. The Arabs, says Herodotus, shave their heads in a circle and about the temples, in imitation of Bacchus (that is the sun,) who shaves himself, they say, in this manner. Jeremiah speaks also of this custom. The tuft of hair which the Mahometans preserve, is taken also from the sun, who was painted by the Egyptians at the winter solstice, as having but a single hair on his head. . . . Your stole its Zodiac. The robes of the goddess of Syria and of Diana of Ephesus, from whence are borrowed the dress of priests, have the twelve animals of the Zodiac painted on them. . . . . Rosaries are found upon all the Indian idols, constructed more than four thousand years ago; and their use in the East has been universal for time immemorial. . . . . The crosier is precisely the staff of Bootes or Osiris (See Plate II.) All the Lamas wear the mitre or cap in the shape of a cone, which was an emblem of the sun.
[Page 247. (55.)]Having said that a planet entered into a sign, their conjunction was denominated a marriage, &c. These are the very words of Plutarch in his account of Isis and Osiris. The Hebrews say, in speaking of the generations of the Patriarchs, et ingressus est in cam. From this continual equivoque of ancient language, proceeds every mistake.
[Page 248. (56).]The combination of these figures had also a meaning. The reader will doubtless see, with pleasure, some examples of ancient hieroglyphics.
[Page 252. (57).]The senseless cause of superstition. These are properly the words of Plutarch, who relates, that those various worships were given by a king of Egypt to the different towns to disunite and enslave them (and these kings had been taken from the cast of priests). See Isis & Osiris.