Excerpts from The Ancient City by Fustel de Coulanges
From the Back:
Selections from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3
From the Back:
By now everyone has heard the phrase "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual" and has probably become nauseated by it. Well ever since reading Comets and the Horns of Moses I've put more thought into that, especially since "religious" centers around the worship of some external gods (most probably originating as giant, screaming, murderous comets) while the spiritual part seems to echo that ancient science we find traces of in Gurdjieff, the Stoics, and of course the Cassiopaeans. Though this book covers so much more, after reading The Ancient City we have a great glimpse into the past and what the minds of humanity, obviously corrupted, might have once considered truly "god-like". I'll post more from the rest of the book as I find time.In The Ancient City, Fustel argues that primitive religion constituted the foundation of all civic life. Developing his comparisons between beliefs and laws, Fustel covers such topics as rites and festivals; marriage and the family; divorce, death and burial; and political and legal structures. "Religion," the author states, "constituted the Greek and Roman family, established marriage and paternal authority, fixed the order of relationship, and consecrated the right of property, and the right of inheritance. This same religion, after having enlarged and extended the family, formed a still larger association, the city, and reigned in that as it had reigned in the family. From it came all the institutions, as well as all the private law, of the ancient."
Selections from Chapter 1 to Chapter 3
Down to the latest times in the history of Greece and Rome we find the common people clinging to thoughts and usages which certainly dated from a very distant past, and which enable us to discover what notions man entertained at first regarding his own nature, his soul, and the mystery of death.
Go back as far as we may in the history of the Indo-European race, of which the Greeks and Italians are branches, and we do not find that this race has ever thought that after this short life all was finished for man. The most ancient generations, long before there were philosophers, believed in a second existence after the present. They looked upon death not as a dissolution of our being, but simply as a change in life.
But in what place, and in what manner, was this second existence passed? Did they believe that the immortal spirit, once escaped from a body, went to animate another? No; the doctrine of metempsychosis was never able to take root in the minds of the Greco-Italians; not was it the most ancient belief of the Aryas of the East; since the hymns of the Vedas teach another doctrine. Did they believe that the spirit ascended towards the sky, towards the region of light? Not at all; the thought that departed souls entered a celestial home is relatively recent in the West; we find it expressed for the first time by the poet Phocylides. The celestial abode was never regarded as anything more than the recompense of a few great men, and of the benefactors of mankind. According to the oldest belief of the Italians and Greeks, the soul did not go into a foreign world to pass its second existence; it remained near men, and continued to live under ground...It was a custom, at the close of a funeral ceremony, to call the soul of the deceased three times by the name he had been borne. They wished that he might live happy under ground.
From this primitive belief came the necessity of burial. In order that the soul might be confined to this subterranean abode, which was suited to its second life, it was necessary that the body to which it remained attached should be covered with earth. The soul that had no tomb had no dwelling-place. It was a wandering spirit...From this came the belief in ghosts.
We can see in ancient writers how man was tormented by the fear that after his death the rites would not be observed for him. It was a source of constant inquietude. Men feared death less than the privation of burial; for rest and eternal happiness were at stake. We ought not be too much surprised at seeing the Athenians put generals to death, who, after a naval victory, had neglected to bury the dead. These generals, disciples of philosophers, distinguished clearly between the soul and the body, and as they did not believe that the fate of the one was connected with the fate of the other, it appeared to them of very little consequence whether a body was decomposed in the earth or in the water. Therefore they did not brave the tempest for the vain formality of collecting and burying their dead. But the multitude, who, even at Athens, still clung to the ancient doctrines, accused these generals of impiety, and had them put to death. By their victory they had saved Athens; but by their impiety they had lost thousands of souls.
The being who lived under ground was not sufficiently free from human frailties to have no need of food; and, therefore, on certain days of the year, a meal was carried to every tomb...The food that the family brought was really for the dead - exclusively for him.
I will continue to post more from the book as I find the time, the book is full of breathtaking insights.The dead were held to be sacred beings...For them they had all the veneration that man can have for the divinity whom he loves or fears. In their thoughts the dead were gods.
This sort of apotheosis was not the privilege of great men; no distinction was made among the dead. Cicero says, "Our ancestors desired that the men who had quitted this life should be counted in the number of the gods." It was not necessary to have even been a virtuous man: the wicked man, as well as the good man, became a god; but he retained in the second life all the bad inclinations which had tormented him in the first.
We find this worship of the dead among the Hellenes, among the Latins, among the Sabines, among the Etruscans; we also find it among the Aryas of India. Mention of it is made in the hymns of the Reg-Veda...the Hindu, like the Greek, regarded the dead as divine beings, who enjoyed a happy existence; but their happiness depended on the condition that the offerings made by the living should be ccarried to them regularly. If the sraddha for a dead person was not offered regularly, his soul left its peaceful dwelling, and became a wandering spirit, who tormented the living; so that, if the dead were really gods, this was only whilst the living honored them with their worship...The Greeks and Romans had exactly the same belief.
The Sacred Fire
In the house of every Greek and roman was an altar; on this altar there had always to be a small quantity of ashes, and a few lighted coals. It was a sacred obligation for the master of every house to keep the fire up night and day. Woe to the house where it was extinguished.
The fire was something divine; they adored it, and offered it real worship...The sacred fire was the Providence of the family. The worship was very simple. The first rule was, that there should always be upon the altar a few live coals; for if this fire was extinguished a god ceased to exist. At certain moments of the day they placed upon the fire dry herbs and wood; then the god manifested himself in a bright flame....The god received [all] offerings, and devoured them; radiant with satisfaction, he rose above the altar, and lighted up the worshiper with his brightness. Then was the moment to invoke him; and the hymn of prayer went out from the heart of man.
Especially were the meals of the family religious acts. The god presided there. He had cooked the bread, and prepared the food.
It is a strong proof of the antiquity of this belief, and of these practices, to find them at the same time among men on the shore of the Mediterranean and among those of the peninsula of India...Assuredly the Greeks did not borrow this religion from the Hindus, nor the Hindus from the Greeks. But the Greeks, the Italians, and the Hindus belonged to the same race; their ancestors, in a very distant past, lived together in Central Asia...When the tribes separated, they carried this worship with them.
Every prayer to any god whatever must commence and end with a prayer to the fire...Let us remark, in the first place, that this fire, which was kept burning upon the hearth, was not, in the thoughts of men, the fire of material nature...It is a pure fire, which can be produced only by the aid of certain rites, and can be kept up only with certain kinds of wood. It is a chaste fire; the union of the sexes must be removed far from its presence...Thus the hearth-fire is a sort of a moral being; it shines, and warms, and cooks the sacred food; but at the same time it thinks, and has a conscience; it knows men's duties, and sees that they are fulfilled...It is truly the god of human nature.
This brings us back to the worship of the dead. Both are of the same antiquity. They were so closely associated that the belief of the ancients made but on religion of both. Heath-fire demons, heroes, Lares (souls of the dead), all were confounded.
It is certain that the oldest generations of the race from which the Greeks and Romans sprang worshiped both the dead and the hearth-fire - an ancient religion that did not find its gods in physical nature, but in man himself, and that has for its object the adoration of the invisible being which is in us, the moral and thinking power which animate and governs our bodies.