Слике страница
[ocr errors]

genius or good spirit, to protect and admonish him through the medium of dreams and visions. Such were the objects of superstitious reverence derived from the Pantheons of Greece and Rome, the whole synod of which was supposed to consist of demons, who were still actively bestirring themselves to delude mankind. But in the west of Europe, a host of other demons, far more formidable, were brought into play, who had their origin in Celtic, Teutonic, and even in Eastern fables ; and as their existence, as well as influence, was boldly asserted, not only by the early christians, but even by the reformers, it was long before the rites to which they were accustomed were totally eradicated.

less than two-one good, the other bad (Hor. Lib. II, Epist. 2.) who attended him from the cradle to the grave. The Greeks called them demons. They were named Prænessites, from their superintending human affairs.



Few subjects present to a philosophic eye more matter of curious, important and instructive research than the natural history of religion. Some sort of religious service has been found to prevail in all ages and nations, from the most rude and barbarous periods of human society, to those of cultivation and refinement. In these periods are to be traced specimens strongly marked with exertions of the feelings, and faculties of men in every situation almost that can be supposed. It is from the contemplation of these exertions that we learn what sort of creature man is ; that we discover the extent of his powers, and the tendency of his desires ; and that we become acquainted with the force of culture and civilization upon him, by comparing the degrees of improvement he has attained in the various stages of society through which he has passed.

It seems to be a principle established by experience, that mankind in general have at no time been able, by the operation of their own mutual powers, to ascend in their inquiries to the great comprehensive foundation of true religion,—the knowledge of a first cause. This idea is too grand, too distinct, or too refined for the generality of the human race. They are surrounded by sensible objects, and strongly attached to them; they are in a great measure unaccustomed to the most simple and obvious degrees of abstraction, and they can scarcely conceive anything to have a real existence that may not become an object of their senses. Possessed of such sentiments and views, they are fully prepared in embracing all the follies and absurdities of superstition. They worship every thing they either love or fear, in order to procure the continuance of favours enjoyed, or to avert that resentment they may have reason to dread. As their knowledge of nature is altogether imperfect, and as many events every moment present themselves, upon which they can form no theoretical conclusion, they fly for satisfaction to the most simple, but most ineffectual of all solutions—the agency of invisible beings, with which, in their opinion, all nature is filled. Hence the rise of Polytheism and local deities, which have overspread the face of the earth, under the different titles of guardian gods or tutelary saints. Hence magnificent temples and splendid statues have been erected to aid the imagination of votaries, and to realize objects of worship, which, though supposed to be always hovering around, seldom condescend to become visible.

After obtaining some information concerning present objects, the next cause of solicitude and inquiry to the mind of man, is to penetrate a little into the secrets of futurity. The same tutelary gods who bestowed their care, and exerted their powers to procure present pleasure and happiness for mankind, were supposed not averse to grant them, in this respect also, a little indulgence. Hence the famous oracular responses of antiquity; hence the long train of conjurers, fortune-tellers, astrologers, necromancers, magicians, wizards, and witches, that have been found in all places and at all times ; nor have superior knowledge and civilization been sufficient to extirpate such characters, by demonstrating the futility and absurdity of their views.

Among the ancients, this superstition was a great engine of state. The respect paid to omens, auguries and oracles, was profound and universal; and the persons in power monopolized the privilege of consulting and interpreting them. They joined the people in expressing their veneration; but there is little reason to doubt that they conducted the responses in such a manner as best suited the purposes of government. On this account, it would not be difficult for the oracle to emit predictions, which, to all those unacquainted with the secret, would appear altogether astonishing and unaccountable. It would seem that this principle alone is sufficient to explain all the phenomena of ancient oracles.

Though devination has long ceased to be an instrument of government, abundance of designing persons have not been wanting in latter ages, who found much interest in taking advantage of the weakness or credulity of their fellow creatures. Against this pestilent and abandoned race of men, most civilized countries have enacted penal laws. But what rendered such persons peculiarly detestable in modern times, was the communication which they were supposed to hold with the devil, to whom they sold themselves, and from whom, in return, they derived their information. And by this principle the penal statutes, instead of extirpating, inflamed the evil. They alarmed the imaginations of the people; they tempted them to impute the cause of their misfortunes and disappointment to the malice or resentment of their neighbours; they induced them to trust to their suspicions, much more than to their reason; and they multiplied witches and wizards, by putting into possession of every foolish informer the means of punishment. In several countries of Europe, these statutes still subsist; they were not abolished in Britain till a period still at no great distance. Since the abolition of persecution, the faith of witchcraft has disappeared even among the vulgar. It was long found inconsistent with any considerable progress in philosophy.

For these reasons we read, with some degree of astonishment, a treatise on this exploded subject, by a philosopher, an eminent physician, a privy counseller of the then Empress Queen, and a professor in the university of Vienna. It was long doubted whether the professor was in earnest, but the


« ПретходнаНастави »