Maybe the most beautiful institution of antiquity is that solemn
ceremony which repressed crimes by warning that they must be punished,
and which calmed the despair of the guilty by making them atone for
their transgressions by penitences. Remorse must necessarily have
preceded the expiations; for the maladies are older than the medicine,
and all needs have existed before relief.
It was, therefore, before all the creeds, a natural religion, which
troubled man's heart when in his ignorance or in his hastiness he had
committed an inhuman action. A friend killed his friend in a quarrel, a
brother killed his brother, a jealous and frantic lover even killed her
without whom he could not live. The head of a nation condemned a
virtuous man, a useful citizen. These are men in despair, if they have
sensibility. Their conscience harries them; nothing is more true; and it
is the height of unhappiness. Only two choices remain, either
reparation, or a settling in crime. All sensitive souls choose the
first, monsters choose the second.
As soon as religions were established, there were expiations; the
ceremonies accompanying them were ridiculous: for what connection
between the water of the Ganges and a murder? how could a man repair a
homicide by bathing himself? We have already remarked this excess of
aberration and absurdity, of imagining that he who washes his body
washes his soul, and wipes away the stains of bad actions.
The water of the Nile had later the same virtue as the water of the
Ganges: to these purifications other ceremonies were added: I avow that
they were still more impertinent. The Egyptians took two goats, and drew
lots for which of the two should be thrown below, charged with the sins
of the guilty. The name of "Hazazel," the expiator, was given to this
goat. What connection, I ask you, between a goat and a man's crime?
It is true that since, God permitted this ceremony to be sanctified
among the Jews our fathers, who took so many Egyptian rites; but
doubtless it was the repentance, and not the goat, which purified the
Jason, having killed Absyrthe his step-brother, comes, it is said, with
Medea, more guilty than he, to have himself absolved by Circe, queen and
priestess of Aea, who ever after passed for a great magician. Circe
absolves them with a sucking-pig and salt cakes. That may make a fairly
good dish, but can barely either pay for Absyrthe's blood or render
Jason and Medea more honourable people, unless they avow a sincere
repentance while eating their sucking-pig.
Orestes' expiation (he had avenged his father by murdering his mother)
was to go to steal a statue from the Tartars of Crimea. The statue must
have been very badly made, and there was nothing to gain on such an
effect. Since then we have done better, we have invented the mysteries;
the guilty might there receive their absolution by undergoing painful
ordeals, and by swearing that they would lead a new life. It is from
this oath that the new members were called among all nations by a name
which corresponds to initiates, _qui ineunt vitam novam_, who began a
new career, who entered into the path of virtue.
The Christian catechumens were called _initiates_ only when they were
It is undoubted that in these mysteries one was washed of one's faults
only by the oath to be virtuous; that is so true that the hierophant in
all the Greek mysteries, in sending away the assembly, pronounced these
two Egyptian words--"_Koth_, _ompheth_, watch, be pure"; which is a
proof at once that the mysteries came originally from Egypt, and that
they were invented only to make men better.
The sages in all times did what they could, therefore, to inspire
virtue, and not to reduce human frailty to despair; but also there are
crimes so horrible that no mystery accorded expiation for them. Nero,
for all that he was emperor, could not get himself initiated into the
mysteries of Ceres. Constantine, on the Report of Zosimus, could not
obtain pardon for his crimes: he was stained with the blood of his wife,
his son and all his kindred. It was in the interest of the human race
that such great transgressions should remain without expiation, in order
that absolution should not invite their committal, and that universal
horror might sometimes stop the villains.
The Roman Catholics have expiations which are called "penitences."
By the laws of the barbarians who destroyed the Roman Empire, crimes
were expiated with money. That was called _compounding_, _componat cum
decem, viginti, triginta solidis_. It cost two hundred sous of that time
to kill a priest, and four hundred for killing a bishop; so that a
bishop was worth precisely two priests.
Having thus compounded with men, one compounded with God, when
confession was generally established. Finally, Pope John XXII., who made
money out of everything, prepared a tariff of sins.
The absolution of an incest, four turonenses for a layman; _ab incestu
pro laico in foro conscientiae turonenses quatuor_. For the man and the
woman who have committed incest, eighteen turonenses four ducats and
nine carlins. That is not just; if one person pays only four turonenses,
the two owed only eight turonenses.
Sodomy and bestiality are put at the same rate, with the inhibitory
clause to title XLIII: that amounts to ninety turonenses twelve ducats
and six carlins: _cum inhibitione turonenses 90, ducatos 12, carlinos
It is very difficult to believe that Leo X. was so imprudent as to have
this impost printed in 1514, as is asserted; but it must be considered
that no spark appeared at that time of the conflagration which reformers
kindled later, that the court of Rome slumbered on the people's
credulity, and neglected to cover its exactions with the lightest veil.
The public sale of indulgences, which followed soon after, makes it
clear that this court took no precaution to hide the turpitudes to which
so many nations were accustomed. As soon as complaints against the
Church's abuses burst forth, the court did what it could to suppress the
book; but it could not succeed.
If I dare give my opinion of this impost, I think that the various
editions are not reliable; the prices are not at all proportionate:
these prices do not agree with those which are alleged by d'Aubigne,
grandfather of Madame de Maintenon, in the "Confession de Sanci"; he
rates virginity at six _gros_, and incest with his mother and sister at
five _gros_; this account is ridiculous. I think that there was in fact
a tariff established in the datary's office, for those who came to Rome
to be absolved, or to bargain for dispensations; but that the enemies of
Rome added much to it in order to render it more odious.
What is quite certain is that these imposts were never authorized by any
council; that it was an enormous abuse invented by avarice, and
respected by those whose interest it was not to abolish it. The buyers
and the sellers were equally satisfied: thus, barely anybody protested,
until the troubles of the reformation. It must be admitted that an exact
note of all these imposts would be of great service to the history of
the human mind.