Fulfilling Paganism

Fulfilling Paganism June 22, 2016

Robert Pogue Harrison (The Dominion of the Dead) spends several pages on Walter Pater’s novel, Marius the Epicurean. A deathbed convert to Christianity, Marius is struck in his first encounter with the church by the continuities between Christianity and the oldest of Roman religions, the religion of Numa, second king of Rome.

As Marius describes the rites of Numa: “The urns of the dead in the family chapel received their due service. They also were now becoming something divine, a goodly company of friendly and protecting spirits, encamped about the place of their former abode—above all others, the father, dead ten years before, of whom, remembering but a tall, grave figure above him in early childhood, Marius habitually thought as a genius a little cold and severe. . . . The dead genii were satisfied with little—a few violets, a cake dipped in wine, or a morsel of honeycomb. Daily from the time when his childish footsteps were still uncertain, had Marius taken them their portions of the family meal, at the second course, amidst the silence of the company. They loved those who brought them their sustenance; but, deprived of these services, would be heard wandering through the house, crying sorrowfully in the stillness of the night” (quoted, 113).

When he visits the catacombs where Christians worship, he discovers a similar community of the departed: “A narrow opening cut in [the hill’s] steep side, like a solid blackness there, admitted Marius . . . into a hollow cavern or crypt, neither more nor less in fact than the family burial place of the Cecilii, to whom this residence belonged, brought thus, after an arrangement then becoming not unusual, into immediate connection with the abode of the living, in bold assertion of that instinct of family life, which the sanction of the Holy Family was, hereafter, more and more to reinforce. Here, in truth, was the centre of the peculiar religious expressiveness, of the sanctity of the entire scene. That ‘any person may, at his own election, constitute the place which belongs to him a religious place, by the carrying of the dead into it’:—had been a maxim of old Roman law, which it was reserved for the early Christian societies, like that established here by the piety of a wealthy Roman matron, to realize in all its consequences. Yet this was unlike any cemetery Marius had ever before seen: most obviously in this, that these people had returned to the older fashion of disposing of their dead by burial instead of burning. Originally a family sepulchre, it was growing to a vast necropolis, a whole township of the deceased, by means of some free expansion of the family interest beyond its amplest natural limits” (quoted, 116). Everything about the religion of Numa that attracted Marius took on new life in the church.

Not only in their treatment of the dead, but in their sense of the numinous in everything. The Eucharist represented a throwback: “as a spiritual sensualist [Marius] was both captivated and enchanted by Christian sacraments, which seemed to him to respond to, or to arise from, or in any case ceremoniously to acknowledge, the presence of the noumenal mystery that envelops the visible world, lending earthly things their aura of sacrality. Here at last was a religion that reconsecrated the earth and ‘all we can see or touch,’ that blessed the same bread, wine, and oil that the Numa religion, now superannuated, had once blessed within the confines of the family house.” The Mass blessed “simple fruits” and so was able “to retrieve and expand the sacramental core of a primitive religion that had since died out in the ‘jaded world’ of late paganism” (114).

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