Serapis by Georg Ebers
Olympius followed Agne into the garden where he found her sitting by the marble margin of a small pool, giving her little brother pieces of bread to feed the swans with. He greeted her kindly and, taking up the child, showed him a ball which rose and fell on the jet of water from the fountain. Papias was not at all frightened by the big man with his white beard, for a bright and kindly gleam shone in his eyes, and his voice was soft and attractive as he asked him whether he had such another ball and could toss it as cleverly as the fountain did.
Papias said: "No," and Olympius, turning to Agne, went on:
"You should get him a ball. There is no better plaything, for play ought to consist in pleasant exertion which is in itself its object and gain. Play is the toil of a little child; and a ball, which he can throw and run after or catch, trains his eye, gives exercise to his limbs and includes a double moral which men of every age and position should act upon: To look down on the earth and keep his gaze on the heavens."
Agne nodded agreement and thanks, while Olympius set the child down and bid him run away to the paddock where some tame gazelles were kept. Then, going straight to the point, he said:
"I hear you have declined to sing in the temple of Isis; you have been taught to regard the goddess to whom many good men turn in faith and confidence, as a monster of iniquity, but, tell me, do you know what she embodies?"
"No," replied Agne looking down; but she hastily rose from her seat and added with some spirit: "And I do not want to know, for I am a Christian and your gods are not mine."
"Well, well; your beliefs, of course, differ from ours in many points: still, I fancy that you and I have much in common. We belong to those who have learnt to 'look upwards'--there goes the ball, up again!--and who find comfort in doing so. Do you know that many men believe that the universe was formed by concurrence of mechanical processes and is still slowly developing, that there is no divinity whose love and power guard, guide and lend grace to the lives of men?"
"Oh! yes, I have been obliged to hear many such blasphemous things in Rome!"
"And they ran off you like water off the silvery sheen of that swan's plumage as he dips and raises his neck. Those who deny a God are, in your estimation, foolish or perhaps abominable?"
"I pity them, with all my heart."
"And with very good reason. You are an orphan and what its parents are to a child the divinity is to every member of the human race. In this Gorgo, and I, and many others whom you call heathen, feel exactly as you do; but you--have you ever asked yourself why and how it is that you, to whom life has been so bitter, have such a perfect conviction that there is a benevolent divinity who rules the world and your own fate to kindly ends? Why, in short, do you believe in a God?"
"I?" said Ague, looking puzzled, but straight into his face. "How could anything exist without God? You ask such strange questions. All I can see was created by our Father in Heaven."
"But there are men born blind who nevertheless believe in Him."
"They feel Him just as I see Him."
"Nay you should say: 'As I believe that I see and feel Him.' But I, for my part, think that the intellect has a right to test what the soul only divines, and that it must be a real happiness to see this divination proved by well-founded arguments, and thus transformed to certainty. Did you ever hear of Plato, the philosopher?"
"Yes, Karnis often speaks of him when he and Orpheus are discussing things which I do not understand."
"Well, Plato, by his intellect, worked out the proof of the problem which our feelings alone are so capable of apprehending rightly. Listen to me: If you stand on a spit of land at the entrance to a harbor and see a ship in the distance sailing towards you--a ship which carefully avoids the rocks, and makes straight for the shelter of the port--are you not justified in concluding that there is, on board that ship, a man who guides and steers it? Certainly. You not only may, but must infer that it is directed by a pilot. And if you look up at the sky and contemplate the well-ordered courses of the stars--when you see how everything on earth, great and small, obeys eternal laws and unerringly tends to certain preordained ends and issues, you may and must infer the existence of a ruling hand. Whose then but that of the Great Pilot of the universe--the Almighty Godhead.--Do you like my illustration?"
"Very much. But it only proves what I knew before."
"Nevertheless, you must, I think, be pleased to find it so beautifully expressed."
"And must admire the wise man who thought out the comparison. Yes?--Well, that man again was one of those whom you call heathen, who believed as we believe, and who at the same time worked out the evidence of the foundations of his faith for you as well as himself. And we, the later disciples of Plato--[Known as the school of the Neo-Platonists]--have gone even further than our master, and in many respects are much nearer to you Christians than you perhaps suspect. You see at once, of course, that we are no more inclined than you to conceive of the existence of the world and the destiny of man as independent of a God? However, I dare say you still think that your divinity and ours are as far asunder as the east from the west. But can you tell me where any difference lies?"
"I do not know," said Ague uneasily. "I am only an ignorant girl; and who can learn the names even of all your gods?"
"Very true," said Olympius. "There is great Serapis, whose temple you saw yesterday; there is Apollo, to whom Karnis prefers to offer sacrifice; there is Isis the bountiful, and her sister Nephthys, whose lament you and my young friend sing together so thrillingly; and besides these there are more immortals than I could name while Gorgo--who is leading your little brother to the lake out there--walked ten times from the shore to us and back; and yet--and yet my child, your God is ours and ours is yours."
"No, no, He is not, indeed!" cried Agne with increasing alarm.
"But listen," Olympius went on, with the same kind urgency but with extreme dignity, "and answer my questions simply and honestly. We are agreed, are we not?--that we perceive the divinity in the works of his creation, and even in his workings in our own souls. Then which are the phenomena of nature in which you discern Him as especially near to you? You are silent. I see, you have outlived your school-days and do not choose to answer to an uninvited catechism. And yet the things I wish you to name are lovely in themselves and dear to your heart; and if only you did not keep your soft lips so firmly closed, but would give me the answer I ask for, you would remember much that is grand and beautiful. You would speak of the pale light of dawn, the tender flush that tinges the clouds as the glowing day-star rises from the waves, of the splendor of the sun-as glorious as truth and as warm as divine love. You would say: In the myriad blossoms that open to the morning, in the dew that bathes them and covers them with diamonds, in the ripening ears in the field, in the swelling fruit on the trees--in all these I see the mercy and wisdom of the divinity. I feel his infinite greatness as I gaze on the wide expanse of deep blue sea; it comes home to me at night when I lift my eyes to the skies and see the sparkling hosts of stars roll over my head. Who created that countless multitude, who guides them so that they glide past in glorious harmony, and rise and set, accurately timed to minutes and seconds, silent but full of meaning, immeasurably distant and yet closely linked with the fate of individual men?--All this bears witness to the existence of a God, and as you contemplate it and admire it with thankful emotion, you feel yourself drawn near to the Omnipotent. Aye, and even if you were deaf and blind, and lay bound and fettered in the gloom of a closely-shut cavern, you still could feel if love and pity and hope touched your heart. Rejoice then, child! for the immortals have endowed you with good gifts, and granted you sound senses by which to enjoy the beauty of creation. You exercise an art which binds you to the divinity like a bridge; when you give utterance to your whole soul in song that divinity itself speaks through you, and when you hear noble music its voice appeals to your ear. All round you and within you, you can recognize its power just as we feel it--everywhere and at all times.
"And this incomprehensible, infinite, unfettered, bountiful and infallibly wise Power, which penetrates and permeates the life of the universe as it does the hearts of men, though called by different names in different lands, is the same to every race, wherever it may dwell, whatever its language or its beliefs. You Christians call him the Heavenly Father, we give him the name of the Primal One. To you, too, your God speaks in the surging seas, the waving corn, the pure light of day; you, too, regard music which enchants your heart, and love which draws man to man, as his gifts; and we go only a step further, giving a special name to each phenomenon of nature, and each lofty emotion of the soul in which we recognize the direct influence of the Most High; calling the sea Poseidon, the corn-field Demeter, the charm of music Apollo, and the rapture of love Eros. When you see us offering sacrifice at the foot of a marble image you must not suppose that the lifeless, perishable stone is the object of our adoration. The god does not descend to inform the statue; but the statue is made after the Idea figured forth by the divinity it is intended to represent; and through that Idea the image is as intimately connected with the Godhead, as, by the bond of Soul, everything else that is manifest to our senses is connected with the phenomena of the supersensuous World. But this is beyond you; it will be enough for you if I assure you that the statue of Demeter, with the sheaf in her arms, is only intended to remind us to be grateful to the Divinity for our daily bread--a hymn of praise to Apollo expresses our thanks to the Primal One for the wings of music and song, on which our soul is borne upwards till it feels the very presence of the Most High. These are names, mere names that divide us; but if you were called anything else than Agne--Ismene, for instance, or Eudoxia--would you be at all different from what you are?--There you see--no, stay where you are--you must listen while I tell you that Isis, the much--maligned Isis, is nothing and represents nothing but the kindly influences of the Divinity, on nature and on human life. What she embodies to us is the abstraction which you call the loving-kindness of the Father, revealed in his manifold gifts, wherever we turn our eyes. The image of Isis reminds us of the lavish bounties of the Creator, just as you are reminded by the cross, the fish, and the lamb, of your Redeemer. Isis is the earth from whose maternal bosom the creative God brings forth food and comfort for man and beast; she is the tender yearning which He implants in the hearts of the lover and the beloved one; she is the bond of affection which unites husband and wife, brother and sister, which is rapture to the mother with a child at her breast and makes her ready and able for any sacrifice for the darling she has brought into the world. She shines, a star in the midnight sky, giving comfort to the sorrowing heart; she, who has languished in grief, pours balm into the wounded souls of the desolate and bereaved, and gives health and refreshment to the suffering. When nature pines in winter cold or in summer drought and lacks power to revive, when the sun is darkened, when lies and evil instincts alienate the soul from its pure first cause, then Isis uplifts her complaint, calling on her husband, Osiris, to return, to take her once more in his arms and fill her with new powers, to show the benevolence of God once more to the earth and to us men. You have learnt that lament; and when you sing it at her festival, picture yourself as standing with the Mother of Sorrows--the mother of your crucified divinity, by his open grave, and cry to your God that he may let him rise from the dead."
Olympius spoke the last words with excited enthusiasm as though he were certain of the young girl's consent; but the effect was not what he counted on; for Agne, who had listened to him, so far, with increasing agitation, setting herself against his arguments like a bird under the fascinating glare of the snake's eye, at this last address seemed suddenly to shake off the spell of his seductive eloquence as the leaves drop from the crown of a tree shaken by the blast; the ideas of her Saviour and of the hymn she was to sing were utterly irreconcilable in her mind; she remembered the struggle she had fought out during the night, and the determination with which she had come to the house this morning. All the insidious language she had just heard was forgotten, swept away like dust from a rocky path, and her voice was firmly repellent as she said:
"Your Isis has nothing in common with the Mother of our God, and how can you dare to compare your Osiris with the Lord who redeemed the world from death?"
Olympius, startled at the decision of her tone, rose from his seat, but he went on, as though he had expected this refusal:
"I will tell you--I will show you. Osiris--we will take him as being an Egyptian god, instead of Serapis in whose mysterious attributes you would find much to commend itself even to a Christian soul--Osiris, like your Master, voluntarily passed through death--to redeem the world from death--in this resembling your Christ. He, the Risen One, gives new light, and life, and blossom, and verdure to all that is darkened, dead and withered. All that seems to have fallen a prey to death is, by him, restored to a more beautiful existence; he, who has risen again, can bring even the departed soul to a resurrection; and when during this life its high aims have kept it unspotted by the dust of the sensual life, and he, as the judge, sees that it has preserved itself worthy of its pure First Cause, he allows it to return to the eternal and supreme Spirit whence it originally proceeded.
"And do not you, too, strive after purification, to the end that your soul may find an everlasting home in the radiant realms? Again and again do we meet with the same ideas, only they bear different forms and names. Try to feel the true bearing of my words, and then you will gladly join in the pathetic appeal to the sublime god to return. How like he is to your Lord! Is he not, like your Christ, a Saviour, and risen from the dead? The Temple or the Church--both are the sanctuaries of the Deity. By the ivy-wreathed altar of the weeping goddess, at the foot of the tall cypresses which cast their mysterious shadows on the snowy whiteness of the marble steps on which lies the bier of the god, you will feel the sacred awe which falls upon every pure soul when it is conscious of the presence of the Deity--call Him what you will.
"Isis, whom you now know, and who is neither more nor less than a personification of divine mercy, will make you a return by restoring you to the freedom for which you pine. She will allow you to find a home in some Christian house through our intervention, in acknowledgment of the pious service you are rendering, not to her but to the faith in divine goodness. There you may live with your little brother, as free as heart can desire. To-morrow you will go with Gorgo to the temple of the goddess . . ."
But Agne broke in on his speech: "No, I will not go with her!"
Her cheeks were scarlet and her breath came short and fast with excitement as she went on:
"I will not, I must not, I cannot! Do what you will with me: sell me and my brother, put us to turn a mill--but I will not sing in the temple!"
Olympius knit his brows; his beard quivered and his lips parted in wrath, but he controlled himself and going close to the girl he laid his hand on her shoulder and said in a deep grave tone of fatherly admonition:
"Reflect, child, pause; think over what I have been saying to you; remember, too, what you owe the little one you love, and to-morrow morning tell us that you have duly weighed your answer. Give me your hand, my daughter; believe me, Olympius is one of your sincerest well-wishers."
He turned his back on her and was going in doors. In front of the house Porphyrius and Karnis were standing in eager colloquy. The news that Marcus' mother Mary had sent for Herse had reached the singer, and his vivid fancy painted his wife as surrounded by a thousand perils, threatened by the widow, and carried before the judges. The merchant advised him to wait and see what came of it, as did Damia and Gorgo who were attracted to the spot by the vehemence of the discussion; but Karnis would not be detained, and he and Orpheus hurried off to the rescue. Thus Agne was left alone in the garden with her little brother, and perceiving that no one paid any further attention to their proceedings, she fell on her knees, clasped the child closely to her and whispered:
"Pray with me, Papias; pray, pray that the Lord will protect us, and that we may not be turned out of the way that leads us to our parents! Pray, as I do!"
For a minute she remained prostrate with the child by her side. Then, rising quickly, she took him by the hand and led him in almost breathless haste through the garden-gate out into the road, bending her steps towards the lake and then down the first turning that led to the city.