Serapis by Georg Ebers
The night was hot and gloomy. Heavy clouds gathered in the north, and wreaths of mist, like a hot vapor-bath, swayed over the crisply-foaming wavelets that curled the lustreless waters of the Mareotis Lake. The moon peeped, pale and shrouded, out of a russet halo, and ghostly twilight reigned in the streets, still heated by the baked walls of the houses.
To the west, over the desert, a dull sulphurous yellow streaked the black clouds, and from time to time the sultry air was rent by a blinding flash sent across the firmament from the north. There was a hot, sluggish wind blowing from the southwest, which drove the sand across the lake into the streets; the fine grit stung: and burnt the face of the wanderer who hurried on with half-closed eyes and tightly-shut lips. A deep oppression seemed to have fallen on nature and on man; the sudden gusts of the heated breeze, the arrow-like shafts of lightning, the weird shapes and colors of the clouds, all combined to give a sinister, baleful and portentous aspect to this night, as though skies and waters, earth and air were brooding over some tremendous catastrophe.
Gorgo had thrown a veil and handkerchief round her head and followed the priest with an aching brow and throbbing heart. When she heard a step behind her she started-for it might be Constantine following her up; when a gust of wind flung the stinging sand in her face, or the storm-flash threw a lurid light on the sky, her heart stood still, for was not this the prelude to the final crash.
She was familiar with the way they were going, but its length seemed to have stretched tenfold. At last, however, they reached their destination. She gave the pass-word at the gate of her father's timber-yard and exchanged the signs agreed upon; in a few minutes she had made her way through the piles of beams and planks that screened the entrance to the aqueduct--a slave who knew her leading the way with a light--and she and her companion entered the underground passage.
It was hot and close; bats, scared by the flare of the torch, fluttered round her with a ghostly rustle, startling and disgusting her; still, she felt less alarm here than outside; and when, as she went forward she thought of the great temple she was coming to, of its wonderful beauty and solemn majesty, she only cared to press onward to that refuge of ineffable splendor where all would be peace. To die there, to perish there with her lover, did not seem hard; nay, she felt proud to think that she might await death in the noblest edifice ever raised to a god by mortal hands. Here Fate might have its way; she had known the highest joy she had ever dreamed of, and where on earth was there a sublimer tomb than this sanctuary of the sovereign of the universe, whose supremacy even the other gods acknowledged with trembling!
She had known the sacred halls of the temple from her childhood, and she pictured them as filled with thousands of lofty souls, united in this supreme hour by one feeling and one purpose. She even fancied she could hear the inspired and heartfelt strains of the enthusiasts who were prepared to give their lives for the god of their fathers, that she breathed the odor of incense and burnt sacrifices, that she saw the chorus of youths and maidens, led by priests and dancing with solemn grace in mazy circles round the flower-decked altars. There among the elders who had gathered round Olympius to meditate devoutly on the coming doom and on the inmost meaning of the mysteries--among the adepts who were anxiously noting, in the observatories of the Serapeum, the fateful courses of the stars, the swirling of the clouds and the flight of birds, she would doubtless find her father; and the fresh wound bled anew as she remembered that she was the bearer of news which must deeply shock and grieve him. Still, no doubt, she would find him wrapped in dignified readiness for the worst, sorrowing serenely for the doomed world, and so her melancholy message would come to a prepared and resigned heart.
She had no fear of the crowd of men she would find in the Serapeum. Her father and Olympius were there to protect her, and Dame Herse, too, would be a support and comfort; but even without those three, on such a night as this--the last perhaps that they might ever see--she would have ventured without hesitation among thousands, for she firmly believed that every votary of the gods was awaiting his own end and the crash of falling skies with devout expectancy, and perhaps with not less terror than herself.
These were her thoughts as she and her guide stopped at a strong door. This was presently opened and they found themselves in an underground chamber, devoted to the mysteries of the worship of Serapis, in which the adepts were required to go through certain severe ordeals before they were esteemed worthy to be received into the highest order of the initiated--the Esoterics. The halls and corridors which she now went through, and which she had never before seen, were meagrely lighted with lamps and torches, and all that met her eye filled her with reverent awe while it excited her imagination. Everything, in fact--every room and every image--was as unlike nature, and as far removed from ordinary types as possible, in arrangement and appearance. After passing through a pyramidal room, with triangular sides that sloped to a point, she came to one in the shape of a polygonal prism. In a long, broad corridor she had to walk on a narrow path, bordered by sphinxes; and there she clung tightly to her guide, for on one side of the foot-way yawned a gulf of great depth. In another place she heard, above her head, the sound of rushing waters, which then fell into the abyss beneath with a loud roar. After this she came upon a large grotto, hewn in the living rock and defended by a row of staring crocodiles' heads, plated with gold; the heavy smell of stale incense and acrid resins choked her, and her way now lay over iron gratings and past strangely contrived furnaces. The walls were decorated with colored reliefs: Tantalus, Ixion, and Sisyphus toiling at his stone, looked down on her in hideous realism as she went. Rock chambers, fast closed with iron doors, as though they enclosed inestimable treasures or inscrutable secrets, lay on either hand, and her dress swept against numerous images and vessels closely shrouded in hangings.
When she ventured to look round, her eye fell on monstrous forms and mystical signs and figures; if she glanced upwards, she saw human and animal forms, and mixed with these the various constellations, sailing in boats--the Egyptian notion of their motions--along the back of a woman stretched out to an enormous length; or, again, figures by some Greek artist: the Pleiades, Castor and Pollux as horsemen with stars on their heads, and Berenice's star-gemmed hair.
The effect on the girl was bewildering, overpowering, as she made her way through this underground world. The things she had glimpses of were very sparely illuminated, nay scarcely discernible, and yet appallingly real; what mysteries, what spells might not be hidden in all she did not see! She felt as if the end of life, which she was looking for, had already begun, as if she had already gone down, alive, into Hades.
The path gradually sloped upwards and at last she ascended, by a spiral staircase, to the ground-floor of the temple. Once or twice she had met a few men, but solemn silence reigned in those subterranean chambers.
The sound of their approaching and receding steps had only served to make her aware of the complete stillness. This was just as it should be--just as she would have it. This peace reminded her of the profound silence of nature before a tempest bursts and rages.
Gorgo took off her veil as she went up the stairs, shook out the folds of her dress, and assumed the dignified and reverent demeanor which became a young girl of rank and position when approaching the altars of the divinity. But as she reached the top a loud medley of noises and voices met her ear-flutes, drums?--The sacred dance, she supposed, must be going on.
She came out into a room on one side of the hypostyle; her companion opened a high door, plated with gilt bronze and silver, and Gorgo followed him, walking gravely with her head held high and her eyes fixed on the ground, into the magnificent hall where the sacred image sat enthroned in veiled majesty. They crossed the colonnade at the side of the hypostyle and went down two steps into the vast nave of the temple.
The wild tumult that she had heard on first opening the door had surprised and puzzled her; but now, as she timidly looked up and around her, she felt a shock of horror and revulsion such as might come over a man who, walking by night and believing that he is treading on flowers, suddenly finds that the slimy slope of a bottomless bog is leading him to perdition. She tottered and clutched at a statue, gazing about her, listening to the uproar, and wondering whether she were awake or dreaming.
She tried not to see and hear what was going on there; it was revolting, loathsome, horrible; but it was too manifest to be overlooked or ignored; its vulgarity and horror forced it on her attention. For some time she stood spell-bound, paralyzed; but then she covered her face with her hands; maidenly shame, bitter disillusion, and pious indignation at the gross desecration of all that she deemed most sacred and inviolable surged up in her stricken soul, and she burst into tears, weeping as she had never wept in all her life before. Sobbing bitterly, she wrapped her face in her veil, as though to protect herself from storm and chill.
No one heeded her; her companion had left her to seek her father. She could only await his return, and she looked round for a hiding place. Then she observed a woman in mourning garb sitting huddled at the foot of the statue of justice; she recognized her as the widow of Asclepiodorus and breathed more freely as she went up to her and said, between her sobs "Let me sit by you; we can mourn together."
"Yes, yes, come," said the other; and without enquiring what Gorgo's trouble might be, moved only by the mysterious charm of finding another in like sorrow with herself, she drew the girl to her and bending over her, at length found relief in tears.
The two weeping women sat in silence, side by side, while in front of them the orgy went on its frantic course. A party of men and women were dancing down the hall, singing and shouting. Flutes yelled, cymbals clanged, drums rattled and droned, without either time or tune. Drunken pastophori had flung open the rooms where the vestments and sacred vessels were kept, and from these treasuries the ribald mob had dragged forth panther-skins such as the priests wore when performing the sacred functions, brass cars for carrying sacrifices, wooden biers on which the images of the gods were borne in solemn processions, and other precious objects. In a large room adjoining, a party of students and girls were concocting some grand scheme for which they needed much time and large supplies of wine; but most of those who had possessed themselves of the plunder had taken it into the hypostyle and were vying with each other in extravagant travesties.
A burly wine-grower was elected to represent Dionysus and was seated with nothing but some wreaths of flowers to cover his naked limbs, in a four-wheeled sacrificial car of beaten brass. An alabaster wine-jar stood between his fat knees, and his heavy body rolled with laughter as he was drawn in triumph through the sacred arcades by a shouting rabble, as fast as they could run. Numbers of the intoxicated crew, mad with excitement and wine, had cast off their clothes which lay in heaps between the pillars, soaking in puddles of spilt wine. In their wild dance the girls' hair had fallen about their heated faces, tangled with withered leaves and faded flowers, and the men, young and old alike, leaped and waltzed like possessed creatures, flourishing thyrsus-staves and the emblems of the lusty wine-god.
A small band of priests and philosophers ventured into the chaos in the hope of quelling the riot, but a tipsy flute-player placed himself in front of them and throwing back his head blew a furious blast to heaven on his double pipe, shrill enough to wake the dead, while a girl seconded him by flinging her tambourine in the face of the intruding pacificators. It bounced against the shaft of a column, and then fell on the shaven head of a priestling, who seized it and tossed it back. The game was soon taken up, and before long, one tambourine after another was flying over the heads of the frenzied crew. Every one was eager to have one, and sprung to catch them, scuffling and struggling and making the parchment sound on his neighbor's head.
Some of the women had jumped on to the processional biers and were being carried round the hall by staggering youths, screaming with alarm and laughter; if one of them lost her balance and fell she was captured with shrieks of merriment and forced to mount her insecure eminence again. Presently the car of Dionysus came to wreck over the body of an unconscious toper, but no one stopped to set it right; and though the hapless representative of the god howled loudly to them to stop while he extricated himself from the machine, in which he had stuck, it was in vain; the score or so of youths who were dragging it tore on, passing close by Gorgo, who noted with indignation, that the brasswork of the axles was cutting deeply into the splendid mosaic of the pavement. At last the burly god fell out by his sheer weight, and his followers restored him to consciousness by taking him by the heels and dipping his towzled and bleeding head into a huge jar of wine and water. Then some hundreds of his drunken votaries danced madly round the rescued god; and as all the tambourines were split and the flute-players had no breath left, time was kept by beating with thyrsus-staves against the pillars, while three men, who had found the brazen tubas among the temple vessels, blew with all their might and main.
Strong opposition, however, was roused by this mad uproar. A party of worshippers, in the first place, rebelled against it; these had been standing with veiled heads, near the statue of Serapis, muttering exorcisms after a Magian and howling lamentably at intervals; then a preacher, who had succeeded in collecting a little knot of listeners, bid the trumpeters cease; and finally, a party of actors and singers, who had assembled in the outer hall to perform a satira play, tried to stop them, though they themselves were making such a noise that the trumpet-blast could have affected them but little. When the players found that remonstrance had no effect they rushed into the hypostyle and tried to reduce the musicians to silence by force.
Then a frenzied contest began; but the combatants were soon separated; the actors and their antagonists fell on each other's necks, and a Homeric poet, who had compiled an elegy for the evening on the "Gods coerced by the hosts of the new superstition," made up simply of lines culled from the Iliad and Odyssey, seized this favorable opportunity. He had begun to read it at the top of his voice, screaming down the general din, when everything was forgotten in the excitement caused by the entrance of a procession which was the successful result of many raids on the temple-treasuries and lumber-rooms.
A storm of applause greeted its appearance; the tipsiest stammered out his approval, and the picture presented to drunken eyes was indeed a beautiful and gorgeous one. On a high platform-intended for the display of a small image of Serapis and certain symbols of the god, at great festivals--Glycera, the loveliest hetaira of the town, was drawn in triumph through the temple. She reclined in a sort of bowl representing a shell, placed at the top of the platform, and on the lower stages sat groups of fair girls, swaying gently with luxurious grace, and flinging flowers down to the crowd who, with jealous rivalry, strove to catch them. Everyone recognized the beautiful hetaira as Aphrodite, and she was hailed, as with one voice, the Queen of the World. The men rushed forward to pour libations in her honor, and to join hands and dance in a giddy maze round her car.
"Take her to Serapis!" shouted a drunken student. "Marry her to the god. Heavenly Love should be his bride!"
"Yes--take her to Serapis," yelled another. "It is the wedding of Serapis and Glycera."
The crazy rabble pushed the machine towards the curtain, with the beautiful, laughing woman on the top, and her bevy of languishing attendants.
Until this instant the vivid lightning outside, and the growling of distant thunder had not been heeded by the revellers, but now a blinding flash lighted up the hall and, at the same instant, a tremendous peal crashed and rattled just above them, and shook the desecrated shrine. A sulphurous vapor came rolling in at the openings just below the roof, and this first flash was immediately followed by another which seemed to have rent the vault of heaven, for it was accompanied by a deafening and stunning roar and a terrific rumbling and creaking, as though the metal walls of the firmament had burst asunder and fallen in on the earth--on Alexandria--on the Serapeum.
The whole awful force of an African tempest came crashing down upon them; the wild revel was stilled; the trembling topers dropped their cups, fevered checks turned pale, the dancers parted and threw up their hands in agonized supplication, words of lust and blasphemy died on their lips and turned to prayers and muttered charms. The terrified nymphs that surrounded Venus sprang from the car, and the foam-born goddess in the shell tried to free herself from the garlands and gauzes in which she was involved, shrieking aloud when she perceived that she could not descend unaided from her elevated position. Other voices mingled with hers--lamenting, cursing, and entreating; for now the rainclouds burst, and through the window-openings poured a cold flood, chilling and wetting the drunken mob within.
The storm raved through the halls and corridors; lightning and thunder raged fiercely overhead; and the terrified wretches, suddenly sobered, rushed about or huddled together, like ants whose nest has been upturned. And into the midst of this dismayed throng rushed Orpheus, the son of Karnis, who had been till now on guard on the roof, crying out: "The world is coming to an end, the heavens are opening! Father--where is my father?"
And everyone believed him; they snatched off their garlands, tore their hair and gave themselves up to the utmost despair. Wailing, sobbing, howling-furious, but impotent, they appealed to each other; and though they had no hope of living to see another morning, or perhaps another hour, each one thought only of himself, of his garments, and of how he might best cover his limbs that shivered with terror and cold. From the Scuffling mob round the heaps of cast-off clothes came deep groans, piteous weeping, the shrieks of women, and the despairing moans of the panic-stricken wretches.
It was a fearful scene, at once heart-rending and revolting; Gorgo looked on, gnashing her teeth with rage and disgust, and only wishing for the end of the world and of her own life as a respite from it all. These crazed and miserable wretches, cowardly fools, these beasts in the guise of human beings, deserved no better than to perish; but was it conceivable that the supreme being should destroy the whole of the beautiful and wisely-planned world for the sake of this base and loathsome rabble.
It thundered, it lightened, the foundations of the temple shook--but she no longer looked for the final crash; she had ceased to believe in the majesty, the power and the purity of the divinity behind the veil. Her cheeks burnt with shame, she felt it a disgrace ever to have been numbered among his adherents; and, as the howling of the terrified crowd grew every moment louder and wilder, the memory of Constantine's grave and fearless manliness rose before her, in all its strength and beauty. She was his, his wholly and forever; and for the future all that was his should be hers: his love, his home, his noble purpose--and his God.