By Alexander Hislop
Those who have read the account of the last idol procession in the
capital of Scotland, in John Knox's History of the Reformation,
cannot easily have forgot the tragi-comedy with which it ended. The light
of the Gospel had widely spread, the Popish idols had lost their
fascination, and popular antipathy was everywhere rising against them.
"The images," says the historian, "were stolen away in all parts of the
country; and in Edinburgh was that great idol called Sanct Geyle [the
patron saint of the capital], first drowned in the North Loch, after
burnt, which raised no small trouble in the town." The bishops demanded of
the Town Council either "to get them again the old Sanct Geyle, or else,
upon their (own) expenses, to make a new image." The Town Council
could not do the one, and the other they absolutely refused
to do; for they were now convinced of the sin of idolatry. The bishops and
priests, however, were still made upon their idols; and, as the
anniversary of the feast of St. Giles was approaching, when the saint used
to be carried in procession through the town, they determined to do their
best, that the accustomed procession should take place with as much pomp
as possible. For this purpose, "a marmouset idole" was borrowed from the
Grey friars, which the people, in derision, called "Young Sanct Geyle,"
and which was made to do service instead of the old one. On the appointed
day, says Know, "there assembled priests, friars, canons...with taborns
and trumpets, banners, and bagpipes; and who was there to lead the ring
but the Queen Regent herself, with all her shavelings, for honour of that
feast. West about goes it, and comes down the High Street, and down to the
As long as the Queen was present, all went to the heart's content of the priests and their partisans. But no sooner had majesty retired to dine, than some in the crowd, who had viewed the whole concern with an evil eye, "drew nigh to the idol, as willing to help to bear him, and getting the fertour (or barrow) on their shoulders, began to shudder, thinking that thereby the idol should have fallen. But that was provided and prevented by the iron nails [with which it was fastened to the fertour]; and so began one to cry, 'Down with the idol, down with it'; and so without delay it was pulled down. Some brag made the priests' patrons at the first; but when they saw the feebleness of their god, for one took him by the heels, and dadding [knocking] his head to the calsay [pavement], left Dagon without head or hands, and said, 'Fye upon thee, thou young Sanct Geyle, thy father would have tarried [withstood] four such [blows]'; this considered, we say, the priests and friars fled faster than they did at Pinkey Cleuch. There might have been seen so sudden a fray as seldom has been seen amongst that sort of men within this realm; for down goes the crosses, off goes the surplice, round caps corner with the crowns. The Grey friars gaped, the Black friars blew, the priests panted and fled, and happy was he that first gat the house; for such ane sudden fray came never amongst the generation of Antichrist within this realm before."
Such an idol procession among a people who had begun to study and relish the Word of God, elicited nothing but indignation and scorn. But in Popish lands, among a people studiously kept in the dark, such processions are among the favourite means which the Romish Church employs to bind its votaries to itself. The long processions with images borne on men's shoulders, with the gorgeous dresses of the priests, and the various habits of different orders of monks and nuns, with the aids of flying banners and the thrilling strains of instrumental music, if not too closely scanned, are well fitted "plausibly to amuse" the worldly mind, to gratify the love for the picturesque, and when the emotions thereby called forth are dignified with the names of piety and religion, to minister to the purposes of spiritual despotism. Accordingly, Popery has ever largely availed itself of such pageants. On joyous occasions, it has sought to consecrate the hilarity and excitement created by such processions to the service of its idols; and in seasons of sorrow, it has made use of the same means to draw forth the deeper wail of distress from the multitudes that throng the procession, as if the mere loudness of the cry would avert the displeasure of a justly offended God.
Gregory, commonly called the Great, seems to have been the first who, on a large scale, introduced those religious processions into the Roman Church. In 590, when Rome was suffering under the heavy hand of God from the pestilence, he exhorted the people to unite publicly in supplication to God, appointing that they should meet at daybreak in SEVEN DIFFERENT COMPANIES, according to their respective ages, SEXES, and stations, and walk in seven different processions, reciting litanies or supplications, till they all met at one place. They did so, and proceeded singing and uttering the words, "Lord, have mercy upon us," carrying along with them, as Baronius relates, by Gregory's express command, an image of the Virgin. The very idea of such processions was an affront to the majesty of heaven; it implied that God who is a Spirit "saw with eyes of flesh," and might be moved by the imposing picturesqueness of such a spectacle, just as sensuous mortals might. As an experiment it had but slender success. In the space of one hour, while thus engaged, eighty persons fell to the ground, and breathed their last. Yet this is now held up to Britons as "the more excellent way" for deprecating the wrath of God in a season of national distress. "Had this calamity," says Dr. Wiseman, referring to the Indian disasters, "had this calamity fallen upon our forefathers in Catholic days, one would have seen the streets of this city [London] trodden in every direction by penitential processions, crying out, like David, when pestilence had struck the people." If this allusion to David has any pertinence or meaning, it must imply that David, in the time of pestilence, headed some such "penitential procession." But Dr. Wiseman knows, or ought to know, that David did nothing of the sort, that his penitence was expressed in no such way as by processions, and far less by idol processions, as "in the Catholic days of our forefathers," to which we are invited to turn back. This reference to David, then, is a mere blind, intended to mislead those who are not given to Bible reading, as if such "penitential processions" had something of Scripture warrant to rest upon. The Times, commenting on this recommendation of the Papal dignitary, has hit the nail on the head. "The historic idea," says that journal, "is simple enough, and as old as old can be. We have it in Homer--the procession of Hecuba and the ladies of Troy to the shrine of Minerva, in the Acropolis of that city." It was a time of terror and dismay in Troy, when Diomede, with resistless might, was driving everything before him, and the overthrow of the proud city seemed at hand. To avert the apparently inevitable doom, the Trojan Queen was divinely directed.
"To lead the assembled train
And she did so:--
"Herself...the long procession leads;
Here is a precedent for "penitential processions" in connection with idolatry entirely to the point, such as will be sought for in vain in the history of David, or any of the Old Testament saints. Religious processions, and especially processions with images, whether of a jubilant or sorrowful description, are purely Pagan. In the Word of God we find two instances in which there were processions practised with Divine sanction; but when the object of these processions is compared with the avowed object and character of Romish processions, it will be seen that there is no analogy between them and the processions of Rome. The two cases to which I refer are the seven days' encompassing of Jericho, and the procession at the bringing up of the ark of God from Kirjath-jearim to the city of David. The processions, in the first case, though attended with the symbols of Divine worship, were not intended as acts of religious worship, but were a miraculous mode of conducting war, when a signal interposition of Divine power was to be vouchsafed. In the other, there was simply the removing of the ark, the symbol of Jehovah's presence, from the place where, for a long period, it had been allowed to lie in obscurity, to the place which the Lord Himself had chosen for its abode; and on such an occasion it was entirely fitting and proper that the transference should be made with all religious solemnity. But these were simply occasional things, and have nothing at all in common with Romish processions, which form a regular part of the Papal ceremonial. But, though Scripture speaks nothing of religious processions in the approved worship of God, it refers once and again to Pagan processions, and these, too, accompanied with images; and it vividly exposes the folly of those who can expect any good from gods that cannot move from one place to another, unless they are carried. Speaking of the gods of Babylon, thus saith the prophet Isaiah (46:6),
"They lavish gold out of the bag, and weigh silver in the balance, and hire a goldsmith; and he maketh it a god: they fall down, yea, they worship. They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth; from his place he shall not remove."
In the sculptures of Nineveh these processions of idols, borne on men's shoulders, are forcibly represented, and form at once a striking illustration of the prophetic language, and of the real origin of the Popish processions. In Egypt, the same practice was observed. In "the procession of shrines," says Wilkinson, "it was usual to carry the statue of the principal deity, in whose honour the procession took place, together with that of the king, and the figures of his ancestors, borne in the same manner, on men's shoulders." But not only are the processions in general identified with the Babylonian system. We have evidence that these processions trace their origin to that very disastrous event in the history of Nimrod, which has already occupied so much of our attention. Wilkinson says "that Diodorus speaks of an Ethiopian festival of Jupiter, when his statue was carried in procession, probably to commemorate the supposed refuge of the gods in that country, which," says he, "may have been a memorial of the flight of the Egyptians with their gods." The passage of Diodorus, to which Wilkinson refers, is not very decisive as to the object for which the statues of Jupiter and Juno (for Diodorus mentions the shrine of Juno as well as of Jupiter) were annually carried into the land of Ethiopia, and then, after a certain period of sojourn there, were brought back to Egypt again. But, on comparing it with other passages of antiquity, its object very clearly appears. Eustathius says, that at the festival in question, "according to some, the Ethiopians used to fetch the images of Zeus, and other gods from the great temple of Zeus at Thebes. With these images they went about at a certain period in Libya, and celebrated a splendid festival for twelve gods." As the festival was called an Ethiopian festival; and as it was Ethiopians that both carried away the idols and brought them back again, this indicates that the idols must have been Ethiopian idols; and as we have seen that Egypt was under the power of Nimrod, and consequently of the Cushites or Ethiopians, when idolatry was for a time put down in Egypt, what would this carrying of the idols into Ethiopia, the land of the Cushites, that was solemnly commemorated every year, be, but just the natural result of the temporary suppression of the idol-worship inaugurated by Nimrod.
In Mexico, we have an account of an exact counterpart of this Ethiopian festival. There, at a certain period, the images of the gods were carried out of the country in a mourning procession, as if taking their leave of it, and then, after a time, they were brought back to it again with every demonstration of joy. In Greece, we find a festival of an entirely similar kind, which, while it connects itself with the Ethiopian festival of Egypt on the one hand, brings that festival, on the other, into the closest relation to the penitential procession of Pope Gregory. Thus we find Potter referring first to a "Delphian festival in memory of a JOURNEY of Apollo"; and then under the head of the festival called Apollonia, we thus read: "To Apollo, at Aegialea on this account: Apollo having obtained a victory over Python, went to Aegialea, accompanied with his sister Diana; but, being frightened from thence, fled into Crete. After this, the Aegialeans were infected with an epidemical distemper; and, being advised by the prophets to appease the two offended deities, sent SEVEN boys and as many virgins to entreat them to return. [Here is the typical germ of 'The Sevenfold Litany' of Pope Gregory.] Apollo and Diana accepted their piety,...and it became a custom to appoint chosen boys and virgins, to make a solemn procession, in show, as if they designed to bring back Apollo and Diana, which continued till Pausanias' time." The contest between Python and Apollo, in Greece, is just the counterpart of that between Typho and Osiris in Egypt; in other words, between Shem and Nimrod. Thus we see the real meaning and origin of the Ethiopian festival, when the Ethiopians carried away the gods from the Egyptian temples. That festival evidently goes back to the time when Nimrod being cut off, idolatry durst not show itself except among the devoted adherents of the "Mighty hunter" (who were found in his own family--the family of Cush), when, with great weepings and lamentations, the idolaters fled with their gods on their shoulders, to hide themselves where they might. In commemoration of the suppression of idolatry, and the unhappy consequences that were supposed to flow from that suppression, the first part of the festival, as we get light upon it both from Mexico and Greece, had consisted of a procession of mourners; and then the mourning was turned into joy, in memory of the happy return of these banished gods to their former exaltation. Truly a worthy origin for Pope Gregory's "Sevenfold Litany" and the Popish processions.