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HOME > Religious Fiction > Paganism Surviving in Christianity > CHAPTER V. GREEK WATER-WORSHIP.
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Sprinkling and Immersion Both Used—Prominence of “Baptismal Regeneration”—Lustral Water at Temple Doors—Baptism of Animals—Influence of “The Greek Mysteries” on Christian Baptism—Initiatory Baptisms—Scenic Illustrations—Mithraic Baptism Engrafted on Grecian—“Creed,” “Symbol,” Drawn from Grecian Water-Worship Cult—Identity of Grecian and Roman Catholic Forms—The Use of Spittle in Pagan Baptism.

In our survey of the wide field, we now come to a still more specific view of the pagan cult, along the line of Hellenic thought, where it impinged most strongly upon Christianity.

Potter writes learnedly of water-worship among the Greeks, in the following:

“At least every person who came to the solemn sacrifices was purified by water. To which end at the entrance to the temples there was commonly placed a vessel full of holy water. This water was consecrated by putting into it a burning torch taken from the altar. The same torch was sometimes made use of to sprinkle those who entered into the temple. Thus we find in Euripides, and also in Aristophanes, where the scholiast observes that this torch was used because of the quality of fire, which is thought to purify all things. Instead of the torches, they[113] sometimes used a branch of laurel, as we find in Pliny. Thus Sozomen, where he speaks of Valentinian following Julian into a pagan temple, relates that when they were about to enter, a priest holding certain green boughs dropping water besprinkled them after the Grecian manner. Instead of laurel, olive was sometimes used. Thus we find in Virgil:
‘Old Corian?us compassed thrice the crew,
And dipped an olive branch in holy dew.’

“This custom of surrounding here expressed, was so constant in purifying that most of the terms which relate to any sort of purification are compounded with περι, around, thus: περι??α?νειν, περιμ?ττεσθαι, περιθειο?ν, περιαγν?ζειν, etc.

“The vessel which contained the water of purification was termed, περι??αντ?ριον. And the Latin word lustrare, which signifies to purify or expiate, came hence to be a general word for any sort of surrounding or encompassing. Thus it is used by Virgil, ... dum montibus umbr? lustrabunt convexo. Spondanus tells us that before the sacrifices of the celestial gods, the worshippers had their whole bodies washed, or if that could not be, at least their hands; but for those that performed the sacred rites to the infernal gods, a small sprinkling was sufficient. Sometimes the feet were washed as well as the hands; whence came the proverbs, ανιπτοι? χερσιν and ανιπτοι? ποσιν. In Latin illotis manibus, and illotis pedibus,—which are usually applied to men who undertake anything without due care and preparation. Porphyry tells us there was a programme fixed up, that no man should go beyond the περι??αντ?ριον till he had washed his hands; so great a crime was it counted to omit this ceremony, that[114] Timarchides hath related a story of one Asterius, who was struck dead with thunder because he had approached the altar of Jupiter with unwashed hands. Nor was this custom only used at solemn sacrifices, but also at the smallest parts of their worship. Hector tells us that he was afraid to make so much as a libation to Jupiter before he had washed.
‘I dread with unwashed hands to bring,
My incensed wine to Jove, an offering.’

“And Telemachus is said, in Homer’s Odysseis, to have washed his hands before he ventured to pray to the gods. This they did out of a conceit that thereby they were purified from their sins; and withal signifying that nothing impure ought to approach the deities. On the same account, they sometimes washed their clothes, as Homer relates of Penelope, before she offered prayers to the gods. The water used in purification was required to be clear, and without mud and all other impurities. It was commonly fetched from fountains and rivers. The water of lakes or standing ponds was unfit for this purpose. So also was the purest stream if it had been a considerable time separated from its source.”[103]

Baring Gould gives another picture of baptism and lustration among the Greeks:

“Among the Greeks, the mysteries of Cotys commenced with a purification, a sort of baptism, and the priests of the Thracian Goddess derived from this their title of β?πται. But Apollo, from a supposed derivation of his[115] name from ?πολο?ω to purify, was the special god of expiation by baptismal acts. In Thessaly was yearly celebrated a great festival of cleansing. A work bearing the name of Mus?us was a complete ritual of purifications. It distinguished the ceremonies into two orders, τελετα? and καθαρμο?. The latter were purifications and expiations accomplished by special sacrifices. The former resembled the purifications performed in the Mysteries. The usual mode of purification was dipping in water, or it was performed by aspersion. The baptism of immersion was called λο?τρον, the other περ???ανσι?. These sacraments were held to have virtue independent of the disposition of the candidate, an opinion which called forth the sneer of Diogenes when he saw some one undergoing baptism by aspersion: ‘Poor wretch! do you not see that, since these sprinklings cannot repair your grammatical errors, they cannot repair either the faults of your life?’

“Lustral water was placed at the temple doors, with which the profane were purified by the priests. Usually, before entering a temple, the hands and feet were washed. At Athens, when the pr?drai had opened the assembly, the peristiarch offered a sacrifice, and then with the blood of the victim sprinkled the seats. The herald then took the place of the peristiarch, and continued the lustration by burning incense; for fumigations (περιθει?σει?), constituted another means of purification. In default of water, sand was used, and salt, which, as a symbol of incorruption, was regarded as possessed of purificatory virtue. Every impure act, murder, the touch of a corpse, illegitimate commerce, even the conjugal act, demanded purification. In like manner, baptism was practised by the Romans,[116] and Juvenal satirizes those who washed away their sins by dipping the head thrice in the morning into the waters of the Tiber.[104]

“On the feast of Pales, the goddess of flocks, the shepherds purified themselves by washing their hands thrice in new fallen dew; or a lustration was effected by aspersion with consecrated water shaken from a branch of laurel or olive; in reference to which rite Propertius prays, much as once did David: ‘Spargite me lymphis.’”[105]

The Grecian idea of baptism is well set forth by Ovid, in the following lines:
“From Greece the custom came, for Greece esteems
Those free from guilt who bathe in sacred streams.
Thus did old Pelius once Patroclus lave,
And free from stain in the H?monian wave:
As, in that same H?monian stream before,
Acastus, Pelius freed from Phocus’ gore.
The Phasian sorceress, in her fiery car,
Borne by yoked dragons through the liquid air,
To credulous ?geus supplication made,
And from him won an undeservèd aid.
In Naupactoan Achelous’ flood,
His horrid hands stained with his mother’s blood,
Alc?mon bathed; ‘Cleanse me from crime,’ he cried,
Nor by the stream was his request denied.
Ah, vain the hope, and far too easy they,
Who think the water takes such guilt away.”
Fasti, book ii., line 58 ff.
Influence of the “Greek Mysteries.”[117]

The influence of the Greek mysteries in corrupting Christian baptism is more plainly seen than that of any other specific department of the pagan cult. These mysteries were the remnant of the oldest religion known to the Greeks. They embodied the worship of the gods of the productive forces in nature, and of the gods of death. The most important centre of this cult was at Eleusis, where the worship was celebrated in the largest temple in Greece. The chief elements in the cult were initiation, sacrifice, and scenic representations of the great facts in the processes of nature and in human life. The main conception in the initiation was that the candidate must be purified before he could approach God. The initiated, being thus purified, were inducted to a divine life and to the hope of a resurrection. The ceremonial began with the proclamation: “Let no one enter whose hands are not clean, and whose tongue is not prudent.”[106]

Confession was followed by a kind of baptism.[107] The candidates for initiation bathed in the pure waters of the sea. The manner of bathing and the[118] number of immersions varied with the degree of guilt which they had confessed. They came from the bath new men. It was a κ?θαρσι?, a λουτρ?ν, a “laver of regeneration.” Certain forms of abstinence were imposed; they had to fast; and when they ate they had to abstain from certain kinds of food.[108]

After this purification came a σωτ?ρια, “a great public sacrifice of salvation”; also personal sacrifices. After an interval of two days still more sacrifices, shows, and “processions” followed. The initiated carried lighted torches and sang “loud peans in honor of the God.”[109] Then came the scenic representations at night. The initiated stood outside the temple in deep darkness. Suddenly the door opened, and in a blaze of light the drama of Demeter and Kore appeared—in which the loss of the daughter, the wanderings of the mother, and the birth of the child, were enacted. This symbolized the earth in its great experiences, as well as the corresponding experiences in human life. All this was enacted in silence. Each man saw and meditated for himself. It was believed that this gave purity to the initiated, changed their relations to the gods, and made them “partakers of a life to[119] come.”[110] Mithraicism had a similar form of initiation, a prominent feature of which was a sacred meal, upon a “holy table,” of which the initiated took part after they were purified. The societies which practised these mysteries existed on a large scale during the earliest centuries of our era, and had a marked influence upon the earliest Christian communities, and upon the subsequent church. Hatch thus describes these effects:

“It was inevitable when a new group of associations came to exist side by side with a large existing body of associations, from which it was continually detaching members, introducing them into its own midst, with the practices of their original societies impressed upon their minds, that this new group should tend to assimilate, with the assimilation of their members, some of the elements of these existing groups.

“This is what we find to have been in fact the case. It is possible that they made the Christian associations more secret than before. Up to a certain time there is no evidence that Christianity had any secrets. It was preached openly to the world. It guarded worship by imposing a moral bar to admission. But its rites were simple and its teaching was public. After a certain time all is changed; mysteries have arisen in the once open and easily accessible faith, and there are doctrines which must not be declared in the hearing of the uninitiated.”[111]


The effect of these pagan mysteries upon Christian baptism, and upon the Lord’s Supper also, will be more clearly seen when we remember how simple a ceremony New Testament baptism was. It followed immediately upon confession of faith in Christ. There was no preparatory ceremony, no ritual, only the simple formula. There was no confusion or controversy concerning the “mode,” for submersion alone was known within Christian circles.

When the current of history emerges at and after the middle of the second century, marked changes appear which are so identical with gnosticism and the Greek mysteries that there can be no question as to their source.[112] Among these changes were the following:

The name is changed, and the new terms used come directly from the familiar mysteries. Justin[121] calls it ψωτισμ??, φωτιζεσθαι, “enlightenment.”[113] Those who had passed the tests were “sealed,” φραγι?—a term from the mysteries.[114] It was also called μυστ?ριον,[115] “Mysteries” and many other terms, all of which sprung from the “mysteries of Greek paganism, rather than from the New Testament.”

The time of baptism of adults was changed to meet the pagan conception of it as a purifying and saving act. A long preparation was demanded, and, to meet the pagan idea that it removed sins, it was often deferred until near the close of life in order to make the most of both worlds.[116] The initiated in the Greek mysteries were given a password: σ?μβολον or σ?νθημα. “So the catechumens had a formula which was only entrusted to them in the last days of their catechumenate, the baptismal formula itself, and the Lord’s Prayer.”[117] A special rite accompanied the giving of this formula. Otherwise both the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed were kept as “mysteries”; the technical name for creed remains to this day as σ?μβολον “symbol.”[118]

Hatch quotes a description of baptism in the Roman Catholic Church, which shows every essential[122] feature of the Eleusinian mysteries transferred to “Christian baptism,” falsely so called. The account is taken from Mabillon.[119] He writes thus:

“I will abridge the account which is given of the practice at Rome so late as the ninth century. Preparation went on through the greater part of Lent. The candidates were examined and tested; they fasted; they received the secret symbols, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. On Easter eve, as the day declined towards afternoon, they assembled in the Church of St. John Lateran. The rites of exorcism and renunciation were gone through in solemn form, and the rituals survive. The Pope and his priests come forth in their sacred vestments, with lights carried in front of them, which the Pope then blesses; there is a reading of lessons and a singing of psalms. And then, while they chant a litany, there is a procession to the great bath of baptism, and the water is blest. The baptized come forth from the water, are signed with the cross, and are presented to the Pope one by one, who vests them in a white robe and signs their foreheads again with the cross. They are arranged in a great circle, and each of them carries a light. Then a vast array of lights is kindled; the blaze of them, says a Greek Father, makes night continuous with dawn. It is the beginning of a new life. The mass is celebrated—the mystic offering on the cross is represented in figure; but for the newly baptized the chalice is filled, not with wine, but with milk and honey, that they may understand, says an old writer, that they have entered already upon the promised land. And there was one more symbolical rite[123] in that early Easter sacrament, the mention of which is often suppressed—a lamb was offered on the altar, afterwards, cakes in the shape of a lamb. It was simply the ritual which we have seen already in the mysteries. The purified crowd at Eleusis saw a blaze of light, and in the light were represented in symbol life and death and resurrection.”[120]
Anointing and Baptism.

The use of anointing oil in baptism was borrowed directly from paganism. To economize space, and fortify by the power of a great name, we again quote from Hatch:

“The general inference of the large influence of the Gnostics on baptism, is confirmed by the fact that another element, which certainly came through them, though its source is not certain, and is more likely to have been Oriental than Greek, has maintained a permanent place in most rituals—the element of anointing. There were two customs in this matter, one more characteristic of the East, the other of the West—the anointing with (1) the oil of exorcism before baptism and after the renunciation of the devil, and (2) the oil of thanksgiving, which was used immediately after baptism, first by the presbyter and then by the bishop, who then sealed the candidate on the forehead. The very variety of the custom shows how deep and yet natural the action of the Gnostic systems, with the mystic and magic customs of the Gnostic societies or associations, had been on the practices and ceremonies of the Church.”[121]

Use of Spittle in Baptism.

The pagan doctrine of exorcism was carried still further, and baptism was corrupted yet more by adding the use of human saliva as a “charm.” This arose from the general use of spittle by the pagans as a talisman against harm and evil influences. Rev. John James Blunt says:

“Human saliva was heretofore very generally used as a charm, and was thought particularly efficacious against the venom of poisonous animals. Pliny quotes some authorities to prove that the pernicious powers of toads and frogs may be disarmed by this means, and that serpents may be rendered innoxious by spitting into their mouths. The testimony of Varro is also cited by the naturalist to show that there were people in the Hellespont, near Pasium, who could cure the bite of snakes by their saliva.... It is remarkable that in administering the rite of baptism the priest, among other ceremonies, moistens a napkin with his own saliva, and then touches with it the eyes and nose of the child, accompanying the action by the word Ephphatha. It was with a similar rite that Roman infants received their names on the Dies Lustricus.”[122]

The Satirists were not slow in holding up these various superstitions to deserved ridicule. Perseus touches the spittle superstition in the following stanza:

“Lo! from his little crib the grandam hoar,
Or aunt, well-versed in superstitious lore,
Snatches the babe; in lustral spittle dips
Her middle finger, and anoints his lips
And forehead.”[123]

Pliny supports the statement of Blunt as follows:

“The Marsi, in Italy, are still in possession of the same power, for which it is said they are indebted to their origin from the son of Circe, from whom they acquired it as a natural quality. But the fact is, that all men possess in their bodies a poison which acts upon serpents, and the human saliva, it is said, makes them take to flight as though they had been touched with boiling water. The same substance, it is said, destroys them as soon as it enters their throat, and more particularly so, if it should happen to be the saliva of a man who is fasting.”[124]

In another place Pliny enumerates many uses to which spittle is put:

“But it is the fasting spittle of a human being that is, as already stated by us, the sovereign preservative against the poison of serpents: while, at the same time, our daily experience may recognize its efficacy and utility in many other respects. We are in the habit of spitting, for instance, as a preservative from epilepsy, or, in other words, we repel contagion thereby; in a similar manner, too, we repel fascinations, and the evil presages attendant upon meeting a person who is lame in the right leg. We ask pardon of the gods, by spitting in the lap, for entertaining[126] some too presumptuous hope or expectation. On the same principle, it is the practice, in all cases where medicine is employed, to spit three times on the ground, and to conjure the malady as often, the object being to aid the operation of the remedy employed. It is usual, too, to mark a boil, when it first makes its appearance, three times with fasting spittle. What we are going to say is marvellous, but it may easily be tested by experiment: if a person repents of a blow given to another, either by hand or with a missile, he has nothing to do but to spit at once in the palm of the hand which has inflicted the blow, and all feelings of resentment will be instantly alleviated in the person struck. This, too, is often verified in the case of a beast of burden when brought on its haunches with blows; for upon this remedy being adopted, the animal will immediately step out and mend its pace. Some persons, however, before making an effort, spit into the hand in the manner above stated, in order to make the blow more heavy. We may well believe, then, that lichens and leprous spots may be removed by a constant application of fasting spittle; that ophthalmia may be cured by anointing, as it were, the eyes every morning with fasting spittle; that carcinomata may be effectually treated by kneading the root of the plant known as ‘apple of the earth’ with human spittle; that crick in the neck may be got rid of by carrying fasting spittle to the right knee with the right hand, and to the left knee with the left; and when an insect has got into the ear it is quite sufficient to spit into that organ to make it come out. Among the counter-charms, too, are reckoned the practice of spitting into the urine the moment it is voided, of spitting into the shoe of the right foot before putting it on, and of spitting while a[127] person is passing a place in which he has incurred any kind of peril.

“Marcion, of Smyrna, who has written a work on the virtues of simples, informs that the sea scolopendra will burst asunder if spit upon; and that the same is the case with bramble frogs, and other kinds of frogs. Opilius says that serpents will do the same if a person spits into their open mouth; and Salpe tells us that when any part of the body is asleep the numbness may be got rid of by the person spitting into his lap, or touching the upper eyelid with his spittle. If we are ready to give faith to such statements as these, we must believe also in the efficacy of the following practices: upon the entrance of a stranger, or when a person looks at an infant while asleep, it is usual for the nurse to spit three times upon the ground; and this, although infants are under the special guardianship of the god Fascinus, the protector, not of infants only, but of generals as well, and a divinity whose worship is entrusted to the vestal virgins, and forms a part of the Roman rites.”

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