Monday, October 31, 2016

The Sensation of Dying By Edward Mercer D.D. 1919

The Sensation of Dying By Edward Mercer D.D. 1919

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It is difficult for a man in full health to divest himself of what health brings with it—vivid feeling and quick-moving thought. Life under normal conditions asserts itself with conviction, and with similar conviction shrinks from all that threatens or negates it. And thus when a healthy man tries to imagine what it is to die, he supposes that the ordeal is undergone with sensations and emotions as keen as those he himself possesses. In this he greatly errs. For, generally speaking, along with waning of the bodily powers goes dulling of nerve sensitiveness and loss of mental vigour. The lamp burns low. And thus it is true to say that "the pains of death" exist almost wholly in the imaginations of those who are not dying.

The error is not however altogether without excuse. For it is easy to misinterpret the real significance of what is not infrequently seen at a deathbed. The clammy brow, the convulsive twitching of muscles, the contorted features, the gasping for breath— these and other like signs ordinarily indicate suffering that is consciously felt and more or less consciously expressed. It would seem to argue a lack of sympathy to regard them otherwise when a man is dying. And yet there is little doubt that, in such a case, these bodily processes, though the result of nerve-currents, seldom rise into the sphere of genuine sentience. As life ebbs, so does the threshold of consciousness fall, until it sinks into the unconscious, and the actual dying is painless both to body and mind.

Even when the space between healthy life and death is brief, it is not at all certain that the case is otherwise. Naturalists who have defended Nature against a charge of cruelty, have argued that the victims of beasts of prey do not suffer much. They use the well-known account given by Livingstone of his sensations when seized by a lion. "Starting and looking half round, I saw a lion just in the act of springing on me. I was upon a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came together to the ground below. Growling horribly, he shook me as a terrier does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It causes a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain or feeling of terror, though I was quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast."

A hardly less well-known case, also frequently quoted, is that of Whymper's accident on the Matterhorn. He fell nearly two hundred feet in seven or eight bounds. Here is his footnote in the fifth chapter of the "Scrambles Amongst the Alps." "As it seldom happens that one survives such a fall, it may be interesting to record what my sensations were during its occurrence. I was perfectly conscious of what was happening, and felt each blow; but, like a patient under chloroform, experienced no pain. Each blow was naturally more severe than that which preceded it, and I distinctly remember thinking, 'Well, if the next is harder still, that will be the end!' Like persons who have been rescued from drowning, I remember that the recollection of a multitude of things rushed through my head, many of them trivialities or absurdities, which had been forgotten long before; and, more remarkable, this bounding through space did not feel disagreeable. But I think that in no very great distance more, consciousness as well as sensation would have been lost, and upon that I base my belief, improbable as it seems, that death by a fall from a great height is as painless an end as can be experienced."

From such experiences as these we may conclude that sudden and violent death preceded by a shock to body or mind, is easy and painless. So also, normally, is the death that succeeds long illness; still more that which is the result of debility and decay. It would be going too far to maintain that there is never pain at the time of death. The struggle for breath is probably the most consciously trying, and for the longest time. But severe pains are exceptions to a general rule. "Even in the most awful death known (says a writer on this theme), death by burning, mortality is rendered painless at an early stage by suffocation. It is the first moment of experience of the heat that is so terrible; we think, in imagination, that we could never endure it, and wonder how the martyrs faced it with such calm. But, apart from that state of spiritual ecstasy, their sufferings were soon ended by Nature herself, which appears to set very real limits to physical torture."

The pains of death, then, are much exaggerated. But, as has been already hinted, strictly speaking death has no pains at all. When life and death contend, it is life that is the positive agent; death is simply its negation. If we rightly discriminate, therefore, we should speak of "the pains of life."

It is the will-to-live which struggles and, in struggling, suffers. Death marks the time when the will-to-live yields to its conqueror. Hence the strength of the position taken up by pessimists, eastern and western, when they maintain that if we would escape pain, we must crush down the will-to-live. Schopenhauer's whole system turns on this thought; and his followers are neither few nor unfamed. A controversy on pessimism is not now our concern; we are only seeking to get to the right standpoint for a study of death; and the doctrine is thus far useful to us in that it helps us to draw a distinction which clears the issues. On the physical side, accurate thought will not attribute pain to death but to life. Our problem, then, is this —Why should life-processes have to wage a conflict? Why should they not be immortal?

It is possible in certain cases to go further still. For there is abundant evidence that dying may not only be painless, physically and mentally, but may even be occupied by a pleasant sense of restful peace. Nay, there are some who have undergone the experience but have been brought back to life at the last moment, and who assure us that they were possessed by a feeling of ecstasy. Pope had some such idea in his mind when he wrote his seriously intended, though characteristically artificial "Ode on Dying": "Lend, lend your wings, I mount, I fly."*

The more closely, therefore, the sensation of dying is judged by the experiences available, the more are we led to conclude that, while the anticipation of it may stir emotion, it need not cause dismay.


1 Vital spark of heavenly flame!
    Quit, oh quit this mortal frame:
    Trembling, hoping, lingering, flying,
    Oh the pain, the bliss of dying!
  Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife,
  And let me languish into life!
2 Hark! they whisper; angels say,
    'Sister Spirit, come away!'
    What is this absorbs me quite?
    Steals my senses, shuts my sight,
  Drowns my spirits, draws my breath?
  Tell me, my soul, can this be Death?
3 The world recedes; it disappears!
    Heaven opens on my eyes! my ears
    With sounds seraphic ring!
    Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
  O Grave! where is thy victory?
  O Death! where is thy sting?

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Vampires and Werewolves in Russian Mythology by W.R.S. Ralston 1872

Vampires and Werewolves in Russian Mythology by W.R.S. Ralston 1872

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The power of dealers in magic to transform themselves or their victims into various shapes is widely spread in Russia, and plays an important part in the popular mythology of the country. A person thus changed bears the name of oboroten [oborotit' = to turn], or, when changed into a wolf, of volkodlak [volk = wolf, dlaka = a tuft of hair, and so a hide]. Werewolf stories are so well known among all nations, that it is unnecessary to give a detailed account of the proceedings of the Russian volkodlaki. But it may be as well to mention that the collection of laws, etc. called the Kormchaya Kniga states that in these transformed beings the people used to see no mere mortals, but "chasers of the clouds." Afanasief connects them with the okrutniki, or maskers disguised as various animals, who used to participate in the religious games of the Old Slavonians, and who still, though their original signification is forgotten, play a part in the rustic festivals at springtide and Christmas. So strong an odour of heathenism still hangs about them, that the peasants think the wearing of a mask at the Christmas Svyatki is a sin, one which can be expiated only by bathing in an icehole, after the benediction of the waters.

Connected with the idea of transformation is the belief, common among the Russian peasantry, that all witches have tails, and all wizards have horns, and that a werewolf may be known by the bristles which grow under his tongue. Such dealers in sorcery take various shapes, but generally, says Afanasief, those of the animals known as symbols of the cloud and the storm. In the Ukraine witches assume a canine form; their long teats trail on the ground, a fact on which Afanasief lays stress, remarking that the bosom, udder, or teat, was a well-known mythological synonym for a rain-cloud. Cats are generally thought uncanny in Slavonic countries, the Russian peasants believing that evil spirits enter into them during storms, and the Bohemians holding that a black cat at the end of seven years becomes either a witch or a devil. [There is a Bohemian tradition, however, that the devil invented mice in order to destroy "God's corn," whereupon God created the cat.] The owl is considered to be of a demoniacal nature, while the dove is so pure and holy that no witch is able to assume its form.

Of all living creatures, magpies are those whose shapes witches like best to take. The wife of the false Demetrius, according to popular poetry, escaped from Moscow in the guise of a magpie. As a general rule, no such bird is to be seen in that city, its race having been solemnly cursed by the Metropolitan Alexis, on account of the bad behaviour of the witches who often assumed its plumage. At the present day the peasants often gibbet a dead magpie, just as our gamekeepers do, but it is in order to scare away witches from stables and cow-sheds. Besides changing into the birds and beasts, of which mention has been made, Russian witches often assume the forms of stones, hay-cocks, or balls of thread— that is to say, observes Afanasief, of various objects mythologically connected with clouds.

Here is a specimen of a zagovor to be employed by a wizard who desires to turn into a werewolf:—

"In the ocean sea, on the island Buyan, in the open plain, shines the moon upon an aspen stump, into the green wood, into the spreading vale. Around the stump goes a shaggy wolf; under his teeth are all the horned cattle; but into the wood the wolf goes not, in the vale the wolf does not roam. Moon, moon! golden horns! Melt the bullet, blunt the knife, rot the cudgel, strike fear into man, beast, and reptile, so that they may not seize the grey wolf, nor tear from him his warm hide. My word is firm, firmer than sleep or the strength of heroes."

In this spell, says Buslaef, the aspen stump is mentioned because a buried werewolf or vampire has to be pierced with an aspen stake. The expression that the wolf has all the horned cattle in or under his teeth resembles the proverb now applied to St. George, "What the wolf has in his teeth, that Yegory gave"—St. George, or Yegory the Brave, having taken the place which was once filled by the heathen god of flocks, the Old Slavonic Volos. And the warm hide of the werewolf is in keeping with his designation Volkodlak, from dlaka, a shaggy fell.

There is, of course, a great difference between the voluntary and the involuntary undergoers of transformation. Dealers in the black art who have turned themselves into wolves are, for the most part, ravenous destroyers of all that falls in their way, but people who have been made wolves against their will seldom disgrace their human nature. Such gentle werewolves as these attach themselves to men, and by tears and deprecatory pawings attempt to apologize for their brutal appearance. Unless driven beyond endurance by hunger, they never slay and eat, and when they must kill a sheep, they seek one belonging to some other village than that in which they used to live. There once was a youth, says a Polish tradition, who was loved by a witch, but he scorned her affection. One day he drove into the forest to cut firewood, but no sooner had he swung his axe in the air than his hands turned into wolf's paws, and in a short time his whole body bristled with shaggy hair. He ran to his cattle, but they fled in terror; he tried to call them back, but his voice had become a mere howl. In another instance a witch turned one of her neighbours into a wolf, and he stated, after he had regained his former shape, that during the period of his transformation he made friends with a real wolf, and often went out hunting with him, but that he never forgot that he was really a man, though he had lost the faculty of articulate speech. The White-Russians have a tradition that once, when a wedding party were thoroughly enjoying themselves, they were all transformed by some hostile magician—the bridegroom and the other men into wolves, the bride into a cuckoo, and the rest of the women into magpies.

Ever since that time the metamorphosed bride has flown about seeking for and lamenting her lost bridegroom, and moistening the hedges with the "Cuckoo's tears," which we less poetically style "Cuckoo's spittle."

In order to produce such an effect as this on a wedding party, the hostile wizard, it is generally believed, must girdle each member of it with a leather strap or piece of bast, over which unholy spells have been whispered. According to a Ruthenian story, however, a witch once gained her end by simply rolling up her girdle, and hiding it beneath the threshold of the cottage in which the wedding festivities were being held. Every one who stepped across it immediately became a wolf. In order to effect the cure of an involuntary werewolf, it is necessary either to strip off his hide, or to remove the magic girdle or other amulet which has reduced him into his brute state. In one of the Russian stories a black dog behaves in so reasonable a manner, that the people to whom it has attached itself take it to a wizard for relief. Acting upon his advice, they heat a bath as hot as possible, and scald the dog's skin off. No sooner is this done than the dog turns into a young man belonging to a neighbouring village, whom an old sorceress had bewitched.

Witches and wizards constantly metamorphose people by the touch of a magic wand, stick, or whip.

Sometimes, however, even this is not essential. In Ruthenia, at least, it is believed that a wizard, if he only knows a man's baptismal name, can transform him by a mere effort of will, and therefore a man should conceal his real name, and answer to a fictitious one. Such a power as this is supposed by the Russian peasantry to have been employed upon one occasion by the Apostles Peter and Paul. As they were passing over a bridge one day, "a bad woman and her husband," who had agreed to frighten the holy travellers, and had dressed themselves up in sheepskins turned inside out, ran at them, roaring like bears. "Then the Apostles said,'Go on roaring from this time forward and for ever!' and at that very instant the mockers were turned into bears."

More terrible even than the werewolf, but closely connected with him, as well as with the wizard and the witch, is the dreaded Vampire. It is in the Ukraine and in White-Russia—so far as the Russian Empire is concerned—that traditions are most rife about this ghastly creation of morbid fancy. There vampires are supposed to be such dead persons as in their lifetime were wizards, witches, and werewolves; or people who became outcasts from the Church and its rites, by committing suicide, for instance, or by drinking themselves to death; or heretics and apostates, or victims of a parental curse. The Little-Russians, on the other hand, attribute the birth of a vampire to an unholy union between a witch and a werewolf or a devil.

The name itself has never been satisfactorily explained. In its form of vampir [South-Russian upuir, anciently upir], it has been compared with the Lithuanian wempti = to drink, and wempti, wampiti = to growl, to mutter, and it has been derived from a root pi [to drink] with the prefix u = av, va. If this derivation is correct, the characteristic of the vampire is a kind of blood-drunkenness. In accordance with this idea the Croatians call the vampire pijawica; the Servians say of a man whose face is coloured by constant drinking, that he is "bloodred as a vampire;" and both the Servians and the Slovaks term a hard drinker a vlkodlak. The Slovenes and Kashubes call the vampire vieszcy, a name akin to that borne by the witch in our own language as well as in Russian. The Poles name him upior or upir, the latter being his designation among the Czekhs also.

"There is a whole literature of hideous vampire stories, which the student will find elaborately discussed in Calmet," says Mr. Tylor ["Primitive Culture II., 175], who thinks that "vampires are not mere creations of groundless fancy, but causes conceived in spiritual form to account for the specific facts of wasting disease." Some writers, however, of whom Afanasief is one, explain the vampire stories mythologically. Of their explanations some account will presently be given.

In the opinion of the Russian peasant vampires, as well as witches, exert a very baneful influence on the weather. To them, and to werewolves, are attributed the presence of storms, droughts, famines, cattle-plagues, and similar evils. Where such unholy beings wander, one woe succeeds another. But worse than their evil effect upon the weather—one which they produce in common with the spirits of all persons who have died by violence—worse than their attacks upon cattle, are their terrible dealings with mankind. As a specimen of the Russian vampire stories, the following, heard in the Tambof Government, may be taken:—

A peasant was driving past a grave-yard, after it had grown dark. After him came running a stranger, dressed in a red shirt and a new jacket, who cried,—

"Stop! take me as your companion."

"Pray take a seat." They enter a village, drive up to this and that house. Though the gates are wide open, yet the stranger says, "Shut tight!" for on those gates crosses have been branded. They drive on to the very last house: the gates are barred, and from them hangs a padlock weighing a score of pounds; but there is no cross there, and the gates open of their own accord.

They go into the house; there on the bench lie two sleepers—an old man and a lad. The stranger takes a pail, places it near the youth, and strikes him on the back; immediately the back opens, and forth flows rosy blood. The stranger fills the pail full, and drinks it dry. Then he fills another pail with blood from the old man, slakes his brutal thirst, and says to the peasant,—

"It begins to grow light! let us go back to my dwelling."

In a twinkling they found themselves at the graveyard. The vampire would have clasped the peasant in its arms, but luckily for him the cocks began to crow, and the corpse disappeared. The next morning, when folks came and looked, the old man and the lad were both dead.

According to the Servians and Bulgarians, unclean spirits enter into the corpses of malefactors and other evilly-disposed persons, who then become vampires. Any one, moreover, may become a vampire, if a cat jumps across his dead body while it lies in the cottage before the funeral, for which reason a corpse is always carefully watched at that time. In some places the jumping of a boy over the corpse is considered as fatal as that of a cat. The flight of a bird above the body may also be attended by the same terrible result; and so may—in the Ukraine—the mere breath of the wind from the Steppe.

The bodies of vampires, of wizards, and of witches, as well as those of outcasts from the Church, and of people cursed by their parents, are supposed not to decay in the grave, for "moist mother-earth" will not take them to herself. There is a story in the Saratof Government of a mother who cursed her son, and after his death his body remained free from corruption for the space of a hundred years. "At last he was dug up, and his old mother, who was still alive, pronounced his pardon; and at that very moment the corpse crumbled into dust."

Every one knows that when a vampire's grave is opened no trace of death is found upon its body, its cheek being rosy and its skin soft; and that the best way to destroy the monster is to drive a stake through it, when the blood it has been sucking will pour forth from the wound. The Servian method of discovering its grave may not be so well known. According to Vuk Karadjic it is customary to take an immaculately black colt, and drive it through the churchyard. Over the vampire's grave it will refuse to pass. The whole village then turns out, the vampire is dug up, pierced with a white-thorn stake, and committed to the flames.

It is worthy of remark that the stake with which the vampire's corpse is pierced must be driven into it by a single stroke. A second blow would reanimate it. This idea is frequently referred to in the Russian skazki and other Slavonic stories, in which it is customary for the hero to be warned that he must strike his enemy the snake, or other monster, once only. A repetition of the blow would be certain to prove fatal to himself.

Sometimes, instead of blood-sucking vampires, heart-devouring witches trouble the peasant's repose. A Mazovian story relates how a certain hero was long renowned for courage. But at last one night a witch struck him on the breast with an aspen twig as he lay asleep; his breast opened, and out of it she took his heart, and inserted a hare's heart in its place. The hero awoke a trembling coward, and remained one till the day of his death. Another Polish story of a similar nature tells how a witch substituted a cock's heart for that of a peasant. From that time forward the unfortunate man was always crowing. Sometimes the witches did not eat the hearts they stole, but merely exposed them to a magic fire so as to create love-longings in the breasts from which they had been taken. The idea still survives, as Jacob Grimm remarks, in our expressions of "giving" or "stealing one's heart."

A fondness for human flesh is attributed to ogre-like beings all over the world, so there is nothing remarkable in the depraved appetites of the supernatural man-eaters of the Slavonic tales. Somewhat singular, however, is one group of stories in which a dead wizard or witch is described as coming to life at midnight, and desiring to eat the person who is watching beside the bier. The body has generally been enclosed in a coffin, secured with iron bands, and conveyed to the church in which the watcher has to read aloud from Holy Writ above it all night long. As the clock strikes twelve a mighty wind suddenly arises, the iron bands give way with a terrible crash, the coffin-lid falls off, and the corpse leaps forth, and with a screech rushes at the doomed watcher, of whom, as a general rule, nothing remains next morning but bare bones. His only chance of escape is to trace a magic circle around him on the floor, and to remain within it, holding in his hand a hammer, the ancient weapon of the thunder-god. Here is one of the stories of this class from the Kharkof Government. "Once, in the days of old, there died a terrible sinner. His body was taken into the church, and the sacristan was told to read psalms over him. The sacristan took the precaution to catch a cock, and carry it with him. At midnight, when the dead man leaped from his coffin, opened his jaws wide, and rushed at his victim, the sacristan gave the bird a pinch. The cock uttered his usual crow, and that very moment the dead man fell backwards to the ground a numb, motionless corpse'."

What Socialism Actually Looks Like, by T. Hodgson 1906

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THE WORKHOUSE THE MOST PERFECT EXAMPLE OF SOCIALISM by T. Hodgson, Chaplain at Shoreditch Workhouse 1906

What has socialism to say for itself, so far as present examples of its operations and effects are concerned? The postal department is usually cited as the example of what a socialistic State would be like. It is, say the advocates of socialism, the most successful department of State, and has conferred many benefits upon the community. But the postal department is, as compared with other departments, a very simple department to work; and a system like this would not necessarily succeed if applied to the whole complex relations of life. It is always easy to manage simple bodies; it is when you come to deal with complex organisms that you are confronted with difficulties. But even this department, simple as it is, is not perfect; neither are those who live and work under it entirely contented. They have their grievances, like other folks, and they do not appear to be any better provided for than workers in other spheres of life. Nay, it is distinctly certain that they are not so well provided for as many other workers are; and, if proof be needed of this, it will be found in the fact that postmen find it necessary to augment their State income by engaging, as far as they can, in other branches of work, and so helping to complicate and intensify the labour problem. The postal system, indeed, presents some features of what a socialistic State would be like, such as low wages, a uniform dress, a monotonous routine, and a strict and severe supervision.

But the postal department is not the most perfect example that we have of what a socialistic State would be like. If you want to see a real example of what socialism absolute would be, you must look to the workhouse [in the UK it is a public institution in which the destitute of a parish received board and lodging in return for work]. In the workhouse you may find a socialistic State in miniature. In the workhouse you will see all the ghastly features of socialism displayed, and observe the effects of a system which is held up to working men and others as the most perfect means of salvation from our social ills, and as the best possible paradise of an intelligent and liberty-loving people. Here you may learn what absolute State control means; what a monotonous routine can do; and how possible it is for one supreme hand to recognise the merits, rights, and deserts of either single individuals or groups of them. Under the Poor Laws there is no recognition of the essence of law, as set forth in the words, "The law was made for evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well." All come under the same stern and unbending rule. Neither respectability, desert, skill, nor payment receives the slightest recognition. The reward of labour, so far as it is performed, is paid in the shape of food—good or bad, as the case may be—and clothes of a particular and stereotyped kind. Here liberty is entirely lost; everything is by permission or command. The State, in fact, determines everything, and exacts an implicit obedience from all alike. And so life is reduced to a dull, dead, dreary monotony—a paralysing and degrading routine.

Perhaps you will say, "Reform the system." Our reply is, Reform as you like, you cannot permanently improve it. You can only pass it from one kind of monotony to another. You may prescribe a better diet, dress, and kind of work; but the absoluteness of the State will remain, and the influence of these will be the same, howsoever they may be expressed. The most that can be done is to supply the spirit with a different body, and it is just the spirit that colours and determines everything. The only effectual way of dealing with our workhouses is by reforming them off the face of the earth. I sincerely hope that an enterprising, humane, and intelligent people will soon effect this reform, for workhouses are a standing disgrace to civilisation, a menace to, and a degradation of, human nature. They are costly and cruel, expensive and useless, a temptation and a shame. They are cruel to the respectable and worthy poor; they are useless as regards the lazy and the bad; and they are a temptation to capital, to labour, to all alike, to neglect their reasonable duty, and to forego the exercise of some of their best and noblest faculties. Brother Englishmen, let us sweep them away! Let us demand that our respectable and worthy fellow-men, who have reasonably and honestly done their work and served the community faithfully, shall have better treatment, when their health and strength have failed them, than imprisonment by the State at the cost and with the consent of their toiling brethren. And for the rest, those who do not come under the foregoing head, we shall know how to provide some fitting reward.

I have said very little about the influence which this example wields over those who are not inmates. But from experience and observation I am in a position to tell you that it is most disastrous. It spoils, by its monotony and dreariness, the temper, and nature, and disposition of all those who come under it. It is only by the most desperate efforts that you can counteract it—only, at times, by actually doing something desperate that you can keep yourself above the dull level, and overcome what, for convenience sake, I will call the workhouse law of gravitation.

And this is our present most representative example of what socialism would be. If I am right, or even if I am only partially right, socialism is not desirable. It will bring no relief to the worker, it will not increase wages, it will not bring in the golden age; but it will destroy liberty, it will introduce monotony, it will prevent individual and national progression, it will take away all incentives to ennoblement of character; it will supersede our family life, which is our best and highest source of joy; it will curtail our pleasures, complicate and make impossible our relations with surrounding nations; it will place us all under an absolute State, and all this implies a tyranny.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Suicide Among the Early Jews, Christians Romans, etc. by S.A.K. Strahan 1893

Suicide In Early Times And Among Primitive Peoples by S.A.K. Strahan 1893

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Here glance at self-destruction as it occurred in past times among the natives of the far East: the Brahmins and Buddhists. Next consider very briefly suicide among the ancient Jews. And finally, see how often and under what circumstances voluntary death was embraced by the Greeks, Romans, and other early European peoples.


The teachings of Brahmanism could not do other than favour the commission of suicide. The Brahmins held that the soul was loaded with a certain amount of sin which had to be got rid of before the cleansed soul could return to the great spirit Brahma, of which it was a part. With them there was nothing individual in the soul. It was merely a part of the great spirit separated therefrom for a purpose, and when that purpose was effected it merged once more in the divinity of which it was a part.

With the Brahmins the purification of the soul was not the rapid and easy process it is in some systems of religion. With them it was only effected by tribulation and suffering experienced, and religious observances practised, through a whole series of earthly pilgrimages. The doctrine of transmigration held that the soul was sent back from Brahma again and again, until, at length, by repeated purging it became sufficiently pure to be received into its divine source.

The natural consequence of this teaching was a contempt for life and a desire for death. To the Brahmin the body was a mere covering for the soul during its pilgrimage on the earth, and was accounted of no value. Life itself was but a period of servitude and suffering in consequence of sin, and was also valueless. Life, in fact, was a curse—a thing to be got rid of as soon as possible. The one aim and object was to have done with life and the world, and get back to rest in Brahma. This, however, could only be attained by a certain number of painful earthly pilgrimages, becoming less painful as the soul became purer. As a consequence of this belief, when the Brahmin thought he had gone some way in the purification of his soul by prayer and other spiritual exercises, he hurried from the world. By this act he not only shortened the period of separation from God, but he entered upon a purer and happier life in his next incarnation than the life he gave up. "Numbers of persons who felt themselves doomed to many more transmigrations in penalty for sins, and were dissatisfied with their present, condition, would commit suicide in the hope of improving it by the next incarnation, for of the sinfulness of suicide there appears not to have been the slightest suspicion."

With the diseased and otherwise afflicted, as would naturally be expected, suicide was even more common than with the healthy. They had a double incentive to the act. Not only did these by death get one step nearer that "consummation devoutly to be wished," but they rid themselves of suffering which made life intolerable, and which they stood a fair chance of not having to endure in their next appearance upon the earth. Thus, lepers and other diseased persons among the Hindus destroyed themselves in immense numbers annually, partly on religious grounds, and partly to rid themselves of an existence which their sufferings had made unbearable. Of the thousands who annually sought and found an end of life in the Ganges and other sacred streams, or beneath the wheels of the car of juggernaut, a majority were probably the victims of religious fanaticism; but it is certain that a large proportion were driven [to the act by physical suffering. Indeed, at the present day it is the regular custom for those attacked by an incurable disease, or by a tedious and painful illness, to make an end of their lives in some sacred stream.

Drowning appears to have been the mode of death most commonly resorted to by the Hindus in the past, as, indeed, it is at present. For special reasons, however, and in certain districts, other modes were at times followed. The author just quoted relates how the difficult feat of self-decapitation was performed in a certain district. This authority was informed that "there existed formerly at a village near Nudeeya, an instrument which was used by devotees to cut off their own heads. It was made in the shape of a half moon, with a sharp edge, and was placed at the back of the neck, having chains fastened at the two extremities. The infatuated devotee, placing his feet in the two stirrups, gave a violent jerk, and severed his head from his body."

Fire was frequently resorted to by the natives all over India as a means of self-destruction; more especially by lepers and other diseased persons. The general belief was that lepers and others dying of their disease were afflicted with the same disease in their next appearance on the earth; whereas, those who cast themselves in the fire and so perished were cleansed of the disease, and appeared in healthy bodies in their next incarnation. This belief caused great numbers of suicides by fire, as did also the observance of the Suttee. In this latter form of self-sacrifice the widow was consumed on the funeral pile along with the body of her deceased husband; but, as we shall see later on, this sacrifice was not by any means voluntary in even a majority of cases.

Several other modes of destroying life were practised by the Hindus; among others may be mentioned precipitation from heights, burial alive, and starvation. Nevertheless, drowning was at all times the most favourite mode of quitting life adopted by the Brahmins.


Buddhism took no more cheerful view of life than did the earlier religion. With the Buddhists life was a calamity just as it had been with their predecessors; and the faithful were ever ready to give it up. The Buddhist stood to gain by death even more than the Brahmin, and as his estimate of the value of life was no higher, self-destruction was still more common among the followers of Buddha than it had been before the promulgation of the new religion.

By the Buddhists suicide is looked upon even in the present day as justifiable under almost any circumstances. There are, it is true, some few suicides which are looked upon as dishonorable in China: as those arising from gambling and the like. But all through China and Japan, indeed everywhere that Buddhism has penetrated, human life is held as of little or no value, and suicide is committed on the slightest provocation imaginable, or without provocation at all. With the followers of Buddha life is a penance, and death the doorway to eternal Joy; consequently it is not surprising that they are ever ready to take leave of life on the slightest pretext. An insult, for instance, or some trivial affront, is, among the Chinese and Japanese, frequently followed by the death, not of the aggressor, but of the offended one, who performs hara-kiri upon himself, and goes direct to his god with eclat, leaving his assailant whatever infamy may attach to the transaction. Religious fanaticism reaches a level of development among the Buddhists almost beyond belief. To-day, both in China and Japan, immense numbers of infatuated devotees destroy their lives amid their singing and feasting relatives, in the firm belief that they go direct to Buddha. Travellers tell how, in Japan, when a man has made up his mind to quit life, he invites all his friends, and tells them of his resolve. He then induces as many of them as he can—usually several—to die with him; then a feast is arranged, and at its conclusion the devotees despatch themselves in the sight of their assembled friends.

Charlevoix [Historie du Japon] says:—"Nothing is more common than to see boats filled with fanatical worshippers lining the shore, who weight themselves with stones, and plunge into the sea, or scuttle their vessels, and sink with them beneath the waves, all the while pouring forth glad hymns to their idols. A crowd of spectators standing looking on, praise them to the skies, and entreat their blessing before they disappear. The votaries of Amida immerse themselves in caves having only one small breathing hole and barely sitting-room, where they quietly wait death by starvation. Others plunge into sulphur pits, invoking their gods and entreating them to graciously accept the sacrifice of their lives." Of course, this account is a century old; but at the present day suicide is shockingly common with both Chinese and Japanese, who practice drowning, hanging, hara-kiri or belly-rip, starvation, and many other modes ol voluntary death.

It is interesting to compare the foregoing account of Charlevoix with that of Eleazar in his speech to the garrison of Massada eighteen centuries earlier. The Jewish leader said, "What shall we say to the Indian philosophers and Brahmins? a wise and virtuous sort of people. They look upon life only as a necessary function of nature; an office which they discharge uneasily enough, and not without some impatience to be quit of the trouble. And they are not weary of life either, upon the account of pain or inconvenience; but for the love of immortality, and a blessed conversation that shall never have an end. Nay, they take solemn leave of their friends, too, as if it were but for a journey, and tell them when they are agoing; neither does anybody offer to hinder them; but, on the contrary, wish them happy, and send formal messages by them to their acquaintances, in a full and certain confidence that they understand one another. And so when they have received all their orders and instructions, they commit their bodies to the fire, as a preparatory purification, and go off with acclamations, and to the satisfaction of all the spectators. For among them friends follow one another more cheerfully to death than they would do to a long journey; joying with those that are now entering into a state of immortality, and only lamenting the rest that stay behind. What a shame it will be for us now to fall short of the Indians in a matter of this importance." [Josephus: "Wars of the Jews," 1. vii., c. 28.]

This description of suicide in India was written more than eighteen hundred years ago, yet it might have been written yesterday of many of the back stations in British India. It may appear at the first glance ridiculous to include such
suicidal exhibitions as those mentioned above under the head of religious suicides; but if we recognise that these creatures are actuated by exactly the same ecstatic spirit which prompted the Christian martyrs to provoke persecution and seek death, and die at the stake when a word would have saved them, and then leap into the flames crying to their God for joy that they were dying to His glory, it will not appear ridiculous.


Suicide was not apparently so common among the early Jews as it came to be later on. It would seem that suicide was commonest among this people about the beginning of the Christian era. Strange to say, there are but four suicides
mentioned in the Old Testament as at present arranged.

The first suicide recorded in the Bible is that of Samson. In his case the act was that of a man driven to revengeful fury by the indignities and cruelties of his persecutors. He was not so much actuated by a wish for his own death as by a burning desire for revenge upon his persecutors. That this was so is proved beyond doubt by his prayer, uttered immediately before the fatal act "O Lord God," he said, "remember me, I pray Thee, and strengthen me, I pray Thee, only this once, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes." And as he took hold of the pillars, he cried, "Let me die with the Philistines." Clearly his object was revenge, although it is doubtful whether he cared much for his own life. Shorn of his grandeur, and deprived of his sight, he willingly gave what remained to him of life for that one moment of sweet revenge when he felt that he was wreaking vengeance upon his brutal persecutors.

The second and third suicides of Holy Writ are those of Saul and his armour-bearer. These clearly belong to the same class as does Samson's; that is, they were committed not for love of death, but from force of external circumstances. Samson died that he might gain something dearer than life—revenge; Saul and his follower died that they might escape something worse than death—falling into the hands of the enemy. Saul was retreating from a lost field when he was "sore wounded of the archers." Rather than be captured by the enemy, he called upon his armour-bearer to kill him. This request not being immediately complied with, the leader fell upon his sword and died; whereupon the armour-bearer, in imitation of his master, and actuated by the same dread of capture, despatched himself. (1 Samuel xxxi. 4.)

The fourth and last suicide recorded in the Bible is that of Ahitophel, and is of the same class as the preceding. Having fomented rebellion in company with Absalom, this cunning and designing man hanged himself to escape the consequences of his unsuccessful treachery; as many possibly had done before, and certainly have done since. (2 Samuel xvii. 23)

The case of Abimelech was virtually one of suicide, although it is not generally reckoned as such. Having had his skull broken by a stone flung from a height by a woman, this leader was despatched at his own bidding that he might escape the humiliation of dying by the hand of a woman. "A certain woman cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech's head, and all to break his skull. Then he hastily called unto the young man, his armour-bearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and slay me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him. And his young man thrust him through, and he died." (Judges ix. 53, 54)

In the Apocrypha [2 Maccabees xiv. 42, 46] we-are given a detailed account of the truly terrible suicide of Razis. This case, while showing with what determination defeated Jewish leaders sought death, also makes it clear that the Jews looked upon such suicides as that of Razis with favour.

When Nicanor's soldiers had broken the stronghold in which Razis and his troops were besieged, and nothing but defeat and surrender lay before them, Razis, fearing capture, threw himself upon his sword, "choosing rather to die manfully than to fall into the hands of the wicked, to be abused otherwise than beseemed his noble birth; but missing his stroke through haste, the multitude also rushing within doors, he ran boldly up to the wall, and cast himself down manfully among the thickest of them; but they, quickly giving back, and a space being made, he fell down in the midst of a void place. Nevertheless, while there was yet breath within him, being inflamed with anger, he rose up, and though his blood gushed out like spouts of water, and his wounds were grievous, yet he ran through in the midst of the throng, and standing on a steep rock, when, as his blood was not quite gone, he plucked out his bowels, and taking them in both his hands, he cast them among the throng, and calling upon the Lord of life and spirit to restore him them again, he thus died."

In the case of Eleazar and those who took refuge with him in Massada after the capture of Jerusalem by Titus, we have an example of a whole Jewish garrison choosing death before submission. As related by Josephus, ["History of the Wars of the Jews," 1. vii., c 28] this leader and a few thousand soldiers and followers were, in A.d. 70, besieged in the stronghold named Massada, by the Romans under Silva. When the Jews saw that they could not repulse their enemies, and that defeat was certain, they decided to die by their own hands rather than surrender to those without the walls. "The wall, however, being consumed to the ground, and no hope or possibility left of safety or relief, the only brave thing they had before them was to consider how they might deliver their wives and children from the ignominious outrages they might expect from the Romans whenever they became the masters of the place. Eleazar concluded, upon the balancing of this question, that a glorious death was infinitely to be preferred to a life of infamy, and that the most generous resolution they could take in the world would be, not to outlive their liberties."

Having come to this conclusion in his own mind, Eleazar called together his people and eloquently harangued them upon what he considered their duty to their families and to themselves, namely to kiil themselves and their families. His  first address did not convince all who heard him of the wisdom of the course advocated; but a second and more powerful appeal brought the whole assembly into agreement with their leader, and they fell to butchering their wives and children, preparatory to destroying their own lives. In describing the scene, Josephus says:—"Such was the passion these people had for the destruction of themselves and their families that not one man of them shrank when they came to execution. They kept up their dear and natural affection to the last, upon an opinion that they could not do their friends a better office. They took their last leave of their wives and children in their arms, with a kiss and a stab. . . . This was a miserable necessity, but they were driven upon it by a miserable choice; for the destroying of their wives and children (as it appeared to them) was the least evil they had before them." After this slaughter they gathered together their portable property and burnt it, and then, "choosing ten men by lot out of their number to do execution upon all the rest, they ranged themselves as near as they could to the dead bodies of their friends, gave them a parting embrace, and cheerfully presented their throats to those who were to do the inhuman office. So soon as the ten had, with a mighty resolution, discharged their part, they cast lots among themselves which of the remaining ten should despatch the other nine, with a condition that the surviving tenth man should kill himself upon the bodies of the rest, such a confidence had these people in one another. The nine died with the same constancy as the rest. The last man overlooked the bodies, and finding that they were all stark dead, set fire to the palace, and so cast himself upon his sword among his friends. . . . The number of the slain was nine hundred and sixty, reckoning women and children into the account"

Even to the Romans, who were accustomed to self-destruction, this carnage was startling. Of all in the stronghold, only two women and five children who had hidden in an aqueduct survived. These "told the Romans the whole story, which was so incredible, however, that they could not believe it. But betaking themselves to the quenching of the fire, and following their way up to the palace, they found such a carnage of dead bodies, that without insulting and rejoicing as enemies, they brake out into admiration at the generous greatness of the Jews' minds, the steadiness of their counsels, and the obstinate agreement of such a number of men in the contempt of death." [History of the Wars of the Jews," 1. vii.]

Josephus, who relates the above, came very near to disappearing in a like slaughter. About the same time, when leading the Jewish army against the Romans, he and his soldiers were besieged in Jotaphat When the commander saw that his position was hopeless, he decided to surrender to the enemy. With this, however, the troops would not agree, and with threats urged upon their leader the higher and nobler course of self-destruction. In reply Josephus addressed the army in a most eloquent and able speech upon the baseness and wickedness of suicide. He could not, however, convince his soldiers, and they proceeded to cast lots and to kill each other until only the leader and one other remained. When Josephus found himself in this position he argued the case once more with his sole companion, and finally they agreed that both should live, and gave themselves up to Vespasian, the leader of the victorious Romans.*

From all these records of suicide among the Jews, sacred and profane, together with the fact that suicide is nowhere in the Bible specifically mentioned as a sin, or even a misdemeanour, it is evident that among the Jews self-destruction was considered justifiable under very easy circumstances. It is true that, according to Josephus, the Jews did not bury the bodies of those who had killed themselves until after sunset; but of this rule or law I don't think we have any other proof than the passing mention by Josephus. We know that there was an Athenian law to this effect, and possibly Josephus may have been thinking of it when he wrote. Donne accepts the existence of the custom among the Jews, but says it was clearly used to deter men from suicide rather than to punish the commission of the act. That no indignity was shown the body of the suicide by the Jews of an earlier period, is proved, by the fact that the body of Ahitophel, who, having "set his house in order," killed himself in cold blood, was buried in his father's grave. [2 Samuel xvii. 23.] This would not have been done had his voluntary death been looked upon as in any sense a grave offence against the law, either moral or civil.


Among the early Greeks suicide was rare, and it was not until they became contaminated by Roman teaching that it became common. Their religious teaching, unlike that of their Asiatic contemporaries, was strongly opposed to self-destruction. While a pure and virile people, they looked upon it as a most heinous crime, and laws existed which heaped indignity upon the body of the suicide. By an Athenian law the body of the suicide was not buried until after sunset; and the hand was cut from the body and buried apart, as having been a traitor to its owner. It was not permissible to burn the body of the suicide.

The only suicides ever spoken of with respect or anything approaching commendation by the early Greeks, were those of a purely patriotic character, like those of King Codrus and Themistocles, who were both considered patriots. Codrus, when the Heraclidae invaded Attica, went down disguised among the enemy with the intention of getting slain, and, having picked a quarrel with some of the soldiery, succeeded. The reason for this insane act was that the Oracle had pronounced that the leader of the conquering army must fall; and the king sacrificed his life that his troops might be victorious and his country saved. Themistocles, another of the few cases of suicide which the Athenians condoned, is supposed to have committed suicide rather than lead the Persians against his own people.

This spirit, however, and the laws which it had created, began to fade and fall into disuse with the rise of the philosophic school. The Sophists, declaring that the gods had been invented by some clever statesman to overawe the people (Critias), preached the new doctrine of individual liberty. They taught that the gods were myths, that man's reason was his only guide, and that guided by conscience and reason, he had absolute freedom as to his own life and death. With this teaching, which was accepted by many, suicide, as would be expected, soon lost its old criminal character, and came in time to be looked upon not only as a legitimate, but as an honourable mode of quitting life.

This doctrine of individual freedom was enlarged and maintained by the Cynics, many of whose greatest philosophers voluntarily quitted life, when from any cause they thought a continuance of life undesirable. Thus Diogenes, whom Plato called the "mad Socrates," destroyed himself, as did many of his followers, among whom might be mentioned Stilpo, Menedemus, Onesicratus, Metrocles, Demonax, and Peregrinus.

With the Stoics, who followed the Cynics, suicide was made a dogma, and the utter worthlessness of life was preached on every opportunity. The Stoics lived severe, moral, and useful lives; but when, from any cause, they found life intolerable or even displeasing, they promptly quitted it In this way died the founder of the school, Zeno, his successor, Cleanthes, and many others of its most notable leaders.

The Epicureans, from a lower platform, preached the same freedom to terminate life when it ceased to give pleasure. If was from the Stoic and Epicurean schools that what might be called rational suicide spread to Rome, where it found a congenial soil in a deteriorating people.

The teaching of the Stoics and Epicureans was adopted by some of the greatest scholars of Rome, and soon was common as it was fashionable. Seneca, the tutor of Nero, was one of the most ardent and powerful advocates of suicide. His scheme of life may be summed up in his own words, "Does life please you? live on. Does it not? go from whence you came. No vast wound is necessary; a mere puncture will secure your liberty."

During the centuries immediately preceding and those following the opening of the Christian era, voluntary death was at its worst in Europe. Broadly speaking, the teaching of all the philosophers, orators, and poets of the time, was that suicide was not only justifiable, but that it was a noble and courageous act. Among the propagators of this doctrine might be mentioned Zeno, Plato, Cleanthes, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, the elder Pliny, and a host of others.

Of the great men of pagan Europe it might be said that most of them died by their own hands. In this way died Lycurgus, Charondas, Themistocles, Demosthenes, Aristotle, Zeno, Cleanthes, Hannibal, Aristarchus, Cato, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony, Lucian, Seneca, Nero, and Otho, together with numerous others whose names have gained immortality.

This popularity of suicide with great men must have been due to a certain extent to the teaching of the learned men of the time, which has always a powerful effect upon the educated and the intellectually better class. And, as the actions of great men are always aped by large numbers of smaller men who wish to rank with those they imitate, we may in part attribute its frequency among the populace indirectly to the same source. We cannot, however, class even a majority of the suicides of this period among the Greeks and Romans as the outcome of any teaching. Many were undoubtedly due to this cause; but it is certain that the great mass, occurring as they did among markedly degenerate peoples who were deteriorat1ng with every generation, were, like our suicides of to-day, due to madness, disgust of life, and last and greatest, that uncontrollable impulse to death which cannot be explained.

It was when vice and dissipation were running riot in Rome that self-destruction was at its height among the Romans; and it was after Roman manners and customs had contaminated the Greeks that suicide was most common among that people. Such self-slaughter could only be looked upon as disease consequent upon their generally depraved condition. As the people deteriorated under vice and debauchery, suicide increased, as did crime, immorality and disease. Indeed, with the Romans under the Empire, suicide appears to have been one of the most active and effectual means employed by indignant nature to stamp out a people who had become too degraded and vicious to live.

Recognising the impossibility of preventing those who wished to die carrying out their desire, and hoping in some degree to limit self-destruction by legalising it under certain conditions, both Greeks and Romans instituted tribunals for the hearing of the applications of those who wished to die. If the applicant showed what the Court considered good cause for quitting life, his prayer was granted, and he destroyed himself with the sanction of the Court. In some cases, as in the island of Ceos and among the Massilians, the Court not only sanctioned the suicide, but supplied the means in the shape of a decoction of hemlock. (Sir Thomas More, in his "Utopia, suggested the adoption of a system almost identical with this.) If anyone applied for permission to put an end to his life and was refused, and in defiance of that decision committed suicide, his act was illegal, and punishment was inflicted; among the Greeks his memory was held dishonoured, and his body was treated with indignity; among the Romans his property was confiscated by the State.

The Roman law, as laid down in the Institutes and Digest of Justinian—a Christian emperor—about the middle of the sixth century, held that suicide was justifiable if it arose from disgust of life—taedium vitae; from grief at loss of friends; when it was to escape the disgrace of insolvency or bodily suffering from disease; and also when the act arose from madness, the distinction being thus early drawn between the suicide who is in the ordinary sense responsible, and the one who is not responsible for his act.

Suicide was illegal under the Roman law only when it was committed in consequence of crime, in order to escape some sentence, in disobedience to the decision of the magistrate, or, when no sufficient reason could be discovered. The act in itself was not criminal, and only became so when it affected the State injuriously, as it was held to do in the above instances. The criminal and the accused person injured the State in evading in voluntary death, that just punishment which the criminal acts deserved. In the case of suicide of an accused person, it was held that he had pleaded guilty to the accusation against him by refusing to meet it. But even to the accused who sought voluntary death, the law was just; and if he were proved innocent of the charge imputed, no injury fell upon his memory, relatives, or estate. The property of a person who committed suicide while under an accusation of crime was pro forma confiscated; but the heirs were at liberty to have the cause tried as if the accused were alive, and if the offence were not proven, the heirs took the estate as if the deceased had not been under accusation at the time of death.

Even soldiers and slaves were, under the Roman law, entitled to put a period to their lives like ordinary citizens. If a soldier unsuccessfully attempted suicide, he was forgiven the act if he could prove that he had been driven thereto by some great sorrow or misfortune, or by suffering or madness; but if he failed in this his offence was capital, and, as a punishment, the State carried to a successful issue the very act he had unsuccessfully attempted.


It would appear that the Christian Church was from the first opposed to suicide. It was not, however, for several centuries after the death of Christ that it did more than enter a remonstrance against the act, and that only when it occurred under certain circumstances. Nevertheless, suicide was rare among the early Christians as compared with its occurrence among their Pagan contemporaries. However, as persecution came upon them, and their fervour increased, the craving for the joys of heaven prompted many to meet death half way, and even to deliberately destroy themselves.

Gibbon in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," tells how, when Christianity came to be tolerated by the pagans, and martyrdom became comparatively rare, the more 1nfatuated of the Christians deliberately incited their pagan brethren to acts of violence against themselves, and when brought before the magistrates, begged that sentence of death might be passed and carried out. This conduct of the early Christians was in many places so glaring that their pagan rulers often scoffed at them, refused to sentence them as they desired, and told them to go and hang themselves if they were so anxious to die.

"Stories are related of the courage of martyrs, who actually performed what Ignatius had intended; who exasperated the fury of the lions, pressed the executioner to hasten his office, cheerfully leaped into the fires which were kindled to consume them, and discovered a sensation of joy and pleasure in the midst of the most exquisite tortures. Several examples have been preserved of a zeal impatient of those restraints which the emperors had provided for the security of the Church. The Christians sometimes supplied by their voluntary declarations the want of an accuser, rudely disturbed the public service of paganism, and rushing in crowds round the tribunals, called upon them to pronounce and to inflict the sentence of the law." On one such occasion, Antonius Pius, the proconsul, refused their clamour for sentence of death, saying, "Unhappy men, unhappy men! if you are thus weary of your lives, is it so difficult for you to find ropes and precipices?"

It may be said that this seeking after martyrdom at the hands of enemies was not suicide, but it cannot be said that it was not suicidal. Moreover, when these fanatics could not tempt others to kill them, they deliberately killed themselves. So late as the fifth century, many of the more fanatical sects indulged in self-slaughter, principally by precipitating themselves from heights, and casting themselves into fires kindled for the purpose.

Gibbon gives a terrible picture of one of these sects, the Donatists (a.d. 400). These misguided people were given up to fanaticism as gross and insane as ever seized Brahmin, Buddhist, or any other religionist whatever. "Many of these fanatics were possessed with a horror of life and the desire of martyrdom; and they deemed it of little moment by what means or by what hands they perished, if their conduct was sanctified by the intention of devoting themselves to the glory of the true faith and the hope of eternal happiness. Sometimes they rudely disturbed the festivals and profaned the temples of paganism, with the design of exciting the most zealous of the idolaters to revenge the insulted honour of their gods. They sometimes forced their way into the courts of justice and compelled the affrighted judge to give orders for their immediate execution. They frequently stopped travellers on the public highways, and obliged them to inflict the stroke of martyrdom by the promise of a reward if they consented, and by the threat of instant death if they refused to grant so very singular a favour. When they were disappointed of every other resource, they announced the day on which, in the presence of their friends and brethren, they should cast themselves headlong from some lofty rock; and many precipices were shown which had acquired fame by the number of religious suicides."

The Council of Arles, A.d. 452, condemned suicide under all circumstances, and from this time voluntary Christian martyrdom became much less common. Nevertheless, the old spirit was by no means quenched by this formal decision of the Church, which it was found necessary to repeat and accentuate again and again. Centuries later the same spirit blazed up among the more fanatical of the Christian believers. Several examples of this occurred during the Crusades, and even later. "At the battle of Hittin, where the Latin empire of the East was broken for ever, those Knights Templars who refused to adopt the Moslem faith were ruthlessly slain by command of Saladin; and many Christian soldiers who thirsted for the  glory of martyrdom, but were not of that order, put on the mantles of the slain Templars, and went gladly to their deaths." Indeed, this desire for Christian martyrdom still exists, and examples might be found if looked for. But public opinion is now opposed to such exhibitions of faith, and the verdict of insanity, usually passed upon such, acts as a healthy repressant.

Another form of suicide which for a long time found favour in the eyes of the leaders of the early Christians was what were called "virgin suicides"; that is, suicides committed to preserve chastity. During the first four or five centuries of the Christian era many suicides of this character took place, and were approved and defended by most of the then fathers of the Church, among others by St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Chrysostom. St. Augustine, however, held that suicide for the preservation of chastity was unjustifiable and sinful. Notwithstanding his teaching, however, the Church went so far as to canonise Pelagia, who threw herself from the housetop to escape her would-be ravishers. Donne says, "The memory of Pelagia, as a virgin and martyr, is celebrated the ninth of June. .... The Church celebrates the act as though it were glad to take any occasion of approving such a courage in such a cause, which was the preservation of chastity." ["Biathanatos," by John Donne.]

Suicides of this character did occur in civil life, but the greater number occurred on such occasions as the fall of a city to the enemy, or when an army and its followers were overcome. Thus, when Alric the Goth with his northern hordes captured Rome in 410 A.d., great numbers of Christian women killed themselves that they might escape violation at the hands of the conquerors. In his famous "City of God," St. Augustine refers to these suicides and condemns them; nevertheless they were approved by many of the Christian leaders of the time.

It is thought that suicides of this character do not occur frequently in the present day.


Voluntary death was quite commonly practised among the barbaric peoples, Norse and Celtic, of the northern and western parts of Europe, as it was by the Greeks and Romans in the south. These hardy warriors, who overran the whole north and west of the Continent, including Britain, Ireland, and Iceland, and even marched victors through the streets of Rome, feared a peaceful death from disease or old age above all things, and only rarely allowed such to overtake them. According to their belief, a violent death, whether met with in battle or at their own hands, ushered them into the presence of their god, Odin, in the sacred Hall of Valhalla. Those who died a natural death, however illustrious, were not so honoured, and, as a consequence, suicide was very common. ["Hall of Valhalla" is literally "the hall of those dead of violence."]

Great numbers of those who had escaped death in battle, when they felt that death was approaching through disease or age, cast themselves over precipices, or otherwise destroyed their lives. The feeble and the ailing were often carried at their own request from their beds and left in the battlefield, in the hope that they might there be despatched during the fight


Suicide was also a common and honourable mode of death among the ancient Egyptians from the earliest times; and it would appear that it became much more common than it had previously been about the beginning of the Christian era, that is to say, when the nation had reached a certain level of deterioration. That the ancient Egyptians looked upon suicide as justifiable in such circumstances as incurable disease, physical suffering, and personal calamity, is proved by the fact that Rameses the Great put an end to his own life in a most deliberate manner because he had gone blind.


Suicide was never practised to any great extent by the inhabitants of Central Asia. The Tartars have been at all times particularly free from the suicidal instinct. Among the Persians, also, it was rare, for the reason, probably, that it was opposed to their religious teaching. It would appear, however, that among these Asiatics self-destruction was looked upon as justifiable under certain conditions, as it was, indeed, among all known peoples until the belief was gradually overborne by the teaching of the Christian and Mohammedan religions.

From the foregoing hasty and imperfect sketch of the history of suicide among early peoples, we learn that there were three great incentives to the act. These were: religious fanaticism, fear of slavery or ill-treatment at the hands of conquerors, and the desire to escape physical suffering consequent on disease. The first, religious fanaticism, was undoubtedly the great cause; certainly sickness and disease must have at all times been responsible for a large number, but such could never have even remotely approached the total due to fanaticism. Fear of slavery and the innate dislike to submission to conquerors again, brought about terrible carnage at times; such slaughter, however, occurred only at long intervals, and suicides from this cause were probably less numerous than those arising from either of the other causes mentioned.

It is also interesting to note how these causes varied in effect among different peoples and nations. Religious fanaticism, for example, was the most fruitful cause of suicide among such widely removed races as the Hindus, the barbarians of Northern Europe, and some of the sects of early Christians; while escape from slavery and indignity acted as the great incentive among the ancient Jews and their enemies, the Romans, as also with the aborigines of Mexico and Peru. Of these latter peoples Froude ["Short Studies on Great Subjects," p. 308.] tells how they often destroyed themselves in great numbers, by the advice of their chiefs, in order to escape the cruelties and barbarities put upon them by their Spanish conquerors.

Again, it is remarkable how often we find what was the great cause of suicide among a people the same to-day as it was centuries ago. Thus religious ecstacy and escape from bodily suffering are to-day the chief causes of voluntary death among the inhabitants of India, China, and Japan, as they were a score of centuries ago.

On the other hand, the Jews, who have stuck to their original religion with wonderful tenacity and exactitude, were never, either in the present or past times, fanatical suicides. Before the dawn of the Christian era they often preferred death at their own hands to slavery, and in comparatively modern times they have exhibited the same spirit. How many of this devoted people are to-day, in Eastern Europe, seeking and finding relief from cruel and inhuman persecution in death it is impossible to say. Whether there be many or few we are never likely to discover. We know, however, that so late as the tenth and even fourteenth centuries, under like persecution great numbers sought relief in death. On one occasion in York [Drake's "History and Antiquities of York," bk. i., ch. iv.] 500 Jews destroyed themselves to escape persecution; and on various occasions during the Middle Ages large numbers were driven to self-destruction by the same means, in France and Germany as well as in England; notably at the siege of the Castle of Verdun, in 1320; and later in the same century during the outbreak of the "Black Death" in several Rhenish towns. [Bugenot's " Memoir of the Jews of the West."]

Again, it was exactly the same spirit that prompted the hardy Norsemen and Celts to seek violent death in the battlefield and elsewhere, which now actuates the peoples occuping Northwestern Europe to sing the glories of those who fall in battle, and declare such death the most heroic and glorious man can achieve. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" breathes exactly the same barbaric spirit and contempt for death as did the wild chants of the Sea Kings.

Voluntary death to escape suffering from disease was common among all ancient peoples, although it never approached in magnitude anything like that from either of the other causes above mentioned. But before Christianity, which inculcated patience in suffering, and held out hope of future reward for pain endured here, suicide to escape physical suffering rapidly diminished among European nations. It is evident, however, that the true cause of this diminution was the advance of medical and surgical science rather than Christian teaching; or, more truly, it might be said that Christianity and the relief of pain by science worked hand in hand in reducing suicide from this cause.

In the East, suicide to escape suffering is still of common occurrence, although even there it is fast diminishing before the advance of Christian precept and example, and the still more potent relief and hope held out to the sufferer by modern medical and surgical science.

Life in the East has changed comparatively little since the early times of which we have already spoken; and as a consequence, suicide, taking it broadly, stands in many parts much as it did centuries ago. On the other hand, life in the Western world has altered much in recent times. With the advance of our civilisation religious dogma has been brought more and more into accord with reason. Slavery—at least the slavery of earlier ages—has been effectually scotched, if not absolutely killed; suffering arising from disease has been reduced a thousandfold; and the estimate of the value and sanctity of human life has, on the whole, been considerably raised. As a consequence of these changes, suicide to gain the joys of heaven, to escape slavery, inhuman persecution, the cruelties of conquerors, or suffering from disease, has declined proportionately. Men do not now destroy themselves, nor provoke their religious opponents to kill them that they may enter Paradise; neither do defeated soldiers fear to lay down their arms and march over to the enemies' lines.

What were the chief causes of suicide among the ancients have ceased to be incentives to self-destruction among European peoples to-day. But as one set of causes have disappeared, or become in the main inoperative, another set have appeared, and it will be our business in the following pages to examine this new set of causes, discover if possible how they arose, and whether they are related to those which went before.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Was the Stauros of Christ in the Shape of a Cross? by John Denham Parsons 1896

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In the thousand and one works supplied for our information upon matters connected with the history of our race, we are told that Alexander the Great, Titus, and various Greek, Roman, and Oriental rulers of ancient days, "crucified" this or that person; or that they "crucified" so many at once, or during their reign. And the instrument of execution is called a "cross."

The natural result is that we imagine that all the people said to have been "crucified" were executed by being nailed or otherwise affixed to a cross-shaped instrument set in the ground, like that to be seen in our fanciful illustrations of the execution of Jesus. This was, however, by no means necessarily the case.

For instance, the death spoken of, death by the stauros, included transfixion by a pointed stauros or stake, as well as affixion to an unpointed stauros or stake; and the latter punishment was not always that referred to.

It is also probable that in most of the many cases where we have no clue as to which kind of stauros was used, the cause of the condemned one's death was transfixion by a pointed stauros.

Moreover, even if we could prove that this very common mode of capital punishment was in no case that referred to by the historians who lived in bygone ages, and that death was in each instance caused by affixion to, instead of transfixion by, a stauros, we should still have to prove that each stauros had a cross-bar before we could correctly describe the death caused by it as death by crucifixion.

It is also, upon the face of it, somewhat unlikely that the ancients would in every instance in which they despatched a man by affixing him to a post set in the ground, have gone out of their way to provide the artistic but quite unnecessary cross-bar of our imaginations.

As it is, in any case, well known that the Romans very often despatched those condemned to death by affixing them to a stake or post which had no cross-bar, the question arises as to what proof we have that a cross-bar was used in the case of Jesus.

Nor is the question an unimportant one. For, as we shall see in the chapters to come, there was a pre-Christian cross, which was, like ours, a symbol of Life. And it must be obvious to all that if the cross was a symbol of Life before our era, it is possible that it was originally fixed upon as a symbol of the Christ because it was a symbol of Life; the assumption that it became a symbol of Life because it was a symbol of the Christ, being in that case neither more nor less than a very natural instance of putting the cart before the horse.

Now the Greek word which in Latin versions of the New Testament is translated as crux, and in English versions is rendered as cross, i.e., the word stauros, seems to have, at the beginning of our era, no more meant a cross than the English word stick means a crutch.

It is true that a stick may be in the shape of a crutch, and that the stauros to which Jesus was affixed may have been in the shape of a cross. But just as the former is not necessarily a crutch, so the latter was not necessarily a cross.

What the ancients used to signify when they used the word stauros, can easily be seen by referring to either the Iliad or the Odyssey.

It will there be found to clearly signify an ordinary pole or stake without any cross-bar. And it is as thus signifying a single piece of wood that the word in question is used throughout the old Greek classics.

The stauros used as an instrument of execution was (1) a small pointed pole or stake used for thrusting through the body, so as to pin the latter to the earth, or otherwise render death inevitable; (2) a similar pole or stake fixed in the ground point upwards, upon which the condemned one was forced down till incapable of escaping; (3) a much longer and stouter pole or stake fixed point upwards, upon which the victim, with his hands tied behind him, was lodged in such a way that the point should enter his breast and the weight of the body cause every movement to hasten the end; and (4) a stout unpointed pole or stake set upright in the earth, from which the victim was suspended by a rope round his wrists, which were first tied behind him so that the position might become an agonising one; or to which the doomed one was bound, or, as in the case of Jesus, nailed.

That this last named kind of stauros, which was admittedly that to which Jesus was affixed, had in every case a cross-bar attached, is untrue; that it had in most cases, is unlikely; that it had in the case of Jesus, is unproven.

Even as late as the Middle Ages, the word stauros seems to have primarily signified a straight piece of wood without a cross-bar. For the famous Greek lexicographer, Suidas, expressly states, "Stauroi; ortha xula perpégota," and both Eustathius and Hesychius affirm that it meant a straight stake or pole.

The side light thrown upon the question by Lucian is also worth noting. This writer, referring to Jesus, alludes to "That sophist of theirs who was fastened to a skolops;" which word signified a single piece of wood, and not two pieces joined together.

Only a passing notice need be given to the fact that in some of the Epistles of the New Testament, which seem to have been written before the Gospels, though, like the other Epistles, misleadingly placed after the Gospels, Jesus is said to have been hanged upon a tree. For in the first place the Greek word translated "hanged" did not necessarily refer to hanging by the neck, and simply meant suspended in some way or other. And in the second place the word translated "tree," though that always used in referring to what is translated as the "Tree of Life," signified not only "tree" but also "wood."

It should be noted, however, that these five references of the Bible to the execution of Jesus as having been carried out by his suspension upon either a tree or a piece of timber set in the ground, in no wise convey the impression that two pieces of wood nailed together in the form of a cross is what is referred to.

Moreover, there is not, even in the Greek text of the Gospels, a single intimation in the Bible to the effect that the instrument actually used in the case of Jesus was cross-shaped.

Had there been any such intimation in the twenty-seven Greek works referring to Jesus, which our Church selected out of a very large number and called the "New Testament," the Greek letter chi, which was cross-shaped, would in the ordinary course have been referred to; and some such term as Katà chiasmon, "like a chi," made use of.

It should also be borne in mind that though the Christians of the first three centuries certainly made use of a transient sign of the cross in the non-Mosaic initiatory rite of baptism and at other times, it is, as will be shown in the next two chapters, admitted that they did not use or venerate it as a representation of the instrument of execution upon which Jesus died.

Moreover, if in reply to the foregoing it should be argued that as it is well known that cross-shaped figures of wood, and other lasting representations of the sign or figure of the cross, were not venerated by Christians until after the fateful day when Constantine set out at the head of the soldiers of Gaul in his famous march against Rome; and that the Christian crosses of the remainder of the fourth century were representations of the instrument of execution upon which Jesus died; a dozen other objections present themselves if we are honest enough to face the fact that we have to show that they were so from the first. For the Gauls, and therefore the soldiers of Gaul, venerated as symbols of the Sun-God and Giver of Life and Victory the cross of four equal arms,, or X , and the solar wheel,or ; while the so-called cross which Constantine and his troops are said to have seen above the midday sun was admittedly the monogram of Christ, Monogram of Christ orwhich was admittedly an adaptation of the solar wheel, as will be shown further on; and it was as tokens of the conquest of Rome by his Gaulish troops, that Constantine, as their leader, erected one of these symbols in the centre of the Eternal City, and afterwards placed upon his coins the crosses

 the cross of four equal arms X , and several variations of that other cross of four equal arms, the right-angled . Anyway, the first kind of cross venerated by Christians was not a representation of an instrument of execution; and the fact that we hold sacred many different kinds of crosses, although even if we could prove that the stauros to which Jesus was affixed had a cross-bar but one kind could be a representation of that instrument of execution, has to be accounted for.

Our only plausible explanation of the fact that we hold sacred almost any species of cross is that, as we do not know what kind of cross Jesus died upon, opinions have always differed as to which was the real cross.

This difference of opinion among Christians as to the shape of the instrument upon which Jesus was executed, has certainly existed for many centuries. But as an explanation of the many different kinds of crosses accepted by us as symbols of the Christ, it only lands us in a greater difficulty. For if we did not know what kind of cross Jesus died upon when we accepted the cross as our symbol, the chances obviously are that we accepted the cross as our symbol for some other reason than that we assert.

As a matter of fact our position regarding the whole matter is illogical and unsatisfactory, and we ought to alter it by honestly facing the facts that we cannot satisfactorily prove that our symbol was adopted as a representation of the instrument of execution to which Jesus was affixed, and that we do not even know for certain that the instrument in question was cross-shaped.

It need only be added that there is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross.

Taking the whole of the foregoing facts into consideration, it will be seen that it is not a little misleading upon the part of our teachers to translate the word stauros as "cross" when rendering the Greek documents of the Church into our native tongue, and to support that action by putting "cross" in our lexicons as the meaning of stauros without carefully explaining that that was at any rate not the primary meaning of the word in the days of the Apostles, did not become its primary signification till long afterwards, and became so then, if at all, only because, despite the absence of corroborative evidence, it was for some reason or other assumed that the particular stauros upon which Jesus was executed had that particular shape.

But—the reader may object—how about the Greek word which in our Bibles is translated as "crucify" or "crucified?" Does not that mean "fix to a cross" or "fixed to a cross?" And what is this but the strongest possible corroboration of our assertion as Christians that Jesus was executed upon a cross-shaped instrument?

The answer is that no less than four different Greek words are translated in our Bibles as meaning "crucify" or "crucified," and that not one of the four meant "crucify" or "crucified."

The four words in question are the words prospegnumi, anastauroo, sustauroo, and stauroo.

The word prospegnumi, though translated in our Bibles as "crucify" or "crucified," meant to "fix" to or upon, and meant that only. It had no special reference to the affixing of condemned persons either to a stake, pale, or post, or to a tree, or to a cross; and had no more reference to a cross than the English word "fix" has.

The word anastauroo was never used by the old Greek writers as meaning other than to impale upon or with a single piece of timber.

The word sustauroo does not occur in pre-Christian writings, and only five times in the Bible against the forty-four times of the word next to be dealt with. Being obviously derived in part from the word stauros, which primarily signified a stake or pale which was a single piece of wood and had no cross-bar, sustauroo evidently meant affixion to such a stake or pale. Anyhow there is nothing whatever either in the derivation of the word, or in the context in either of the five instances in which it occurs, to show that what is referred to is affixion to something that was cross-shaped.

The word stauroo occurs, as has been said, forty-four times; and of the four words in question by far the most frequently. The meaning of this word is therefore of special importance. It is consequently most significant to find, as we do upon due investigation, that wherever it occurs in the pre-Christian classics it is used as meaning to impalisade, or stake, or affix to a pale or stake; and has reference, not to crosses, but to single pieces of wood.

It therefore seems tolerably clear (1) that the sacred writings forming the New Testament, to the statements of which—as translated for us—we bow down in reverence, do not tell us that Jesus was affixed to a cross-shaped instrument of execution; (2) that the balance of evidence is against the truth of our statements to the effect that the instrument in question was cross-shaped, and our sacred symbol originally a representation of the same; and (3) that we Christians have in bygone days acted, and, alas! still act, anything but ingenuously in regard to the symbol of the cross.

This is not all, however. For if the unfortunate fact that we have in our zeal almost manufactured evidence in favour of the theory that our cross or crosses had its or their origin in the shape of the instrument of execution to which Jesus was affixed proves anything at all, it proves the need for a work which, like the present one, sets in array the evidence available regarding both the pre-Christian cross and the adoption in later times of a similar symbol as that of the catholic faith.

Nor should it be forgotten that the triumph of Christianity was due to the fact that it was a "catholic" faith, and not, like the other faiths followed by the subjects of Rome, and like what Jesus seems to have intended the results of His mission to have been inasmuch as He solemnly declared that he was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and to them alone, the monopoly of a single nation or race.

For if Paul, taking his and other visions of Jesus as the long-needed proofs of a future life, had not disregarded the very plain intimations of Jesus to the effect that His mission was to the descendants of Jacob or Israel, and to them alone; if Paul had not withstood Christ's representative, Peter, to the face, and, with unsurpassed zeal, carried out his grand project of proclaiming a non-national and universal religion founded upon appearances of the spirit-form of Jesus, what we call Christianity would not have come into existence.

The fact that but for Paul there would have been no catholic faith with followers in every land ruled by Constantine when sole emperor, for that astute monarch to establish as the State Religion of his loosely knit empire, because, on account of its catholicity, that best fitted to hold power as the official faith of a government with world-wide dominions, is worthy of a lasting place in our memory.

Nor is the noteworthy fact last mentioned unconnected with the symbol of the cross. For, as will be shown, it is clear that it was because Constantine caused the figure of the cross to become a recognized symbol of his catholic empire, that it became recognized as a symbol of the catholic faith.

Not till after Constantine and his Gaulish warriors planted what Eusebius the Bishop of Cæsarea and other Christians of the century in question describe as a cross, within the walls of the Eternal City as the symbol of their victory, did Christians ever set on high a cross-shaped trophy of any description.

Moreover, but for the fact that, as it happened, the triumph of Constantine resulted in that of the Christian Church, we should probably have deemed the cross, if to our minds a representation of the instrument of execution to which Jesus was affixed, as anything but the symbol of Victory we now deem it.

This is evident from the fact that the so-called cross of Jesus admittedly fulfilled the purpose for which it was erected at the request of those who sought the death of Jesus. And even according to our Gospels the darkness of defeat o'ershadowed the scene at Calvary.

To put the matter plainly, the victory of Jesus was not a victory over the cross; for He did not come down from the cross. Nor was it a victory over His enemies; for what they sought was to get rid of a man whom they deemed an agitator, and their wish was gratified, inasmuch as, thanks to the cross, He troubled them no more.

In other words the victory which we ascribe to Jesus did not occur during the gloom which hung like a pall over his native land at the time of His execution, but upon the then approaching Sun-day of the Vernal Equinox, at the coming of the glory of the dawn.

For the victory in question, from whatever point of view we may look at it, was not the avoidance of defeat, but its retrieval. And its story is an illustration of the old-world promise, hoary with antiquity and founded upon the coming, ushered in every year by the Pass-over or cross-over of the equator by the sun at the Vernal Equinox, of the bounteous harvests of summer after the dearth of devastating winter; bidding us ever hope, not indeed for the avoidance of death and therefore of defeat, but for such victory as may happen to lay in survival or resurrection.

It is therefore clear that even if we could prove that the instrument of execution to which Jesus was affixed was cross-shaped, it would not necessarily follow that it was as the representation of the cause of His death which we now deem it, that the figure of the cross became our symbol of Life and Victory.

In any case honesty demands that we should no longer translate as "cross" a word which at the time our Gospels were written did not necessarily signify something cross-shaped. And it is equally incumbent upon us, from a moral point of view, that we should cease to render as "crucify" or "crucified" words which never bore any such meaning.

Another point to be remembered is that when Constantine, apparently conceiving ours, as the only non-national religion with ramifications throughout his world-wide dominions, to be the only one that could weld together the many nations which acknowledged his sway, established Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire, the Church to which we belong would naturally have had to accept as its own the symbols which Constantine had caused to be those of the State in question. And it should be added that the cross of later days with one of its arms longer than the others, if not also the assumption that the stauros to which Jesus was affixed had a cross-bar, may have been merely the outcome of a wish to associate with the story of Jesus these Gaulish symbols of victory which had become symbols of the Roman State, and therefore of its State Church.

And it was not till long after these crosses were accepted as Christian, and Constantine was dead and buried, that the cross with one of its arms longer than the other three (or two), which alone could be a representation of an instrument of execution, was made use of by Christians.