Cultural self-censorship in our ‘free’ society of corporate capitalism is a thousand time more efficient and insidious than the ham-handed, jack-booted methods of the blatant police state, because self-censorship preserves intact the illusion of freedom of expression and freedom of speech by allowing a spectrum of pre-selected approved choices or alternatives, while virtually guaranteeing that ‘inappropriate’ or ‘offensive’ material is effectively suppressed (at least as far as any mass audience is concerned) through an unofficial consensus operating via control of publishing and distribution channels.
This is why you won’t find a copy of Dimitry Merezhkovsky’s THE DEATH OF THE GODS at your local bookstore, unless by some great good fortune you locate one in the ‘used’ section. For Merezhkovsky’s moving tale of Julian the Apostate’s heroic effort to reverse the fetid tide of christianity and restore paganism to its rightful station is clearly too potent a dose of brain-food for the tranquilized sheep grazing in the literary fields of kitsch, schlock and schleppery.
Dimitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky (1865-1941) wrote THE DEATH OF THE GODS (Julian the Apostate) some ninety years ago as the first part of a trilogy entitled “Christ and Anti-Christ”; the other two novels, appearing several years later, featured Leonardo da Vinci and Peter the Great as their protagonists. The purpose of this trilogy was to express Merezhkovsky’s religious philosophy, a synthesis of the pagan celebration of the flesh and the christian cult of the spirit which he called “The New Road”.
Merezhkovsky’s beautifully written account of the life of Flavius Claudius Julianus (331-363), while fiction, closely follows historical facts. The religious-philosophical pronouncements of Merezhkovsky’s Julian are of course colored by the author’s own beliefs, but they are rousing and wonderful nevertheless; and for a supposed pagan-christian synthesis, the emphasis here is strongly on the pagan side: the book is a veritable tour de force of exotic religious doctrines.
As THE DEATH OF THE GODS opens, Julian is a young boy exiled in Cappodocia, his father and other kin having been murdered ‘in the name of Christ’ by his cousin, the power-hungry Emperor Constantius. The boy receives religious instruction in Arian christianity, but his soul instinctively recoils in horror at the life-hating gloom and doom permeating the dogmatic sect of the “Galilean”. By contrast, his spirit is refreshed and enthused by studies of the ancient Greeks, particularly Homer and Socrates. But hovering above all of this is the everpresent threat of death at the hands of a hostile ruler, and Julian grows up with this morbid spectre constantly in mind.
This doesn’t defeat his fundamental life affirmation, however. Visiting an old temple dedicated to Aphrodite, Julian is impressed by its joyous simplicity and openness to Nature, so invigoratingly different from the claustrophobic miasma of christian ceremony; and he has a rapturous religious experience before the beauteous statue of love’s goddess.
That ecstacy doesn’t last, unfortunately, and Julian becomes a truth-seeking young adult, tormented by the mysteries of existence. He appeals for enlightenment to his teacher Iamblicus, who propounds a pantheistic Neoplatonist gnostic gospel:
“… God neither cometh nor goeth away – He doth but appear. Behold — there He stands! He is a negation of the world, of everything that is. He is naught, — He is all… It is He who fills the Universe, who imbues the very atoms with His breath, who illuminates all matter – He, Chaos, an object of terror for the Gods even as the evening sun gilds the dark cloud… Over-the eternal ladder of birth and death, the souls of all creatures ascend and descend toward Him and away from Him. They try to depart from the Father, and can not. Every soul would fain be itself God, but in vain; it sorrows after the Father’s bosom; upon earth it hath no peace; it thirsteth to return to the Sole One. We must return to Him, and then all shall be God, and God shall be in all… All universes, all stars, and the sea… and the earth, and the beasts, and plants and men — all these be Nature’s dreams of God… the soul of man is Nature with her slumbrous eye-lids opened, awakened, and ready to behold God no longer in a dream, but in reality, face to face… There, in the kingdom of the eternal Mothers, in the bosom of the Universal Soul, are secreted the seeds, the Idea-Form of all that is and has been and shall be; there is secreted the Logos-embryo both of the grasshopper and of the blade of grass and of an Olympian God… He himself is Light. He doth penetrate all the soul and doth transmute it into Himself. The soul doth become God, or, to put it better, doth but recall that through all the eternity of eternities it hath been and shall ever be God. Such, my son, is the Life of the Olympians…”
But these words of wisdom don’t fully satisfy Julian; his heart still seethes with disquiet, raging at the vulgar christian mobs who revel in the downfall of the noble gods. He consults numerous philosophers in a desperate search for intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Eventually Julian joins a mystery-religion cult, and during an hallucinatory initiation rite he has a sou-searing vision of christian and pagan archetypes, all appealing for his loyalty. The “Hierophant” – a sort of pagan guru – helps Julian to figure it all out:
“Thou mayest put questions.”
“Didst thou summon Him?” uttered Julian.
“Nay. But when one string of a lyre quivers, another will respond to it, opposite answers to opposite.”
“Wherefore, then, is there such might in His words, if they be falsehood?”
“They are truth.”
“What sayest thou? Then the words of the Titan and the Angel are falsehood?”
“They, too, are the truth.”
“Thou tempest me…”
“Neither myself nor the complete truth is tempting or extraordinary. If thou fearest, keep silent.”
“I fear not. Tell all. Are the Galileans right?”
“Wherefore, then, did I make the renunciations?”
“There is also another truth.”
“Nay. The equal of that which thou didst renounce.”
“But what is one to believe in? Is there God?”
“Both there and here. Serve Ahriman, serve Ormuzd, as thou wilt; but remember: both are equal; the Kingdom of the Devil is equal to the Kingdom of God.”
“Whither is one to go?”
“Choose one of the two paths, and halt not.”
“If thou dost believe in Him, take up the Cross, follow Him, as he hath ordained. Be poor in spirit, be chaste, be a lamb without voice in the hands of executioners; flee to the desert; give up thy flesh and thy spirit to Him; suffer, believe. This is one of the two paths: the great martyrs among the Galileans attain the same freedom as Prometheus and Lucifer.”
“I do not want it.”
“Then choose thou the other path: be strong and free; pity not, love not, forgive not; revolt and vanquish all things; believe not, and come to know all things. And the universe shall be thine, and thou shall be even as the Titan and the Angel of the Morning Star.”
“I can not forget that in the words of the Galilean there is also truth; I can not endure two truths…”
“If thou canst not, thou shalt be even as all mortals. ‘Tis better to perish. But thou canst, Dare. Thou shalt be Caesar.”
“I – – Caesar?”
“Thou shalt have under thy sway that which not even the hero of Macedonia had. The Sun, the God Mithra, crowneth thee with his purple. ‘Tis the purple of Geesar. All is thine. Dare!” “What need have I of all, if there be not one sole truth; if there be not God whom I seek?” “Find Him. Make one, if thou canst, of the truth of the Titan and the truth of the Galilean, and thou shall be the greatest of all that are born of women on earth.”
While this advice percolates within, adding new facets to his essentially pagan nature, Julian adopts a christian veneer to help secure his survival.
After much intrigue and maneuvering through the political and religious establishment, and with the patronage of the Empress, Julian becomes a Caesar (though still technically beholden to the murderous Emperor Constantius who wavers between hostility and ambivalence towards Julian). Julian then embarks upon a career in the army. He glories in the military life, coming fully into robust manhood, toughening himself psychologically as well as psysically, and winning the admiration of his troops. The young Caesar shows his true mettle as a leader in a ferocious battle with the Teutonic Alamanni, and with this victory his prestige increases even more. Julian goes on from triumph to triumph in Gallia, reconquering territories fallen to the ‘barbarians’.
Eventually, his armies, increasingly disgusted with the Emperor, proclaim Julian “Augustus”. Constantius sickly and disheartened, attempts to send an army against Julian’s forces, but suddenly dies amidst unfavorable omens.
Julian now officially becomes Emperor. His spiritual quest continues. He seeks counsel from a wizard, Maximus:
“Master,” quoth Julian, “why have I not that divine lissomeness of life, that joyousness which makest the heroes of Hellas so splendid?”
“Art thou not a Hellene?”
Julian sighed: “Alas! Our ancestors were savage barbarians, the Medes. In my veins flows heavy Northern blood. I am no son of Hellas…”
‘Friend, Hellas has never existed,” uttered Maximus, with his habitual equivocal smile.
“What dost thou mean to say?”
“That Hellas which thou lovest has never had an actual existence.”
“My faith is vain?”
“It is possible to have faith,” answered Maximus, “only in that which is not, but which shall be. Thy Hellas shall be, there shall be a kingdom of god-like men.”
“Master, thou dost possess mighty spells – free my soul from fears!”
“Fears of what?”
“I know not… Fear has been mine since childhood;… I fear all things – life; death; my own self; that mystery which is everywhere; the dark… Fain I would be joyous like the great men of ancient Hellas, yet cannot! It seems to me, at times, that I am a coward. Master! Master! Save me! Free me from this eternal darkness and horror!”
“Let us on. I know what thou art in need of,” quoth Maximus solemnly. “I shall cleanse thee of this Galilean corruption, of the shadow of Golgotha, through the radiant effulgence of Mithra; I shall warm thee after the water of Baptism with the hot blood of the Sun-God. O, my son, rejoice – I shall bestow upon thee great freedom and joyance, such as no man has ever yet had on earth.”
Thus, Julian is initiated into Mithraism, exultantly exclaiming at the ceremony’s climax: “Henceforth and unto death, the Sun alone is my wreath!”
Mithra, it should be remembered, was a god of the Vedic Indo-Aryans and ancient Aryan Persians; the name means “Heavenly Light”.
Julian now openly declares his faith before a huge assembly of his troops; before their astonished eyes, and to the dismay of the ‘Galileans’ present, he casts the christian emblem off the imperial standard and fixes upon it an image of the Sun-god, Mithra-Helios, crying out:
“Glory to the invincible Sun, the sovereign of the gods!
Now the Augustus bows before the eternal Helios, the God of Light, the God of Reason, the God of Joyousness and of Olympian Beauty!”
So would Julian begin the reconstruction of antiquity’s pagan splendour, but he quickly discovers that the dark spirit of his degenerate age, like some irresistable tidal wave of sewage, has polluted or swept away just about everything that is worthy and sublime. He organizes a Bacchic procession through the streets of Constantinople to try to recapture the joyous innocence of the past, only to be horrified when he realizes that the participants are uncomprehending scum and riff-raff. To his friend the physician Oribasius Julian laments:
“… Wherefore, from day to day, do men wax more hideous? Where are they – these godly ancients, these austere heroes, these proud youths, these pure women in white fluttering garments? Where is this strength and joy? Ye Galileans! Ye Galileans! What have ye wrought?”
“… Thou speakest like an artist,” replied Oribasius. “But the reveries of a poet are dangerous, when the fate of the universe lies in his hands. He that reigns over people – must he not be greater than a poet?”
“Who could be greater?”
“The creator of a new order of life.”
“The new, the new!” exclaimed Julian….
Truly, at times I fear your new things! The new seems to me shill and cruel, like death, I tell thee, my heart is in the old! The Galileans also seek the new, spurning the ancient holy things. Believe – the new is only in the old, but not in that which is becoming old; ’tis in that which has died but is immortal; in the desecrated, in the beautiful!”
He rose to his full height, with a face pale and proud, with his eyes blazing:
“They think Hellas has died! Lo, from all the ends of the world, the black monks, like black ravens, are flocking together towards the white marble body of Hellas, and greedily pecking it, like carrion; and they wax merry and caw: ‘Hellas has died!’ But Hellas can not die. Hellas is here – within our hearts. Hellas is the god-like beauty of men upon earth. It shall awaken — and woe be then unto the Galilean ravens!”
“Julian,” uttered Oribasius, “.. I feel frightened for thee – thou wouldst perform the impossible. The Ravens do not peck a living body, while the dead are never resurgent. Caesar, what if the miracle be not consummated?”
“I fear naught – my ruin shall be my salvation,” exclaimed the Emperor with such joy that Oribasius involuntarily shuddered, as though the miracle were about to be consummated. “Glory to the rejected, glory to the vanquished!”
“But ere I perish,” he added with a haughty smile, ” We shall wrestle a while longer! I fain would have my foes worthy of my hatred, but not of my contempt. Truly do I love my enemies, for that I can be conquering them. In my heart is Dionysian joy. Now is the ancient Titan arising and rending his chains, and once more is the Promethean fire being kindled upon earth. The Titan – against the Galilean! And so I come, to give unto men such liberty, such gaiety, as they never durst even dream of. Rejoice, ye tribes and nations of the earth. I am the harbinger of life, I am the liberator — I am the Antichrist!”
Julian throws himself into the business of governing with a passion, drafting laws and edicts, and formulating great plans for institutions dedicated to the propagation of paganism. Foremost in his mind, however, is the solution to the christian problem. Although he implements some discriminatory measures against the Galileans to limit their influence, Julian opts against outright repression; by and large his policy is to “conquer them through compassion, in the name of the eternal gods”. When a group of christians does complain to him about material discomforts they are experiencing due to some of his illiberal decrees, Julian berates them for their hypocrisy:
“..Ye say: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ Be poor in spirit, then, Or think ye that I know not your teaching? O, I know it better than any one of ye! I see in the Galilean testaments such profundities as ye have not even dreamt of. But every man to his own: do ye leave to us our vain wisdom, our poor Hellenic learning… Ye have a higher wisdom. Ours is the kingdom of earth, yours is the kingdom of heaven. Verily so! Be ye even as simple as children. Is not the blessed ignorance of the fishermen of Capernaum higher than all Platonic dialogues? All the wisdom of the Galileans consists but of one thing: ‘Believe!’ Were ye real Christians, ye would have blessed my law. ‘Tis not the spirit that is now indignant within ye, but the flesh, to which sin is sweet. — That is all I have to say to ye, and I hope you will excuse me, and agree that the Roman Emperor is more concerned for the salvation of your souls than ye are yourselves.”
Julian cleverly promotes freedom of expression for all the christian sects, hoping that in their competition and furious doctrinal disagreements ‘they shall tear each other to pieces like feral beasts, and shall give over to ignominy the name of their Teacher, far quicker than I could attain that end through the cruelest persecutions!’
The christian leaders, although fanatical, are not stupid; it soon dawns on them what Julian is up to, and they counterattack by trying to stir up the superstitious masses with anti-pagan harangues.
And while his christian enemies are agitating against him, Julian is dismayed to find extensive graft and corruption throughout his vast governmental bureaucracy.
At this moment of troubles, the mysterious wizard Maximus suddenly visits Julian to prophesy a coming pagan Messiah:
“Behold, He will appear.., even as the lightning out of the cloud, death-bearing and all-illuminating. He shall be fearful and fearless. In Him shall blend good and evil, meekness and pride, even as light and shade blend in the murk of morning. And men shall bless Him not only for His compassion, but for His mercilessness, for even His mercilessness shall be endowed with a force and a beauty like that of the gods…
At one time I did bless thee, thy life and thy reign, Emperor Julian; now I bless thee – thy death and thy deathlessness. Go, perish for the Unknown, for the Coming One, for the Antichrist!”
Meanwhile, christian demagogues carry on their campaign of disrespect for the Emperor, spreading bogus tales of hideous pagan atrocities and encouraging civil disobedience. When an unruly mob of christian hooligans fails to disperse, it is an enraged Julian himself who leads a charge of troops to break it up.
Despite this show of force, the christians persist in their mischief; polarization between christian factions and pagan government intensifies. Julian further perturbs the Galileans when he orders them out of a sacred grove of Apollo in which they had erected a martyr’s shrine; and when a presbyter makes a crack about Idol-worship, Julian responds with angry eloquence:
“… What men of folly do ye deem us, asserting that we do deify the substance itself of our eidolons — copper, stone, wood! All your preachers are desirous of convincing both all others and ourselves, and themselves of this. But ’tis a lie! We revere not the dead stone, copper or wood, but the spirit, the living spirit of beauty in our eidolons, examples of the purest charm divine. Not we are the idolators, but ye, rending each other, like beasts, over (words), over a simple iota; ye, who osculate the rotted bones of criminals, executed for the infringement of the laws of Rome; ye, who style the fratricide Constantius ‘Eternity’, ‘Holiness’! Is it not more reasonable to deify a splendidly beautiful sculpture of Phidias, than to bow down before two wooden sticks, laid criss-cross on each other – an ignominious instrument of torture? Should one blush for ye, or pity ye, or hate ye? ‘Tis the limit of insanity and ignominy that the descendants of the Hellenes, who have read Plato and Homer, should be rushing – whither? O, abomination! – to the rejected tribe, almost exterminated by Vespasian and Titus, in order to deify a dead Judean! … And yet ye dare to accuse us of idolatry!”
To re-establish the grandeur of the old Empire, to give glory to paganism and overawe the christians, Julian decides to cast his fate into the hands of the gods and embark upon a war against Persia. He delivers an intense, yet sober speech to his army, reminding them that ‘victory is to the strong’; and with an enthusiastic salute to their Caesar the invasion force sets off.
At first the Romans see little fighting; the Persians retreat to draw the invaders deeper into their territory. Julian’s armies do overwhelm a couple of Persian fortresses, meeting ever more furious resistance in the process.
Despite these initial victories, bad omens abound, and Julian damns and defies the gods themselves for seemingly forsaking him in his great mission.
Finally, a massive Persian army appears, and the decisive battle is joined. Julian joyously and valiantly leads his forces into the thick of the fighting. He and his comrades are slashing their way through a host of foes, when a cavalry detachment of enemy Saracens charges, and Julian is speared in the side.
The Romans are victorious, but their victory is bittersweet. In his tent the dying Emperor speaks to his loyal intimates for the last time:
“Hearken, my friends: my hour has struck; perhaps much too early; but as ye can see, I rejoice, like a trustworthy debtor, returning my life to Nature, and there is within my soul not sorrow, nor fear; there is in it but the calm joyousness of the wise, a premonition of an eternal rest. I have fulfilled my duty, and, in recalling the past, I have nothing to repent. In those days when, pursued by all, I awaited death in the desert of Cappadocia, in the castle of Marcellum, and later, at the summit of greatness under the purple of the Roman Caesar, I kept my soul immaculate, striving toward lofty ends. But if I have not fulfilled all that I was fain to do, forget not, men, that the affairs of the earth are directed by the forces of destiny. Now I bless the Eternal for that He hath given me to die not of a lingering malady, not by the hand of a headsman or a villain, but on the field of battle, in the flower of my youth, in the midst of unfinished exploits… Tell, my beloved ones, to my enemies and to my friends, how die the Hellenes, fortified by the wisdom of the ancients.”
And as the first rays of the rising sun light upon his face, Julian whispers his
“Rejoice!… Death – is the sun… I am even as thou art, Hellos!”
The Roman triumph in the field comes to naught, as Julian’s armies withdraw and Rome makes peace with Persia on ignominious terms; the pagan renaissance sputters out with the extinguishing of its leading light; the christian rabble celebrates: dreams turn to ashes for the former colleagues of the ‘Apostate’ . But pagan defiance lives on, and one of Julian’s closest friends vows:
“Hellas shall arise again – and with it, we!”
We’ve quoted extensively from THE DEATH OF THE GODS in an attempt to communicate the flavor, style and drama of Merezhkovsky’s epic (and sadly unavailable!) tale. Julian truly comes alive in this book, not only as an imposing figure, ‘storming the heavens’ but as a human being, with the weaknesses and failings of a human being.
It is precisely how Merezhkovsky shows this ‘human, all-too-human’ character overcoming his frailties to build upon his fortitude and actualize his inner majesty that makes THE DEATH OF THE GODS such an inspirational work.
We have inMerezhkovsky’s novel an ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of paganism which could be a big help in our cause; the fact that the book is virtually unobtainable is a real tragedy, a disgraceful commentary on the state of today’s ‘Western culture’.
Perhaps, in some small way, this review will stimulate an interest in Merezhkovsky’s works that might pay off for us in the future. For we badly need a literature to publicize and exalt OUR heroes and values; much of this already exists but is forgotten, out of print or simply ignored. One of our tasks is to bring this suppressed literature back out into the awareness of our Folk.
Julian and we are kindred spirits – he sought, as we now seek, the god-like in man; he fought, as we now fight, the same obscurantist opponents. Let us take courage, then, from both his historic and novelistic example and vow that our Folkdom, like Hellas, shall arise again!