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Expiation

Maybe the most beautiful institution of antiquity is that solemn ceremony which repressed crimes by warning that they must be punished, and which calmed the despair of the guilty by making them atone for their transgressions by penitences. Remorse must necessarily have preceded the expiations; for the maladies are older than the medicine, and all needs have existed before relief.

It was, therefore, before all the creeds, a natural religion, which troubled man's heart when in his ignorance or in his hastiness he had committed an inhuman action. A friend killed his friend in a quarrel, a brother killed his brother, a jealous and frantic lover even killed her without whom he could not live. The head of a nation condemned a virtuous man, a useful citizen. These are men in despair, if they have sensibility. Their conscience harries them; nothing is more true; and it is the height of unhappiness. Only two choices remain, either reparation, or a settling in crime. All sensitive souls choose the first, monsters choose the second.

As soon as religions were established, there were expiations; the ceremonies accompanying them were ridiculous: for what connection between the water of the Ganges and a murder? how could a man repair a homicide by bathing himself? We have already remarked this excess of aberration and absurdity, of imagining that he who washes his body washes his soul, and wipes away the stains of bad actions.

The water of the Nile had later the same virtue as the water of the Ganges: to these purifications other ceremonies were added: I avow that they were still more impertinent. The Egyptians took two goats, and drew lots for which of the two should be thrown below, charged with the sins of the guilty. The name of "Hazazel," the expiator, was given to this goat. What connection, I ask you, between a goat and a man's crime?

It is true that since, God permitted this ceremony to be sanctified among the Jews our fathers, who took so many Egyptian rites; but doubtless it was the repentance, and not the goat, which purified the Jewish souls.

Jason, having killed Absyrthe his step-brother, comes, it is said, with Medea, more guilty than he, to have himself absolved by Circe, queen and priestess of Aea, who ever after passed for a great magician. Circe absolves them with a sucking-pig and salt cakes. That may make a fairly good dish, but can barely either pay for Absyrthe's blood or render Jason and Medea more honourable people, unless they avow a sincere repentance while eating their sucking-pig.

Orestes' expiation (he had avenged his father by murdering his mother) was to go to steal a statue from the Tartars of Crimea. The statue must have been very badly made, and there was nothing to gain on such an effect. Since then we have done better, we have invented the mysteries; the guilty might there receive their absolution by undergoing painful ordeals, and by swearing that they would lead a new life. It is from this oath that the new members were called among all nations by a name which corresponds to initiates, qui ineunt vitam novam, who began a new career, who entered into the path of virtue.

The Christian catechumens were called initiates only when they were baptised.

It is undoubted that in these mysteries one was washed of one's faults only by the oath to be virtuous; that is so true that the hierophant in all the Greek mysteries, in sending away the assembly, pronounced these two Egyptian words--"Koth, ompheth, watch, be pure"; which is a proof at once that the mysteries came originally from Egypt, and that they were invented only to make men better.

The sages in all times did what they could, therefore, to inspire virtue, and not to reduce human frailty to despair; but also there are crimes so horrible that no mystery accorded expiation for them. Nero, for all that he was emperor, could not get himself initiated into the mysteries of Ceres. Constantine, on the Report of Zosimus, could not obtain pardon for his crimes: he was stained with the blood of his wife, his son and all his kindred. It was in the interest of the human race that such great transgressions should remain without expiation, in order that absolution should not invite their committal, and that universal horror might sometimes stop the villains.

The Roman Catholics have expiations which are called "penitences."

By the laws of the barbarians who destroyed the Roman Empire, crimes were expiated with money. That was called compounding, componat cum decem, viginti, triginta solidis. It cost two hundred sous of that time to kill a priest, and four hundred for killing a bishop; so that a bishop was worth precisely two priests.

Having thus compounded with men, one compounded with God, when confession was generally established. Finally, Pope John XXII., who made money out of everything, prepared a tariff of sins.

The absolution of an incest, four turonenses for a layman; ab incestu pro laico in foro conscientiĉ turonenses quatuor. For the man and the woman who have committed incest, eighteen turonenses four ducats and nine carlins. That is not just; if one person pays only four turonenses, the two owed only eight turonenses.

Sodomy and bestiality are put at the same rate, with the inhibitory clause to title XLIII: that amounts to ninety turonenses twelve ducats and six carlins: cum inhibitione turonenses 90, ducatos 12, carlinos 6, etc.

It is very difficult to believe that Leo X. was so imprudent as to have this impost printed in 1514, as is asserted; but it must be considered that no spark appeared at that time of the conflagration which reformers kindled later, that the court of Rome slumbered on the people's credulity, and neglected to cover its exactions with the lightest veil. The public sale of indulgences, which followed soon after, makes it clear that this court took no precaution to hide the turpitudes to which so many nations were accustomed. As soon as complaints against the Church's abuses burst forth, the court did what it could to suppress the book; but it could not succeed.

If I dare give my opinion of this impost, I think that the various editions are not reliable; the prices are not at all proportionate: these prices do not agree with those which are alleged by d'Aubigné, grandfather of Madame de Maintenon, in the "Confession de Sanci"; he rates virginity at six gros, and incest with his mother and sister at five gros; this account is ridiculous. I think that there was in fact a tariff established in the datary's office, for those who came to Rome to be absolved, or to bargain for dispensations; but that the enemies of Rome added much to it in order to render it more odious.

What is quite certain is that these imposts were never authorized by any council; that it was an enormous abuse invented by avarice, and respected by those whose interest it was not to abolish it. The buyers and the sellers were equally satisfied: thus, barely anybody protested, until the troubles of the reformation. It must be admitted that an exact note of all these imposts would be of great service to the history of the human mind.


Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire