An Emperor Worships

The hold which the Church of Ethiopia exerts upon the whole land is manifested in many ways. Most striking of all is the way in which the many fasts are observed. No fewer than one hundred and fifty-three days are marked out in the Calendar as dedicated to special ceremonies of the Church, and fasting is prescribed for at least half of this number.

There are differences between the Ethiopian and the Western Church calendars. The Ethiopian New Year begins on the 11th September and at the end of that month there falls the impressive Feast of the Cross. Eastertide comes a week later than in Europe and is preceded by a Lenten period of forty days during which fasting is rigorously observed. Meat may not be eaten, and as there is no fish to be had in the country the diet during the time of fast is perforce monotonous in the extreme. A kind of unleavened bread is eaten made in thin cakes and surprisingly nutritious. Travellers have borne witness to the amazing abstinence of all classes during the period of fast. Even men of the lowest character, if they are members of the Coptic communion, will not break the law of the Church, whose edicts are minutely followed even when men are out in the hills and free from all possible chance of observation. The reason is that a widespread belief exists that should a man break the law of fast his virility will be lost.

Saints’ days exist much as in Catholic countries, and many of the Saints are well known to the West. The story of St. George and the Dragon, for instance, has its counterpart in Ethiopian lore. As told by the Coptic priests it is very like the story of Perseus and Andromeda but no student of mythology has yet managed to trace it to its source.

As for miracles, the stories of these are plentiful. There are also legends, certainly founded on fact, concerning great heroes of the early days who rallied the Christians against the Pagans and performed prodigies of valour.

The chief interest to the student of the ritual of the Coptic Church lies in the fact that by careful deduction it is possible to reconstruct much concerning the faith and practices of the early Christians from an examination of the Ethiopic religion of to-day. A single glance at any of the churches reveals that the plan of the Jewish temple has been preserved in all its main features unchanged through the years. One fact is curious. Steeples are regarded by the Ethiopians as unholy things. All their churches have domes, though they are mostly so small that cupolas is perhaps a better term. The reason for the hatred of steeples is that so many of the cults with which the Egyptian Christians were surrounded, the ancients faiths of Egypt, Minoa and Greece, worshipped fertility both in the earth and in the human body, and used as a symbol of the force they worshipped obelisks and columns of various strange designs. Thus any structure towering up to a point became anathema to the Egyptian Christians, for they thought of it in terms of the sensuous and barbaric cults whose influence they were always fighting.

In western Europe, on the other hand, where the existence of “phallic” cults was forgotten, the spire became a symbol of man’s reaching out to heaven, and produced feelings of spiritual sublimity. Yet traced to its earliest forms the Gothic principle, so magnificently embodied in the beautiful cathedrals of Europe, has, it must be admitted, its origin far back in the dark beginnings of man’s worship.

So the Ethiopian church has no steeple. Upon the cupola there is usually a cross, but the eight-pointed star, a design akin to the Jewish symbol, is frequently found. Those who have often wondered how the “Easter Egg” became part of Christian custom, will be interested to know that ostrich eggs are part of the design of Ethiopian church decoration. This is doubtless a survival of fertility worship, which, because its associations are less noticeably pagan, has survived.

Music plays a great part in the religious ceremonies of the West, but the dance has completely disappeared. In Ethiopia it survives in amazing forms. David danced before the Lord, and doubtless much the same rhythms and patterns of motion are to be found in Ethiopia to-day. The spell-binding effect of reiterated rhythm, and its power to separate the mind of the devotee from bodily considerations, is recognised by the priests who use music and dancing as means of approach to religious ecstasy. The European observer who feels superior to these ancient rites and who thinks that their power can affect only the native mind, soon finds that he has underestimated the mysterious fascination of the ceremonies. The music is all very soft and low, with hardly any phrases recognisable as tunes to the western ear; but as the drums repeat their hollow and droning rhythm, the strings of the lutes throbbing in sympathy, great distances open up within the listener’s mind. It is as if the music were exploring the hidden places of the human soul, and the mind can travel with it, meeting face to face with unutterably beautiful, yet vast and terrible realities.

Within the gloom of the church, whose windows are few and let in only a mysteriously tinted ghost of the bright sunlight outside, the music continues. Incense wreathes up in steady wisps from the inner altar and is perceived above the screen which hides the Holy of Holies from the worshippers’ eyes. The lulling yet faintly bitter perfume spreads into the air. The music grows more insistent in its assault upon the senses. The world which they perceive grows all the while less real.... “I felt as though I had been on a long and wonderful journey, but could remember nothing of the strange sights I had seen,” said an Englishwoman who obtained permission to attend a Church ceremony.

The churches are for the most part so small that many of the great celebrations of the feast-days of the saints, for which all the hill tribes and even the inhabitants of distant provinces descend upon the capital, are held in the open air. A huge tent is erected sometimes in a public square, often in the pastures on the outskirts of the town.

A linen screen, supported by a host of white-robed servitors, hides the dais either at the far end or in the centre of the tent on which, surrounding the golden throne of the Lion of Judah, are to be seated all the great chiefs who have come to pay homage to Emperor and Church.

When all are seated the screen is rolled away. Voices are hushed into silence. No one moves. On the sides of the tent the silken tapestries, stiff with elaborate brocade, glitter faintly in the dim light. Underfoot are Eastern rugs, heavy in pile, glorious in texture, mysterious in design.

The beat of drums, the plaintive chanting of voices rising and falling in an Eastern version of the Gregorian scale, announce the approach of the royal procession. There is no blaring of trumpets, nor is there any military rhythm in the sound of the drums. This music is wild, but it is not the wildness of war. It has neither beginning nor ending.

As the King of Kings passes every head in the huge crowd is bowed. Beneath a gorgeous umbrella the Lion of Judah sits impassive, acknowledging no salutes. He enters the tent and is seated upon the throne of his fathers, a seat of ancient workmanship, massive with ivory and gold.

Other processions, bright with banners, converge upon the tent. First come the priests of the provincial churches, each group with a vivid banner; and then comes the procession of the Apostles, twelve priests each with a golden cross or other emblem of the church. Each wears a crown of gold upon his head, and as the procession turns towards the sun there is a flash of unbearable brilliance all along the line. The trembling banners blaze with colour. The bright light of the eastern sky seems to vibrate in tune with the unending throb of the drums.

In the tent the Emperor Haile Selassie listens as the priests read out the Scriptures. The Geez language is unfamiliar to the Amharic population, but the Emperor is a fine scholar and knows the priestly language better than many of the priests themselves. When the passage allocated to the ceremony has been read in an awe­inspiring tone by the Abuna or by the chief priest, the huge gold-encrusted Bible is borne by attendant monks to the foot of the Emperor’s throne. Question and answer are exchanged in low voices, much like the responses in our own Church. Then as a sign that he is at peace with God, and that this peace may be shared by all the virtuous among his subjects, the Emperor bends down and lays his forehead against the open page, afterwards kissing the great volume, murmuring as he does so a final prayer.

The book is carried back to the sound of louder music, for now that reconcilement of Man with God has been made it is right to rejoice. As the music and chanting die down, the cymbals clash faintly and there is a whispering and chiming of the sistra which are shaken by the priests. These instruments, ancient as Egypt, consist of a metal frame shaped like a tennis racket, across which are strung three or four hollow metal bars. These are frequently shaped like serpents and in the loop where the head twists round, outside the frame, small metal bells are often hung. If there are no bells it is the bars themselves which ring when the frame is shaken. The effect is very mysterious when the instruments are in the hands of carefully trained exponents of the priestly tradition, for there is a queer flatness of tone which strikes in most fascinating fashion upon the western ear. You can never be sure what the pitch is, and no sooner are you used to a note than it has melted into another equally elusive.

To music such as this the priestly dance begins.

So heavy are the robes that no rapid movement is possible. The feet of the priests do not move in any direction, but perform a set pattern round the spot where they stand. It is the swaying of the body in sympathy with each faint crescendo of the music that brings the element of rapture into the dance.

Line by line the priests come forward. Then slowly they retire. The sistra cease to rattle, only the throb of the drums remains. This, too, ceases. There is silence. A shudder of release passes through the assembly. Slowly the banners form themselves into line of march. God has been worshipped. Haile Selassie has made truce with heaven for his people.

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July 7, 2021