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Chapter IV 


An account of the religion of the Abyssins.

Yet though there is a great difference between our manners, customs, civil government, and those of the Abyssins, there is yet a much greater in points of faith; for so many errors have been introduced and ingrafted into their religion, by their ignorance, their separation from the Catholic Church, and their intercourse with Jews, Pagans, and Mohammedans, that their present religion is nothing but a kind of confused miscellany of Jewish and Mohammedan superstitions, with which they have corrupted those remnants of Christianity which they still retain.

They have, however, preserved the belief of our principal mysteries; they celebrate with a great deal of piety the passion of our Lord; they reverence the cross; they pay a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the angels, and the saints; they observe the festivals, and pay a strict regard to the Sunday. Every month they commemorate the assumption of the Virgin Mary, and are of opinion that no Christians beside themselves have a true sense of the greatness of the mother of God, or pay her the honours that are due to her. There are some tribes amongst them (for they are distinguished like the Jews by their tribes), among whom the crime of swearing by the name of the Virgin is punished with forfeiture of goods and even with loss of life; they are equally scrupulous of swearing by St. George. Every week they keep a feast to the honour of the apostles and angels; they come to mass with great devotion, and love to hear the word of God. They receive the sacrament often, but do not always prepare themselves by confession. Their charity to the poor may be said to exceed the proper bounds that prudence ought to set it, for it contributes to encourage great numbers of beggars, which are a great annoyance to the whole kingdom, and as I have often said, afford more exercise to a Christian's patience than his charity; for their insolence is such, that they will refuse what is offered them if it be not so much as they think proper to ask.

Though the Abyssins have not many images, they have great numbers of pictures, and perhaps pay them somewhat too high a degree of worship. The severity of their fasts is equal to that of the primitive church. In Lent they never eat till after sunset; their fasts are the more severe because milk and butter are forbidden them, and no reason or necessity whatsoever can procure them a permission to eat meat, and their country affording no fish, they live only on roots and pulse. On fast-days they never drink but at their meat, and the priests never communicate till evening, for fear of profaning them. They do not think themselves obliged to fast till they have children either married or fit to be married, which yet doth not secure them very long from these mortifications, because their youths marry at the age of ten years, and their girls younger.

There is no nation where excommunication carries greater terrors than among the Abyssins, which puts it in the power of the priests to abuse this religious temper of the people, as well as the authority they receive from it, by excommunicating them, as they often do, for the least trifle in which their interest is concerned.

No country in the world is so full of churches, monasteries, and ecclesiastics as Abyssinia; it is not possible to sing in one church or monastery without being heard by another, and perhaps by several. They sing the psalms of David, of which, as well as the other parts of the Holy Scriptures, they have a very exact translation in their own language; in which, though accounted canonical, the books of the Maccabees are omitted. The instruments of music made use of in their rites of worship are little drums, which they hang about their necks, and beat with both their hands; these are carried even by their chief men, and by the gravest of their ecclesiastics. They have sticks likewise, with which they strike the ground, accompanying the blow with a motion of their whole bodies. They begin their concert by stamping their feet on the ground, and playing gently on their instruments; but when they have heated themselves by degrees, they leave off drumming, and fall to leaping, dancing, and clapping their hands, at the same time straining their voices to the utmost pitch, till at length they have no regard either to the tune or the pauses, and seem rather a riotous than a religious assembly. For this manner of worship they cite the psalm of David, "O clap your hands all ye nations." Thus they misapply the sacred writings to defend practices yet more corrupt than those I have been speaking of.

They are possessed with a strange notion that they are the only true Christians in the world; as for us, they shunned us as heretics, and were under the greatest surprise at hearing us mention the Virgin Mary with the respect which is due to her, and told us that we could not be entirely barbarians since we were acquainted with the mother of God. It plainly appears that prepossessions so strong, which receive more strength from the ignorance of the people, have very little tendency to dispose them to a reunion with the Catholic Church.

They have some opinions peculiar to themselves about purgatory, the creation of souls, and some of our mysteries. They repeat baptism every year, they retain the practice of circumcision, they observe the Sabbath, they abstain from all those sorts of flesh which are forbidden by the law. Brothers espouse the wives of their brothers, and to conclude, they observe a great number of Jewish ceremonies.

Though they know the words which Jesus Christ appointed to be used in the administration of baptism, they have without scruple substituted others in their place, which makes the validity of their baptism, and the reality of their Christianity, very doubtful. They have a few names of saints, the same with those in the Roman martyrology, but they often insert others, as Zama la Cota, the Life of Truth; Ongulari, the Evangelist; Asca Georgi, the Mouth of Saint George.

To bring back this people into the enclosure of the Catholic Church, from which they have been separated so many ages, was the sole view and intention with which we undertook so long and toilsome a journey, crossed so many seas, and passed so many deserts, with the utmost hazard of our lives; I am certain that we travelled more than seven thousand leagues before we arrived at our residence at Fremona.

We came to this place, anciently called Maigoga, on the 21st of June, as I have said before, and were obliged to continue there till November, because the winter begins here in May, and its greatest rigour is from the middle of June to the middle of September. The rains that are almost continually falling in this season make it impossible to go far from home, for the rivers overflow their banks, and therefore, in a place like this, where there are neither bridges nor boats, are, if they are not fordable, utterly impassable. Some, indeed, have crossed them by means of a cord fastened on both sides of the water, others tie two beams together, and placing themselves upon them, guide them as well as they can, but this experiment is so dangerous that it hath cost many of these bold adventurers their lives. This is not all the danger, for there is yet more to be apprehended from the unwholesomeness of the air, and the vapours which arise from the scorched earth at the fall of the first showers, than from the torrents and rivers. Even they who shelter themselves in houses find great difficulty to avoid the diseases that proceed from the noxious qualities of these vapours. From the beginning of June to that of September it rains more or less every day. The morning is generally fair and bright, but about two hours after noon the sky is clouded, and immediately succeeds a violent storm, with thunder and lightning flashing in the most dreadful manner. While this lasts, which is commonly three or four hours, none go out of doors. The ploughman upon the first appearance of it unyokes his oxen, and betakes himself with them into covert. Travellers provide for their security in the neighbouring villages, or set up their tents, everybody flies to some shelter, as well to avoid the unwholesomeness as the violence of the rain. The thunder is astonishing, and the lightning often destroys great numbers, a thing I can speak of from my own experience, for it once flashed so near me, that I felt an uneasiness on that side for a long time after; at the same time it killed three young children, and having run round my room went out, and killed a man and woman three hundred paces off. When the storm is over the sun shines out as before, and one would not imagine it had rained, but that the ground appears deluged. Thus passes the Abyssinian winter, a dreadful season, in which the whole kingdom languishes with numberless diseases, an affliction which, however grievous, is yet equalled by the clouds of grasshoppers, which fly in such numbers from the desert, that the sun is hid and the sky darkened; whenever this plague appears, nothing is seen through the whole region but the most ghastly consternation, or heard but the most piercing lamentations, for wherever they fall, that unhappy place is laid waste and ruined; they leave not one blade of grass, nor any hopes of a harvest.

God, who often makes calamities subservient to His will, permitted this very affliction to be the cause of the conversion of many of the natives, who might have otherwise died in their errors; for part of the country being ruined by the grasshoppers that year in which we arrived at Abyssinia, many, who were forced to leave their habitations, and seek the necessaries of life in other places, came to that part of the land where some of our missionaries were preaching, and laid hold on that mercy which God seemed to have appointed for others.

As we could not go to court before November, we resolved, that we might not be idle, to preach and instruct the people in the country; in pursuance of this resolution I was sent to a mountain, two days' journey distant from Maigoga. The lord or governor of the place was a Catholic, and had desired missionaries, but his wife had conceived an implacable aversion both from us and the Roman Church, and almost all the inhabitants of that mountain were infected with the same prejudices as she. They had been persuaded that the hosts which we consecrated and gave to the communicants were mixed with juices strained from the flesh of a camel, a dog, a hare, and a swine; all creatures which the Abyssins look upon with abhorrence, believing them unclean, and forbidden to them, as they were to the Jews. We had no way of undeceiving them, and they fled from us whenever we approached. We carried with us our tent, our chalices, and ornaments, and all that was necessary for saying mass. The lord of the village, who, like other persons of quality throughout Aethiopia, lived on the top of a mountain, received us with very great civility. All that depended upon him had built their huts round about him; so that this place compared with the other towns of Abyssinia seems considerable; as soon as we arrived he sent us his compliments, with a present of a cow, which, among them, is a token of high respect. We had no way of returning this favour but by killing the cow, and sending a quarter smoking, with the gall, which amongst them is esteemed the most delicate part. I imagined for some time that the gall of animals was less bitter in this country than elsewhere, but upon tasting it, I found it more; and yet have frequently seen our servants drink large glasses of if with the same pleasure that we drink the most delicious wines.

We chose to begin our mission with the lady of the village, and hoped that her prejudice and obstinacy, however great, would in time yield to the advice and example of her husband, and that her conversion would have a great influence on the whole village, but having lost several days without being able to prevail upon her to hear us on any one point, we left the place, and went to another mountain, higher and better peopled. When we came to the village on the top of it, where the lord lived, we were surprised with the cries and lamentations of men that seemed to suffer or apprehend some dreadful calamity; and were told, upon inquiring the cause, that the inhabitants had been persuaded that we were the devil's missionaries, who came to seduce them from the true religion, that foreseeing some of their neighbours would be ruined by the temptation, they were lamenting the misfortune which was coming upon them. When we began to apply ourselves to the work of the mission we could not by any means persuade any but the lord and the priest to receive us into their houses; the rest were rough and untractable to that degree that, after having converted six, we despaired of making any farther progress, and thought it best to remove to other towns where we might be better received.

We found, however, a more unpleasing treatment at the next place, and had certainly ended our lives there had we not been protected by the governor and the priest, who, though not reconciled to the Roman Church, yet showed us the utmost civility; the governor informed us of a design against our lives, and advised us not to go out after sunset, and gave us guards to protect us from the insults of the populace.

We made no long stay in a place where they stopped their ears against the voice of God, but returned to the foot of that mountain which we had left some days before; we were surrounded, as soon as we began to preach, with a multitude of auditors, who came either in expectation of being instructed, or from a desire of gratifying their curiosity, and God bestowed such a blessing upon our apostolical labours that the whole village was converted in a short time. We then removed to another at the middle of the mountain, situated in a kind of natural parterre, or garden; the soil was fruitful, and the trees that shaded it from the scorching heat of the sun gave it an agreeable and refreshing coolness. We had here the convenience of improving the ardour and piety of our new converts, and, at the same time, of leading more into the way of the true religion: and indeed our success exceeded the utmost of our hopes; we had in a short time great numbers whom we thought capable of being admitted to the sacraments of baptism and the mass.

We erected our tent, and placed our altar under some great trees, for the benefit of the shade; and every day before sun-rising my companion and I began to catechise and instruct these new Catholics, and used our utmost endeavours to make them abjure their errors. When we were weary with speaking, we placed in ranks those who were sufficiently instructed, and passing through them with great vessels of water, baptised them according to the form prescribed by the Church. As their number was very great, we cried aloud, those of this rank are named Peter, those of that rank Anthony. And did the same amongst the women, whom we separated from the men. We then confessed them, and admitted them to the communion. After mass we applied ourselves again to catechise, to instruct, and receive the renunciation of their errors, scarce allowing ourselves time to make a scanty meal, which we never did more than once a day.

After some time had been spent here, we removed to another town not far distant, and continued the same practice. Here I was accosted one day by an inhabitant of that place, where he had found the people so prejudiced against us, who desired to be admitted to confession. I could not forbear asking him some questions about those lamentations, which we heard upon our entering into that place. He confessed with the utmost frankness and ingenuity that the priests and religious have given dreadful accounts both of us and of the religion we preached; that the unhappy people were taught by them that the curse of God attended us wheresoever we went; that we were always followed by the grasshoppers, that pest of Abyssinia, which carried famine and destruction over all the country; that he, seeing no grasshoppers following us when we passed by their village, began to doubt of the reality of what the priests had so confidently asserted, and was now convinced that the representation they made of us was calumny and imposture. This discourse gave us double pleasure, both as it proved that God had confuted the accusations of our enemies, and defended us against their malice without any efforts of our own, and that the people who had shunned us with the strongest detestation were yet lovers of truth, and came to us on their own accord. Nothing could be more grossly absurd than the reproaches which the Abyssinian ecclesiastics aspersed us and our religion with. They had taken advantage of the calamity that happened the year of our arrival: and the Abyssins, with all their wit, did not consider that they had often been distressed by the grasshoppers before there came any Jesuits into the country, and indeed before there were any in the world.

Whilst I was in these mountains, I went on Sundays and saints' days sometimes to one church and sometimes to another. One day I went out with a resolution not to go to a certain church, where I imagined there was no occasion for me, but before I had gone far, I found myself pressed by a secret impulse to return back to that same church. I obeyed the influence, and discovered it to proceed from the mercy of God to three young children who were destitute of all succour, and at the point of death. I found two very quickly in this miserable state; the mother had retired to some distance that she might not see them die, and when she saw me stop, came and told me that they had been obliged by want to leave the town they lived in, and were at length reduced to this dismal condition, that she had been baptised, but that the children had not. After I had baptised and relieved them, I continued my walk, reflecting with wonder on the mercy of God, and about evening discovered another infant, whose mother, evidently a Catholic, cried out to me to save her child, or at least that if I could not preserve this uncertain and perishable life, I should give it another certain and permanent. I sent my servant to fetch water with the utmost expedition, for there was none near, and happily baptised the child before it expired.

Soon after this I returned to Fremona, and had great hopes of accompanying the patriarch to the court; but, when we were almost setting out, received the command of the superior of the mission to stay at Fremona, with a charge of the house there, and of all the Catholics that were dispersed over the kingdom of Tigre, an employment very ill-proportioned to my abilities. The house at Fremona has always been much regarded even by those emperors who persecuted us; Sultan Segued annexed nine large manors to it for ever, which did not make us much more wealthy, because of the expensive hospitality which the great conflux of strangers obliged us to. The lands in Abyssinia yield but small revenues, unless the owners themselves set the value upon them, which we could not do.

The manner of letting farms in Abyssinia differs much from that of other countries: the farmer, when the harvest is almost ripe, invites the chumo or steward, who is appointed to make an estimate of the value of each year's product, to his house, entertains him in the most agreeable manner he can; makes him a present, and then takes him to see his corn. If the chumo is pleased with the treat and present, he will give him a declaration or writing to witness that his ground, which afforded five or six sacks of corn, did you yield so many bushels, and even of this it is the custom to abate something; so that our revenue did not increase in proportion to our lands; and we found ourselves often obliged to buy corn, which, indeed, is not dear, for in fruitful years forty or fifty measures, weighing each about twenty-two pounds, may be purchased for a crown.

Besides the particular charge I had of the house of Fremona, I was appointed the patriarch's grand-vicar through the whole kingdom of Tigre. I thought that to discharge this office as I ought, it was incumbent on me to provide necessaries as well for the bodies as the souls of the converted Catholics. This labour was much increased by the famine which the grasshoppers had brought that year upon the country. Our house was perpetually surrounded by some of those unhappy people, whom want had compelled to abandon their habitations, and whose pale cheeks and meagre bodies were undeniable proofs of their misery and distress. All the relief I could possibly afford them could not prevent the death of such numbers that their bodies filled the highways; and to increase our affliction, the wolves having devoured the carcases, and finding no other food, fell upon the living; their natural fierceness being so increased by hunger, that they dragged the children out of the very houses. I saw myself a troop of wolves tear a child of six years old in pieces before I or any one else could come to its assistance.

While I was entirely taken up with the duties of my ministry, the viceroy of Tigre received the commands of the Emperor to search for the bones of Don Christopher de Gama. On this occasion it may not be thought impertinent to give some account of the life and death of this brave and holy Portuguese, who, after having been successful in many battles, fell at last into the hands of the Moors, and completed that illustrious life by a glorious martyrdom.

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