Zadig, by Voltaire

Chapter X.

The Funeral Pile.

Setoc, transported with his good Success, of a Slave made Zadig his Favourite Companion and Confident; he found him as necessary in the Conduct of his Affairs, as the King of Babylon had before done in the Administration of his Government; and lucky it was for Zadig that Setoc had no Wife.

He discover’d, that his Master was in his Temper benevolent, strictly honest, and a Man of good natural Parts. Zadig was very much concern’d, that One of so much Sense should pay divine Adoration to a whole Host of created, tho’ Celestial Beings, that is to say, the Sun, Moon, and Stars, according to the antient Custom of the Arabians. He talk’d, at first, to his Master, with great Precaution on so important a Topick. But at last told him, in direct Terms, that they were created Bodies, as others, tho’ of less Lustre, and that there was no more Adoration due to them, than to a Stock or a Stone. But, said Setoc, they are eternal Beings to whom we are indebted for all the Blessings we enjoy; they animate Nature; they regulate the Seasons; they are, in a Word, at such an infinite Distance from us, that it would be downright impious not to adore them. You are more indebted, said Zadig, to the Waters of the Red Sea, which transport so many valuable Commodities into the Indies. Why, pray, may not they be deem’d as antient as the Stars? And if you are so fond of paying your Adoration on Account of their vast Distance; why don’t you adore the Land of the Gangarides, which lies in the utmost Extremities of the Earth. No, said Setoc, there is something so surprisingly more brilliant in the Stars than what you speak of; that a Man must adore them whether he will or not.

At the Close of the Evening, Zadig planted a long Range of Candles in the Front of his Tent, where Setoc and he were to sup that Night: And as soon as he perceiv’d his Patron to be at the Door, he fell prostrate on his Knees before the Wax–Lights. O ye everlasting, ever-shining Luminaries, be always propitious to your Votary, said Zadig. Having repeated these Words so loud as Setoc might hear them, he sat down to Table, without taking the least Notice of Setoc. What! said Setoc, somewhat startled at his Conduct, art thou at thy Prayers before Supper? I act just as inconsistently, Sir, as you do; I worship these Candles; without reflecting on their Makers, or yourself, who are my most beneficent Patron.

Setoc took the Hint, and was conscious of the Reproof that was conceal’d so genteely under a Vail. The superior Wisdom of his Slave enlightned his Mind; and from that Hour he was less lavish than ever he had been, of his Incense to those created Beings, and for the future, paid his Adoration to the eternal God who made them.

At that Time there was a most hideous Custom in high Repute all over Arabia, which came originally from Scythia; but having met with the Sanction of the bigotted Brachmans, threatn’d to spread its Infection all over the East. When a married Man happen’d to die, if his dearly beloved Widow ever expected to be esteem’d a Saint, she must throw herself headlong upon her Husband’s Funeral–Pile. This was look’d upon as a solemn Festival, and was call’d the Widow’s Sacrifice. That Tribe which could boast of the greatest Number of burnt-Widows, was look’d upon as the most meritorious. An Arabian, who was of the Tribe of Setoc, happen’d just at that Juncture, to be dead, and his Widow (Almona by Name) who was a noted Devotee, publish’d the Day, nay, the Hour, that she propos’d to throw herself (according to Custom) on her deceased Husband’s Funeral Pile, and be attended by a Concert of Drums and Trumpets. Zadig remonstrated to Setoc, what a shocking Custom this was, and how directly repugnant to human Nature; by permitting young Widows, almost every Day, to become wilful Self–Murderers; when they might be of Service to their Country, either by the Addition of new Subjects, or by the Education of such as demanded their Maternal Indulgence. And, by arguing seriously with Setoc for some Time, he forc’d from him at last, an ingenuous Confession, that the barbarous Custom then subsisting, ought, if possible, to be abolish’d. ’Tis now, replied Setoc, above a thousand Years since the Widows of Arabia have been indulg’d with this Privilege of dying with their Husbands; and how shall any one dare to abrogate a Law that has been establish’d Time out of Mind? Is there any Thing more inviolable than even an antient Error? But, replied Zadig, Reason is of more antient Date than the Custom you plead for. Do you communicate these Sentiments to the Sovereigns of your Tribes, and in the mean while I’ll go, and sound the Widow’s Inclinations.

Accordingly he paid her a Visit, and having insinuated himself into her Favour, by a few Compliments on her Beauty, after urging what a pity it was, that a young Widow, Mistress of so many Charms, should make away with herself for no other reason but to mingle her Ashes with a Husband that was dead; he, notwithstanding, applauded her for her heroic Constancy and Courage. I perceive, Madam, said he, you was excessively fond of your deceased Spouse. Not I truly, reply’d the young Arabian Devotee. He was a Brute, infected with a groundless Jealousy of my Virtue; and, in short, a perfect Tyrant. But, notwithstanding all this, I am determin’d to comply with our Custom. Surely then, Madam, there’s a Sort of secret Pleasure in being burnt alive. Alas! with a Sigh, cried Almona, ’tis a Shock indeed to Nature; but must be complied with for all that. I am a profess’d Devotee, and should I shew the least Reluctance, my Reputation would be lost for ever; all the World would laugh at me, should I not burn myself on this Occasion: Zadig having forc’d her ingenuously to confess, that she parted with her Life more out of Regard to what the World would say of her, and out of Pride and Ostentation, than any real Love for the deceas’d, he talk’d to her for some considerable Time so rationally, and us’d so many prevailing Arguments with her to justify her due Regard for the Life which she was going to throw away, that she began to wave the Thought, and entertain a secret Affection for her friendly Monitor. Pray, Madam, tell me, said Zadig, how would you dispose of yourself, upon the Supposition, that you could shake off this vain and barbarous Notion? Why, said Dame, with an amorous Glance, I think verily I should accept of yourself for a second Bed-fellow.

The Memory of Astarte had made too strong an Impression on his Mind, to close with this warm Declaration: He took his leave, however, that Moment, and waited on the Chiefs. He communicated to them the Substance of their private Conversation, and prevailed with them to make it a Law for the future, that no Widow should be allow’d to fall a Victim to a deceased Husband, till after she had admitted some young Man to converse with her in private for a whole Hour together. The Law was pass’d accordingly, and not one Widow in all Arabia, from that Day to this, ever observ’d the Custom. ’Twas to Zadig alone that the Arabian Dames were indebted for the Abolition, in one Hour, of a Custom so very inhuman, that had been practis’d for such a Number of Ages. Zadig, therefore, with the strictest Justice, was look’d upon by all the Fair Sex in Arabia, as their most bountiful Benefactor.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25