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DIVINATION BY VIRGILIAN, HOMERIC,
OR BIBLE LOTS, This is a species of divination performed by opening the works of Virgil, &c., and remarking the lines which shall be covered with your thumb the instant the leaves are opened ; by which, if they can be interpreted in any respect to relate to you, they are accounted prophetic. This custom appears to have been of very ancient date, and was tried with Homer's poem as well as Virgil's. They who applied to this kind of oracle were said to try the sortes Homericæ, or sortes Virgiliane.
King Charles the First is said to have tried this method of learning his fate, and to have found the oracle but too certain. I have subjoined the lines from Virgil as printed in Dryden's Miscellanies, vol. vi.
“But vex'd with rebels and a stubborn race,
' Dr. Welwood says that King Charles the First and Lord Falkland, being in the Bodleian Library, made this experiment of their future fortunes, and met with passages equally ominous to each. Aubrey, however, in his manuscript on the Remains of Gentilism, tells the story of consulting the Virgilian lots differently. He says: “ In December, 1648, King Charles the First being in great trouble, and prisoner at Carisbrooke, or to be brought to London to his tryal, Charles, Prince of Wales, being then at Paris, and in profound sorrow for his father, Mr. Abraham Cowley went to wayte on him. His Highnesse asked him whether he would play at cards, to divert his sad thoughts. Mr. Cowley replied he did not care to play at cards, but if his Highness pleased they would use sortes Virgilianæ (Mr. Cowley always had a Virgil in his pocket); the Prince liked the proposal, and pricked a pin in the fourth book of the Æneid, &c. The Prince understood not Latin well, and desired Mr. Cowley to translate the verses, which he did admirably well."
“At bello audacis populi vexatus et armis,
Finibus extorris, complexu avulsus Iuli,
Æneid., lib. iv. I. 615.
Dr. Johnson, in his Life of Cowley, suspects that great poet to have been tinctured with this superstition, and to have consulted the Virgilian lots on the great occasion of the Scottish treaty, and that he gave credit to the answer of the oracle.
Dr. Ferrand, in his Love Melancholy, 1640, p. 177, mentions the “ kinde of divination by the opening of a booke at all adrentures ; and this was called the Valentinian chance, and by some sortes Virgilianæ ; of which the Emperor Adrian was wont to make very much use.". He adds, “I shall omit to speak here of astragalomancy, that was done with huckle bones ; ceromancy, and all other such like fooleries.”
Dr. Nathaniel Home, in his Dæmonologie, 1650, p. 81, says : “For sorcery, properly so called, viz. divination by lotts, it is too much apparent how it abounds. For lusory lots, the state groans under the losse by them, to the ruine of many men and families ; as the churches lament under the sins by them; and for other lots, by sieves, books, &c., they abound, as witchery, &c., abounds.” Allan Ramsay, in his Poems, 1721, p. 81, has these lines :
" Waes me, for baith I wanna get,
To ane by law we're stented;
And be with ane contented." In the Glossary, he explains “cutts, lots. These cuts are usually made of straws unequally cut, which one hides between his finger and thumb, while another draws his fate.”
Jodrell, in his Illustrations of Euripides, i. 174, informs us that a similar practice prevailed among the Hebrews, by whom it was called bath-kol.
The superstitious among the ancient Christians practised a similar kind of divination by opening the Old and New Testament. See Gibbon's Decline and Fall, vi. 333. He is speaking of Clovis, A.D. 507, who, marching from Paris, as he proceeded with decent reverence through the holy diocese of Tours, consulted the shrine of St. Martin, the sanctuary and oracle of Gaul. His messengers were instructed to remark the words of the psalm which should happen to be chanted at the precise moment when they entered the church. These words most fortunately expressed the valour and victory of the champions of heaven, and the application was easily transferred to the new Joshua, the new Gideon, who went III.
forth to battle against the enemies of the Lord. He adds : “ This mode of divination, by accepting as an omen the first sacred words which in particular circumstances should be presented to the eye or ear, was derived from the Pagans, and the Psalter or Bible was substituted to the poems of Homer and Virgil. From the fourth to the fourteenth century, these sortes sanctorum, as they are styled, were repeatedly condemned by the decrees of councils, and repeatedly practised by kings, bishops, and saints. See a curious dissertation of the Abbé de Resnel, in the Mémoires de l'Académie, xix. 287 --310." It appears
from Eccho to the Voice from Heaven, 1652, p. 227, that the fanatic Arise Evans, in the time of the Com. monwealth, used this species of divination by the Bible. It appears also, from Lord Berkeley's Historical Applications, 8vo. Lond. 1670, p. 90, that the good earl, being sick and under some dejection of spirit, had recourse to this then prevailing superstition. His words are: “I being sick and under some dejection of spirit, opening my Bible to see what place I could first light upon, which might administer comfort to me, casually I fixed upon the sixth of Hosea : the three first verses are these. I am willing to decline superstition upon all occasions, yet think myself obliged to make this use of such a providential place of Scripture: Ist. By hearty repenting me of my sins past: 2dly. By sincere reformation for the time to come.”
In Willis's Mount Tabor, pp. 199, 200, we read : “As I was to passe through the roome where my little grand childe was set by her grandmother to read her morning's chapter, the ninth of Matthew's gospell, just as I came in she was uttering these words in the second verse, ‘Jesus said to the sicke of the palsie, sonne, be of good comfort, thy sinnes are forgiven thee,' which words sorting so fitly with my case, whose whole left side is taken with that kind of disease, I stood at a stand at the uttering of them, and could not but conceive some joy and comfort in those blessed words, though by the childe's reading, as if the Lord by her had spoken them myselfe, a paralytick and a sinner, as that sicke man was,” &c.
This may be called a Bible omen.
DIVINATION BY THE SPEAL, OR BLADE-BONE.
MR. PENNANT gives an account of another sort of divination used in Scotland, called sleina-nachd, or reading the speal bone, or the blade-bone of a shoulder of mutton, well scraped. (Mr. Shaw says picked; no iron must touch it.) See Tacitus's Annals, xiv. When Lord Loudon, he says, was obliged to retreat before the rebels to the isle of Skie, a common soldier, on the very moment the battle of Culloden was decided, proclaimed the victory at that distance, pretending to have discovered the event by looking through the bone. Tour in Scotland, 1769, p. 155. See also Pennant's Tour to the Hebrides, p. 282, for another instance of the use of the speal bone. The word speal is evidently derived from the French espaule, humerus. Drayton, in his Polyolbion, song V. mentions:
“A divination strange the Dutch-made English have
Appropriate to that place (as though some power it gave)
Things long to come foreshowes, as things done lone agone." He alludes to a colony of Flemings planted about Pembrokeshire. Selden, in a note on this passage, tells us : “Under Henry the Second, one William Mangunel, a gentleman of those parts, finding by his skill of prediction that his wife had played false with him, and conceived by his own nephew, formally dresses the shoulder-bone of one of his own rammes, and sitting at dinner (pretending it to be taken out of his neighbour's flocke) requests his wife (equalling him in these divinations) to give her judgement. She buriously observes, and at last with great laughter casts it from her. The gentleman importuning her reason of so vehement an affection, receives answer of her, that his wife, out of whose flocke that ramme was taken, had by incestuous copulation with her husband's nephew fraughted herself with a young one. Lay all together and judge, gentlewomen, the sequell of this crosse accident. But why she could not as well divine of whose flocke it was, as the other secret, when I have more skill in osteomantie, I will tell you.” He refers to Girald. Itin. i. cap. 11. Hanway, in his Travels into Persia, vol. i. p. 177, tells us, that in that country too they have a kind of divination by the bone of a sheep.
In Caxton's Description of England, at the end of the Scholemaster of St. Alban's Chronicle, 1500, we read: It semeth of these men a grete wonder that in a boon of a wethers ryght sholder whan the fleshe is soden awaye and not rosted, they knowe what have be done, is done, and shall be done, as it were by spyryte of prophecye and a wonderful crafte. They telle what is done in ferre countries, tokenes of peas or of warre, the state of the royame, sleynge of men, and spousebreche, such thynges theye declare certayne of tokenes and sygnes that is in suche a sholder bone.” Camden, in his Ancient and Modern Manners of the Irish, says: “They look through the blade-bone of a sheep, and if they see any spot in it darker than ordinary, foretell that somebody will be buried out of the house. Gough’s Camden, 1789, iii. 659.
There is a rustic species of divination by bachelors' buttons, a plant so called. There was an ancient custom, says Grey, in his Notes upon Shakespeare, i. 108, amongst the country fellows, of trying whether they should succeed with their mistresses by carrying the batchellour's buttons, a plant of this Lychnis kind, whose flowers resemble also a button in form, in their pockets; and they judged of their good or bad success by their growing or not growing there. In Greene's Quip for an Upstart Courtier, 4to. Lond. 1620, batchelors' buttons are described having been worn also by the young women, and that too under their aprons. “Thereby I saw the batchelors' buttons, whose virtue is to make wanton maidens weepe when they have worne it forty weekes under their aprons, for a favour."
Borlase, in his Antiquities of Cornwall, p. 133, says, that
the Druids, besides the ominous appearances of the entrails, had several ways of divining. They divined by augury, that is, from the observations they made on the voices, flying, eating, mirth or sadness, health or sickness of birds.”
1“Germanos veteres er hinnitu et fremitu equorum cepisse auguria, nec ulli auspicio majorem tidem adhibitam, testatur Tacitus, lib. de Moribus Germanorum.” Pet. Moliuæi Vates, p. 218.