Thaumaturgia by An OxonianOr, Elucidations of the Marvellous

Distributed Proofreaders. This file was produced from images generously made available by the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF/Gallica) at THAUMATURGIA, OR ELUCIDATIONS OF THE MARVELLOUS. BY AN OXONIAN. 1835 “Bombastes kept the devil’s bird, Shut in the pommel of his sword, And taught him all the cunning pranks, Of past and future mountebanks.” _Hudibras_.
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Distributed Proofreaders. This file was produced from images generously made available by the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF/Gallica) at

[Transcriber’s note: The spelling peculiarities of the original have been retained in this etext.]







“Bombastes kept the devil’s bird,
Shut in the pommel of his sword,
And taught him all the cunning pranks, Of past and future mountebanks.”



Demonology–The Devil, a most unaccountable personage–Who is he?–His predilection for old women–Traditions concerning evil spirits &c.


Magic and Magical rites.

Jewish magi.


On the several kinds of magic.

Augury, or divinations drawn from the flight and feeding of birds.

Aruspices, or divinations drawn from brute or human sacrifices.

Divisions of divination by the ancients–prodigies, etc.


History of Oracles–The principal oracles of antiquity.

The oracle of Jupiter Hammon. The oracle of Delphos, or Pythian Apollo.

Ceremonies practised on consulting oracles.

Oracles often equivocal and obscure.

Urim and Thummim.

Reputation of oracles, how lost.

Cessation of oracles.

Had demons any share in the oracles?

Of oracles, the artifices of priests of false divinities.


The British Druids, or magi–Origin of fairies–Ancient superstitions–Their skill in medicine, etc.

The British magi.


Aesculapian mysteries, etc.


Inferior deities attending mankind from their birth to their decease.


Judicial astrology–Its chemical application to the prolongation of life and health–Alchymical delusions.


Alchymical and astrological chimera.

The Horoscope, a tale of the stars.

The Fated Parricide; an oriental tale of the stars.

Application of astrology to the prolongation of life, etc.


Spring. \
Summer. |_ influences of,
Autumn. |
the winter quarter. /


Oneirocritical presentiment, illustrating the cause, effects, principal phenomena, and definition of dreams, etc.

Cause of Dreams.

Poetical illustrations of the effects of the imagination in dreams.

Principal phenomena in dreaming.

Definition of dreams.


On Incubation, or the art of healing by visionary divination.


On amulets, charms, talismans–Philters, their origin and imaginary efficacy, etc.

Amulets used by the common people.

Eccentricities, caprices, and effects, of the imagination.

Doctrine of Effluvia–Miraculous cures by means of charms, amulets, etc.


On talismans–some curious natural ones, etc.


On the medicinal powers attributed to music by the ancients.


Presages, prodigies, presentiments, etc.


Phenomena of meteors, optic delusions, spectra, etc.


Elucidation of some ancient prodigies.

Magical pretensions of certain herbs, etc.


The practice of Obeah, or negro witchcraft–charms–their knowledge of vegetable poison–secret poisoning.


On the origin and superstitious influence of rings.


Celestial influences–omens–climacterics–predominations.–Lucky and unlucky days.–Empirics, etc.

Absurdities of Paracelsus, and Van Helmont.


Modern empiricism.


The Rosicrucians or Theosophists.






Children and old women have been accustomed to hear so many frightful things of the cloven-footed potentate, and have formed such diabolical ideas of his satanic majesty, exhibiting him in so many horrible and monstrous shapes, that really it were enough to frighten Beelzebub himself, were he by any accident to meet his prototype in the dark, dressed up in the several figures in which imagination has embodied him. And as regards men themselves, it might be presumed that the devil could not by any means terrify them half so much, were they actually to meet and converse with him face to face: so true it is that his satanic majesty is not near so black as he is painted.

However useful the undertaking might prove, to give a true history of this “tyrant of the air,” this “God of the world,” this “terror and overseer of mankind,” it is not our intention to become the devil’s biographer, notwithstanding the facility with which the materials might be collected. Of the devil’s origin, and the first rise of his family, we have sufficient authority on record; and, as regards his dealings, he has certainly always acted in the dark; though many of his doings both moral, political, ecclesiastical, and empirical, have left such strong impressions behind them, as to mark their importance in some transactions, even at the present period of the christian world. These discussions, however, we shall leave in the hands of their respective champions, in order to take, as we proceed, a cursory view of some of the _diableries_ with which mankind, in imitation of this great master, has been infected, from the first ages of the world.

The Greeks, and after them the Romans, conferred the appellation of Demon upon certain _genii_, or spirits, who made themselves visible to men with the intention of either serving them as friends, or doing them an injury as enemies. The followers of Plato distinguished between their gods–or _Dei Majorum Gentium_; their demons, or those beings which were not dissimilar in their general character to the good and bad angels of Christian belief,–and their heroes. The Jews and the early christians restricted the name of Demon to beings of a malignant nature, or to devils properly so called; and it is to the early notions entertained by this people, that the outlines of later systems of demonology are to be traced.

It is a question, we believe, not yet set at rest by the learned in these sort of matters, whether the word _devil_ be singular or plural, that is to say, whether it be the name of a personage so called, standing by himself, or a noun of multitude. If it be singular, and used only personal as a proper name, it consequently implies one imperial devil, monarch or king of the whole clan of hell, justly distinguished by the term DEVIL, or as our northern neighbours call him “the muckle horned deil,” and poetically, after Burns “auld Clootie, Nick, or Hornie,” or, according to others, in a broader set form of speech, “the devil in hell,” that is, the “devil of a devil,” or in scriptural phraseology, the “great red dragon,” the “Devil or Satan.” But we shall not cavil on this mighty potentate’s name; much less dispute his identity, notwithstanding the doubt that has been broached, whether the said devil be a real or an imaginary personage, in the shape, form, and with the faculties that have been so miraculously ascribed to him; for

If it should so fall out, as who can tell, But there may be a God, a heav’n and hell? Mankind had best consider well,–for fear It be too late when their mistakes appear.

The devil has always, it would seem, been particularly partial to old women; the most ugly and hideous of whom he has invariably selected to do his bidding. Mother Shipton, for instance, our famous old English witch, of whom so many funny stories are still told, is evidently very much wronged in her picture, if she was not of the most terrible aspect imaginable; and, if it be true, Merlin, the famous Welch fortune-teller, was a most frightful figure. If we credit another story, he was begotten by “_old nick_” himself. To return, however, to the devil’s agents being so infernally ugly, it need merely be remarked, that from time immemorial, he has invariably preferred such _rational_ creatures as most belied the “human form divine.”

The sybils, of whom so many strange prophetic things are recorded, are all, if the Italian poets are to be credited, represented as very old women; and as if ugliness were the _ne plus ultra_ of beauty in old age, they have given them all the hideousness of the devil himself. It will be seen, despite of all that has been said to the disadvantage of the devil, that he has very much improved in his management of worldly affairs; so much so, that, instead of an administration of witches, wizzards, magicians, diviners, astrologers, quack doctors, pettifogging lawyers, and boroughmongers, he has selected some of the wisest men as well as greatest fools of the day to carry his plans into effect. His satanic majesty seems also to have considerably improved in his taste; owing, no doubt, to the present improving state of society, and the universal diffusion of useful knowledge. Indeed, we no longer hear of cloven-footed devils, only in a metaphorical sense–fire and brimstone are extinct or nearly so; the embers of hell and eternal damnation are chiefly kept alive and blown up by ultras among the sectaries who are invariably the promoters of religious fanaticism. Beauty, wit, address, with the less shackled in mind, have superseded all that was frightful, and terrible, odious, ugly, and deformed. This subject is poetically and more beautifully illustrated in the following demonological stanzas, which are so appropriate to the occasion, that we cannot resist quoting them as a further prelude to our subjects:

When the devil for weighty despatches Wanted messengers cunning and bold,
He pass’d by the beautiful faces
And picked out the ugly and old.

Of these he made warlocks and witches To run of his errands by night,
Till the over-wrought hag-ridden wretches Were as fit as the devil to fright.

But whoever has been his adviser,
As his kingdom increases in growth, He now takes his measures much wiser,
And trafics with beauty and youth.

Disguis’d in the wanton and witty,
He haunts both the church and the court; And sometimes he visits the city,
Where all the best christians resort.

Thus dress’d up in full masquerade,
He the bolder can range up and down For he better can drive on his trade,
In any one’s name than his own.

To be brief, the devil, it appears, is by far too cunning still for mankind, and continues to manage things in his own way, in spite of bishops, priests, laymen, and new churches. He governs the vices and propensities of men by methods peculiarly his own; though every crime or extortion, subterfuge or design, whether it be upon the purse or the person, will not make a man a devil; it must nevertheless be confessed, that every crime, be its magnitude or complexion what it may, puts the criminal, in some measure, into the devil’s power, and gives him an ascendancy and even a title to the delinquent, whom he ever afterwards treats in a very magisterial manner.

We are told that every man has his attendant evil genius, or tutelary spirit, to execute the orders of the master demon–that the attending evil angel sees every move we make upon the board; witnesses all our actions, and permits us to do mischief, and every thing that is pernicious to ourselves;–that, on the contrary, our good spirit, actuated by more benevolent motives, is always accessary to our good actions, and reluctant to those that are bad. If this be the case, it may be fairly asked, how does it happen that those two contending spirits do not quarrel and give each other black eyes and broken heads during their rivalship for pre-eminence? And why does the evil tempting spirit so often prevail?

Instead of literally answering these difficult questions, it may be resolved into a good argument, as an excellent allegory to represent the struggle in the mind of man between good and evil inclinations. But to take them as they actually are, and merely to talk by way of natural consequence–for to argue from nature is certainly the best way to get to the bottom of the devil’s story,–if there are good and evil spirits attending us, that is to say, a good angel and a devil, then it is no unjust reproach to say, when people follow the dictates of the latter, that _the devil’s in them_, or that _they are devils_! or, to carry the simile a point farther, that as the generality, and by far the greatest number of people follow and obey the evil spirit and not the good one, and that the power predominating is allowed to be the nominating power, it must then of course be allowed that the greater part of mankind have the devil in them, which brings us to the conclusion of our argument; and in support of which the following stanzas come happily to our recollection.

To persons and places he sends his disguises, And dresses up all his banditti,
Who, as pickpockets flock to country assizes, Crowd up to the court and the city.

They’re at every elbow, and every ear, And ready at every call, Sir;
The vigilant scout, plants his agents about, And has something to do with us all, Sir.

In some he has part, and some he has whole, And of some, (like the Vicar of _Baddow_) It can neither be said they have body or soul; And only are devils in shadow.

The pretty and witty are devils in masque; The beauties are mere apparitions;
The homely alone by their faces are known, And the good by their ugly conditions.

The beaux walk about like the shadows of men, And wherever he leads them they follow; But tak’em, and shak’em, there’s not one in ten But’s as light as a feather, and hollow.

Thus all his affairs he drives on in disguise, And he tickles mankind with a feather, Creeps in at one’s ear, and looks out at our eyes, And jumbles our senses together.

He raises the vapours and prompts the desires, And to ev’ry dark deed holds the candle; The passions inflames and the appetite fires, And takes every thing by the handle.

Thus he walks up and down in complete masquerade And with every company mixes;
Sells in every shop, works at every trade, And ev’ry thing doubtful perplexes.

The Jewish traditions concerning evil spirits are various, some of which are founded on Scripture, some borrowed from the opinions of the Pagans, some are fables of their own invention, and some are allegorical.

The demons of the Jews were considered either as the distant progeny of Adam or Eve, resulting from an improper intercourse with supernatural beings, or of Cain. As the doctrine, however, was extremely revolting to some few of the early Christians, they maintained that demons were the souls of departed human beings, who were still permitted to interfere in the affairs of the Earth, either to assist their friends or to persecute their enemies. But this doctrine did not obtain.

About two centuries and a half ago an attempt, in a condensed form, was made, to give the various opinions entertained of demons at an early date of the christian era; and it was not until a much later period of Christianity, that a more decided doctrine relative to their origin and nature was established. These tenets involved certain very knotty points respecting the fall of those angels, who, for disobedience, had forfeited their high abode in Heaven. The gnostics of early christian times, in imitation of a classification of the different orders of spirits by Plato, had attempted a similar arrangement with respect to an hierarchy of angels, the gradation of which stood as follows.

The first, and highest order, was named SERAPHINS; the second, CHERUBINS; the third was the order of THRONES; the fourth, of DOMINIONS; the fifth, of VIRTUES; the sixth, of POWERS; the seventh, of PRINCIPALITIES; the eighth, of ARCHANGELS; the ninth, and lowest, of ANGELS. This fable was, in a pointed manner, censured by the Apostles: yet strange to say, it almost outlived the pneumatologists of the middle ages. These schoolmen, in reference to the account that Lucifer rebelled against heaven, and that Michael the archangel warred against him, long agitated the momentous question, what order of angels fell on the occasion. At length it became the prevailing opinion that Lucifer was of the order of Seraphins. It was also proved after infinite research, that Agares, Belial, and Barbatos, each of them deposed angels of great rank, had been of the order of Virtues; that Beleth, Focalor, and Phoenix, had been of the order of Thrones; that Gaap had been of the order of Powers, and Virtues; and Murmur of Thrones and Angels. The pretensions of many noble devils were, likewise, canvassed, and, in an equally satisfactory manner, determined; a multiplicity of incidents connected therewith were arranged, which previously had been matter of considerable doubt and debate. These sovereign devils, to each of whom was assigned a certain district, had many noble spirits subordinate to them whose various ranks and precedence were settled with all the preciseness of heraldic distinction:–there were, for instance, devil-dukes; devil-marquises; devil-earls; devil-knights; devil-presidents, devil-archbishops, and bishops; prelates; and, without question, devil-physicians, and apothecaries.

In the middle ages, when conjuration had attained a certain pitch of perfection, and was regularly practised in Europe, devils of distinction were supposed to make their appearance under decided forms, by which they were as well recognised, as the head of any ancient family would be by his crest and armorial bearings. The shapes they were accustomed to adopt were registered among their names and characters.

Although the leading tenets of Demonology may be traced to the Jews and early Christians, yet they were matured by our early communications with the Moors of Spain, who were the chief philosophers of the dark ages, and between whom and the natives of France and Italy, a great communication existed. Toledo, Seville and Salamanca, became the greatest schools of magic. At the latter city predilections on the black art from a consistent regard to the solemnity of the subject were delivered within the walls of a vast and gloomy cavern. The schoolmen taught that all knowledge might be obtained from the assistance of the fallen angels. They were skilled in the abstract sciences, in the knowledge of precious stones, in alchymy, in the various languages of mankind and of the lower animals; in the Belles-Lettres, Moral Philosophy, Pneumatology, Divinity, Magic, History, and Prophecy. They could controul the winds and waters, and the stellar influences. They could cause earthquakes, induce diseases or cure them, accomplish all vast mechanical undertakings, and release souls out of Purgatory. They could influence the passions of the mind, procure the reconciliation of friends or of foes, engender mutual discord, induce mania, melancholy, or direct the force and objects of human affection. Such was the Demonology taught by its orthodox professors. Yet other systems of it were devised, which had their origin in the causes attending the propagation of christianity; for it must have been a work of much time to eradicate the almost universal belief in the pagan deities, which had become so numerous as to fill every creek and corner of the universe with fabulous beings. Many learned men, indeed, were induced to side with the popular opinion on the subject, and did nothing more than endeavour to unite it with their acknowledged systems of Demonology. They taught that the objects of heathen reverence were fallen angels in league with the Prince of Darkness, who, until the appearance of our Saviour, had been allowed to range on the earth uncontrolled, and to involve the world in spiritual darkness and delusion.

According to the various ranks which these spirits held in the vast kingdom of Lucifer, they were suffered, in their degraded state, to take up their abode in the air, in mountains, in springs, or in seas. But although the various attributes ascribed to the Greek and Roman deities, were, by the early teachers of christianity, considered in the humble light of demoniacal delusions, yet, for many centuries they possessed great influence over the minds of the vulgar. The notion of every man being attended by an evil genius was abandoned much earlier than the far more agreeable part of the same doctrine which taught that, as an antidote to their influence, each individual was also accompanied by a benignant spirit. “The ministration of angels,” says a writer in the Athenian Oracle, “is certain; but the manner _how_, is the knot to be untied.” It was an opinion of the early philosophers that not only kingdoms[1] had their tutelary guardians, but that every person had his particular genius or good spirit, to protect and admonish him through the medium of dreams and visions. Such were the objects of superstitious reverence derived from the Pantheons of Greece and Rome, the whole synod of which was supposed to consist of demons, who were still actively bestirring themselves to delude mankind. But in the west of Europe, a host of other demons, far more formidable, were brought into play, who had their origin in Celtic, Teutonic, and even in Eastern fables; and as their existence, as well as influence, was boldly asserted, not only by the early christians, but even by the reformers, it was long before the rites to which they were accustomed were totally eradicated.


[1] Thus the Penates, or household gods presided over new-born infants. Every thing had its guardian or peculiar genius: cities, groves, fountains, hills, were all provided with keepers of this kind, and to each man was allotted no less than two–one good, the other bad (Hor. Lib. II. Epist. 2.) who attended him from the cradle to the grave. The Greeks called them _demons_. They were named _Praenestites_, from their superintending human affairs.



Few subjects present to a philosophic eye more matter of curious, important and instructive research than the natural history of religion. Some sort of religious service has been found to prevail in all ages and nations, from the most rude and barbarous periods of human society, to those of cultivation and refinement. In these periods are to be traced specimens strongly marked with exertions of the feelings, and faculties of men in every situation almost that can be supposed. It is from the contemplation of these exertions that we learn what sort of creature man is; that we discover the extent of his powers, and the tendency of his desires: and that we become acquainted with the force of culture and civilization upon him, by comparing the degrees of improvement he has attained in the various stages of society through which he has passed.

It seems to be a principle established by experience, that mankind in general have at no time been able, by the operation of their own mutual powers, to ascend in their inquiries to the great comprehensive foundation of true religion,–the knowledge of a first cause. This idea is too grand, too distinct, or too refined for the generality of the human race. They are surrounded by sensible objects, and strongly attached to them; they are in a great measure unaccustomed to the most simple and obvious degrees of abstraction, and they can scarcely conceive anything to have a real existence that may not become an object of their senses. Possessed of such sentiments and views, they are fully prepared in embracing all the follies and absurdities of superstition. They worship every thing they either love or fear, in order to procure the continuance of favours enjoyed, or to avert that resentment they may have reason to dread. As their knowledge of nature is altogether imperfect, and as many events every moment present themselves, upon which they can form no theoretical conclusion, they fly for satisfaction to the most simple, but most ineffectual of all solutions–the agency of invisible beings, with which, in their opinion, all nature is filled. Hence the rise of Polytheism and local deities, which have overspread the face of the earth, under the different titles of guardian gods or tutelary saints. Hence magnificent temples and splendid statues have been erected to aid the imagination of votaries, and to realize objects of worship, which, though supposed to be always hovering around, seldom condescend to become visible.

After obtaining some information concerning present objects, the next cause of solicitude and inquiry to the mind of man, is to penetrate a little into the secrets of futurity. The same tutelary gods who bestowed their care, and exerted their powers to procure present pleasure and happiness for mankind, were supposed not averse to grant them, in this respect also, a little indulgence. Hence the famous oracular responses of antiquity; hence the long train of conjurers, fortune-tellers, astrologers, necromancers, magicians, wizards, and witches, that have been found in all places and at all times; nor have superior knowledge and civilization been sufficient to extirpate such characters, by demonstrating the futility and absurdity of their views.

Among the ancients, this superstition was a great engine of state. The respect paid to omens, auguries and oracles, was profound and universal; and the persons in power monopolized the privilege of consulting and interpreting them. They joined the people in expressing their veneration; but there is little reason to doubt that they conducted the responses in such a manner as best suited the purposes of government. On this account, it would not be difficult for the oracle to emit predictions, which, to all those unacquainted with the secret, would appear altogether astonishing and unaccountable. It would seem that this principle alone is sufficient to explain all the phenomena of ancient oracles.

Though devination has long ceased to be an instrument of government, abundance of designing persons have not been wanting in latter ages, who found much interest in taking advantage of the weakness or credulity of their fellow creatures. Against this pestilent and abandoned race of men, most civilized countries have enacted penal laws. But what rendered such persons peculiarly detestable in modern times, was the communication which they were supposed to hold with the devil, to whom they sold themselves, and from whom, in return, they derived their information. And by this principle the penal statutes, instead of extirpating, inflamed the evil. They alarmed the imaginations of the people; they tempted them to impute the cause of their misfortunes and disappointment to the malice or resentment of their neighbours; they induced them to trust to their suspicions, much more than to their reason; and they multiplied witches and wizards, by putting into possession of every foolish informer the means of punishment. In several countries of Europe, these statutes still subsist; they were not abolished in Britain till a period still at no great distance. Since the abolition of persecution, the faith of witchcraft has disappeared even among the vulgar. It was long found inconsistent with any considerable progress in philosophy.

For these reasons we read, with some degree of astonishment, a treatise on this exploded subject, by a philosopher, an eminent physician, a privy counseller of the then Empress Queen, and a professor in the university of Vienna. It was long doubted whether the professor was in earnest, but the world was at length forced to admit, that the great Antonius de Haen certainly believed in witchcraft, and reckoned the knowledge of it, in treating a disease, of great importance to a physician–to the acquisition of which useful knowledge, he dedicated a great part of his time. In the year 1758, three old women, condemned to death for witchcraft, were brought by order of the Empress from Croatia to Vienna, to undergo an examination, with regard to the equity of the sentence pronounced against them. The question was not whether the crime existed; the only object of inquiry respected the justice of its application. The author, and the illustrious van Swieten, were appointed to make the investigation. After reading over the depositions, produced on the trials with the greatest care, and interrogating the culprits themselves _most vigorously_ by means of a Croatian interpreter, these great physicians discovered that the _three old_ women were not witches, and prevailed with the Empress to send them home in safety. It was this circumstance that induced de Haen to write on magic.

That some judgment may be formed of de Haen’s very extraordinary and curious production written in the latter part of the eighteenth century, we shall here furnish our readers with an abstract of its principles and reasoning, to which we shall subjoin some remarks.

By the crime of magic, the author informs us, he means any improper communication between men and evil spirits, whether it be called theurgy, soothsaying, necromancy, chiromancy, incantation or witchcraft. He proposes to prove, in the first place, that such a communication does actually exist. He quotes the Egyptian magicians, the witch of Endor, the possessions mentioned in the New Testament, and many more exceptionable authorities from the fathers, and canons of the church. He is positive the incantations of the Egyptian magicians were real operations of infernal agents, and that the accounts of them, delivered by Moses, can admit no other construction.

May not the sincere believer in the divine authority of the scriptures reasonably hesitate concerning this conclusion? Or rather, does not such an interpretation justly expose revelation to reproach? The plain dictates of the best philosophy are, that nothing is more simple, regular, and uniform than the ordinary course of nature; and that this course can neither be suspended nor altered, but by its author, nor can by him be permitted to be interrupted by any inferior being, unless for the most important reasons. It does not appear what good end could be gained, on the part of Providence, by the permission of these magical enchantments, supposing them supernatural; and if we imagine the Devil to have acted spontaneously, with a view to support his power and influence, he most manifestly erred in his design. Nothing could be more impolitic than his appearance in a field of combat, where he well knew he must sustain an ignominious defeat. Or if he worked effectually to support the power and influence of his servants the magicians, he should have counteracted, not repeated, the miraculous exhibitions of Moses. That the magicians possessed no power sufficient for this purpose is obvious, from their not exerting it. That Pharoah expected no such exertion from them is evident from his never requesting it, and from his application to Moses and Aaron. The truth seems to be, that Pharoah conceived Moses and Aaron to be magicians like his own. He wished to support the character of the latter; and he concluded this would be effectually done, if they could only furnish a pretence for affirming that they had performed every wonder accomplished by the former. Without some such supposition of collusion, two of the miracles attempted by the magicians are perfectly absurd and contradictory. They pretended to turn water into blood, when there was not one drop of water in all the land of Egypt, which Aaron had not previously converted into that substance. They pretended to send frogs over the land of Egypt, when every corner of it was swarming with that loathsome reptile. It is further remarkable that, with the three first only of Moses’s miracles they proposed to vie; on the appearance of the fourth, they fairly resigned the contest, and acknowledged very honestly that the hand of God was visible in the miracles of Moses;–a plain confession that no supernatural power operated in their own.

De Haen considers the case of the witch of Endor as an authority still more direct. He maintains that Samuel was actually called up, either under corporeal or fantastic form, and foretold Saul the fate of his engagements with the Philistines. Let us attend to the circumstances of the story, and examine whether it is absolutely necessary to have recourse to this supernatural hypothesis. The mind of Saul was distracted and agitated beyond measure by the most critical and alarming situation of his affairs; his distress was so great that, forgetting his dignity and safety, he dismissed his attendants, laid aside his royal robes, was unable to eat bread, and, dressed like the meanest of his people, he took his journey to the abode of the conjurer. In this state of mind, prepared for imposition, he arrives during the night at her residence. He prevails with her, by much solicitation, and probably by ample rewards, to call up Samuel. To discompose still further the disordered mind of Saul, she announces the pretended approach of the apparition by a loud acclamation, tells the king she knew him, which till now she affected not to do, and describes the resurrection of the prophet, under the awful semblance of God’s rising out of the earth.

During all this time the king had seen nothing extraordinary, either because he was not allowed light sufficient for that purpose, or was not admitted within the sphere of vision. He entreats an account of the personage who approached, and the conjurer describes the well-known appearance of Samuel. The prophet sternly challenges the king for disturbing his repose, tells him that David was intended to be King of Israel, that himself would be defeated by the Philistines, and that he and his sons would fall in battle. The king enters into no conversation with the apparition; but unable any longer to support his agitation, drops lifeless on the ground. The conjurer returns to Saul, presses him to take some food which she had prepared. He at last complies; and having finished his repast, departs with his servants before the morning. The whole of this scene, it is evident, passed in darkness. It does not appear that Saul ever saw the prophet; and it surely required no supernatural intelligence to communicate all the information he obtained. This would readily be suggested by the despondency of the king, the strength of his enemies, and the disposition of the whole people of the Jews alienated from him, and inclined towards his successor. The witch of Endor, therefore, might be a common fortune-teller, and her case exhibits no direct proof of supernatural possession.

We do not pretend to account so easily for many of the possessions recorded in the New Testament, though few of these only are applicable to the case of sorcery. We are well aware, that several writers of eminence, who cannot be supposed to entertain the least unfavourable sentiments of revelation, have undertaken to explain these possessions, without having recourse to any thing supernatural, by representing them as figurative descriptions of particular and local diseases.

We mean not to adopt, or defend the views of such authors, though we may perhaps be allowed to observe that, were their opinions supported in a satisfactory manner, christianity would lose nothing by the attempt. It would be exempted, by this means, from a little cavilling and ridicule, to which some of its enemies reckon it at present exposed, and the design could not in the least derogate from its divinity, as the instantaneous cure of a distemper cannot be considered less miraculous than the expulsion of the devil. At any rate, these possessions are all extraordinary; appeared on some most extraordinary occasion; and from them, therefore, no general conclusion can be drawn to the ordinary cases of common life.

We shall now translate a specimen of de Haen’s[2] authorities, extracted from the fathers. The following from Jerome will need no comment. This father, in his life of St. Hilario the hermit, relates that a young man of the town of Gaza in Syria, fell deeply in love with a pious virgin in the neighbourhood. He attacked her with looks, whispers, professions, caresses, and all those arguments which usually conquer yielding virginity; but finding them all ineffectual, he resolved to repair to Memphis, the residence of many eminent conjurers, and implore their magic aid. He remained there for a year, till he was fully instructed in the art. He then returned home, exulting in his acquisitions, and feasting his imagination with the luscious scenes he was now confident of realizing. All he had to do was to lodge secretly some hard words and uncouth figures, engraved on a plate of brass, below the threshold of the door of the house in which the lady lived. She became perfectly furious, she tore her hair, gnashed her teeth, and repeated incessantly the name of the youth, who had been drawn from her presence by the violence of her despairing passion. In this situation she was conducted by her relations to the cell of old Hilario. The devil that possessed her, in consequence of the charm, began immediately to howl, and to confess the truth. “I have suffered violence,” said he; “I have been forced hither against my inclination. How happy was I at Memphis, amusing my friends with visions! O the pains, the tortures which I suffer! You command me to dislodge, and I am detained fast by the charm below the threshold. I cannot depart, unless the young man dismiss me.” So cautious, however, was the saint, that he would not permit the magic figures to be searched for, till he had released the virgin, for fear he should seem to have intercourse with incantations in performing the cure or to believe that a devil could even speak truth. He observed only that demons are always liars, and cunning to deceive.

De Haen imputes to the power of magic the miracles,[3] as they are called, of the famous Apollonius Thyanaeus. He seems to entertain no scruple about their authority. As several of the enemies of revelation have held forth Thyanaeus as a rival of Jesus Christ, a specimen of his performances may amuse our readers. During an assembly of the people at Ephesus, a great flight of birds approached from a neighbouring wood; one bird led all the rest. “There is nothing wonderful,” says Thyanaeus, to the astonished people, “in this appearance. A boy passing along a particular street has carelessly scattered in it some corn which he carried; one bird has tasted the food, and generously calls the rest to partake the repast.” The hearers repaired to the spot, and found the information true.

Being called to allay a pestilence which raged at Ephesus, he ordered an old beggar to be burned under the stones near the temple of Hercules, as an enemy to the gods. He commanded the people again to remove the stones, that they might see what sort of animal had been put to death. They found not a man, but a dog. The plague, however, ceased.

A married woman of rank being dead, was carried out to be burned in an open litter, followed by her husband dissolved in tears. Apollonius approaching, requests him to stop the procession, and he would put an end to his grief. He asked the name of the woman, touched her, and muttered over her some words. She immediately revived, began to speak, and returned again to her own house. Fleury, who relates the miracle, remarks that some people doubted whether the woman had been really dead, as they had observed something like breath issue from her mouth. Others imagined she had been seized only with a tedious faint, and that the operation of the cold dews and damps upon her body might naturally recover her. On Fleury’s remark de Haen most sagely observes, that the persons who observed the woman breathing could not surely have suppressed the joyful news, and would certainly have stopped the procession before the philosopher arrived.

De Haen’s second attempt is to recite all the objections that have been made against sorcery, and to subjoin to each a distinct refutation. There is nothing in this part of the work that merits any attention. He concludes in these words: “I may then with confidence affirm, that the art of magic most certainly exists. History, sacred and prophane; authority human and divine; experiments the most unquestionable and unexceptionable, all concur to demonstrate its reality.”

The last part of de Haen’s work relates to the discovering and treating of magical diseases, to explain which seems to have been the chief purpose of the author in composing his book. Much caution, he observes, and attention are necessary on this head; and the physician should not readily admit the imputation of witchcraft. No absence of the ordinary symptoms, no uncommon alteration of the course of the distemper, are sufficient to infer this conclusion, because these may arise from unknown natural causes. What then are the marks of certain incantations? De Haen holds the following to be indisputable: “if, in any uncommon disease, there shall be found, in the stuffing of the cushions, or cielings of the room in which the patient lies, in the feather or the chaff of his bed, about the door, or under the threshold of his house, any strange characters, images, bones, hair, seeds, or roots of plants; and if upon the removal of these, or upon conveying the patient into another apartment, he shall suddenly recover; or if the patient himself, or his friends, shall be so wicked as to call a wizzard to their aid, by whom the malady shall be removed; or if insects and animals which do not lodge in the human body; if stones, metals, glass, knives, plaited hair, pieces of pitch, be ejected from particular parts of the body, of greater size, and weight and figure, than could be supposed to make their way through these parts, without much greater demolition and delaceration of the passages; in all these cases, the disease is unquestionably magical.”

The author proceeds to enquire whether the physician may presume to remove the instruments of incantation in order to relieve the patient without incurring the accusation of impiety by interfering with the implements and furniture of the devil; and concludes very formally that, after approaching them with all due ceremony and respect, after imploring with suitable devotion and ardour, the protection and direction of heaven in such a perilous undertaking, he may attempt to intermeddle, and may occasionally expect a successful issue.

Such are the views, reasonings, and conclusions of, at the time, one of the first physicians and philosophers of Germany;–views and reasonings which would have been received with eagerness and applause two hundred years ago, but which the philosophy and improvements of later times seem to have banished to the abodes of ignorance and barbarity.

The origin of almost all our knowledge may be traced to the earlier periods of antiquity. This is peculiarly the case with respect to the arts denominated magical. There were few ancient nations, however barbarous, which could not furnish many individuals to whose spells and enchantments the power of nature and the material world were supposed to be subjected. The Chaldeans, the Egyptians, and indeed all the oriental nations were accustomed to refer all natural effects, for which they could not account to the agency of demons, who were believed to preside over herbs, trees, rivers, mountains, and animals. Every member of the human body was under their power, and all corporeal diseases were produced by their malignity. For instance, if any happened to be affected with a fever, little anxiety was manifested to discover its cause, or to adopt rational measures for its cure; it must no doubt have been occasioned by some evil spirit residing in the body, or influencing, in some mysterious way, the fortunes of the sufferer. That influence could be counteracted only by certain magical rites; hence the observance of those rites soon obtained a permanent establishment in the East. Even at the present day, many uncivilized people hold that all nature is filled with genii, of which some exercise a beneficent, and others a destructive power. All evils with which man is afflicted, are considered the work of these imaginary beings, whose favour must he propitiated by sacrifices, incantations, and songs. If the Greenlander be unsuccessful in fishing, the Huron in hunting, or in war; if even the scarcely half reasoning Hottentot finds every thing is not right in his mind, body, or fortune, no time must be lost before the spirit be invoked. After the removal of some present evil, the next strongest desire in the human mind is the attainment of some future good. This good is often beyond the power, and still oftener beyond the inclination of man to bestow; it must therefore be sought from beings which are supposed to possess considerable influence over human affairs, and which being elevated above the baser passions of our nature, were thought to regard with peculiar favour all who acknowledged their power, or invoked their aid: hence the numerous rites which have, in all ages and countries, been observed in consulting superior intelligences, and the equally numerous modes in which their pleasure has been communicated to mortals.

The Chaldean magi were chiefly founded on astrology, and were much conversant with certain animals, metals and plants, which they employed in all their incantations; the virtue of which was derived from stellar influence. Great attention was always paid to the positions and the configurations presented by the celestial sphere; and it was only at favourable seasons that the solemn rites were celebrated. Those rites were accompanied with many peculiar and fantastic gestures, by leaping, clapping of hands, prostrations, loud cries, and not unfrequently with unintelligible exclamations. Sacrifices, and burnt offerings were used to propitiate superior powers; but our knowledge of the magical rites exercised by certain oriental nations, the Jews only excepted, is extremely limited. All the books professedly written on the subject, have been, swept away by the torrent of time. We learn, however, that the professors among the Chaldeans were generally divided into three classes; the _Ascaphim_, or charmers, whose office it was to remove present, and to avert future contingent evils; to construct talismans, etc. The _Mecaschephim_, or magicians, properly so called, who were conversant with the occult powers of nature, and the supernatural world; and the _chasdim_, or astrologers, who constituted by far the most numerous and respectable class. And from the assembly of the wise men on the occasion of the extraordinary dream of Nebuchadnezzar, it would appear that Babylon had also her oneirocritici, or interpreters of dreams–a species of diviners indeed, to which almost every nation of antiquity gave birth.

Like the Chaldean astrologers, the Persian magi, from whom our word magic is derived, belong to the priesthood. But the worship of the gods was not their chief occupation; they were also great proficients in the arts. They joined to the worship of the gods, and to the profession of medicine and natural magic, a pretended familiarity with superior powers, from which they boasted of deriving all their knowledge. Like Plato, who probably imbibed many of their notions, they taught that demons hold a middle rank between gods and men; that they (the demons) presided not only over divinations, auguries, conjurations, oracles, and every species of magic, but also over sacrifices, and prayer, which in behalf of men is thus presented, and rendered acceptable to the gods. Indeed, the austerity of their lives[4] was well calculated to strengthen the impression which their cunning had already made on the multitude, and to prepare the way for whatever impostures they might afterwards practise.

We are less acquainted with Indian magic than with that practised by any other Eastern nations. It may, however, be reasonably enough inferred that it was very similar to that for which the magi in general were held in such high estimation: although they were excluded, as beings of too sacred a nature, from the ordinary occurrences of life. Their Brahmins, or Gymnosophists, were regarded with as much reverence as the magi, and probably were more worthy of it. Some of them dwelt in woods, and others in the immediate vicinity of cities. Their skill in medicine was great; the care which they took in educating youth, in familiarizing it with generous and virtuous sentiments, did them peculiar honour; and their maxims and discourses, as recorded by historians, prove that they were much accustomed to profound reflection on the principles of civil polity, morality, religion and philosophy.


Of the magi of the Jews, it is proved by Lightfoot,[5] that after their return from Babylon, having entirely forsaken idolatry, and being no longer favoured with the gift of prophecy, they gradually abandoned themselves, before the coming of our Saviour, to sorcery and divination. The Talmud, still regarded with a reverence bordering on idolatry, abounds with instructions for the due observance of superstitious rites. After their city and temple were destroyed, many Jewish impostors were highly esteemed for their pretended skill in magic; and under pretence of interpreting dreams, they met with daily opportunities of practising the most shameful frauds. Many Rabbins were quite as well versed in the school of Zoroaster, as in that of Moses. They prescribed all kinds of conjuration, some for the cure of wounds, some against the dreaded bite of serpents, and others against thefts and enchantments. Their divinations were founded on the influence of the stars, and on the operations of spirits, they did not, indeed, like the Chaldean magi, regard the heavenly bodies as gods and genii, but they ascribed to them a great power over the actions and opinions of men.

The magical rites of the Jews were, and indeed are still, chiefly performed on various important occasions, as on the birth of a child, marriages, etc. On such occasions the evil spirits are supposed to be more than usually active in their malignity, which can only be counteracted by certain enchantments.[6] They believe that Lilis will cause all their male children to die on the eighth day after their birth; girls on the twenty-first.[7] The following are the means adopted by the German Jews to avert this calamity. They draw arrows in circular lines with chalk or charcoal on the four walls of the room in which the accouchement takes place, and write upon each arrow: _Adam, Eve! make Lilis go away!_ They write also on certain parts of the room the name of the three angels who preside over medicine, _Senai, Sansenai and Sanmangelof_, after the manner taught them by Lilis herself when she entertained the hope of causing all the Jews to be drowned in the Red Sea.

Josephus, the historian of the Jews, does not allow to magic so ancient an origin among them, as many Jewish writers do. He makes Solomon the first who practised an art which is so powerful against demons; and the knowledge of which, he asserts, was communicated to that prince by immediate inspiration. The latter, continues this historian, invented and transmitted to posterity in his writings, certain incantations for the cure of diseases, and for the expulsion and perpetual banishment of wicked spirits from the bodies of the possessed. It consisted, according to his description, in the use of a certain root, which was sealed up, and held under the nose of the person possessed; the name of Solomon, with the words prescribed by him, was then pronounced, and the demon forced immediately to retire. He does not even hesitate to assert, that he himself has been an eye witness of such an effect produced on a person named Eleazer, in the presence of the Emperor Vespasian and his sons. Nor will this relation surprise us, when we consider the rooted malignity entertained by the Jews to the christian religion, and this writer’s attempt to appreciate the miracles of our Saviour, by ascribing them to magical influence, and by representing them as easy of accomplishment to all acquainted with the occult sciences.

Innumerable are the devices contained in the Cabala for averting possible evils, as the plague, disease, and sudden death. It directs how to select and combine some passages of scripture, which are believed both to render supernatural beings visible, and to produce many wonderful and surprising effects. The most famous wonders have been accomplished by means of the name of God. The sacred word Jehovah is, when read with points, multiplied by the Jewish doctors into twelve, forty-two, and seventy-two letters, of which words are composed that are thought to possess miraculous energy. By these, say they, Moses slew the Egyptians; by these Israel was preserved from the destroying angel of the wilderness; by these Elijah separated the waters of the river, to open a passage for himself and Elisha, and by these it has been as daringly and impudently asserted, that our blessed Saviour, the eternal Son of God, cast out evil spirits. The name of the devil is likewise used in their magical devices. The five Hebrew letters of which that name[8] is composed, exactly constitute the number 364, one less than the days of the whole year. They pretended that, owing to the wonderful virtue of the number comprised in the name of Satan, he is prevented from accusing them for an equal number of days: hence the stratagem before alluded to, for depriving the devil of the power of doing them any harm on the only day on which that power is granted to him.

In allusion to the cabalists, Pliny says, “There is another sect of magicians of which Moses and Latopea, Jews, were the first authors.” It was the prevailing opinion among the Hebrews, that the Cabala was delivered by God to Moses, and thence through a succession of ages, even to the times of Ezra, preserved by tradition only, without the help of writing, in the same manner as the doctrine of Pythagoras was delivered by Archippus and Lysiades, who kept schools at Thebes in Greece, where the scholars learned all their master’s precepts by heart, and employed their memories instead of books. So certain Jews, despising letters, placed all their learning in memory, observation, and verbal tradition; whence it was called by them Cabala, that is, a receiving from one to another by the ear an art said to be very ancient and only known to the christians in later times.

The Jews divided the Cabala into three parts; the first containing the knowledge of _Bresith_, which they call also cosmology, the object of which is to teach and explain the force and efficacy of things created, natural or celestial; expounding also the laws and mysteries of the Bible according to philosophical reasons, which on that account differs little from natural magic, a science in which King Solomon is said to have excelled. We find, therefore, in the sacred histories of the Jews, that he was wont to discourse from the cedar of the forests of Lebanon to the low hyssop of the valley; as also of cattle, birds, reptiles, and fish, all which contain within themselves a kind of magical virtue. Moses also, in his expositions upon the Pentateuch, and most of the Talmudists, have followed the rules of the same art.

The other division of the Cabala contains the knowledge of things more sublime, as of divine and angelical powers, the contemplation of sacred names and characters; being a certain kind of symbolical theology, in which the letters, figures, numbers, names, points, lines, accents, etc. are esteemed to contain the significations of most profound things and wonderful mysteries. This part again is twofold–_Authmantick_, handling the nature of angels, the powers, names, characters of spirits and souls departed–and _Theomantick_, which searches into the mysteries of the Divine Majesty, his emanations, his names, and _Pentacula_, which he who attains to is supposed to be endowed with most wonderful power. It was, they say, by virtue of this art, that Moses wrought so many miracles; that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still; that Elias called down fire from heaven; that Daniel the prophet muzzled the lions’ mouths; and that the three children sang in the fiery furnace. And, what is more, the perfidious and unbelieving Jews, did not stick to aver, that our Saviour himself wrought all his miracles by virtue of this art, and that he discovered several of its secrets, containing a variety of charms against devils, and also, as Josephus writes, against diseases. “As for my part,” says Cornelius Agrippa, in allusion to this subject, “I do not doubt but that God revealed many things to Moses and the prophets, which were contained under the covert of the words of the law, which were not to be communicated to the profane vulgar: so for this art, which the Jews so much boast of, which I have with great labour and diligence searched into, I must acknowledge it to be a mere rhapsody of superstition, and nothing but a kind of theurgic magic before spoken of. For if, as the Jews contend, coming from God, it did any way conduce to perfection of life, salvation of men, truth of understanding, certainly that spirit of truth, which having forsaken the synagogue, is now come to teach us all truth, had never concealed it all this while from the church, which certainly knows all those things that are of God; whose grace, baptism, and other sacraments of salvation, are perfectly revealed in all languages;–for every language is alike, so that there be the same piety; neither is there any other name in heaven or on earth, by which we can be saved, but only the name of Jesus. Therefore the Jews, most skilful in divine names, after the coming of Christ, were able to do nothing, in comparison of their forefathers:–the Cabala of the Jews, therefore, is nothing else, but a most pernicious superstition, the which by collecting, dividing, and changing several names, words, and letters, dispersed up and down in the bible, at their own good will and pleasure, and making one thing out of another, they dissolve the members of truth, raising up sentences, inductions, and parables of their own, apply thereto the oracles of divine scripture to them, defaming the scriptures, and affirming their fragments to consist of them, blaspheme the word of God by their wrested suppositions of words, syllables, letters and numbers; endeavouring to prop up their villainous inventions, by arguments drawn from their own delusions.”


[2] Antonio de Haen, S.C.R.A. Majestate a consiliis anticis, et Archiatri, medicinae in alma et antiquissimo universitate professoris primarij, plurium eruditorium societatem socii, de magia liber. 8vo. Vienna.

[3] Many significations have been attached to the word miracle, both by the ancients and moderns. With us a miracle is the suspension or violation of the laws of nature; and a miracle, which can be explained upon physical principles, ceases to be such. Whatever surpassed their comprehension was regarded by the ancients as a miracle, and every extraordinary degree of information attained by an individual, as well as any unlooked-for occurrence, was referred to some peculiar interposition of the deity. Hence among the ancients, the followers of different divinities, far from denying the miracles performed by their opponents, admitted their reality, but endeavoured to surpass them; and thus in the “life of Zoroaster,” we find that able innovator frequently entering the lists with hostile enchanters, admitting but exceeding the wonderful works they performed; and thus also when the thirst of power, or of distinction, divided the sacerdotal colleges, similar trials of skill would ensue, the successful combatant being considered to derive his knowledge from the more powerful god. That the science on which each party depended was derived from experimental physics, may be proved. 1. by the conduct of the Thaumaturgists, or wonder-workers: 2. from what they themselves had said concerning magic; the genii invoked by the magicians, sometimes denoting physical or chemical agents employed, sometimes men who cultivated the science.

[4] All the three orders of Magi enumerated by Porphyry, abstained from wine and women, and the first of these orders from animal food.

[5] Vol. ii. p. 287.

[6] See Tobit. chap. viii. v. 2 and 2.

[7] Elias, as quoted by Becker.

[8] There is no mention made of the word _Devil_ in the Old Testament, but only of _Satan_: nor do we meet with it in any of the heathen authors who say anything about the devil in the signification attached to it among christians; that is, as a creature revolted from God. Their theology went no farther than to evil genii, or demons, who harassed and persecuted mankind, though we are still aware that many curious _nick_-names are given to the prince of darkness both by ancient and modern writers.



The pretended art of producing, by the assistance of words and ceremonies, such events as are above the natural power of men, was of several kinds, and chiefly consisted in invoking the good and benevolent, or the wicked and malignant spirits. The first, which was called Theurgia, was adopted by the wisest of the Pagan world, who esteemed this as much as they despised the latter, which they called Goetia.

Theurgia was by the philosophers accounted a divine art, which only served to raise the mind to higher perfection, and to exalt the soul to a greater degree of purity; and they who by means of this kind of magic, were imagined to arrive at what is called intuition, wherein they enjoyed an intimate intercourse with the deity, were believed to be invested with divine power; so that it was imagined nothing was impossible for them to perform; all who made profession of this kind of magic aspired to this state of perfection. The priest, who was of this order, was to be a man of unblemished morals, and all who joined with him were bound to a strict purity of life. They were to abstain from women, and from animal food; and were forbid to defile themselves by the touch of a dead body. Nothing was to be forgotten in their rites and ceremonies; the least omission or mistake, rendered all their art ineffectual: so that this was a constant excuse for their not performing all that was required of them, though as their sole employment (after having arrived to a certain degree of perfection, by fasting, prayer, and other methods of purification) was the study of universal nature, they might gain such an insight into physical causes, as would enable them to perform actions, that should fill the vulgar with astonishment; and it is hardly to be doubted, but this was all the knowledge that many of them aspired to. In this sort of magic, Hermes Tresmegistus and Zoroaster excelled, and indeed it gained great reputation among the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Persians, Indians and Jews. In times of ignorance, a piece of clock-work, or some other curious machine, was sufficient to entitle the inventor to the works of magic; and some have even asserted, that the Egyptian magic, rendered so famous by the writings of the ancients, consisted only in discoveries drawn from the mathematics, and natural philosophy, since those Greek philosophers who travelled into Egypt, in order to obtain a knowledge of the Egyptian sciences, returned with only a knowledge of nature and religion, and some rational ideas of their ancient symbols.

But it can hardly be doubted, that magic in its grossest and most ridiculous sense was practised in Egypt, at least among some of the vulgar, long before Pythagoras or Empedocles travelled into that country. The Egyptians had been very early accustomed to vary the signification of their symbols, by adding to them several plants, ears of corn, or blades of grass, to express the different employments of husbandry; but understanding no longer their meaning nor the words that had been made use of on these occasions, which were equally unintelligible, the vulgar might mistake these for so many mysterious practices observed by their fathers; and hence they might conceive the notion, that a conjunction of plants, even without being made use of as a remedy, might be of efficacy to preserve or procure health. “Of these,” adds the Abbe Pluche, “they made a collection, and an art by which they pretended to procure the blessings, and provide against the evils of life.” By the assistance of these, men even attempted to hurt their enemies; and indeed the knowledge of poisonous or useful simples, might on particular occasions give sufficient weight to their empty curses and innovations. But these magic incantations, so contrary to humanity, were detested, and punished by almost all nations; nor could they be tolerated in any.

Pliny, after mentioning an herb, the throwing of which into an army, it was said, was sufficient to put it to the route, asks, where was this herb when Rome was so distressed by the Cambri and Teutones? Why did not the Persians make use of it when Lucullus cut their troops to pieces?

But amongst all the incantations of magic, the most solemn, as well as the most frequent, was that of calling up the spirits of the dead; this indeed was the very acme of their art; and the reader cannot be displeased with having this mystery here elucidated. An affection for the body of a person, who in his life time was beloved, induced the first natives to inter the dead in a decent manner, and to add to this melancholy instance of esteem, those wishes which had a particular regard to their new state of existence. The place of burial, conformable to the custom of characterising all beloved places, or those distinguished by a memorable event, was pointed out by a large stone or pillar raised upon it. To this place families, and when the concern was general, multitudes repaired every year, when, upon this stone, were made libations of wine, oil, honey, and flour; and here they sacrificed and ate in common, having first made a trench in which they burnt the entrails of the victim into which the libation and the blood were made to flow. They began with thanking God with having given them life, and providing them necessary food; and then praised him for the good examples they had been favoured with. From these melancholy rites were banished all licentiousness and levity, and while other customs changed, these continued the same. They roasted the flesh of the victim they had offered, and eat it in common, discoursing on the virtues of him they came to lament.

All other feasts were distinguished by names suitable to the ceremonies that attended them. These funeral meetings were simply called the manes, that is, the assembly. Thus the manes and the dead were words that became synonimous. In these meetings, they imagined that they renewed their alliance with the deceased, who, they supposed, had still a regard for the concerns of their country and family, and who, as affectionate spirits, could do no less than inform them of whatever was necessary for them to know. Thus, the funerals of the dead were at last converted into methods of divination, and an innocent institution of one of the grossest pieces of folly and superstition. But they did not stop here; they became so extravagantly credulous, as to believe that the phantom drank the libations that had been poured forth, while the relations were feasting on the rest of the sacrifice round the pit: and from hence they became apprehensive lest the rest of the dead should promiscuously throng about this spot to get a share of the repast they were supposed to be so fond of, and leave nothing for the dear spirit for whom the feast was intended. They then made two pits or ditches, into one of which they put wine, honey, water, and flour, to employ the generality of the dead; and in the other they poured the blood of the victim; when sitting down on the brink, they kept off, by the sight of their swords, the crowd of dead who had no concern in their affairs, while they called him by name, whom they had a mind to cheer and consult, and desired him to draw near.[9]

The questions made by the living were very intelligible; but the answers of the dead were not so easily understood; the priests, therefore, and the magicians made it their business to explain them. They retired into deep caves, where the darkness and silence resembled the state of death, and there fasted, and lay upon the skins of the beasts they had sacrificed, and then gave for answer the dreams which most affected them; or opened a certain book appointed for that purpose, and gave the first sentence that offered.[10] At other times the priest, or any person who came to consult, took care at his going out of the cave, to listen to the first words he should hear, and these were to be his answer. And though they had not the most remote relation to the mutter in question, they were twisted so many ways, and their sense so violently wrested, that they made them signify almost anything they pleased. At other times they had recourse to a number of tickets, on which were some words or verses, and these being thrown into an urn, the first that was taken out was delivered to the family.[11] Health, prosperity in worldly affairs, and all that was intermixed in the good or evil of this world were regulated by the responses or signs which these equivocal, not to say less than absurd, means afforded, of prying into the womb of future events.


The superstitious fondness of mankind for searching into futurity has given rise to an infinite variety of extravagant follies. The Romans, who were remarkably fertile in these sorts of demonological inventions, suggested numerous ways of divination. With them all Nature had a voice, and the most senseless beings, and most trivial things, the most trifling incidents, became presages of future events; which introduced ceremonies founded on a mistaken knowledge of antiquity, the most childish and ridiculous, and which were performed with all the air of solemnity and sanctity of devotion. Augury, or divinations founded on the flight of birds, were not only considered by the Egyptians as the symbols of the winds, but good and bad omens of every kind were founded or rather derived from the flying of the feathered tribe. The birds at this time had become wonderfully wise; and an owl, to whom, for reasons not precisely known, light is not so agreeable as darkness, could not pass by the windows of a sick person in the night, where the creature was not offended by the glimmerings of a light or candle, but his hooting must be considered as prophesying, that the life of the poor man was nearly wound up.

Amongst the Romans, these auguries were taken usually upon an eminence: after the month of March they were prohibited in consequence of the moulting season having commenced; nor were they permitted at the waning of the moon, nor at any time in the afternoon, or when the air was the least ruffled by winds or clouds. The feeding of the sacred chickens, and the manner of their taking the corn that was offered to them, was the most common method of taking the augury. Observations were also made on the chattering or singing of birds, the hooting of crows, pies, owls, etc., and from the running of beasts, as heifers, asses, rams, hares, wolves, foxes, weasels and mice, when these appeared in uncommon places, crossed the way, or ran to the right or left. They also pretended to draw a good or bad omen from the most trifling actions or occurrences of life, as sneezing, stumbling, starting, numbness of the little finger, the tingling of the ear, the spilling of salt upon the table, or the wine upon one’s clothes, the accidental meeting of a bitch with whelp, etc. It was also the business of the augur to interpret dreams, oracles, and prodigies.

Nothing can be so surprising than to find so wise and valorous a people as the Romans addicted to such childish fooleries. Scipio, Augustus, and many others, without any fatal consequences, despised the _sacred_ chickens, and other arts of divination: but when the generals had miscarried in any enterprise, the people laid the whole blame on the negligence with which these oracles had been consulted: and if an unfortunate general had neglected to consult them, the blame of miscarriage was thrown upon him who had preferred his own forecast to that of the fowls; while those who made these kinds of predictions a subject of raillery, were accounted impious and profane. Thus they construed, as a punishment of the gods, the defeat of Claudius Pulcher; who, when the sacred chickens refused to eat what was set before them, ordered them to be thrown into the sea; “If they won’t eat,” said he, “they shall drink.”


In the earliest ages of the world, a sense of piety and a regard to decency had introduced the custom of never sacrificing to Him, whence all blessings emanated, any but the soundest, the most healthy, fat and beautiful animals; which were always examined with the closest and most exact attention. This ceremonial, which doubtless had its origin in gratitude, or in some ideas of fitness and propriety, at length, degenerated into trifling niceties and superstitious ceremonies. And it having been once imagined that no favour was to be looked for from the gods, when the victim was imperfect, the idea of perfection was united with abundance of trivial circumstances. The entrails were examined with peculiar care, and if the whole was without blemish, their duties were fulfilled; under an assurance that they had engaged the gods to be on their side, they engaged in war, and in the most hazardous undertakings, with such a confidence of success, as had the greatest tendency to procure it. All the motions of the victims that were led to the altar, were considered as so many prophecies. If the victim advanced with an easy and natural air, in a straight line, and without offering any resistance,–if he made no extraordinary bellowing when he received the blow,–if he did not get loose from the person who led him to the sacrifice, it was deemed a certain prognostic of an easy and flowing success.

The victim was knocked down, but before its belly was ripped open, one of the lobes of the liver was allotted to those who offered the sacrifice, and the other to the enemies of the state. That which was neither blemished nor withered, of a bright red, and neither smaller nor larger than it ought to be, prognosticated great prosperity to those for whom it was set apart; that which was livid, small or corrupted, presaged the most fatal mischiefs. The next thing to be considered was the heart, which was also examined with the utmost care, as was the spleen, the gall, and the lungs; and if any of these were let fall, if they smelt rank or were bloated, livid or withered, it presaged nothing but misfortunes.

After the examination of the entrails was over, the fire was kindled, and from this also they drew several presages. If the flame was clear, if it mounted up without dividing, and went not out till the victim was entirely consumed, this was a proof that the sacrifice was accepted; but if they found it difficult to kindle the fire, if the flame divided, if it played around instead of taking bold of the victim, if it burnt ill, or went out, it was a bad omen. The business, however, of the Aruspices was not confined to the altars and sacrifices, they had an equal right to explain all other portents. The Senate frequently consulted them on the most extraordinary prodigies. The college of the Aruspices, as well as those of the other religious orders, had their registers and records, such as memorials of thunder and lightning,[12] the Tuscan histories,[13] etc.


Divination was divided by the ancients into artificial and natural. The first is conducted by reasoning upon certain external signs, considered as indications of futurity; the other consists in that which presages things from a mere internal sense, and persuasion of the mind, without any assistance of signs; and is of two kinds, the one from nature, and the other by influx. The first supposes that the soul, collected within itself, and not diffused or divided among the organs of the body, has from its own nature and essence, some fore-knowledge of future things; witness, for instance, what is seen in dreams, ecstasies, and on the confines of death. The second supposes the soul after the manner of a mirror to receive some secondary illumination from the presence of God and other spirits. Artificial divination is also of two kinds: the one argues from natural causes, as in the predictions of physicians relative to the event of diseases, from the tongue, pulse, etc. The second the consequence of experiments and observations arbitrarily instituted, and is mostly superstitious. The systems of divination reduceable under these heads are almost incalculable. Among these were the Augurs or those who drew their knowledge of futurity from the flight, and various other actions of birds; the Aruspices, from the entrails of beasts; palmestry or the lines of the hands; points marked at random; numbers, names, the motions of a scene, the air, fire, the Praenestine, Homerian, and Virgilian lots, dreams, etc.

Whoever reads the Roman historians[14] must be surprised at the number of prodigies which are constantly recorded, and which frequently filled the people with the most dreadful apprehensions. It must be confessed, that some of these seem altogether supernatural; while much the greater part only consist of some of the uncommon productions of nature, which superstition always attributed to a superior cause, and represented as the prognostication of some impending misfortunes. Of this class may be reckoned the appearance of two suns, the nights illuminated by rays of light, the views of fighting armies, swords, and spears, darting through the air; showers of milk, of blood, of stones, of ashes, of frogs, beasts with two heads, or infants who had some feature resembling those of the brute creation. These were all dreadful prodigies, which filled the people with inexpressible astonishment, and the Roman Empire with an extreme perplexity; and whatever unhappy circumstance followed upon these, was sure to be either caused or predicted by them.[15]


[9] Homer gives the same account of those ceremonies, when Ulysses raised the soul of Tiresias; and the same usages are found in the poem of Silius Italicus. And to these ceremonies the scriptures frequently allude, when the Israelites are forbid to assemble upon high places.

[10] The magical slumbers produced in the cave of Trophonius are justly ascribed to medicated beverages. Here, the votary if he escaped with life, had his health irreparably injured, and the whole class of artificial dreams and visions, the effect of some powerful narcotic acting upon the body after the mind had been predisposed for a certain train of ideas.

[11] The _sortes praenestinae_ were famous among the Greeks. The method by which these lots were conducted was to put so many letters or even whole words, into an urn; to shake them together, and throw them out; and whatever should chance to be made out in the arrangement of these letters or words, composed the answer of the oracle. The ancients also made use of dice, drawing tickets, etc., in casting or deciding results. In the Old Testament we meet with many standing and perpetual laws, and a number of particular commands, prescribing and regulating the use of them. We are informed by the Scripture that when a successor to Judas in the apostolate was to be chosen, the lot fell on St. Mathias. And the garment or coat without a seam of our Saviour was lotted for by the Jews. In Cicero’s time this mode of divination was at a very low ebb. The _sortes Homericae_ and _sortes Virgilianae_ which succeeded the _sortes Praenestinae_, gave rise to the same means used among christians of casually opening the sacred books for directions in important circumstances; to learn the consequence of events and what they had to fear among their rulers.

[12] Kennet’s Roman Antiquities, Lib. XI, C. 4.

[13] Romulus, who founded the institution of the Aruspices, borrowed it from the Tuscans, to whom the Senate afterwards sent twelve of the sons of the principal nobility to be instructed in these mysteries, and the other ceremonies of their religion. The origin of this act among the people of Tuscany, is related by Cicero in the following manner: “A peasant,” says he, “ploughing in the field, his ploughshare running pretty deep in the earth, turned up a clod, from whence sprung a child, who taught him and the other Tuscans the art of divination.” (Cicero, De Divinat. l. 2.) This fable, undoubtedly means no more, than that this child, said to spring from the clod of earth, was a youth of a very mean and obscure birth, but it is not known whether he was the author of it, or whether he learnt it of the Greeks or any other nations.

[14] Particularly Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Pliny, and Valerius Maximus.

[15] Nothing is more easy than to account for these productions, which have no relation to any events that may happen to follow them. The appearance of two suns has frequently happened in England, as well as in other places, and is only caused by the clouds being placed in such a situation, as to reflect the image of that luminary; nocturnal fires, enflamed spears, fighting armies, were no more than what we call the Aurora Borealis or northern lights, or ignited vapours floating in the air; showers of stones, of ashes, or of fire, were no other than the effects of the eruptions of some volcano at a considerable distance; showers of milk were caused by some quality in the air, condensing, and giving a whitish colour to the water; and those of blood are now well known to be only the red spots left upon the earth, on stones and leaves of trees, by the butterflies which hatch in hot and stormy weather.



Few superstitions have been so famous, and so seductive to the minds of men during a number of ages, as oracles. In treaties of peace or truces, the Greeks never forgot to stipulate for the liberty of resorting to oracles. No colony undertook new settlements, no war was declared, no important affair begun, without first consulting the oracles.

The most renowned oracles were those of Delphos, Dodona, Trophonius, Jupiter Hammon, and the Clarian Apollo. Some have attributed the oracles of Dodona to oaks, others to pigeons. The opinion of those pigeon-prophetesses was introduced by the equivocation of a Thessalian word, which signified both a pigeon and a woman; and gave room to the fable, that two pigeons having taken wing from Thebes, one of them fled into Lybia, where it occasioned the establishing of the oracle of Jupiter Hammon; and the other, having stopped in the oaks of the forest of Dodona, informed the inhabitants of the neighbouring parts, that it was Jupiter’s intention there should be an oracle in that place. Herodotus has thus explained the fable: there were formerly two Priestesses of Thebes, who were carried off by Phenecian merchants. She that was sold into Greece, settled in the forest of Dodona, where great numbers of the ancient inhabitants of Greece went to gather acorns. She there erected a little chapel at the foot of an oak, in honour of the same Jupiter, whose priestess she had been; and here it was this ancient oracle was established, which in after times became so famous. The manner of delivering the oracles of Dodona was very singular. There were a great number of kettles suspended from trees near a copper statue, which was also suspended with a hunch of rods in its hand. When the wind happened to put it in motion, it struck the first kettle, which communicating its motion to the next, all of them tingled, and produced a certain sound which continued for a long time; after which the oracle spoke.


This oracle, which was in the desert, in the midst of the burning sands of Africa, declared to Alexander that Jupiter was his father. After several questions, having asked if the death of his father was suddenly revenged, the oracle answered, that the death of Philip was revenged, but that the father of Alexander was immortal. This oracle gave occasion to Lucan to put great sentiments in the mouth of Cato. After the battle of Pharsalia, when Cesar began to be master of the world. Labrenus said to Cato: “As we have now so good an opportunity of consulting so celebrated an oracle, let us know from it how to regulate our conduct during this war. The gods will not declare themselves more willingly for any one than Cato. You have always been befriended by the gods, and may therefore have the confidence to converse with Jupiter. Inform yourselves of the destiny of the tyrant and the fate of our country; whether we are to preserve our liberty, or to lose the fruit of the war; and you may learn too what that virtue is to which you have been elevated, and what its reward.”

Cato, full of the divinity that was within him, returned to Labrenus an answer worthy of an oracle: “On what account, Labrenus, would you have me consult Jupiter? Shall I ask him whether it be better to lose life than liberty? Whether life be a real good? We have within us, Labrenus, an oracle that can answer all these questions. Nothing happens but by the order of God. Let us not require of him to repeat to us what he has sufficiently engraved in our hearts. Truth has not withdrawn into those deserts; it is not graved on those sands. The abode of God is in heaven, in the earth, in the sea, and in virtuous hearts. God speaks to us by all that we see, by all that surrounds us. Let the inconstant and those that are subject to waver, according to events, have recourse to oracles. For my part, I find in nature every thing that can inspire the most constant resolution. The dastard, as well as the brave, cannot avoid death. Jupiter cannot tell us more.” Cato thus spoke, and quitted the country without consulting the oracle.


Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and several other authors relate, that a herd of goats discovered the oracle of Delphos, or of the Pythian Apollo. When a goat happened to come near enough the cavern to breathe air that passed out of it, she returned skipping and bounding about, and her voice articulated some extraordinary sounds; which having been observed by the keepers, they went to look in, and were seized with a fury which made them jump about, and foretel future events. Coretas, as Plutarch tells, was the name of the goat-herd who discovered the oracle. One of the guardians of Demetrius, coming too near the mouth of the cavern, was suffocated by the force of the exhalations, and died suddenly. The orifice or vent-hole of the cave was covered with a tripod consecrated to Apollo, on which the priestesses, called Pythonesses,[16] sat, to fill themselves with the prophetic vapour, and to conceive the spirit of divination, with the fervor that made them know futurity, and foretel it in Greek hexameters. Plutarch says, that, on the cessation of oracles, a Pythoness was so excessively tormented by the vapour, and suffered such violent convulsions, that all the priests ran away, and she died soon after.


Pausanias describes the ceremonies that were practiced for consulting the oracle of Trophonius. Every man that went down into his cave, never laughed his whole life after. This gave occasion to the proverbial saying concerning those of a melancholy air: “He has consulted Trophonius.” Plato relates, that the two brothers, Agamedes and Trophonius, having built the temple of Apollo, and asked the god for a reward what he thought of most advantage to men, both died in the night that succeeded their prayer. Pausanias gives us a quite different account. In the palace there built for the King Hyrieus, they so laid a stone, that it might be taken away, and in the night they crept in through the hole they had thus contrived, to steal the king’s treasures. The king observing the quantity of his gold diminished, though no locks nor seals had been broken open, fixed traps about his coffers, and Agamedes being caught in one of them, Trophonius cut off his head to prevent his discovering him. Trophonius having disappeared that moment, it was given out that the earth had swallowed him on the same spot; and impious superstition went so far as to place this wicked wretch in the rank of the gods, and to consult his oracle with ceremonies equally painful and mysterious.

Tacitus thus speaks of the oracle of the Clarian Apollo: Germanicus went to consult the oracle of Claros. It is not a woman that delivers the oracle there, as at Delphos, but a man chosen out of certain families, and always of Miletum. It is sufficient to tell him the number and names of those who come to consult him; whereupon he retires into a grot, and having taken some water out of a well that lies hid in it, he answers you in verses to whatever you have thought of, though this man is often very ignorant.

Dion Cassius explains the manner in which the oracle of Nymphoea, in Epirus, delivered its responses. The party that consulted took incense, and having prayed, threw the incense into the fire, the flame pursued and consumed it. But if the affair was not to succeed, the incense did not come near the fire, or if it fell into the flame, it started out and fled. It so happened for prognosticating futurity, in regard to every thing that was asked, except death and marriage, about which it was not allowed to ask any questions.

Those who consulted the oracle of Amphiarus, lay on the skins of victims, and received the answer of the oracle in a dream. Virgil attests the same thing of the oracle of Faunus in Italy.

A governor of Cilicia, who gave little credit to oracles, and who was always surrounded by unbelieving Epicureans sent a letter sealed with his signet to the oracle of Mopsus, requiring one of those answers that were received in a dream. The messenger charged with the letter brought it back in the same condition, not having been opened; and informed him, that he had seen in a dream a very well made man, who said to him ‘Black’ without the addition of even another word. Then the governor opening the letter, assured the company, that he wanted to know of the divinity, whether he should sacrifice a white or black bull.

In the temple of the goddess of Syria, when the statue of Apollo was inclined to deliver oracles, it deviated, moved, and was full of agitations on its pedestals. Then the priests carrying it on their shoulders, it pushed and turned them on all sides, and the high-priest, interrogating it on all sorts of affairs, if it refused its consent, it drove the priests back; if otherwise, it made them advance.

Suetonius says, that, some months before the birth of Augustus, an oracle was current, importing, that nature was labouring at the production of a king, who would be master of the Roman Empire; that the Senate in great consternation, had forbid the rearing of any male children who should be born that year, but that the senators whose wives were pregnant, found means to hinder the inscribing of the decree in the public registers. It seems that the prediction, of which Augustus was only the type, regarded the birth of Jesus Christ, the spiritual king of the whole world; or that the wicked spirit was willing, by suggesting this rigorous decree to the Senate, to depose Herod; and by this example, to involve the Messiah in the massacre that was made by his orders of all the children of two years and under. The whole world was then full of the coming of the Messiah. We see by Virgil’s fourth eclogue, that he applies to the son of the Consul Asinius Pollio the prophecies which, from the Jews, had then passed into foreign nations. This child the object of Virgil’s flattery, died the ninth day after he was born. Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus, applied to Vespasian the prophecies that regarded the Messiah.


The oracles, were often very equivocal, or so obscure that their signification was not understood but after the event. A few examples, out of a great many, will be sufficient.

Croesus, having received from the Pythoness, this answer, that by passing the river Halys, he would destroy a great empire, he understood it to be the empire of his enemy, whereas he destroyed his own. The oracle consulted by Pyrrhus, gave him an answer, which might be equally understood of the victory of Pyrrhus, and the victory of the Romans his enemies.

Aio te Aeacida, Romanos vincere posse.

The equivocation lies in the construction of the Latin tongue, which cannot be rendered in English. The Pythoness advises Croesus to guard against the mule.[17] The king of Lydia understood nothing of the oracle, which denoted Cyrus descended from two different nations, from the Medes by Mandana his mother, the daughter of Astyages; and by the Persians by his father Cambyses, whose race was by far less grand and illustrious. Nero had for answer from the oracle of Delphos, that seventy-three might prove fatal to him, he believed he was safe from all danger till age, but, finding himself deserted by every one, and hearing Galba proclaimed emperor, who was seventy-three years of age, he was sensible of the deceit of the oracle.

St. Jerome observes, that, if the devils speak any truth, by whatever accident they always join lies to it and use such ambiguous expressions, that they may be equally applied to contrary events.


Whilst the false oracles of demons deceived the idolatrous nations, truth had retired from among the chosen people of God. The septuagint have interpreted _Urim_ and _Thummim_, manifestation and truth, [Greek: daelosin is alaetheian]; which expresses how different those divine oracles were from the false and equivocal demons. It is said, in the Book of Numbers, that Eleazar, the successor of Aaron, shall interrogate Urim in form, and that a resolution shall be taken according to the answer given.

The Ephod applied to the chest of the sacerdotal vestments of the high-priest, was a piece of stuff covered with twelve precious stones, on which the names of the twelve tribes were engraved. It was not allowed to consult the Lord by Urim and Thummim, but for the king, the president of the sanhedrim, the general of the army, and other public persons, and on affairs that regarded the general interest of the nation. If the affair was to succeed, the stones of the ephod emitted a sparkling light, or the high-priest inspired predicted the success. Josephus, who was born thirty-nine years after Christ, says that it was then two hundred years since the stones of the ephod had given an answer to consultations by their extraordinary lustre.

The Scriptures only inform us, that Urim and Thummim were something that Moses had put in the high-priest’s breast-plate. Some Rabbins by rash conjectures, have believed that they were two small statues hidden within the breast-plate; others, the ineffable name of God, graved in a mysterious-manner. Without designing to discern what has not been explained to us, we should understand by _Urim_ and _Thummim_, the divine inspiration annexed to the consecrated breast-plate.

Several passages of Scripture leave room to believe, that an articulate voice came forth from the propitiatory, or holy of holies, beyond the veil of the tabernacle, and that this voice was heard by the high-priest. If the Urim and Thummim did not make answer, it was a sign of God’s anger. Saul abandoned by the spirit of the Lord, consulted it in vain, and obtained no sort of answer. It appears by some passages of St. John’s Gospel, that in the time of Christ, the exercise of the chief-priesthood, was still attended with the gift of prophecy.


When men began to be better instructed by the lights philosophy had introduced into the world, the false oracles insensibly lost their credit. Chrysippus filled an entire volume with false or doubtful oracles. Oenomanus,[18] to be revenged of some oracle that had deceived him, made a compilation of oracles, to shew their absurdity and vanity. But Oenomanus is still more out of humour with the oracle for the answer which Apollo gave the Athenians, when Xerxes was about to attack Greece with all the strength of Asia. The Pythian declared, that Minerva, the protectress of Athens, had endeavoured in vain to appease the wrath of Jupiter; yet that Jupiter, in complaisance with his daughter, was willing the Athenians should secure themselves within wooden walls; and that Salamis should behold the loss of a great many children, dead to their mothers, either when Ceres was spread abroad, or gathered together. At this Oenomanus loses all patience with the Delphian God: “This contest,” exclaims he, “between father and daughter, is very becoming the deities! It is excellent that there should be contrary inclinations and interests in heaven! Poor wizzard, thou art ignorant who the children are that shall see Salamis perish; whether Greeks or Persians. It is certain they must either be one or the other; but thou needest not have told so openly that thou knowest not what. Thou concealest the time of the battle under these fine poetical expressions ‘_either when Ceres is spread abroad, or gathered together_:’ and thou wouldst cajole us with such pompous language! who knows not that if there be a sea-fight, it must either be in seed-time or harvest? It is certain it cannot be in winter. Let things go how they will, thou wilt secure thyself by this Jupiter whom Minerva is endeavouring to appease. If the Greeks lose the battle, Jupiter proved inexorable to the last; if they gain it, why then Minerva at length prevailed.”[19]

Eusebius has preserved some fragments of this criticism on oracles by Oenomanus. “I might,” says Origen, “have recourse to the authority of Aristotle, and the Peripatetics, to make the Pythoness much suspected. I might extract from the writings of Epicurus and his sectators an abundance of things to discredit oracles; and I might shew that the Greeks themselves made no great account of them.”

The reputation of oracles was greatly lessened when they became an artifice of politics. Themistocles, with a design of engaging the Athenians to quit Athens, in order to be in a better condition to resist Xerxes, made the Pythoness deliver an oracle, commanding them to take refuge in wooden walls. Demosthenes said, that the Pythoness philippised, to signify that she was gained over by Philip’s presents.


The cessation of oracles is attested by several prophane authors, as Strabo, Juvenal, Lucien.

Lucan, and others, Plutarch accounts for the cause of it, either that the benefits of the gods are not eternal, as themselves are; or that the genii who presided over oracles, are subject to death; or that the exhalations of the earth had been exhausted. It appears that the last reason had been alleged in the time of Cicero, who ridicules it in his second book of Divination, as if the spirit of prophecy, supposed to be excited by subterranean effluvia, had evaporated by length of time, as wine or pickle by being kept is lost.

Suidas, Nicephorus, and Cedrenus relate, that Augustus having consulted the oracle of Delphos, could obtain no other answer but this: ‘the Hebrew child whom all the gods obey, drives me hence, and sends me back to hell: get out of this temple without speaking one word.’ Suidas adds, that Augustus dedicated an altar in the Capitol, with the following inscription:

“_To the eldest Son of God_.”

Notwithstanding these testimonies, the answer of the oracle of Delphos to Augustus seems very suspicious. Cedrenus cites Eusebius for this oracle, which is not now found in his works; and Augustus’ peregrination into Greece was eighteen years before the birth of Christ.

Suidas and Cedrenus give an account also of an ancient oracle delivered to Thules, a king of Egypt, which they say is well authenticated. This king having consulted the oracle of Seraphis, to know if there ever was, or would be, one so great as himself, received this answer:–“First, God, next the word, and the spirit with them. They are equally eternal, and make but one whose power will never end. But thou, mortal, go hence, and think that the end of man’s life is uncertain.”

Van Dale, in his Treatise of oracles, does not believe that they ceased at the coming of Christ. He relates several examples of oracles consulted till the death of Theodosius the Great. He quotes the laws of the Emperors Theodosius, Gratian, and Valentinian, against those who consulted oracles, as a certain proof that the superstition of oracles still existed in the time of those emperors.


The opinion of those who believe that the demons had no share in the oracles, and that the coming of the Messiah made no change in them: and the contrary opinion of those who pretend that the incarnation of the word imposed a general silence on oracles, should be equally rejected. The reasons appear from what has been said, and therefore two sorts of oracles ought to be distinguished, the one dictated by the spirits of darkness, who deceived men by their obscure and doubtful answers, the other the pure artifice and deceit of the priests of false divinities.[20] As to the oracles given out by demons, the reign of Satan was destroyed by the coming of the Saviour; truth shut the mouth of falsehood; but Satan continued his old craft among idolaters. All the devils were not forced to silence at the same time by the coming of the Messiah; it was on particular occasions that the truth of christianity, and the virtue of Christians imposed silence on the devils. St. Athanasius tells the pagans, they have been witnesses themselves that the sign of the cross puts the devils to flight, silences oracles, and dissipates enchantments.

This power of silencing oracles, and putting the devils to flight, is also attested by Arnobius, Lactantius, Prudentius, Minutius, Felix, and several others. Their testimony is a certain proof that the coming of the Messiah had not imposed a general silence on oracles.

The Emperor Julian, called the Apostate, consulting the oracle of Apollo, in the suburbs of Antioch, the devil could make him no other answer, than that the body of St. Babylas, buried in the neighbourhood, imposed silence on him. The Emperor, transported with rage and vexation, resolved to revenge his gods, by eluding a solemn prediction of Christ. He ordered the Jews to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem; but in beginning to dig the foundations, balls of fire burst out, and consumed the artificers, their tools and materials. These facts are attested by Ammianus Marcellinus, a pagan, and the emperor’s historian; and by St. Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and Theodoret, Sozomen and Socrates, in their ecclesiastical histories. The sophist Libanius, who was an enemy of the Christians, confessed also that St. Babylas had silenced the oracle of Apollo, in the suburbs of Antioch.

Plutarch relates that the pilot Thamus heard a voice in the air, crying out:–“The great Pan is dead:” whereupon Eusebius observes, that the deaths of the demons were frequent in the reign of Tiberius, when Christ drove out the wicked spirits. The same judgments may be passed on oracles as on possessions. It was on particular occasions, by the divine permission, that the Christians cast out devils, or silenced oracles, in the presence and even by the confession of the pagans themselves. And thus it is we should, it seems, understand the passages of St. Jerom, Eusebius, Cyril, Theodoret, Prudentius, and other authors, who said, that the coming of Christ had imposed silence on the oracles.


As regards the second sort of oracles, which were pure artifices and cheats of the priests of false divinities, and which probably exceeded the numbers of those that immediately proceed from demons, they did not cease till idolatry was abolished, though they had lost their credit for a considerable time before the coming of Christ. It was concerning this more common and general sort of oracles that Minutius Felix said, they began to discontinue their responses, according as men began to be more polite. But, howsoever decried oracles were, impostors always found dupes; the grossest cheats having never failed.

Daniel discovered the imposture of the priests of Bel, who had a private way of getting into the temple, to take away the offered meats, and made the king believe that the idol consumed them. Mundus, being in love with Paulina, the eldest of the priestesses of Isis, went and told her that the god Anubis, being passionately fond of her, commanded her to give him a meeting. She was afterwards shut up in a dark room, where her lover Mundus (whom she believed to be the god Anubis,) was concealed. This imposture having been discovered, Tiberius ordered those detestable priests and priestesses to be crucified, and with them Iolea Mundus’s free woman, who had conducted the whole intrigue. He also commanded the temple of Isis to be levelled with the ground, her statue to be thrown into the Tiber, and, as to Mundus, he contented himself with sending him into banishment.

Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, not only destroyed the temples of the gods, but discovered the cheats of the priests, by shewing that the statues, some of which were of brass, and others of wood, were hollow within, and led into dark passages made in the wall.

Lucius in discovering the impostures of the false prophet Alexander, says, that the oracles were chiefly afraid of the subtilties of the Epicureans and Christians. The false prophet Alexander sometimes feigned himself seized with a divine fury, and by means of the herb sopewort, which he chewed, frothed at the mouth in so extraordinary a manner, that the ignorant people attributed it to the power of the god he was possessed by. He had long before prepared the head of a dragon made of linen, which opened and shut its mouth by means of a horses hair. He went by night to a place where the foundations of a temple were digging, and having found water, either of a spring or rain that had settled there, he hid in it a goose egg, in which he had inclosed a little serpent that had just been hatched. The next day, very early in the morning, he came quite naked into the street, having only a scarf about his middle, holding in his hand a scythe, and tossing about his hair as the priests of Cybele; then getting on the top of a high altar, he said that the place was happy to be honoured by the birth of a god. Afterwards running down to the place where he had hid the goose egg, and going into the water, he began to sing the praises of Apollo and Aesculapius, and to invite the latter to come and shew himself to men; with these words he dips a bowl into the water and takes out a mysterious egg, which had a god enclosed in it, and when he held it in his hand, he began to say that he held Aesculapius, whilst all were eager to have a sight of this fine mystery, he broke the egg, and the little serpent starting out, twisted itself about his fingers.

These examples shew clearly, that both Christians and pagans were so far agreed as to treat the greater number of oracles as purely human impostures.

From the very nature of things, much that now serves for amusement must formerly have been appropriated to a higher destination. Ventriloquism may be quoted as a case in point, affording a ready and plausible solution of the oracular stones and oaks, of the reply which the seer Nessus addressed to Pythagoras, (Jamblichus, Vit. Pyth. xxxiii.) and of the tree which at the command of the Gymnosophists, of upper Egypt, spoke to Apollonius, “The voice,” says Philostratus (Vit. Ap. xi. 5) “was distinct but weak, and similar to the voice of a woman.” But the oracles, at least if we ascend to their origin, were not altogether impostures. The pretended interpreters of the decrees of destiny were frequently plunged into a sort of delirium, and when inhaling the fumes