Something must be said about the Oracles, the Sibyls, and the Auguries;
which, besides the mysteries elsewhere spoken of, were the chief
assistant humbugs or side shows used for keeping up the great humbug
One word about the regular worship of heathenism; what maybe called
their stated services. They had no weekly day of worship, indeed no
week, and no preaching such as ours is; that is,
no regular instruction
by the ministers of religion, intended for all the people. They had
singing and praying after their fashion; the singing being a sort of
chant of praise to whatever idol was under treatment at the time, and
the praying being in part vain repetitions of the name of their god, and
for the rest a request that the god would do or give whatever was asked
of him as a fair business transaction, in return for the agreeable smell
of the fine beef they had just roasted under his nose, or for whatever
else they had given him; as, a sum of money, a pair of pantaloons (or
whatever they wore instead,) a handsome golden cup. This made the temple
a regular shop, where the priests traded off promised benefits for real
beef; coining blessings into cash on the nail; a very thorough humbug.
Such public religious ceremonies as the heathen had were mostly annual,
sometimes monthly. There were also daily ones, which were, however, the
daily business of the priests, and none of the business of the laymen.
To return to the subject.
All the heathen oracles, old and new (for abundance of them are still
agoing,) sibyls, auguries and all, show how universally and naturally,
and humbly and helplessly too, poor human nature longs to see into the
future, and longs for help and guidance from some power, higher than
Thus considered, these shallow humbugs teach a useful lesson, for they
constitute a strong proof of man's inborn natural recognition of some
God, of some obligation to a higher power, of some disembodied
existence; and so they show a natural human want of exactly what the
Christian revelation supplies, and constitute a powerful evidence for
All the heathen religions, I believe, had oracles of some kind. But the
Greek and Latin ones tell the whole story. Of these there were over a
hundred; more than twenty of Apollo, who was the god of soothsaying,
divination, prophecy, and of the supernatural side of heathen humbug
generally; thirty or forty collectively of Jupiter, Ceres, Mercury,
Pluto, Juno, Ino (a very good name for a goddess that gave oracles,
though she didn't know!), Faunus, Fortune, Mars, etc., and nearly as
many of demi-gods, heroes, giants, etc., such as Amphiaraus,
Amphilochus, Trophonius, Geryon, Ulysses, Calchas, AEsculapius,
Hercules, Pasiphae, Phryxus, etc. The most celebrated and most
patronized of them all was the great oracle of Apollo, at Delphi. The
"little fee" appears to have been the only universal characteristic of
the proceedings for obtaining an answer from the god. Whether you got
your reply in words spoken by the rattling of an old pot, by observing
an ox's appetite, throwing dice, or sleeping for a dream, your own
proceedings were essentially the same. "Terms invariably net cash in
advance or its equivalent." A fine ox or sheep sacrificed was cash; for
after the god had had his smell (those ladies and gentlemen appear to
have eaten as they say the Yankees talk--through their noses,) all the
rest was put carefully away by the reverend clergy for dinner, and saved
so much on the butcher's bill. If your credit was good, you might
receive your oracle and afterward send in any little acknowledgment in
the form of a golden goblet, or statue, or vase, or even of a remittance
in specie. Such gifts accumulated in the oracle at Delphi and to an
immense amount, and to the great emolument of Brennus, a matter of fact
Gaulish commander, who, at his invasion of Greece, coolly carried off
all the bullion, without any regard to the screeches of the Pythoness,
and with no more scruples than any burglar.
The Delphian oracle worked through a woman, who, on certain days, went
and sat on a three-legged stool over a hole in the ground in Apollo's
temple. This hole sent out gas; which, instead of being used like that
afforded by holes in the ground at Fredonia, N. Y., to illuminate the
village, was much more shrewdly employed by the clerical gentlemen to
shine up the knowledge-boxes of their customers, and introduce the
glitter of gold into their own pockets. I merely throw out the hint to
any speculating Fredonian who owns a hole in the ground. Well, the
Pythia, as this female was termed, warmed up her understanding over this
hole, as you have seen ladies do over the register of a hot-air furnace,
and becoming excited, she presently began to be drunk or crazy, and in
her fit she gabbled forth some words or noises. These the priests took
down, and then told the customer that the noises meant so-and-so! When
business was brisk they worked two Pythias, turn and turn about (or, as
they say at sea, watch and watch), and kept a third all cocked and
primed in case of accident, besides; for this gas sometimes gave the
priestess (literally) fits, which killed her in a few days.
Other oracles gave answers in many various ways. The priest quietly
wrote down whatever answer he chose; or inspected the insides of a
slaughtered beast, and said that the bowels meant this and that. At
Telmessus the inquirer peeped into a well, where he must see a picture
in the water which was his answer; at any rate, if this wouldn't do he
got none. This plan was evidently based on the idea that "truth is at
the bottom of a well." At Dodona, they hung brass pots on the trees and
translated the banging these made when the wind blew them together. At
Pherae, you whispered your question in the ear of the image of Mercury,
and then shutting your ears until you got out of the market-place, the
first remark you heard from anybody was the answer, and you might make
the best of it. At Pluto's oracle at Charae, the priest took a dream,
and in the morning told you what he chose. In the cave of Trophonius,
after various terrifying performances, they pulled you through a hole
the wrong way of the feathers, and then back again, and then stuck you
upon a seat, and made you write down your own oracle, being what you had
seen, which would, I imagine, usually be "the elephant."
And so-forth, and so on. Humbug ad libitum!
Like some of the more celebrated modern fortune-tellers, the managers of
the oracles were frequently shrewd fellows, and could often pick up the
materials of a very smart and judicious answer from the appearance of
the customer and his question. Very often the answer was sheer nonsense.
It was, in fact, believed by many that as a rule you couldn't tell what
the response meant until after it was fulfilled, when you were expected
to see it. In many cases the answers were ingeniously arranged, so as to
mean either a good or evil result, one of which was pretty likely.
Thus, one of the oracles answered a general who asked after the fate of
his campaign as follows: (the ancients, remember, using no punctuation
marks) "Thou shalt go thou shalt return never in war shalt thou perish."
The point becomes visible when you first make a pause before "never,"
and then after it.
On a similar occasion, the Delphic oracle told Croesus that if he
crossed the River Halys he would overthrow a great empire. This empire
he chose to understand as that of Cyrus, whom he was going to fight. It
came out the other way, and it was his own empire that was overthrown.
The immense wisdom of the oracle, however, was tremendously respected in
Pyrrhus, of Epirus, on setting off against the Romans, received equal
satisfaction, the Pythia telling him (in Latin) what amounted to this:
"I say that you Pyrrhus the Romans are able to conquer!"
Pyrrhus took it as he wished it, but found himself sadly thimble-rigged,
the little joker being under the wrong cup. The Romans beat him, and
most wofully too.
Trajan was advised to consult the oracle at Heliopolis, about his
intended expedition against the Parthians. The custom was to send your
query in a letter; so Trajan sent a blank note in an envelope. The god
(very naturally) sent back a blank note in reply, which was thought
wonderfully smart; and so the imperial dupe sent again, a square
"Shall I finish this war and get safe back to Rome?"
The Heliopolitan humbug replied by sending a piece of an old grape-vine
cut into pieces, which meant either: "You will cut them up," or "They
will cut you up;" and Trajan, like the little boy at the peep-show who
asked: "which is Lord Wellington and which is the Emperor Napoleon?" had
paid his penny and might take his choice.
Sometimes the oracles were quite jocular. A man asked one of them how to
get rich? The oracle said: "Own all there is between Sicyon and
Corinth." Which places are some fifteen miles apart.
Another fellow asked how he should cure his gout? The oracle coolly
said: "Drink nothing but cold water!"
The Delphic oracle, and some of the others, used for a long time to give
their answers in verses. At last, however, irreverent critics of the
period made so much fun of the peculiarly miserable style of this
poetry, that the poor oracle gave it up and came down to plain prose.
Every once in a while some energetic and cunning man, of skeptical
character, insisted on having just such an answer as he wanted. It was
well known that Philip of Macedon bought what responses he wished at
Delphi. Anybody with plenty of money, who would quietly "see" the
priests, could have such a response as he chose. Or, if he was a
bull-headed, hard-fisted, fighting-man, of irreligious but energetic
mind, the priests gave him what he wished, out of fear. When
Themistocles wanted to encourage the Greeks against the Persians, he
"fixed" Delphi by bribes. When Alexander the Great came to consult the
same oracle, the Pythia was disinclined to perform. But Alexander rather
roughly gave her to understand that she must, and she did. The Greek and
Roman oracles finally all gave out not far from the time of Christ's
coming, having gradually become more or less disreputable for many
All the heathen nations, as I have said, had their oracles too. The
heathen Scandinavians had a famous one at Upsal. The Getae, in Scythia,
had one. The Druids had them; so did the Mexican priests. The Egyptian
and Syrian divinities had them; in short, oracles were quite as
necessary as mysteries, and continue so in heathen religions. The only
exception, I believe, is in Mohammedanism, whose votaries save
themselves any trouble about the future by their thorough fatalism. They
believe so fully and vividly that everything is immovably predestinated,
being at the same time perfectly sure of heaven at last, that they
quietly receive everything as it comes, and don't take the least trouble
to find out how it is coming.
The Sibyls were women, supposed to be inspired by some divinity, who
prophesied of the future. Some say there was but one; some two, three,
four, or ten. All sorts of obscure stories are told about the time and
place of their activity. There was the Persian or Chaldean, who is said
to have foretold with many details the coming and career of Christ; the
Lybian, the Delphic, the Cumaean, much honored by the Romans, and half a
dozen more. Then there was Mantho, the daughter of Tiresias, who was
sent from Thebes to Delphi in a bag, seven hundred and twenty years
before the destruction of Troy. These ladies lived in caves, and among
them are said to have composed the Sibylline books, which contained the
mysteries of religion, were carefully kept out of sight at Rome, and
finally came into the hands of the Emperor Constantine. They were
burned, one story has it, about fifty years after his death. But there
are some Sibylline books extant, which, however, are among the most
transparent of humbugs, for they are full of all sorts of extracts and
statements from the Old and New Testaments. I do not believe there ever
were any Sibyls. If there were any, they were probably ill-natured and
desperate old maids, who turned so sour-tempered that their friends had
to drive them off to live by themselves, and who, under these
circumstances, went to work and wrote books.
I must crowd in here a word or two about the Auguries and the Augurs.
These gentlemen were a sort of Roman priests, who were accustomed to
foretell future events, decide on coming good or bad fortune, whether it
would do to go on with the elections, to begin any enterprise or not,
etc., by means of various signs. These were thunder; the way any birds
happened to fly; the way that the sacred chickens ate; the appearance of
the entrails of beasts sacrificed, etc., etc. These augurs were, for a
long time, much respected in Rome, but, at last, the more thoughtful
people lost their belief in them, and they became so ridiculous that
Cicero, who was himself one of them, said he could not see how one augur
could look another in the face without laughing.
It is humiliating to reflect how long and how extensively such barefaced
and monstrous humbugs as these have maintained unquestioned authority
over almost the whole race of man. Nor has humanity, by any means,
escaped from such debasing slavery now; for millions and millions of men
still believe and practice forms and ceremonies even more absurd, if
possible, than the Mysteries, Oracles, and Auguries.