Heathen Humbugs

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

heathen religion.

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.