Of the Pagan Oracles

[This is taken from Augustine Calmet's Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010.  Copyright as such.]

Pagan Oracle

If it were well proved that the oracles of pagan antiquity were the work of the evil spirit, we could give more real and palpable proofs of the apparition of the demon among men than these boasted oracles, which were given in almost every country in the world, among the nations which passed for the wisest and most enlightened, as the Egyptians, Chaldeans, Persians, Syrians, even the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. Even the most barbarous people were not without their oracles.

In the pagan religion there was nothing esteemed more honorable, or more complacently boasted of.

In all their great undertakings they had recourse to the oracle; by that was decided the most important affairs between town and town, or province and province. The manner in which the oracles were rendered was not everywhere the same. It is said the bull Apis, whose worship was anciently established in Egypt, gave out his oracles on his receiving food from the hand of him who consulted. If he received it, say they, it was considered a good omen; if he refused it, this was a bad augury. When this animal appeared in public, he was accompanied by a troop of children, who sang hymns in his honor; after which these boys were filled with sacred enthusiasm, and began to predict future events. If the bull went quietly into his lodge, it was a happy sign; if he came out, it was the contrary. Such was the blindness of the Egyptians.

There were other oracles also in Egypt: as those of Mercury, Apollo, Hercules, Diana, Minerva, Jupiter Ammon, etc., which last was consulted by Alexander the Great. But Herodotus remarks that in his time there were neither priests nor priestesses who uttered oracles. They were derived from certain presages, which they drew by chance, or from the movements of the statues of the gods, or from the first voice which they heard after having consulted. Pausanias says that he who consults whispers in the ear of Mercury what he requires to know, then he stops his ears, goes out of the temple, and the first words which he hears from the first person he meets are held as the answer of the god.

The Greeks acknowledge that they received from the Egyptians both the names of their gods and their most ancient oracles; amongst others that of Dodona, which was already much resorted to in the time of Homer, and which came from the oracle of Jupiter of Thebes: for the Egyptian priests related that two priestesses of that god had been carried off by Phoenician merchants, who had sold them, one into Libya and the other into Greece. Those of Dodona related that two black doves had flown from Thebes of Egypt—that the one which had stopped at Dodona had perched upon a beech-tree, and had declared in an articulate voice that the gods willed that an oracle of Jupiter should be established in this place; and that the other, having flown into Libya, had there formed or founded the oracle of Jupiter Ammon. These origins are certainly very frivolous and very fabulous. The Oracle of Delphi is more recent and more celebrated. Phemonoé was the first priestess of Delphi, and began in the time of Acrisius, twenty-seven years before Orpheus, Musaeus, and Linus. She is said to have been the inventor of hexameters.

But I think I can remark vestiges of oracles in Egypt, from the time of the patriarch Joseph, and from the time of Moses. The Hebrews had dwelt for 215 years in Egypt, and having multiplied there exceedingly, had begun to form a separate people and a sort of republic. They had imbibed a taste for the ceremonies, the superstitions, the customs, and the idolatry of the Egyptians.

Joseph was considered the cleverest diviner and the greatest expounder of dreams in Egypt. They believed that he derived his oracles from the inspection of the liquor which he poured into his cup. Moses, to cure the Hebrews of their leaning to the idolatry and superstitions of Egypt, prescribed to them laws and ceremonies which favored his design; the first, diametrically opposite to those of the Egyptians; the second, bearing some resemblance to theirs in appearance, but differing both in their aim and circumstances.

For instance, the Egyptians were accustomed to consult diviners, magicians, interpreters of dreams, and augurs; all which things are forbidden to the Hebrews by Moses, on pain of rigorous punishment; but in order that they might have no room to complain that their religion did not furnish them with the means of discovering future events and hidden things, God, with condescension worthy of reverential admiration, granted them the Urim and Thummim, or the Doctrine and the Truth, with which the high-priest was invested according to the ritual in the principal ceremonies of religion, and by means of which he rendered oracles, and discovered the will of the Most High. When the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle were constructed, the Lord, consulted by Moses, gave out his replies from between the two cherubim which were placed upon the mercy-seat above the ark. All which seems to insinuate that, from the time of the patriarch Joseph, there had been oracles and diviners in Egypt, and that the Hebrews consulted them.

God promised his people to raise up a prophet among them, who should declare to them his will: in fact, we see in almost all ages among them, prophets inspired by God; and the true prophets reproached them vehemently for their impiety, when instead of coming to the prophets of the Lord, they went to consult strange oracles, and divinities equally powerless and unreal.

We have spoken before of the teraphim of Laban, of the idols or pretended oracles of Micah and Gideon. King Saul, who, apparently by the advice of Samuel, had exterminated diviners and magicians from the land of Israel, desired in the last war to consult the Lord, who would not reply to him. He then afterwards addressed himself to a witch, who promised him she would evoke Samuel for him. She did, or feigned to do so, for the thing offers many difficulties, into which we shall not enter here.

The same Saul having consulted the Lord on another occasion, to know whether he must pursue the Philistines whom he had just defeated, God refused also to reply to him, because his son Jonathan had tasted some honey, not knowing that the king had forbidden his army to taste anything whatever before his enemies were entirely overthrown.

The silence of the Lord on certain occasions, and his refusal to answer sometimes when He was consulted, are an evident proof that He usually replied, and that they were certain of receiving instructions from Him, unless they raised an obstacle to it by some action which was displeasing to Him.




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