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Because the future had already been set by the Fates, the ancients thought that it was impossible to evade an eventual outcome but that, through careful enquiry, they might discover the means to shape current plans to the grand design of the Fates, thereby sparing themselves disappointments or unnecessary unpleasantness. Even if a particular end was destined, present circumstances could be made tolerable within the plan of the Fates. All roads might lead to Rome, but some roads were less frequented by highwaymen than others. By finding out the intentions of the Fates, the path of least resistance could be followed. The ancients employed three basic methods to find out what the future held, divination, prophecy, and oracles.

Divination, the enquiry into the will of the gods through signs, portents, omens, and various arcane arts, prophecy, the inspired speech of seers, and oracles, the divine voice uttered through its chosen priests, allowed ancient peoples to read the map of their future. No important decision could be made and no impending act could be prosecuted until the person or nation had made some attempt to divine the will of the gods and the dictates of the Fates. Taking the auspices was a means by which the desires of the gods and the plans of the Fates could be shown to mortals. Different methods were used, and the categories of auspices had differing degrees of reliability.

Divination was accomplished by various methods, all of which had in common the study of natural objects or particular operations of nature to determine if a contemplated action was looked upon favorably or unfavorably by the Fates and the gods. Augury, the sacrificial offering of living beings on the altars of the gods, was the commonest means of divination. The practice had two objects, to placate or bribe the gods to look with favor upon the person making the sacrifice, and to ascertain whether that favor had been obtained. The latter did not necessarily require the employment of a priest or professional reader, and the person making the sacrifice could often read the auspices without assistance. If, for instance, the smoke of the sacrifice were to trail along the ground rather than rise into the heavens, it could be reliably assumed that the god had refused the sacrifice for some reason and that the request for aid or approval in an enterprise had been denied. Likewise, if when the entrails of the victim were examined some abnormality were found, as when an organ were misplaced or missing or duplicated, the person sponsoring the sacrifice might well be advised to alter his plans. If, on the other hand, the entrails were normal, then a favorable outcome might be expected. There were scores of indices that could be consulted to determine what the augury revealed, and augury did not ensure the outcome of a deed, because the auspices might be read differently in different circumstances.4 It was for this reason that persons especially skilled in the art, Augurs, were trained and employed officially, so that greater reliability of forecasting might be procured. The Augurs in Rome filled an important sacerdotal function for the state.

There were, of course, many other divinatory arts. They could be as simple as noticing which way the wind was blowing. The direction of the winds, it will be recalled, played an important role in both the beginning and the ending of the Hellenic expedition to Troy5. The brothers Romulus and Remus when disputing what name to give to their new city agreed to use ornithomancy to decide their respective claims. When Remus declared that six eagles had appeared to him, Romulus responded that twelve eagles had been shown to him. Remus asserted that priority should be the determining factor, while Romulus insisted that greater numbers were to be preferred, and thus they came to blows, with Remus receiving the mortal wound, illustrating therewith the pitfalls that attend any amateur divinations. It was possible to obtain auspices through mirrors, catoptromancy, through the casting of knucklebones ( i.e. dicing being a kind of divination), osteomancy, through interpretation of dreams, oneiromancy6, or most famously, through conversations with dead, necromancy7, the special province of Hecaté. This last was the most disreputable method, because it was liable to infection from malefic spirits, kakodæmones, which could cause harm to innocent persons as well as to the practitioner. Once unleashed from Tartarus, the abode of the damned, they could wander the earth afflicting disease and misfortune upon whole populations. Those who trafficked with the dead were, therefore, much feared and detested. Communication with the dead by going oneself into the realms of Dis while more socially responsible, was more immediately dangerous to oneself, for entering the kingdom of the Lord of Darkness was always easier than removing from it. Such journeys were to be undertaken only by the most intrepid who had been fortified by magical talismans against the perils and gins of the underworld, any one of which could snare the unprepared or unwary and trap him forever in the land of the dead. Succeeding by main force seems to have been the best offense, as is shown in the example of Herakles. Orpheus was undone by his own anxiety. Odysseus and Æneas survived by means of the magic that they bore with them. The ultimate model or archetype of the journey appears to be Egyptian, as described in the Book of the Dead, the vademecum of the underground traveller. By means of its spells, the dead were revivified and might pass from the realm of palpable darkness back into the light of day among the living.

As with much else,the Romans acquired from the Etruscans their system of divination, which was based upon the concept of "sacred space", the division of any area into domains over which particular divinities or fatal powers reigned and from which the divinatory signs were assigned their meanings. The sacred space was a kind of abstract map or imaginary template that could be overlaid upon any physical object in order to determine the divinatory features of the object and to extract any meaning that they might have. The sacred space could be applied to earth, sky, the entrails of a sacrificial animal, indeed, any object, and the peculiarities or signs found in the objects could then be interpreted. The Roman concept for this sacred space was called the templum. The templum was defined by two lines intersecting at right angles, the cardo (i.e. Latin "hinge", literally the "hinge of Fate") and the decumanus, which produced quadrants, each of which was further subdivided by lines passing through the locus or point of intersection of the cardo and decumanus, producing a sort of compass rose of divination, by which the augur could find his way in any situation. Each of the divisions of the templum was governed by some power, and any location in the real world could be said to correspond with a point on the templum and to be under the influence of the power that governed that point. Signs emanating from a terrestrial location would be interpreted from their coordinates on the sacred space, and the particular deity of that region would be credited as having sent the signs. When applied to the sky or the earth, the templum was aligned with the cardinal points (the hinges of Fate), the cardo falling upon the North-South polar axis and the decumanus necessarily falling upon the East-West latitudinal line. In the Etruscan cosmography, Tin (Roman Juppiter), Uni (Juno) and Menerva (Minerva) ruled in the North and Eastern portions of the sky and were responsible for sending favorable omens. Unfavorable omens came from the West and Northwest where the Roman Saturn, Orchus, and Moirae governed.

Prophecy was a more benign but more unpredictable manner of ascertaining futurity: while the prophet or seer was not malevolent, neither was he or she in control of the power of foresight. The prophet was motivated solely by a will external to his own, and was daily confronted with the embarrassing anomaly of being unable to foretell the time of his own prophesying. The prophet obtained his or her power from the gods, usually through some supernatural visitation. For instance, the licking of the eyes and ears by a serpent was believed to convey the prophetic power to the recipient. This was a kind of anointing which was supposed to open the organs of sense to the supernatural plane wherein the gods dwelt and from whom foreknowledge emanated. Prophets were generally regarded as reliable instruments of truth concerning the future, for they were conceded to be the voice of the god who inspired them. But they could not always see how an event would unfold, and their speech was subject to misinterpretation, although for the most part, their utterances were admonitions that could not be mistaken. That they were regarded as genuine did not prevent many from ignoring their prophecies, for the persons chosen to be the voice of the god were not always the most socially acceptable. Most led lives of scorn and poverty. Many were deemed mad. Prophets, because they were most often the bearers of ill tidings, were not always welcome and lived a peripatetic existence. A prophet has no honor in his own land, went the saying, meaning that his warnings to friends and relations fell upon ears stopped against him with anger and fear. In some cases, the gift of prophecy was made as a curse: Cassandra was given the power to see the future, but Apollo took from her the ability to persuade those to whom she delivered her prophecies.

Lastly, there were numerous recognized Oracles in the ancient world, the most famous being in Delphi, where Apollo was said to deliver his pronouncements. The Sibylline Books, supposedly the collected wisdom of the Sibyl or Oracle of Cumæ, was consulted by the Romans in every important matter of state. It was the Sibyl who remarked that the Mother was absent and that the Punic Wars could not be won by Rome until she had been brought there. It required a second opinion to understand that the Sibyl meant that the Great Mother Goddess of Phrygia must be transported to Rome in order for the oracle to be fulfilled.

It was typical of the oracles throughout the ancient world that their sayings were ambiguous and often subject to gross misinterpretation. It seemed that the gods were not eager to make the future an open book, but only to tease their supplicants with riddling words. Largess did not guarantee precise responses, as the ruin of Croesus, who had presented magnificent gifts to the Delian Oracle, showed. The oracles were not unwilling to provide guidance, but they made the recipient use his own wits to decide what advice had been given. Oracular sayings were often initially incoherent, because Oracles were invariably established in proximity to a rent in the earth whence issued volcanic vapors, the inhalation of which would induce a state of intoxication in the priest or priestess who delivered the oracular messages. These poisonous exhalations were thought to be sent from the gods or heroes that dwelt deep in the earth in Hades and to be the conveyances of inspiration8. Such a method of finding out the future must lead to the creation of a body of official interpreters who could make the oracular statements fit the particular case. Oracles were always right, but the interpretations were frequently found by experience to have been incorrect.

The Decline of Oracles

There was in late antiquity a marked trend of diminution of the number and quality of oracles. By the time that Plutarch wrote his famous series of essays on the Oracle at Delphi, the matter was one that aroused questions as to the cause of their decline, proving that the people were aware of this increasing abandonment. Christians, of course, had no trouble explaining the decreasing number of oracles: the false gods, or devils, that had for so long beguiled the gullible pagans were being driven by, or were fleeing from, the ministers of Jesus Christ. While it is certain that the rise of Christianity was instrumental in hastening the demise of oracles, the decline had begun long before the strengthening of Christianity. In Antioch, for example, the oracular streams that were on the grounds of the Temple of Apollo of Daphne, the babblings of which the priestess had erstwhile interpreted after chewing the laurel leaves of the grove, were silent by the middle of the 1st century A.D., when Christianity was yet only another Jewish sect in the minds of most citizens of the city. Indeed, even philosophical discourse had ceased in the temple, leaving it so silent, that Apollonius of Tyana9 was moved to remark that the dumbness of the temple had silenced even the waters. Plutarch's answer was the decrease in population, fewer people naturally reducing the number of persons who could visit the oracular sites. However, it seems more probable that the decline in patronage of oracles can be traced to the decline in the reputation of oracles. More people were aware of the ambiguous nature of the oracular sayings and of the seeming ingratitude of the gods to the their benefactors, whose gifts to the temples were repaid with carefully hedged replies that could and did mislead, resulting in the ruin of the questioners. The oracles were simply being judged unreliable. Poor public relations were merely exacerbated by the increasingly hostile atmosphere that Christianity was creating toward anything attached to the old religion.

In addition, the success of the Roman Empire must also be listed as a cause of the decline in oracles. The oracles had experienced their greatest popularity and prosperity in the times of uncertainty and multiplicity of states, when there were many ambitious principalities and municipalities competing for supremacy. It was natural that governments, whether monarchical or democratic, should seek divine guidance in their international relations because of the perilous environment in which they must exist, where a wrong choice of war or peace might end in the total eradication of a state or city, as was all too common a fate. The oracles would become privy to the plans and the aspirations of governments, and it was not impossible that governments with similar, as well as those with mutually antagonistic, aims would consult the same oracle secretly, placing in the hands of the priesthoods of the oracles states secrets that permitted them to hold an unique grasp of current affairs at the most basic level. Oracles became for princes and free peoples alike the disinterested third parties who could advise the numerous nations of the options of which they could avail themselves, and it was an inevitable consequence of this role, which combined the gathering of intelligence and the confidential dissemination of advice with mediation, that the petitioners should seek to influence the oracles with splendid donations and sacrificial offerings. It must follow that such displays of favor from rich clients would induce private persons also to seek the advice of the oracles on the example of the corporate sponsorship of cities and states, further enriching the temples of the gods. It was also inevitable that oracles should multiply as the demand for their services increased, if only to partake of the wealth and power that were being made available to them.

When, however, Rome began to emerge as the single great power of the ancient world, as state after state was merged into the Imperial union or attached themselves to the empire or made accommodations with it rather than risk conflict, the potential scope for the oracles was sharply reduced. In effect, their principal sources of income, the warring and competing states, became extinct and were absorbed into the great Roman state, and cities and peoples whose futures were now no longer doubtful, being for the most part decided elsewhere, had no need of oracles. Peace and prosperity for the world in general meant loss and gradual decay for the oracles, which could not subsist on the reduced patronage provided by private individuals. The attempt to supplement their incomes by the promotion of tourism, which, judging by Plutarch's accounts of tour guides with regular excursion hours and set speeches, seems to have become the most notable feature of the shrine at Delphi in his time, could not hope to equal the lost revenues. Delphi, as Plutarch describes it, had become a living history museum of antiquities, a colonial Williamsburg, with the priestess being nothing more than a performer in a pageant for the edification and amusement of the tourists, whereas formerly she had been the advisor of great nations and an arbiter of history. It is no wonder that the oracles fell into a disconsolate desuetude.

Why not Circe?

Why Not Circe?

It might be pointed out that Circe, sister of Medea, could fit the criteria, at least in part, of the mother of Hecabe. To be sure, she comes of the same line as Medea and was equally clever, wise, and beautiful. It was said in some accounts that she was as cruel as Perses and Aeëtes, her uncle and father, and had perpetrated the murder of her husband, the King of the Sarmatians or Scythians, following that crime with an oppressive and bloody reign before being herself deposed by her restive subjects. She then was said to have retired to her island, which Odysseus later visited, and there continued the policy of her native land10 by inhospitably murdering any strangers who might arrive on its shores (or metamorphosing them into beasts).

One supposes that Circe might have paused in her journey from Sarmatia to her eventual home, placed variously near the coasts of Italy, to start a family in Phrygia, but there is no evidence that she did so, nor even evidence that such evidence once existed and has since been lost. Indeed, every account of her indicates a solitary and self-sufficient existence for the sister of Medea. She does not exhibit any maternal yearnings nor any great sexual appetites, although she did form an attachment to Odysseus. She is not the tragic figure of Medea, and her story does not, as does that of her sister, provide the fatal impetus necessary to the working out of the long and blood-stained expiation that is the story of Hecabe and Troy.

Her story, supposed originally to have been a misinterpretation of an iconic representation of a portion of the mysteries of the Great Goddess, did, however, provide the fodder of later misogynistic moralists, and Circe was the model, rather imperfectly rendered it must be said, of the much less attractive Dr. Moreau. One supposes, that by the nineteenth century, women had become incapable of, or were deemed otherwise unfit for, the kind of scientific investigations that Circe, Medea, and Hecaté had pursued in pre-classical times.

Moreover, and more to the point, during the time in question she was becoming the bride of Picus the Seer, grandfather of Latinus, King of Latium, supplying her with an effective alibi. Picus no doubt obtained his visionary powers from Circe, who subsequently turned him into a woodpecker, the sacred bird of Roman Mars and that one esteemed most by Augurs.


Previous Question



1 Plutarch records, not without disparagement, that the astrologer Tarrutius, at the behest of Marcus Terrentius Varro, did cast the horoscope of Rome and its founder backward from known events, thinking that science to be so mathematically precise that the formulæ by which dates revealed events could be reversed to make events reveal dates, and was so far satisfied of the results that he was able to confidently place the conception of Romulus in the first year of the second Olympiad on the twenty-third day of the Egyptian month Choeac at the third hour after sunset during a total eclipse of the sun. The founding of Rome he was able to fix with only slightly less certainty. While this faith in the formulæ of astrology might excite derision, it is in keeping with the general principle that held that both the past and future were arguable from the present, given a fine discernment and an understanding of natural law. Back to text.

2 In those systems that allowed for a God that existed outside (i.e. superior) the spheres. Back to text.

3 As the recovery of the Golden Fleece was the predicated cause of Jason's voyage to Colchis, it permits one to notice the obvious, that the Flight of Phrixus on the back of the Ram could be interpreted emblematically as the aftermath of the episode in which the hero-god had slain the Bull of the previous age and was now ascending into heaven, borne aloft on the Ram of the new age. Accordingly, Jason, the hero of the story, had to overcome the Brazen Hoofed Bulls. The Bull-cult, of course, did not die easily, as the numerous apostasies of the Israelites show. Knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes was very old, the great antiquity of the myth of the slaying of the Bull standing in evidence. The literary form of the story is as at least as old as Ugarit, and the oral version must have pre-dated the written. Hipparchus (ca. 130 B.C.) merely gave a mechanistic explanation of those pre-classical observations. Back to text.

4 The person taking the auspices assumed responsibility for the enterprise being undertaken, thus the phrase "operating under his auspices". The general of an army would normally take the auspices, so that the outcome of a war or battle might be a consequence of his person. In some cases, it was the head of state who took the auspices when dispatching an army, even though he himself were not leading it, so that the army could be said to be under his auspices, and he would receive any credit for its success. Back to text.

5 The direction of the wind had more than a simple practical application. A contrary wind at the proposed time of embarkation was more than an hindrance: it implied that the gods were opposed to the entire enterprise. Agamemnon was faced with four choices, therefore, to delay the sailing until the wind should turn and thereby risk the disintegration of his coalition army, to sail against the wind and risk angering further the gods, to call off the war and thereby risk the humiliation of himself and all the Greeks, or to offer a sacrifice in the hope that the offended deity would be propitiated. Back to text.

6 One is prompted to mention the dream experienced by Hecabe prior to her being delivered of Alexander, that she was about to give birth to a fire brand that would ignite the whole of Troy. It was in consequence of this dream and the interpretation of it by Aesacus that Priam ordered the exposure of the infant, with the predictably ineffectual result. While dreams were generally considered to contain messages from the gods, the most potent dreams were those that were experienced during incubation, that is, sleeping within a temple's precincts. These dreams were thought to be direct communications from the deity of the temple and might include an apparition of the godhead. Back to text.

7 It was a peculiarity of the dead in Hades that they could see what would occur to living petitioners who consulted them but could not see what was happening to their own kin. Back to text.

8 Intoxication from various drugs was also thought to incite precognition. Back to text.

9 Apollonius of Tyana, an A.D. First Century sophist with a reputation for mysticism and magic, who was supposedly able to perform miracles. His career was chronicled by Philostratus in The Life of Apollonius, which many contend is more fiction than biography. Apollonius, it was said, could heal the sick and raise the dead, as well as drive out demons from possessed persons. He was said to have travelled as far as India. He held strictly to Pythagorean tenets, eschewing meat, wearing only linen, and denouncing blood sacrifices in the temples. According to witnesses to his death, at an advanced age, he ascended bodily into heaven, much as Abraham and the Virgin Mary were said to have done. Afterwards, temples were built in his honor and a cult of some vigor and popularity was established. He was later opposed to the ascending Christ by dissident pagans, his advocates contending that he was the equal in sanctity, wisdom, and power of Jesus of Nazareth. His cult had Imperial favor under the Emperors Septimus and Alexander Severus (early Third Century), the latter of whom was said to have replaced the lares of his household with statues of Apollonius, Jesus, Abraham, Alexander of Macedon, and Orpheus. Back to text.

10 It was the national law in Colchis, instituted by Aeëtes with the counsel of Hecaté, that all strangers, especially Greeks, should be sacrificed to the fierce goddess Artemis. This policy had as its purpose, according the legend, the prevention of the fulfillment of the prophecy that Aeëtes would live only until a stranger should arrive from Greece to remove the Golden Fleece. It was reasoned that a nation with the reputation of slaying its tourists would not be an attractive destination, and that Aeëtes would, thus, continue in the enjoyment of his life and kingdom. Thus, also, the establishment of the fabulous brazen hoofed Taurean Bulls, the Sown Warriors, and the Insomniac Dragon as secondary, tertiary, and quartenary lines of defense of the Fleece, lest the first line, the bar to undocumented aliens, prove inadequate to discourage visitation. These precautions were proven inadequate, of course, when Medea assisted Jason in their circumvention, demonstrating again that the weakest link of any high-tech security system is the human one. Back to text.

Horace on Soracte


While it probably has nothing to do with the cult of Soranus at Soracte, the poem by Horace seems to hint, if only obliquely, at the subject.


Vides ut alta stet nive candidum

Soracte, nec iam sustineant onus

silvae laborantes, geluque

flumina constiterint acuto.


dissolve frigus ligna super foco

large reponens atque benignius

deprome quadrimum Sabina,

o Thaliarche, merum diota:


permitte dives cetera, qui simul

stravere ventos aequore fervido

deproeliantis, nec cupressi

nec veteres agiantur orni.


quid sit futurum cras fuge quaerere et

quem Fors dierum cumque dabit lucro

appone, nec dulcis amores

sperne puer neque tu choreas,


donec virenti canities abest

morosa. nunc et campus et areae

lenesque sub noctem susurri

composita repetantur hora,


nunc et latentis proditor intimo

gratus puellae risus ab angulo

pignusque dereptum lacertis

aut digito male pertinaci.


See how Soracte stands, gleaming, beneath deep-piled snow,

The laboring trees bow, faltering under their loads,

And the rivers choke with the jagged floes.


You, Thaliarchus, generous host, heap high the logs

Into the grate and let the wine flow,

Break out the jars of vintage Sabine to thaw this cold:


The gods take the rest! When they have settled

This strife of the winds and the waves, then

Neither cypress nor hoar-headed ash shall shiver.


Whatever, by luck, of fleeting days the future may bring

Count only as profit laid up; scorn neither the dance

Nor youth's sweet business of love,


While yet you are strong and hold sullen old age's

White-hairs at bay; now is the hour, in pleasaunces and parks,

The whispered bargain is struck under seal of the night


And the price is paid, a band from the finger slips, mayhap,

Or one greater, with accismus is drawn, over the hand,

And a girl's coy laughter the secret alcove betrays.


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