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Ch. 27: Pythagoras, Egyptian Deities, Oracles

The teachings of Anchises to AEneas, respecting the nature of the
human soul, were in conformity with the doctrines of the
Pythagoreans. Pythagoras (born, perhaps, about five hundred and
forty years B.C.) was a native of the island of Samos, but passed
the chief portion of his life at Crotona in Italy. He is
therefore sometimes called "the Samian," and sometimes "the
philosopher of Crotona." When young he travelled extensively and
is said to have visited Egypt, where he was instructed by the
priests in all their learning, and afterwards journeyed to the
East, and visited the Persian and Chaldean Magi, and the Brahmins
of India.

But Pythagoras left no writings which have been preserved. His
immediate disciples were under a pledge of secrecy. Though he is
referred to by many writers, at times not far distant from his
own, we have no biography of him written earlier than the end of
the second century of our era. In the interval between his life
and this time, every sort of fable collected around what was
really known of his life and teaching.

At Crotona, where he finally established himself, it is said that
his extraordinary qualities collected round him a great number of
disciples. The inhabitants were notorious for luxury and
licentiousness, but the good effects of his influence were soon
visible. Sobriety and temperance succeeded. Six hundred of the
inhabitants became his disciples and enrolled themselves in a
society to aid each other in the pursuit of wisdom; uniting their
property in one common stock, for the benefit of the whole. They
were required to practise the greatest purity and simplicity of
manners. The first lesson they learned was SILENCE; for a time
they were required to be only hearers. "He (Pythagoras) said
so," (Ipse dixit,) was to be held by them as sufficient, without
any proof. It was only the advanced pupils, after years of
patient submission, who were allowed to ask questions and to
state objections.

Pythagoras is said to have considered NUMBERS as the essence and
principle of all things, and attributed to them a real and
distinct existence; so that, in his view, they were the elements
out of which the universe was constructed. How he conceived this
process has never been satisfactorily explained. He traced the
various forms and phenomena of the world to numbers as their
basis and essence. The "Monad," or UNIT, he regarded as the
source of all numbers. The number TWO was imperfect, and the
cause of increase and division. THREE was called the number of
the whole, because it had a beginning, middle, and end; FOUR,
representing the square, is in the highest degree perfect; and
TEN, as it contains the sum of the first three prime numbers
(2+3+5=10. ONE is not counted, as being rather the source of
number than a number itself) comprehends all musical and
arithmetical proportions, and denotes the system of the world.

As the numbers proceed frm the Monad, so he regarded the pure and
simple essence of the Deity as the source of all the forms of
nature. Gods, demons, and heroes are emanations of the Supreme;
and there is a fourth emanation, the human soul. This is
immortal, and when freed from the fetters of the body, passes to
the habitation of the dead, where it remains till it returns to
the world to dwell in some other human or animal body, and at
last, when sufficiently purified, it returns to the source from
which it proceeded. This doctrine of the transmigration of souls
(metempsychosis), which was first Indian and Egyptian, and
connected with the doctrine of reward and punishment of human
actions, was the chief cause why the Pythagoreans killed no
animals. Ovid represents Pythagoras addressing his disciples in
these words: "Souls never die, but always on quitting one abode
pass to another. I myself can remember that in the time of the
Trojan was I was Euphorbus, the son of Panthus, and fell by the
spear of Menelaus. Lately, being in the temple of Juno, at
Argos, I recognized my shield hung up there among the trophies.
All things change, nothing perishes. The soul passes hither and
thither, occupying now this body, now that, passing from the body
of a beast into that of a man, and thence to a beast's again. As
wax is stamped with certain figures, then melted, then stamped
anew with others, yet is always the same wax, so the soul, being
always the same, yet wears at different times different forms.
Therefore, if the love of kindred is not extinct in your bosoms,
forbear, I entreat you, to violate the life of those who may
haply be your own relatives."

Shakespeare, in the Merchant of Venice, makes Gratiano allude to
the metempsychosis, where he says to Shylock:

"Thou almost mak'st me waver in my faith,
To hold opinion with Pythagoras,
That souls of animals infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men; thy currish spirit
Governed a wolf; who hanged for human slaughter
Infused his soul in thee; for thy desires
Are wolfish, bloody, starved, and ravenous."

The relation of the notes of the musical scale to numbers,
whereby harmony results from vibrations in equal times, and
discord from the reverse, led Pythagoras to apply the word
"harmony" to the visible creation, meaning by it the just
adaptation of parts to each other. This is the idea which Dryden
expresses in the beginning of his song for St. Cecilia's Day:

"From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This everlasting frame began;
>From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The Diapason closing full in Man."

In the centre of the universe (as Pythagoras taught) there was a
central fire, the principle of life. The central fire was
surrounded by the earth, the moon, the sun, and the five planets.
The distances of the various heavenly bodies from one another
were conceived to correspond to the proportions of the musical
scale. The heavenly bodies, with the gods who inhabited them,
were supposed to perform a choral dance round the central fire,
"not without song." It is this doctrine which Shakespeare
alludes to when he makes Lorenzo teach astronomy to Jessica in
this fashion:

"Sit, Jessica, look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold!
There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
But in this motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubim;
Such harmony is in immortal souls!
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in we cannot hear it."
Merchant of Venice

The spheres were conceived to be crystalline or glassy fabrics
arranged over one another like a nest of bowls reversed. In the
substance of each sphere one or more of the heavenly bodies was
supposed to be fixed, so as to move with it. As the spheres are
transparent, we look through them, and see the heavenly bodies
which they contain and carry round with them. But as these
spheres cannot move on one another without friction, a sound is
thereby produced which is of exquisite harmony, too fine for
mortal ears to recognize. Milton, in his Hymn to the Nativity,
thus alludes to the music of the spheres:

"Ring out, ye crystal spheres!
Once bless our human ears;
(If ye have power to charm our senses so);
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the base of Heaven's deep organ blow:
And with your nine-fold harmony
Make up full concert with the angelic symphony."

Pythagoras is said to have invented the lyre, of which other
fables give the invention to Mercury. Our own poet, Longfellow,
in Verses to a Child, thus relates the story:

"As great Pythagoras of yore,
Standing beside the blacksmith's door,
And hearing the hammers as they smote
The Anvils with a different note,
Stole from the varying tones that hung
Vibrant on every iron tongue,
The secret of the sounding wire,
And formed the seven-chorded lyre."

See also the same poet's Occultation of Orion:

"The Samian's great AEolian lyre."


Sybaris, a neighboring city to Crotona, was as celebrated for
luxury and effeminacy as Crotona for the reverse. The name has
become proverbial. Lowell uses it in this sense in his charming
little poem To the Dandelion:

"Not in mild June the golden-cuirassed bee
Feels a more summer-like, warm ravishment
In the white lily's breezy tent,
(His conquered Sybaris) than I when first
>From the dark green thy yellow circles burst."

A war arose between the two cities, and Sybaris was conquered and
destroyed. Milo, the celebrated athlete, led the army of
Crotona. Many stories are told of Milo's vast strength, such as
his carrying a heifer of four years old upon his shoulders, and
afterwards eating the whole of it in a single day. The mode of
his death is thus related: As he was passing through a forest he
saw the trunk of a tree which had been partially split open by
wood-cutters, and attempted to rend it further; but the wood
closed upon his hands and held him fast, in which state he was
attacked and devoured by wolves.

Byron, in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, alludes to the story of

"He who of old would rend the oak
Deemed not of the rebound;
Chained by the trunk he vainly broke,
Alone, how looked he round!"


The remarkable discovery by which Champollion the younger (so
called to distinguish him from his older brother, Champollion
Figeac, who also studied the hieroglyphics)) first opened to
modern times the secret of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, has been
followed up by laborious studies, which tell us more of Egyptian
worship and mythology, with more precision, than we know of any
other ancient religion but that of the Hebrews. We have even
great numbers of copies of the liturgies, or handbooks of
worship, of funeral solemnities, and other rituals, which have
been diligently translated. And we have a sufficient body of the
literature written and used by the priesthood.

These discoveries give to writers of this generation a much
fuller knowledge of the Egyptian religion, of its forms, and of
the names of its gods, than they had before. It is impossible,
and probably always will be, to state with precision the theology
on which it rested. It is impossible, because that theology was
different in one time and with one school from what it was at
other times. Mr. S. Birch, of the British Museum, says, "The
religion of the Egyptians consisted of an extended polytheism
represented by a system of local groups." But Mr. Pierret says,
"The polytheism of the monuments is but an outward show. The
innumerable gods of the Pantheon are but manifestations of the
One Being in his various capacities. Mariette Bey says, "The one
result is that according to the Egyptians, the universe was God
himself, and that Pantheism formed the foundation of their

In this book it is not necessary to reconcile views so diverse,
nor indeed to enter on studies so profound as those which should
decide between them. For our purpose here it is enough to know
that the Sun was the older object of worship, and in his various
forms rising, midday, or setting was adored under different
names. Frequently his being and these names were united to the
types of other deities. Mr. Birch believes that the worship of
Osiris prevailed largely beside the worship of the Sun, and is
not to be confounded with it. To Osiris, Set, the Egyptian
devil, was opposed.

The original God, the origin of all things, manifests himself to
men, in lesser forms, according to this mythology, more and more
human and less and less intangible. These forms are generally
triads, and resolve themselves into a male deity, a female deity,
and their child. Triad after triad brings the original Divinity
into forms more and more earthly, till at last we find "that we
have no longer to do with the infinite and intangible God of the
earliest days, but rather with a God of flesh and blood, who
lives upon earth, and has so abased himself as to be no more than
a human king. It is no longer the God of whom no man knew either
the form or the substance: it is Kneph at Esneh, Hathor at
Durderah, Horus, king of the divine dynasty at Edfoo." These
words are M. Maspero's.

The Greek and Latin poets and philosophers, as they made some
very slight acquaintance with Egyptian worship, give Greek or
Latin names to the divinities worshipped. Thus we sometimes hear
Osiris spoken of as the Egyptian Hermes. But such changes of
names are confusing, and are at best but fanciful (In the same
way Plutarch, a Greek writer, says of the Jews' Feast of
Tabernacles, "I know that their God is our Bacchus." This was
merely from the vines, vine leaves and wine used in the
ceremonies.) It would happen sometimes, in later times, that a
fashion of religion would carry the worship of one God or Goddess
to a distance. Thus the worship of Isis became fashionable in
Rome in the time of Nero and Paul, as readers of Bulwer's Last
Days of Pompeii will remember.

The latest modern literature occasionally uses the Egyptian
names, as the last two centuries have disinterred them from the
inscriptions on the monuments, and from the manuscripts in the
tombs. Earlier English writers generally use the names like
Osiris, Anubis, and others found in Latin and Greek writers.

The following statement as to these deities and their names is
from Mr. Birch:

"The deities of ancient Egypt consist of celestial, terrestrial,
and infernal gods, and of many inferior personages, either
representatives of the greater gods or attendants on them. Most
of the gods were connected with the sun, and represented that
luminary through the upper hemisphere or Heaven and the lower
hemisphere or Hades. To the deities of the solar cycle belonged
the great gods of Thebes and Heliopolis. In the local worship of
Egypt the deities were arranged in local triads; thus at Memphis,
Ptah, his wife Merienptah, and their son Nefer Atum, formed a
triad, to which was sometimes added the goddess Bast or Bubastis.
At Abydos the local triad was Osiris, Isis, and Horus, with
Nephthys; at Thebes, Amen Ra or Ammon, Mut and Chons, with Neith;
at Elephantine, Kneph, Anuka, Sati, and Hak. In most instances
the names of the gods are Egyptian; thus, Ptah meant 'the
opener'; Amen, 'the concealed'; Ra, 'the sun or day'; Athor, 'the
house of Horus';' but some few, especially of later times, were
introduced from Semitic sources, as Bal or Baal, Astaruta or
Astarte, Khen or Kiun, Respu or Reseph. Besides the principal
gods, several inferior or parhedral gods, sometimes
personifications of the faculties, senses, and other objects, are
introduced into the religious system, and genii, spirits or
personified souls of deities formed part of the same. At a
period subsequent to their first introduction the gods were
divided into three orders. The first or highest comprised eight
deities, who were different in the Memphian and Theban systems.
They were supposed to have reigned over Egypt before the time of
mortals. The eight gods of the first order at Memphis were 1.
Ptah; 2. Shu; 3. Tefnu; 4. Seb; 5. Nut; 6. Osiris; 7. Isis and
Horus; 8. Athor. Those of Thebes were 1. Amen Ra; 2. Mentu; 3.
Atum; 4. Shu and Tefnu; 5. Seb; 6. Osiris; 7. Set and Nepthys; 8.
Horus and Athor. The gods of the second order were twelve in
number, but the name of one only, an Egyptian Hercules, has been
preserved. The third order is stated to have comprised Osiris,
who, it will be seen, belonged to the first order." GUIDE TO THE

Miss Edwards gives the following convenient register of the names
most familiar among the Egyptian gods (in her very interesting
book, "A Thousand Miles up the Nile").

PHTAH or PTAH: In form a mummy, holding the emblem called by some
the Nilometer, by others the emblem of Stability, called "the
father of the Beginning, the Creator of the Egg of the Sun and
Moon," Chief Deity of Memphis.

KNEPH, KNOUM or KNOUPHIS: Ram-headed, called the Maker of gods
and men, the Soul of the gods. Chief Deity of Elephantine and
the Cataracts.

RA: Hawk-headed, and crowned with the sun-disc, encircled by an
asp. The divine disposer and organizer of the world; adored
throughout Egypt.

AMEN RA: Of human form, crowned with a flat-topped cap and two
long, straight plumes; clothed in the schenti; his flesh
sometimes painted blue. There are various forms of this god
(there were almost as many varieties of Ammon in Egypt as there
are varieties of the Madonna in Italy or Spain), but he is most
generally described as King of the Gods, chief deity of Thebes.

KHEM: Of human form, mummified; wears head-dress of Amen Ra; his
right hand uplifted, holding a flail. The god of productiveness
and generation. Chief deity of Khemmis, or Ekhmeem.

OSIRIS: Of human form, mummified, crowned with a mitre, and
holding the flail and crook. Called the Good; the Lord above
all; the one lord. Was the god of the lower world; judge of the
dead; and representative of the sun below the horizon. Adored
through Egypt. Local deity of Abydos.

NEFER ATUM: Human-headed, and crowned with the pschent. This god
represented the nocturnal sun, or the sun lighting the lower
world. Local deity of Heliopolis.

THOTH: In form a man, ibis-headed, generally depicted with the
pen and palette of a scribe. Was the god of the moon, and of
letters. Local deity of Sesoon, or Hermopolit.

SEB: The "Father of the Gods," and deity of terrestrial
vegetation. In form like a man with a goose upon his head.

SET: Represented by a symbolic animal, with a muzzle and ears
like a jackal, the body of an ass, and an upright tail, like the
tail of a lion. Was originally a warlike god, and became in
later times the symbol of evil and the enemy of Osiris.

KHONS: Hawk-headed, crowned with the sun-disc and horns. Is
sometimes represented as a youth with the side-lock, standing on
a crocodile.

HORUS: Horus appears variously as Horus, Horus Aroeris, and Horus
Harpakhrat (Hippocrates), or Horus the child. Is represented
under the first two forms as a man, hawk-headed, wearing the
double crown of Egypt; in the latter as a child with the side-
lock. Local deity of Edfoo (Apollinopolis Magna).

MAUT: A woman draped, and crowned with the pschent (the pschent
was a double crown, worn by the king at his coronation),
representing a vulture. Adored at Thebes.

NEITH: A woman draped, holding sometimes a bow and arrows,
crowned with the crown of Lower Egypt. She presided over war,
and the loom. Worshipped at Thebes.

ISIS: A woman crowned with the sun-disc surmounted by a throne,
and sometimes enclosed between horns. Adored at Abydos. Her
soul resided in Sothis on the Dog-star.

NUT: A woman so bent that her hands touched the earth. She
represents the vault of heaven, and is the mother of the gods.

HATHOR: Cow-headed, and crowned with the disc and plumes. Deity
of Amenti, or the Egyptian Hades. Worshipped at Denderah.

PASHT: Pasht and Bast appear to be two forms of the same goddess.
As Bast she is represented as a woman, lion-headed, with the disc
and uroeus; as Pasht she is cat-headed, and holds a sistrum.
Adored at Bubastis. Observe the syllable BAST.

The highest visible deity of the Egyptians was Amun Ra, or Amen
Ra, the concealed sun; the word Ra signifying the sun. This name
appears in the Greek and Latin writers as Zeus Ammon and Jupiter
Ammon. When Amun manifests himself by his word, will or spirit,
he is known as Nu, Num, Noub, Nef, Neph, or Kneph, and this
word Kneph through the form Cnuphis is, perhaps, the Anubis of
the Greek and Latin authors. That word has not been found earlier
than the time of Augustus. Anubis was then worshipped as the
guardian god, and represented with a dog's head.

The soul of Osiris was supposed to exist in some way in the
sacred bull Apis, of which Serapis or Sarapis is probably another
name. "Apis," says Herodotus, "is a young bull, whose hair is
black, on his forehead a white triangle, -- on his back an eagle,
with a beetle under his tongue and with the hair of his tail
double." Ovid says he is of various colors. Plutarch says he
has a crescent on his right side. These superstitions varied
from age to age. Apis was worshipped in Memphis.

It must be observed, in general, that the names in the Latin
classics belong to a much later period of the Egyptian religion
than the names found on most of the monuments. It will be found,
that, as in the change from Nu to Anubis, it is difficult to
trace the progress of a name from one to the other. In the cases
where an ox, a ram, or a dog is worshipped with, or as a symbol
of, a god, we probably have the survival of a very early local

Horus or Harpocrates, named above, was the son of Osiris. He is
sometimes represented, seated on a Lotus-flower, with his finger
on his lips, as the god of silence.

In one of Moore's Irish Melodies is an allusion to Harpocrates: -

"Thyself shall, under some rosy bower,
Sit mute, with thy finger on thy lip:
Like him, the boy, who born among
The flowers that on the Nile-stream blush,
Sits over thus, his only song
To Earth and Heaven, "Hush, all, hush!"


Osiris and Isis were at one time induced to descend to the earth
to bestow gifts and blessings on its inhabitants. Isis showed
them first the use of wheat and barley, and Osiris made the
instruments of agriculture and taught men the use of them, as
well as how to harness the ox to the plough. He then gave men
laws, the institution of marriage, a civil organization, and
taught them how to worship the gods. After he had thus made the
valley of the Nile a happy country, he assembled a host with
which he went to bestow his blessings upon the rest of the world.
He conquered the nations everywhere, but not with weapons, only
with music and eloquence. His brother Typhon (Typhon is supposed
to be the Seth of the monuments) saw this, and filled with envy
and malice sought, during his absence, to usurp his throne. But
Isis, who held the reins of government, frustrated his plans.
Still more embittered, he now resolved to kill his brother. This
he did in the following manner: Having organized a conspiracy of
seventy-two members, he went with them to the feast which was
celebrated in honor of the king's return. He then caused a box
or chest to be brought in, which had been made to fit exactly the
size of Osiris, and declared that he would give that chest of
precious wood to whosoever could get into it. The rest tried in
vain, but no sooner was Osiris in it than Typhon and his
companions closed the lid and flung the chest into the Nile.
When Isis heard of the cruel murder she wept and mourned, and
then with her hair shorn, clothed in black and beating her
breast, she sought diligently for the body of her husband. In
this search she was assisted by Anubis, the son of Osiris and
Nephthys. They sought in vain for some time; for when the chest,
carried by the waves to the shores of Byblos, had become
entangled in the reeds that grew at the edge of the water, the
divine power that dwelt in the body of Osiris imparted such
strength to the shrub that it grew into a mighty tree, enclosing
in its trunk the coffin of the god. This tree, with its sacred
deposit, was shortly afterward felled, and erected as a column in
the palace of the king of Phoenicia. But at length, by the aid
of Anubis and the sacred birds, Isis ascertained these facts, and
then went to the royal city. There she offered herself at the
palace as a servant, and being admitted, threw off her disguise
and appeared as the goddess, surrounded with thunder and
lightning. Striking the column with her wand, she caused it to
split open and give up the sacred coffin. This she seized and
returned with it, and concealed it in the depth of a forest, but
Typhon discovered it, and cutting the body into fourteen pieces,
scattered them hither and thither. After a tedious search, Isis
found thirteen pieces, the fishes of the Nile having eaten the
other. This she replaced by an imitation of sycamore wood, and
buried the body at Philoe, which became ever after the great
burying place of the nation, and the spot to which pilgrimages
were made from all parts of the country. A temple of surpassing
magnificence was also erected there in honor of the god, and at
every place where one of his limbs had been found, minor temples
and tombs were built to commemorate the event. Osiris became
after that the tutelar deity of the Egyptians. His soul was
supposed always to inhabit the body of the bull Apis, and at his
death to transfer itself to his successor.

Apis, the Bull of Memphis, was worshipped with the greatest
reverence by the Egyptians. As soon as a bull marked with the
marks which have been described, was found by those sent in
search of him, he was placed in a building facing the east, and
was fed with milk for four months. At the expiration of this
term the priests repaired at new moon with great pomp, to his
habitation, and saluted him Apis. He was placed in a vessel
magnificently decorated and conveyed down the Nile to Memphis,
where a temple, with two chapels and a court for exercise, was
assigned to him. Sacrifices were made to him, and once every
year, about the time when the Nile began to rise, a golden cup
was thrown into the river, and a grand festival was held to
celebrate his birthday. The people believed that during this
festival the crocodiles forgot their natural ferocity and became
harmless. There was however one drawback to his happy lot; he
was not permitted to live beyond a certain period; and if when he
had attained the age of twenty-five years, he still survived, the
priests drowned him in the sacred cistern, and then buried him in
the temple of Serapis. On the death of this bull, whether it
occurred in the course of nature or by violence, the whole land
was filled with sorrow and lamentations, which lasted until his
successor was found.

A new Apis was found as late as the reign of Hadrian. A mummy
made from one of the Sacred Bulls may be seen in the Egyptian
collection of the Historical Society, New York.

Milton, in his Hymn of the Nativity, alludes to the Egyptian
deities, not as imaginary beings, but as real demons put to
flight by the coming of Christ:

"The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Horus and the dog Anubis haste.
Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian grove or green
Trampling the unshowered* grass with lowings loud;
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest;
Nought but profoundest hell can be his shroud.
In vain with timbrel'd anthems dark
The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipped ark."

*(There being no rain in Egypt, the grass is "unshowered," and
the country depends for its fertility upon the overflowings of
the Nile. The ark alluded to in the last line is shown by
pictures still remaining on the walls of the Egyptian temples to
have been borne by the priests in their religious processions.
It probably represented the chest in which Osiris was placed.)

Isis was represented in statuary with the head veiled, a symbol
of mystery. It is this which Tennyson alludes to in Maud, 0V.8

"For the drift of te Maker is dark, an Isis hid by the veil."


Oracle was the name used to denote the place where answers were
supposed to be given by any of the divinities to those who
consulted them respecting the future. The word was also used to
signify the response which was given.

The most ancient Grecian oracle was that of Jupiter at Dodona.
According to one account it was established in the following
manner. Two black doves took their flight from Thebes in Egypt.
One flew to Dodona in Epirus and alighting in a grove of oaks, it
proclaimed in human language to the inhabitants of the district
that they must establish there an oracle of Jupiter. The other
dove flew to the temple of Jupiter Ammon in the Libyan oasis, and
delivered a similar command there. Another account is, that
they were not doves, but priestesses, who were carried off from
Thebes in Egypt by the Phoenicians, and set up oracles at Oasis
and Dodona. The responses of the oracle were given from the
trees, by the branches rustling in the wind, the sounds being
interpreted by the priests.

But the most celebrated of the Grecian oracles was that of Apollo
at Delphi, a city built on the slopes of Parnassus in Phocis.

It had been observed at a very early period that the goats
feeding on Parnassus were thrown into convulsions when they
approached a certain long deep cleft in the side of the mountain.
This was owing to a peculiar vapor arising out of the cavern, and
one of the goatherds was induced to try its effects upon himself.
Inhaling the intoxicating air he was affected in the same manner
as the cattle had been, and the inhabitants of the surrounding
country, unable to explain the circumstance, imputed the
convulsive ravings to which he gave utterance while under the
power of the exhalations, to a divine inspiration. The fact was
speedily circulated widely, and a temple was erected on the spot.
The prophetic influence was at first variously attributed to the
goddess Earth, to Neptune, Themis, and others, but it was at
length assigned to Apollo, and to him alone. A priestess was
appointed whose office it was to inhale the hallowed air, and who
was named the Pythia. She was prepared for this duty by previous
ablution at the fountain of Castalia, and being crowned with
laurel was seated upon a tripod similarly adorned, which was
placed over the chasm whence the divine afflatus proceeded. Her
inspired words while thus situated were interpreted by the


Besides the oracles of Jupiter and Apollo, at Dodona and Delphi,
that of Trophonius in Boeotia was held in high estimation.
Trophonius and Agamedes were brothers. They were distinguished
architechts, and built the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and a
treasury for King Hyrieus. In the wall of the treasury they
placed a stone, in such a manner that it could be taken out; and
by this means from time to time purloined the treasure. This
amazed Hyrieus, for his locks and seals were untouched, and yet
his wealth, continually diminished. At length he set a trap for
the thief and Agamedes was caught. Trophonius unable to
extricate him, and fearing that when found he would be compelled
by torture to discover his accomplice, cut off his head.
Trophonius himself is said to have been shortly afterwards
swallowed up by the earth.

The oracle of Trophonius was at Lebadea in Boeotia. During a
great drought the Boeotians, it is said, were directed by the god
at Delphi to seek aid of Trophonius at Lebadea. They came
thither, but could find no oracle. One of them, however,
happening to see a swarm of bees, followed them to a chasm in the
earth, which proved to be the place sought.

Peculiar ceremonies were to be performed by the person who came
to consult the oracle. After these preliminaries, he descended
into the cave by a narrow passage. This place could be entered
only in the night. The person returned from the cave by the same
narrow passage, but walking backwards. He appeared melancholy
and dejected; and hence the proverb which was applied to a person
low-spirited and gloomy, "He has been consulting the oracle of


There were numerous oracles of Aesculapius, but the most
celebrated one was at Epidaurus. Here the sick sought responses
and the recovry of their health by sleeping in the temple. It
has been inferred from the accounts that have come down to us,
that the treatment of the sick resembled what is now called
Animal Magnetism or Mesmerism.

Serpents were sacred to Aesculapius, probably because of a
superstition that those animals have a faculty of renewing their
youth by a change of skin. The worship of Aesculapius was
introduced into Rome in a time of great sickness, and an embassy
sent to the temple of Epidaurus to entreat the aid of the god.
Aesculapius was propitious, and on the return of the ship
accompanied it in the form of a serpent. Arriving in the river
Tiber, the serpent glided from the vessel and took possession of
an island in the river, and a temple was there erected to his


At Memphis the sacred bull Apis gave answer to those who
consulted him, by the manner in which he received or rejected
what was presented to him. If the bull refused food from the
hand of the inquirer it was considered an unfavorable sign, and
the contrary when he received it.

It has been a question whether oracular responses ought to be
ascribed to mere human contrivance or to the agency of evil
spirits. The latter opinion has been most general in past ages.
A third theory has been advanced since the phenomena of Mesmerism
have attracted attention, that something like the mesmeric trance
was induced in the Pythoness, and the faculty of clairvoyance
really called into action.

Another question is as to the time when the Pagan oracles ceased
to give responses. Ancient Christian writers assert that they
became silent at the birth of Christ, and were heard no more
after that date. Milton adopts this view in his Hymn of the
Nativity, and in lines of solemn and elevated beauty pictures the
consternation of the heathen idols at the advent of the Saviour.

"The oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Rings through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance or breathed spell
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell."

In Cowper's poem of Yardley Oak there are some beautiful
mythological allusions. The former of the two following is to
the fable of Castor and Pollux; the latter is more appropriate to
our present subject. Addressing the acorn he says,

"Thou fell'st mature; and in the loamy clod,
Swelling with vegetative force instinct,
Didst burst thine egg, as theirs the fabled Twins
Now stars; two lobes protruding, paired exact;
A leaf succeeded and another leaf,
And, all the elements thy puny growth
Fostering propitious, thou becam'st a twig.
Who lived when thou was such? Oh, couldst thou speak
As in Dodona once thy kindred trees
Oracular, I would not curious ask
The future, best unknown, but at thy mouth
Inquisitive, the less ambiguous past."

Tennyson in his Talking Oak alludes to the oaks of Dodona in
these lines:

"And I will work in prose and rhyme,
And praise thee more in both
Than bard has honored beech or lime,
Or that Thessalian growth
In which the swarthy ring-dove sat
And mystic sentence spoke."

Byron alludes to the oracle of Delphi where, speaking of
Rousseau, whose writings he conceives did much to bring on the
French revolution, he says,

"For then he was inspired, and from him came,
As from the Pythian's mystic cave of yore,
Those oracles which set the world in flame,
Nor ceased to burn till kingdoms were no more."

Thomas Bulfinch

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