Imatges de pÓgina
[ocr errors]

many proofs that oracles continued more than four hundred years after Jesus Christ, and that they were not totally silenced but by the total destruction of paganism.

Suetonius, in the life of Nero, says that the oracle of Delphi warned that emperor to beware of seventythree years, and that Nero concluded he was to die at that age, never thinking upon old Galba, who, at the age of seventy-three, deprived him of the empire.

Philostratus, in his life of Apollonius of Tyana, who saw Domitian, informs us that Apollonius visited all the oracles of Greece, and that of Dodona, and that of Delphos, and that of Amphiaraus.

Plutarch, who lived under Trajan, tells us that the oracle of Delphos still subsisted, although there was then only one priestess, instead of two or three.

Under Adrian Dion Chrysostom relates, that he consulted the oracle of Delphos; he obtained from it an answer which appeared to him not a little perplexed, and which in fact was so.

Under the Antonines Lucian asserts, that a priest of Tyana went to enquire of the false prophet Alexander, whether the oracles which were then delivered at Dindymus, Claros, and Delphos, were really answers of Apollo, or impostures? Alexander had some fellow-feeling for these oracles, which were of a similar description to his own, and replied to the priest, that that was not permitted to be known; but when the same wise enquirer asked what he should be after his death, he was boldly. answered, “ You will be a camel, then a horse, afterwards a philosopher, and at length a prophet as great as Alexander.”

After the Antonines, three emperors contended for the empire. The oracle of Delphos was consulted, says Spartian, to ascertain which of the three the republic might expect as its head. The oracle answered in a single verse to the following purport:-The black is better; the African is good; the white is the worst. By the black was understood Pescennius Niger; by the African, Severus Septimus, who was from Africa; and by the white, Claudius Albinus.

Dion, who did not conclude his history before the eighth year of Alexander Severus, that is, the year 230, relates that in his time Amphilochus still delivered oracles in dreams. He informs us also, that there was in the city of Apollonia an oracle which declared future events by the manner in which the fire caught and consumed the incense thrown upon an altar.

Under Aurelian, about the year 272, the people of Palmyra, having revolted, consulted an oracle of Sarpedonian Apollo in Cilicia; they again consulted that of the Aphacian Venus.

Licinius, according to the account of Sozomen, designing to renew the war against Constantine, consulted the oracle of Apollo of Dindymus, and received from it in answer two verses of Homer, of which the sense isUnhappy old man, it becomes not you to combat with the young! you have no strength, and are sinking under the weight of age.

A certain god, scarcely if at all known, of the name of Besa, if we may credit Ammianus Marcellinus, still delivered oracles upon billets at Abydos, in the extremity of the Thebais, under the reign of Constantius.

Finally, Macrobius, who lived under Arcadius and Honorius, sons of Theodosius, speaks of the god of Heliopolis of Syria and his oracle, and of the fortunes of Antium, in terms which distinctly imply that they all still subsisted in his time.

We may observe, that it is not of the slightest consequence whether these histories are true, or whether the oracles in fact delivered the answers attributed to them; it is completely sufficient for the purpose that false answers could be attributed only to oracles which were in fact known still to subsist; and the histories which so many authors have published clearly prove, that they did not cease but with the cessation of paganism itself. - Constantine pulled down but few temples, nor in deed could he venture to pull them down but upon a pretext of crimes committed in them. It was upon this ground, that he ordered the demolition of those of the Aphacian Venus, and of Esculapius which was at Egea in Cilicia, both of them temples in which oracles were delivered. But he forbade sacrifices to the gods, and by that edict began to render temples useless.

Many oracles still subsisted when Julian assumed the reins of empire. He re-established some that were in a state of ruin; and he was even desirous of being the prophet of that of Dindymus. Jovian, his successor, began his reign with great zeal for the destruction of paganism; but in the short space of seven months, which comprised the whole time he reigned, he was unable to make any great progress. Theodosius, in order to attain the same object, ordered all the temples of the pagans to be shut up. At last, the exercise of that religion was prohibited under pain of death, by an edict of the emperors Valentinian and Marcian, in the year 451 of the vulgar era; and the destruction of paganism necessarily involved that of oracles.

This conclusion has nothing in it surprising or extraordinary; it is the natural consequence of the establishment of a new worship. Miraculous facts, or rather what it is desired should be considered as such, diminish in a false religion, either in proportion as it becomes firmly established and has no longer occasion for them, or in proportion as it gradually becomes weaker and weaker, because they no longer obtain credit. The ardent but useless desire to pry into futurity gave birth to oracles; imposture encouraged and sanctioned them; and fanaticism set the seal: for an infallible method of making fanatics is to persuade before you instruct. The poverty of the people, who had no longer anything left them to give; the imposture detected in many oracles, and thence naturally concluded to exist in all; and finally the edicts of the christian emperors;—such are the real causes of the establishment, and of the cessation, of this species of imposture. The introduction of an opposite state of circumstances into human affairs made it completely disappear; and oracles thus became involved in the vicissitude accompanying all human institutions.

Some limit themselves to observing, that the birth of Jesus Christ is the first epoch of the cessation of oracles. But why, on such an occasion, should some demons have fled, while others remained ? Besides, ancient history proves decidedly, that many oracles had been destroy edbefore this birth. All the distinguished oracles of Greece no longer existed, or scarcely existed, and the oracle was occasionally interrupted by the silence of an honest priest who would not consent to deceive the people. The oracle of Delphi, says Lucian, remains dumb since princes have become afraid of futurity; they have prohibited the gods from speaking, and the gods have obeyed them.

ORDEAL. It might be imagined, that all the absurdities which degrade human nature were destined to come to us from Asia, the source at the same time of all the sciences and arts! It was in Asia and in Egypt, that mankind first dared to make the life or death of a person accused dependent on the throw of a die, or something equally unconnected with reason and decided by chance-on cold water or hot water, on red hot iron, or a bit of barley bread. Similar superstition, we are assured by travellers, still exists in the Indies, on the coast of Malabar, and in Japan.

This superstition passed from Egypt into Greece. There was a very celebrated temple at Trezene in which every man who perjured himself died instantly of apoplexy. Hippolytus, in the tragedy of Phedra, in the first scene of the fifth act, addresses the following lines to his mistress Aricia :

Aux portes de Trezène, et parmi ces tombeaux,
Des princes de ma race antiques sepultures,
Est un temple sacré, formidable aux parjures.
C'est là que les mortels n'osent jurer en vain ;
Le perfide y reçoit un châtiment soudain ;
Et, craignant d'y trouver la mort inévitable,
Le mensonge n'a point de frein plus redoubtable.
At Trezene's gates, amidst the ancient tombs
In which repose the princes of my race,
A sacred temple stands, the perjurer's dread.
No daring mortal there may falsely swear,
For swift the vengeance which pursues his crime,

Inevitable death his instant lot:

Now here has falsehood a more awful curb. The learned commentator of the great Racine makes the following remark on these Trezenian proofs or ordeals:

“M. de la Motte has remarked, that Hippolytus should have proposed to his father to come and hear his justification in this temple, where no one durst venture on swearing to a falsehood. It is certain, that in such a case Theseus could not have doubted the innocence of that young prince; but he had received too convincing evidence against the virtue of Phedra, and Hippolytus was not inclined to make the experiment. M. de la Motte would have done well to have distrusted his own good taste, when he suspected that of Racine, who appears to have foreseen the objection here made. In fact, Theseus is so prejudiced against Hippolytus, that he will not even permit him to justify himself by an oath.”

I should observe, that the criticism of La Motte was originally made by the deceased marquis de Lassai. He delivered it at M. de la Faye's, at a dinner party at which I was present together with the late M. de la Motte, who promised to make use of it; and in fact, in his Discourses upon Tragedy, he gives the honour of the criticism to the marquis de Lassai. The remark appeared to me particularly judicious, as well as to M. de la Faye and to all the guests present, who of course excepting myself—were the most able critics in Paris. But we all agreed that Aricia was the person who should have called upon Theseus to try the accused by the ordeal of the Trezenian temple, and so much the more so, as Theseus immediately after talks for a long time together to that princess, who forgets the only thing that could clear up the doubts of the father and vindicate the son. The commentator in vain objects, that Theseus has declared to his son he will not believe his oaths, Topjours les scelerats ont recours au parjure.

PHEDRA.-Activ. scene 2. The wicked always have recourse to oaths.

« AnteriorContinua »