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POLYDORE VERGIL OF URBINO GREETS THAT MOST ILLUSTRIOUS PRINCE FRANCESCO MARIA, DUKE OF URBINO
T the beginning of this summer, most excellent Duke, I carefully copied out (painstakingly , but I know not how well) three Books of dialogues concerning prodigies, on the writing of which I spent a goodly part of my winter months. But somebody will perhaps say, “This subject has already been treated in detail by Cicero in those Books which he entitled De Divinatione,” and I wish to respond to this. Let us suppose this to be true, what then? Has Cicero snatched this subject away from everybody else to the extent that for all time to come nobody else can handle it well? Among us Italians, Marcus Cato first wrote about agricultural matters, then Marcus Varro and Vergil, and afterwards Aemilius Macer, then Columella, and finally Pliny and Palladius, and each author is said to have done much to promote the utility of agriculture, a pursuit is scarcely accounted to the negligible credit of individual men. Likewise, it may someday turn out to our advantage (just as it did to those Romans concerning tilling the land), once readers have come to appreciate that my sole object in writing these dialogues was to achieve what would be highly advantageous for all mortals, that they are not victimized by crazed illusions and endangering their souls. This is a boon that Cicero could not confer, even if I am scarcely his equal. For we, being born in after times, are familiar many things unknown to our predecessors, inasmuch as Christ is our Professor, and He rightly understood all mysteries, both secular and divine. Instructed in His lore, I have confidently entered into combat with seers, augurs, gut-gazing diviners, prophets, and soothsayers, who, undone partly by divine arguments and partly by natural ones, can now be seen to have been laid prostrate together with their plaguey arts. Wherefore, best of princes, I have chosen to publish these Books of dialogues dedicated to your name, so that more men might profit from the fruit of my effort, if any such there will be. And a goodly part of the populace may reap this fruit after they have understood that, thanks to the blessing of the Christian religion, this evil concern for consulting prophecies does not pertain to themselves, and that those who develop this enthusiasm are gripped by this worst of all forms of madness, since by this pursuit they receive no kind of information about that which is true and definite.
2. And this new work will supply a degree of pleasure to yourself and the gentlemen who, like yourself, have gained great glory in battle, since it will clearly show that once upon a time supreme commanders waging war used to take observations from the sky and value auspices and prodigies so highly that they were always being induced either to hope for gaining a victory or discouraged from that hope, and hence were deceived. And so, since the military art consists equally of the prudence and fortitude of a captain and the strength of his soldiers, our generals act most wisely who place their hope in their own virtue and that of their followers, and manage matters in their own good time with no reference to augury. This applies particularly to you, now commanding the Venetian forces and performing the duties of a most stout-hearted commander, so that someday you may be of use in restoring the Italian cause, which has been cruelly harassed, torn asunder, and destroyed by the arms of the French, Spanish, and likewise the Germans. For this reason, you are no less extolled to high heaven by the voices of one and all because you are constantly exerting yourself for this purpose than for your high-mindedness, and likewise for your military prowess, thanks to which, some years ago you bravely recovered your ancestral realm after having been ejected by your enemies’ might. The result of which, assuredly, is that nothing has redounded more to your praise and lasting glory than that calamity. And so this little work will contain something which should delight you, and this is the reason why I may, so to speak, take it for granted that this gesture of dutifulness will be welcome to you. Farewell, London, July 20, 1526.
BOOK I OF THE DIALOGUES ON PRODIGIES BY POLYDORE VERGIL OF URBINO
POLYDORUS A couple of days ago I was thinking that, were my Robert Ridley here, we could engage in some dispute, when, behold, one of my servants reported that you had come to the city. Thus the mind sometimes foresees things which happen immediately thereafter. So as soon as I heard this I greatly rejoiced, and today nothing was more important to me than going to meet you, partly to perform my duty towards a friend, and partly to learn how soon you would be departing. For they told me you were going elsewhere.
ROBERT I’m grateful to you, my Polydore. You certainly outstripped me in your zealousness. For if you had waited until sunrise, I would have gone straight to you. As for your curiosity whether my stay here is going to last long, I have decided I need to visit the University of Cambridge, with good cause but not without inconvenience.
POLY. Nothing in the world more convenient could occur. For, I hope, we’ll go together to my country villa, which is situated atop a little hill on the left, and it is such that (as Cato taught) “the steading does not lag behind the farm, nor the farm behind the steading.” For it has a garden, an orchard, a meadow, a forest, and a small field of grain. So I beg you over and over that, for the sake of relaxing your mind, you turn aside from your way there, since the place is less than two miles away: not so I may interrupt your journey, but rather that for at least three days were can discuss small problems concerning our studies, since I call that the fruit of leisure well spent.
ROB. Let’s be on our way, so that I may indulge you. And since we have arrived at the shade of this spreading oak, call for pillows and we shall sit down. For, to confess the truth, I am a trifle weary from my journey, so I want to pause in my labor and surrender myself to recreation.
POLY. If your mind is as free from cares as your body is from labors, at this place, where we have come for our minds’ sake, we are now free to have a discussion between ourselves concerning prodigies. For, because of their terrific apparitions, at the very beginning of humankind mortals began to observe, to revere, and to dread. I know no man able to dispute about such matters more subtly and comprehensively than yourself, being so well-versed in literature both sacred and profane.
2. ROB. You are entering into a subject of a nature and magnitude both in the past and today such as nobody can imagine, since it makes rain, wind, bad weather, beasts and monstrosities into messengers of the gods.
POLY. So some of this superstition derives from the practice of religion, a superstition which even nowadays has a tight grip on unhealthy minds, inspired by that very true pronouncement of our Saviour, “not even a sparrow shall fall on the ground apart from your Father’s will.” But since this malady had its origin in astrology, I warn you that we have no need to resort to the vain arguments of the astrologers, since some of them were not ashamed to attribute a goodly portion of our religion’s mysteries to the sky, as if it rather than God were the author of all things. Oh, that pernicious liberty of speech! Nor do I care for the very captious subtleties of the philosophers, by which the truth is more overwhelmed than discovered.
ROB. We won’t revoke our rule, but, as I said, you are touching on a thing of great moment.
POLY. What’s that?
ROB. Because I fear lest you are enmeshing us both in snares from which neither of us can in any wise disentangle ourselves, unless in a discipline which is far from easy we decide that we should resort to very penetrating arguments concerning celestial matter. Equipped with these, we can conduct ourselves with greater subtlety in this manner of disputation.
POLY. You don’t know, you really don’t know how to hold your hand? In your disputations is this how you elegantly cruise amidst the reefs, even when they are visible? For I don’t think anything is more foreign to this discourse of ours that has arisen about a very useful subject (as long as it is straightforward and without captiousness) than any note of fakery. And so that you might have a proper understanding how these things, as far as we shall pursue them, are to be handled, this will be our method of disputation. One of us will briefly describe one of the prodigies (now that we have decided to call them such) which men profess, although there are portents, monstrosities, apparitions of pretty much the same kind, inasmuch as they portend, demonstrate, and make things seem to be so. The other one of us will explain its true causes, so that it will finally be made clear in what errors the ancients were caught up, and how deluded a goodly portion of our common folk remains today. I have set these things forth so that from the outset you may understand what we are about to dispute, in order that our discourse not be obliged to wander about and be vague, something that above all else should be done at the beginning of a disputation.
3. ROB. I praise this foundation you have laid for our disputation and its method of procedure, and for your benefit I have discarded those elements which could weaken our disputation, lest we rashly deal with troubled subjects. Don’t condemn me for idleness if you find me clumsy in my responses, since from the outset I have been fully aware my strength is not equal to the burden. But let’s turn to our subject. I like the rule you have set for this discussion we are about to have. You should assume the task of describing these portents, since you have already made a beginning at describing them in those eight Books of yours, and have now started a history o f England, so that you have read the books of many nations and easily retain in your memory whatever might be pertinent to our discussion. I shall tax myself less in explaining these prodigies or the causes of the results they produce, and on that score I want you to be warned that I shall not not appear to have taken on myself the great responsibility of daring to explain that which perhaps lies hidden in obscurity. And yet I shall suitably say what I think concerning the things you have briefly sketched. But pray start being the prodigies which the gravest authors have described in their books as having been observed by mortals.
POLY. You play the proper part of a general, for you know how to parcel out tasks among others without reserving any for yourself, since you say you do not wish to tax yourself in your interpretation of prodigies, as if anything done without effort can be praiseworthy. Nevertheless, since you appear to understand that the only thing required of you is to say what you think, I shall perform the duty you have imposed on me., since the time at our disposal is now free and empty, if you first indicate the point in time at which I should make my start.
ROB. Start at the the very beginning, insofar as Nature herself teaches us this is how it should be done. For everyday experience goes to show that each man of us ignores the things right before his face, and thus gives less attention, respect, and consideration to the memory of things only as old as he himself is, or less. So, thus beginning far back in time, with God’s help show us the way in your discourse.
4. POLY. Well, this was a prodigy unheard-of in human history, for a bush to burn, as is told in Exodus, without being consumed, and for a voice to be heard commanding Moses to take his brother Aaron and go down to Egypt and fetch the Hebrew people to their homeland. And here’s another far more wonderful, when Aaron was in Pharaoh’s presence and the rod he was carrying changed into a snake and a stream of water into blood, and he introduced a great swarm of frogs into all Egypt. Come, do your duty, expound the causes of those prodigies and discourse on their events.
ROB. You are a great arranger of things.
POLY. How so?
ROB. You invite me to deliver a lengthy speech, and are already compelling me to give an explanation of all divination, if I wish diligently to inquire into the mysteries of your first question. Here appear to be combined three kinds of divination, divine, artificial, and natural. The divine, such as Moses and the prophets employed, is always guided by the truth, since they predicted future events by divine inspiration, and performed miracles so that mortals would be more easily induced to place their trust in their predictions. Thus, by means of the flame dancing in that unburned bush, Moses prefigured that it would come to pass that the people would scarcely be cleansed of it sins (which pricked it like the the thorns of that bush) by the Law (signified by the flame), so that, at the approach of death, at least those who had lived otherwise than they should would greatly repent their offenses. For, as Cicero attests, the mind is much more divine when it has a presentiment that it is soon to be separated from the company and contagion of the body, and thus destined to endure far longer. So much for your first question.
POLY. True indeed. But continue.
ROB. I shall. The second kind of divination belongs to human art, and governs the interpretations of auguries, bird-observations, monstrosities, lots, and flashes of lightning. For, armed with their art, soothsayers, augurs, seers and prophets used to predict future events on the basis of the flight of what they designated as prophetic birds, or of the songs of those they called “birds of augury”, or from their taste (and if they failed to take the bait, then they pronounced this an omen of some evil), or from the color, defect, or alteration of the entrails of animals.
POLY. Did they predict good things or bad?
5. ROB. You are distracting me and impeding my progress. Pray let me unfold the rest, lest we appear to be wasting our time on secondary matters.
POLY. You have my permission. But this point I ask you what this divination is, so that we may observe or habit of not handling anything until we define what it is.
ROB. That is not for me to do, but rather for the gut-gazers and augurs who define divination as pertaining to those things which are fortuitous and in the future. Imagine this is so, and then you will say, “If something is fortuitous, then it will not occur by happenstance ; if it is destined to occur, since it depends on fortune, then it can be prevented from happening. Thus what remains is there is no kind of divination save the divine, unless we wish to label it as conjecture, which our gut-gazers and augurs think to be the same as death; and conjecture, I tell you, is full of rashness (I’ll speak more about this at its proper place). Now to our subject. There follows another kind of prodigy or monstrosity. It was a monstrosity to behold a rod suddenly transformed into a creeping snake, and a stream flowing with blood. Among the ancients, by Hercules, this was something that belonged to the province of artifice, but among us Christians the spirit which produced this miracle made it clear what it portended. For in his fourth homily on Exodus Origen tells us that the rod stood for Christ’s cross, which was at first held in contempt, but then was transformed into a snake, a prudent creature according to the Gospel, which is to say, when it began to be appreciated it became valuable and overthrew the vain wisdom of the Egyptians, who did not think aright. Likewise, God tainted the rivers with blood, since when He shone His light upon the world he required punishment from the guilty according to that saying, “ the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, will be required of you.” Nature discovered the third kind of divination, because under her guidance we dream. For when the sleeper’s body lies still, then the mind, being divine, remembers the things that are past, perceives the things which are present, and foresees those which are yet to come, and we prophecy as if by divine influence and inspiration, as is evident in the case of poets who, thanks to a kind of mental agitation, sing wonderful things. This is why Democritus denied there could be poet without madness. But see here, now let us come to that third manifestation, that of the frogs, so as finally to be quit of your question. A huge infestation of frogs invaded all Egypt. What could this portend for the poor inhabitants except ruination, trouble, and plague? For there is a certain significant something in the nature of frogs, inasmuch as, when a gale arises, they are wont to come out on river banks and croak much more than usual, and from this farmers are able to forecast coming storms. But I cannot see why this occurs, since this is hidden among nature’s secrets. And so this is natural divination.
6. POLY. Finely done. But I would think it more in line with the logic of the conversation we have begun if you would not object to itemizing what are the arts which are especially involved in natural divination and specify to what extent this is so, so it would be well-established for us that this predictive power is innate, without any superstition. Superstition is nothing else than wanton, silly religion rather than the true and pious one, since the latter worships gods whereas the former, observed by superstitious folk, does violence to them. I men folk who, as Cicero attests, used to spend whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure that their children should outlive them.
ROB. Now that a reply has been given to the things you proposed for my discussion, I think we should get back on our feet rather than return to that portion of our conversation from which we have emerged.
POLY. I beg you, let us continue sitting here in the shade and while away our time a little, until the heat breaks, and discuss something which is in accordance with nature For in it there is nothing false, nothing hidden, nothing affected, and I scarcely know of anything more welcome and pleasing to the mind. Furthermore, if we were to break off this conversation, which is both useful and honorable, and return to it later, I foresee that both of our minds will be in a state of suspense, since no man, no matter with how keen an intellect he may be endowed, could easily weave together the threads we have broken and complete what we have begun.
ROB. I see this is a burden I cannot refuse, since you press me so, although this matter could advantageously be postponed until our next session. So I shall humor you.
POLY. But I am so eager to hear these things. So begin.
ROB. Prudence, that single virtue most necessary for human life, is variously defined by many philosophers. But for brevity’s sake let us pass over the opinions of others and follow Cicero, who in Book I of De Officiis says that prudence is an understanding of what things are to be sought and what are to be avoided. Hence the man who knows how to pursue the things he believes will be good for himself, and avoid those he imagines to be bad, is deservedly called prudent. And this concern is to be adopted by all men who wish to do their duty not to live in the manner of beasts, which perceive nothing but events happening at present. Hence arises that natural presentiment and likewise divination. For every man should be his own guardian, helper, and defender, from which thing arises caution. For example, when I wish to avoid those things which might harm me, I begin to observe men’s manners, occasions, and the nature of the place where I dwell, and to gain presentiments on the basis of these observations, and on the basis of these presentiments to divine the future. I do the same if I hope for some good, in such a way that I effortlessly perceive, foresee, and conjecturally forecast both the conveniences and inconveniences involved, and so I prudently understand how to manage, govern, and protect myself. And those who rule over others have a greater interest in consulting both for themselves and their subjects. If you approve of what I have said, I shall continue with the rest.
POLY. I have nothing to add.
7. ROB. Nature is continually producing various signs, and it is on the observations of these that the principles of certain arts are founded, so that the men who deal with these are able to foresee many things that touch upon themselves. For it is in the interest of a captain leading his forces to war to observe that it is early springtime, for the sake of his march and provisions, which he first perceives thanks to the arrival of swallows, nightingales, and doves. Likewise the time for going into winter quarters, which is shown by the departure of cranes. And meanwhile to take account of his grain supply so his army is not done in by famine (far more cruel than steel), which he can readily foresee from a nut. As the Poet says, “Mark, too, when in the woods the walnut clothes itself thickly in blossom and bends its fragrant boughs: if the fruit prevails, the corn crops will keep pace with it, and a great threshing come with a great heat; but if the shade is abundant in the fullness of leafage, in vain shall your floor thresh stalks, rich only in chaff.” But no endeavours are more helped by the indications of such signs than farming and sailing, since it is primarily on the basis of experience that one can forecast good and bad times. For in agriculture nothing is to be done out of its proper time. Thus Cato admonishes his steward, “do all your chores on time. For such is farming that if you do one thing late, you do everything late.” So he says. In navigation one must always be on guard against the peril of death, no further away than the thickness of a plank of siding. Hence Bais not inappropriately said that a sailor is not to be counted among either the living or the dead. Therefore not without good reason their arts are affected by the signs of the sun, the moon, and living creatures. But now let us rely our Vergil as a witness: “ But if you pay heed to the swift sun and the moons, as they follow in order, never will tomorrow’s hour cheat you, nor will you be ensnared by a cloudless night. Soon as the moon gathers her returning fires, if she encloses a dark mist within dim horns, a heavy rain is awaiting farmers and seamen. But if over her face she spreads a maiden blush, there will be wind; as wind rises, golden Phoebe ever blushes. But if at her fourth rising — for that is our surest guide — she pass through the sky clear and with undimmed horns, then all that day, and the days born of it to the month’s end, shall be free from rain and wind. he sun, too, alike when rising and when sinking under the waves, will give tokens: tokens most sure will attend the sun, both those he brings each dawn and those he shows as the stars arise. When, hidden in cloud, he has checkered with spots his early dawn, and is shrunk back in the centre of his disc, beware of showers. A dark hue threatens rain, a fiery hue, east winds; but if the spots begin to mingle with glowing fire, then shall you see all nature rioting with wind and storm clouds alike. On such a night let none urge me to travel on the deep, or pluck my cable from the land. Yet if, both when he brings back the day, and when he closes the day he brought, his disk is bright, then vain will be your fear of storm clouds.”
8. Animals also forecast this all and provide sure signs of the times. The same poet says, “The heifer looks up to heaven, and with open nostrils snuffs the breeze, or the twittering swallow flits round the pools, and in the mud the frogs croak their old plaint.” Likewise, according to Pliny, dolphins, divers, cranes, and crows issue their forecasts. Medicine likewise relies on signs of a strictly natural kind in estimating the survival or death of patients, particularly on the basis of a regular or irregular pulse, since, just as the latter is fatal, so the former is healthy. Now the whole of natural divination has been handled, together with its results.
POLY. Well done. But I think we also need to investigate the causes of those results.
ROB. You say we should? Please tell me from what source these are to be discovered. Indeed I fail to understand the logic standing behind the signs of winds, rains, and diseases I have mentioned, although I am not unaware of their power and their outcome.
POLY. Our astrologers and philosophers do not share your desperation, because they even understand how to provide an explanation why Jupiter, sitting on his celestial throne, sometimes crosses his right leg over his left.
ROB. Oh, your wonderful memory! At the beginning you formulated a rule forbidding us to infect our discourse with the humorous obscurities and futile subtleties of those gentlemen, and now you seem to have not unwittingly become involved with those plagues.
POLY. What you remind me is most true, and, admittedly, I had not forgotten. Now I return to our subject. Let us omit investigating the logic of the sun and the moon, and in this place substitute that saying of Socrates, “what’s above us has nothing to do with us.” And, if you please, let us inquire into the reason why animals can perceive coming storms, which is the reason why various kinds of augury have become popular among mankind.
ROB. I shall do as you wish, Polydore, although I am aware I am destined to become involved in a difficult, much-investigated question, inasmuch as there are those who have suspected that these creatures are prophets of the gods, since men, being less sensitive to the future quality of the air, gather, perceive, and foretell by observing them.
9. POLY. Hence we can see that, in comparison with the intelligence of these creatures, ours is feeble in this respect.
ROB. Not at all. For we have an innate natural prudence, we who are either happy or sad as we see fit, and this cannot pertain to those creatures, which, perceiving nothing by themselves, are subordinate to the nature of the air, and variously groan, chatter, dance, and sing in accordance with its influence. And hear our Vergil likewise posing and answering your question: “Not, methinks, that they have wisdom from on high, or from Fate a larger foreknowledge of things to be; but that when the weather and fitful vapors of the sky have turned their course, and Jove, wet with south winds, thickens what just now was rare, and makes rare what now was thick, the phase of their minds change, and their breasts now conceive impulses, other than they felt when the wind was chasing the clouds. Hence that chorus of the birds in the fields, the gladness of the cattle, and the exulting cries of the rooks.”
POLY. Did these things elude the ancients?
ROB. Not at all, I think. For Vergil, whose evidence I have recited, was not a man of yesterday or the day before yesterday, and he is reputed to have attained a higher degree of wisdom than any other mortal.
POLY. And yet men imagined that birds indicated adverse or favorable events?
ROB. Yes, they did imagine this, inasmuch as they were willing to undertake nothing without taking the auspices.
POLY. How was it possible that those ancient mortals, being so very wise, fell victim to this incredible delirium? Why are you glancing about? Pray explain the reason for such folly.
10. ROB. I am glancing at your very pretty traps for keeping me here until evening. For you are always cutting short one subject we have started by interposing another one. Do you think it is a small matter to suggest a reason for such a monumental error, which once terribly infatuated those wisest of men? Do imagine I’m one of those scabrous sophists? For from boyhood those folk have dedicated themselves to learning of deceptive trickiness in words, I mean of barbarous words (in which resides all the poverty-stricken quality of both the Greek and Latin languages), and, I believe, having thoroughly acquired the sophists’ art, then, as if loaded down with every manner of learning, they sit there in the schools, daring to say, “Does somebody want to inquire into something?” just as if there is no subject so great and so inexplicable that they can’t say everything that can be said about it. But what would you say if I were to show you that what you want me to explain has already been explained by yourself?
POLY. It never entered my head even to dream that.
ROB. As they say, “the Cretan Sea does not know.” Thus you do a fine job of dissimulating, not at all to deceive me (for I have no doubt you are an upstanding gentleman) but so that you might hear me sounding your praises? So, since this is so dear to our hearts, I wish to do so all the more confidently because you seem to wantg me to. For in Book V of your De Inventoribus Rerum you learnedly showed how, particularly prior to the advent of Christ our Saviour, demons possessed many skills for working harm, and how with the manifold tricks of their responses they beset, deluded, and betrayed poor mortals.
POLY. In this business I am highly delighted, my excellent Robert, because you don’t dislike my writings, in which, as I perceive, you gladly delve. But continue, please, so that we don’t interrupt the thread of our discourse for even one second.
ROB. First of all, it is well enough agreed that demons are spirits formerly created in heaven by God, and that they have etherial bodies, as was thought by Apuleius the Platonist and St. Augustine, who followed the Platonists on this point. In their pride, they were cast down from there, and partly dwell on the earth below, and partly in mid-air, ever eager to harm. And therefore, as Augustine bears witness in his De Daemonum Divinatione, they far outstrip mortals in their perceptivity and swiftness. And before his time Plato thus described their nature in his Epinomis: “the divine spirits, and air-born race, holding the third and middle situation, cause of interpretation, which we must surely honor with prayers for the sake of an auspicious journey across.” But you will say, “There Plato is speaking of good demons.” But the same philosopher posits evil ones too, when in in a certain letter to the friends of Dion he shows that, up to that time, matters in Sicily had been well handled, when Dionysius the Younger had governed it in accordance with Dion’s will, but that subsequently he had played the part of a wastrel, saying “But now some demon surely, or some evil spirit, falling upon with iniquity and impiety, and, what is the greatest matter, with the audacity of ignorance, in which all evils are roote, and from which they spring up, and afterwards produce fruit the most bitter to those who have begotten it, this has a second time subverted and destroyed everything.” Those are his words.
11. POLY. So there are both good and bad demons?
ROB. There are.
POLY. The Peripatetics think otherwise (as you know, their leader was Aristotle), who make no mention of demons. And Augustine does not admit the one, as is found in Book IX of his City of God. He wants the demons among us always to be taken in bad part.
ROB. You cite great authorities indeed, but let me defend them both. There are demons who achieve six hundred works in a single day such as nature cannot achieve, very effective though it may be. But, so we don’t waste our time, this will clearly show the error of those men (if any there are) who deny this. I myself have seen, indeed nobody does not daily see, a man possessed and driven by a demon babble things he has never heard, and that in a strange language he has never learned. Is there any man who would dare ascribe this to anything other than demons? But as for the fact that, after the manner of the ancients, we speak of good demons, there is no need to belabor the point, which matters little. I like to follow the ancient philosophers, since we also speak of good and bad angels.
POLY. So you maintain there are good and bad demons?
ROB. Just as I’ve already said.
POLY. What duty do they perform in the sight of God?
ROB. At God’s behest, the bad ones inflict punishment on malefactors. Thus, as is said in Psalm 77 [K. J. V. Psalm 78], He inflicted plagues on Egypt by means of bad angels. But that other kind of demon strives for mankind’s welfare, and St. John Chrysostom attests to both in his third homily on Job.
POLY. I am doubtful about your definition of demons’s service, since no man is unaware that it was “good daemons” who came to destroy Sodom. So if you wish me to agree with you, you must explain the matter more subtly.
ROB. So that you are not cast in doubt, I shall add what we have said well enough by Augustine. An evil demon has power over bad men, as if they were it flock, unless is prevented. But not likewise over good men, unless God permits, and this is indeed done, not to destroy them, but for their testing. This is why a bad demon brought Job, a man most upright in his mind and life, the news of his downfall after he had ruined all his fortune with God’s consent. And He thus uses demons to put men, good and bad alike, just and unjust, to the test, and chastises and punishes them. But He inflicts everlasting punishment on the one, and visits the other with less enduring calamities, so that He may make trial of their probity. Now, I believe, you grasp the service of demons in the same way I do.
12. POLY. What then? In this way do they understand the future?
ROB. Yes, they do.
POLY. I hardly agree with you, because I wholly believe Chrysostom. For in his nineteenth homily on the Gospel of John he speaks thus of this matter: “The prediction of the future is a task reserved only for our everlasting God. If demons sometimes foretell something, they deceive the foolish and the incautious, for their prophecies are always found to be false.” These are his words.
ROB. I am not so far removed from Chrysostom’s sentiment that I don’t greatly approve them. I am telling you that demons particularly know what they are going to contrive and what is going to happen, but things close at hand and not far in the future. Let this be said by way of an example. Last summer, as you have heard, when a great war raged in the land between the Emperor Charles and King François of France, and it happened that Pope Clement was aligned with the Frenchman, it entered the head of Duke Charles Bourbon, the Emperor’s commander, to visit Clement with some unforeseen inconvenience, so that he would be obliged to abandon his French friend. So Bourbon, outfitted with a great number of Spanish and German foot, marched from the neighborhood of Placentia and descended on Tuscany, professing that he was going to wage war against Florence (which sided with the French), and thus disguised his intention with this ruse. Arriving there, he turned aside from the road to Florence and on the very first day arrived at Sienna, and from there he closed in on Rome. Arriving there before anyone could expect, he easily found it unready in every particular and took it at his first assault, at which time he himself fell. But his soldiers took advantage of his victory and occupied the city, shutting up Clement in the Castel Sant’ Angelo, who was shortly thereafter compelled to commit himself into their keeping. I return to our subject. Thus demons were able to employ such a turmoil of affairs and the vehement zeal of the opposing sides to forecast and predict that the city would be taken, but scarcely before Bourbon entered into his project of capturing Rome.
POLY. Now I understand the thing.
ROB. Wait for my conclusion, if you don’t wish to be left in doubt. Thus the malice of demons, as Ambrose says while commenting on the Gospel of Luke, the malice of demons seizes even on hidden things. For they apply themselves to this activity in order to make mortals believe in them, and cheat them when they do believe, since they are endowed with such a nature that nothing is more to their liking than to employ wiles, contrivances, deceptions and tricks constantly to cheat mortals and drag them into error, although (as I pointed out that you have shown) Christ has now impeded those wiles, contrivances, deceptions, and tricks.
13. POLY. Why didn’t He just destroy them?
ROB. Because, as Origin attests in his thirteenth homily on Numbers, He did not want to damn the race of demons prematurely, the same ones who in Matthew asked our Saviour not to torment them before their time.
POLY. Wouldn’t it have been to our advantage, had such malevolent spirits been eradicated?
ROB. I scarcely think so. For it was better enemies of this kind exist to attack us and challenge us to combat days and nights, since, as the Apostle testifies, we shall not gain the crown unless we fight a stout battle. For assuredly,where there is no contest, there is no reward, and no hope of victory.
POLY. You have put your finger on the thing squarely, but would that the malice of those demons and their mischiefs had either a more difficult access to us, so that it would be permissible to find rest in that peace of mind to which I attribute the blessed life, or, if this needs must be, a far easier easier one, so that from our keen battle we might gain a happier victory, after each man of us offered a stiff resistance on his own behalf!
ROB. Neither of these things would be to our advantage. For if demons were impeded in their efforts to tempt us, they should be compelled to act contrary to their nature, and thus be damned before their time, something God does not wish. For, as Origen attests in that same homily, to pass premature judgment on them and take away the free will that had been given them, would be tantamount to their damnation. Therefore for the sake of our salvation God sometimes makes use of spirits both evil and good.
POLY. God uses the bad ones too?
ROB. He does, I say. For example, as I have already told you, once put Job’s patience to the test by means of an evil demon. Likewise, if Judas’ malice, envy, and betrayal, into which (as John says) Satan entered, had not existed, then Christ’s crucifixion (from which derives our salvation) would not have existed, as is affirmed by Origen in his fourteenth homily. Now let us pass on to the art of augury, the beginnings of which you are so curious to learn. So these evil demons, partly because of the airy nature of their bodies, and partly because of their protracted experience (for they are long-lived), are by far the most knowledgable, since from the outset they have perceived that, at nature’s instigation, men are eager to know future events, and to observe the movements of animal bodies and their voices, by which they might conjecturally forecast a bit of the future, and devised frauds such that, when the living creatures gave wonderful signs by means of their unusual flights or dire chattering, mankind, mindlessly induced by such signs, devised an art of augury full of vanity, by which it investigated the future superstitiously, like so many old wives. Thinking that this habit needed to be increased, since they had a presentiment that out of it would emerge some evil to menace this world and its peoples, the demons worked on men’s minds so that they easily believed that this very same evil occurred according to the will of their gods, and, as they supposed, that these fearsome signs and voices of living creatures were somehow divinely produced by statues. And, thus intoxicated by their observations, they imagined that whatever advantage they had gained was something god-foretold, and likewise their prosperity, all because an evil seen in advance is usually avoided with ease.
14. POLY. Is that how men, forewarned by malevolent demons, averted an evil omen?
ROB. You interrupt me. Now you should be paying attention to what I myself have to say, and what you should hear, since in a little while you’ll learn that such warnings were not a good thing for those who believed in them. Wretched mortals began to have faith in those evil gods and hold them in honor, and to become well-acquainted with them. Thus history records that King Numa, the Roman was inspired by the prophecies of the nymph Egeria, and Quintus Sertorius by a stag of Diana (as he gave out), just as it is said that Socrates had a demon as an advisor, which Apuleius called a god.
POLY. Whoever called a beast a goddess and a demon a god?
ROB. Sertorius and Socrates.
POLY. What good did they get from it?
ROB. This good: that the latter was compelled to die by drinking poison, with no god intervening to help me, and Sertorius died as the result of private deceit, having received no warning from his goddess.
POLY. And how did those pagan gods reward their devotees?
ROB. Not otherwise than that they quite openly required human sacrifices to be made to themselves, as you have abundantly shown in Book V of your De Inventoribus Rerum.
POLY. Oh those gods’ pernicious thirst for human blood, and likewise the folly and iniquity of mortals, if they chose to worship murderers, who according to the laws they themselves had ordained from the very beginning deserved execution rather than adoration. But somebody will say, “This had to be done so that a greater danger hanging over their heads might be averted. This is well known since, according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Jove and Apollo visited Italy with great catastrophes since a tithe of men had not been offered up to them as a holocaust, and the Roman consul Publius Decius, and afterward his son chose to offer themselves and their enemies to the gods of the Underworld with all manner of prayers, in accordance with this dire custom.”
15. ROB. You’ve told a pretty example of deception worked by some demon. Note those unhappy times, in which men’s minds were bewitched by the the trickery of demons and did not perceive their unholy games. Here it is worthwhile to understand both the insidious arts of demons and the blindness of the Romans, who believed that Decius the father (to say nothing of the son) was able to vow his enemies to the gods, along with himself, in the Latin War, since he he had no control over them. But doubtless the Latins should not have fallen along with Decius, for when he was overwhelmed by spears they did not abandon their standards, but continued to offer resistance until, thanks to the great effort of the other consul Titus Manlius, they were turned and routed.
POLY. Perhaps some prophet freed them after they had been ensorcelled by Decius with his philtres and his charms?
ROB. As I have said, I deny that Decius could drag the Latins to their deaths with his charms, since, albeit they were crammed full of all manners of superstition, the ancients always questioned whether magical charms did or did not have any power. We, however, have no doubt that they are of no value, as is taught by our law, our religion, and our reason, and this is why they were already condemned by the verdict of the Church Fathers. So it is best for us to pass over them, less we seem to be confusing profane with sacred things.
POLY. But I pray you not to pass over a brief disputation about charms of that kind, since I hear that they are not in such great disrepute that it is not sometimes permissible to invoke the name of God.
ROB. There’s nothing for it, I see, but that we must linger on this longer, since you are being so insistent. Therefore (not to adduce sacred authors in such a silly business), you may take from your Pliny that which you seek from me. For in Book XXVIII of his Natural History he sets forth a goodly part of these deliriums, and concludes, “But in listing these things I am impeded by a great sense of bashfulness, in the face such a variety of opinions. So concerning them let every man draw his own conclusions.” This prudent gentleman did not think that he should depart so greatly from the ruth that in later ages any concern for these vain remarks should be endorsed by his authority. And yet we know for sure that in the minds of the ancients there was always lodged the opinion, or rather the foolish notion, that continues to obsess a very large number of mindless folk, that they could move heaven and earth with certain words formed into incantations. Vergil: “Songs can draw down the very moon from heaven,”and likewise “The chill snake in the meadow is burst by Circe’s singing.” In his work on agriculture, Cato says that dislocated joints can be healed with this charm, donata daries, dardaries, astararies, and so forth.
16. POLY. Good God, a man as wise as Cato believed in his mind that that charm, made of meaningless words, had any power to move God?
ROB. That’s true. Likewise Marcus Varro was not impervious to that accusation, because he maintained that the gout could be cured by an incantation. It was said that snakes could be made to coil by a charm of the Marsi, a people of Italy. Marcus Servilius Novianus, impelled by fear of becoming blear-eyed, was in the habit of wearing around his neck a scrap of parchment with the two Greek letters alpha and rho written on it.
POLY. Indeed, that custom has not gone out of style, since a goodly number of our scurvy magistrates follow that custom and take it for granted they remain in good health if they wear words from the Gospel or some psalm in the same way.
ROB. True, but those gentlemen have no good sense who pay no attention to anything other than words taken out of Scripture, placing no faith in divine help, and thinking that this power exists in bits of paper. Indeed Christ wished His Gospel to be preached in public, not so men might carry about mute writing in their hands, but so they would gather their meanings and commit them to memory, and act in accordance with their commands, by which I mean that they should look to God for the health of both their bodies and their souls.
POLY. Good criticism and good advice. And yet how common is the man who holds that art in contempt in which he has sometimes found aid while howling with the severity of his pain, of which he cries out day and night? By thunder, this is why even today there are those who do not lose their faith in incantations, because they know from experience that they give relief to those in agony. For a charm is a customary remedy for a nosebleed or a fresh wound. Thus Homer writes that when Ulysses was wounded in the thigh he stanched the flowing blood with a charm. Thus headache, toothache, and fever is settled, eased, and removed.
ROB. But what portion of the sufferers’ diseases are cured?
POLY. A goodly portion.
ROB. Then why doesn’t everybody flock to those vile medical magicians?
POLY. This escapes me. But I know for sure that incantations are occasionally a relief to those in the grip of some malady.
17. ROB. You say this of a certainty? Are you convinced on the basis of the length of this malady or pain, or its acuteness, or its sudden relief? For this often occurs in affected bodies. If you do not affirm this, then you are making no affirmation at all, unless you are willing to be a liar. Let me ask you, can it happen that an ailing man may begin to feel well at the very moment somebody arrives to recite a charm? If you deny this, you will be denying any effectiveness to diligence, to care, or to nature. For is any man so negligent of himself that, when he begins to be afflicted by ill health, he does not from the very first instant abstain from his regular diet and apply some remedy, and care for relieving his bodily nature by resorting to all sorts of purges? If you may say, “But above all else recourse should be had to charms,” Imagine this to be so, this does not necessarily mean that relief from the malady or the pain cannot occur spontaneously by fasting. For the same thing happens in the case of beasts of burden, since in their cure too men employ incantations. Then too, grant that these remedies help the ailing, by which I mean they appear to help them, these are remedies which, according to your Pliny, those ancient idolators, from whom that plaguey art took its origin, denied were of any use if they were placed on a table before being applied, so readily useless they were. But I maintain that they never helped, because there was nothing true in them, nothing holy, nothing solid. For nobody is unaware that this kind of charm is the most impious, most wicked, most fraudulent thing in in human history, since men wickedly practise the art in the name of demons rather than of God, and likewise make their prayers, maliciously employing strange words, filthily worshipping figures and shapes as if they were images of the gods, who possess images of various things, and likewise rings and gemstones as if these were the sacred instruments of their art, who stupidly confine their idea of religion to binding, loosening, and touching, and, in sum, for the most part boldly seek out the things which, according to God, are least to be sought. Is it not the mark of a madman, not only to think but even to dream that anything beneficial can come from those enemies of truth, piety, and justice? So you should not imagine that there is any power in this beggarly art, unless for the deception and at the same time the damnation, of those who seek help from it, who give money so as to be deluded and cheated in their help, and to the ruination of those who ply it, who, originally made sons of God by their baptism, finally give themselves over and consecrate themselves to the friendship of evil demons, who attempt (acting beyond their powers and contrary to nature) to heal disease. If they convince themselves they can perform anything of the sort, they do not appreciate that demons are always at their side as they work their mischief, keeping them involved in their evildoing, so they never repent. But is very far from the truth that this most insidious of arts can achieve anything. What of the fact that no man doubts that, should these wizards achieve anything, this is entirely to be attributed to the contrivances of demons, since there is no way in which they are not constantly striving to work the ruination of those who, fleeing the truth, are willing by all means to damn themselves? Thus the pursuit of this foul art was a principal reason for the fall of the city of Babylon, which was ultimately absorbed into the Persian Empire under King Cyrus. In chapter 47 Isaiah says, “But these two things shall come to thee in a moment in one day, the loss of children, and widowhood: they shall come upon thee in their perfection for the multitude of thy sorceries, and for the great abundance of thine enchantments.” And he adds, “Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit.” Wherefore Moses wisely instructed his people, as it stands in Deuteronomy, that at all times they should ensure that wizards be put to death.
18. POLY. You have come close to defeating me with these very pretty arguments of yours. Using them to properly take the measure of all things pertaining to the art, in future I shall never attribute anything to incantations, if, in view of the obscurity of this subject, you are not offended to explain yourself more exactly. For you just now mentioned that there is a popular tradition that the Marsi were wont to employ incantations to tame snakes. And it has struck my mind that this is most true, since it is said in Psalm 57, “Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;, which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.” Here we can see that inchantments have their power.
ROB. No, none at all, as I shall conclude with a single argument, By now we have sufficiently established that those maleficent arts are instruments of demons, which they only employ for mischiefmaking when they wish, if they are permitted. For, to answer your question, they are made to coil by charms, when God permits. But it is not the same when God does not permit, as is testified by Jeremiah when he writes about the destruction of Jerusalem in his chapter 8, “For, behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the Lord.”
POLY. You have quite satisfied me down to my very fingertips, but I have another question. Pray, what is the reason why the snake is more susceptible to charms than all other creatures?
ROB. Let Apollo come and solve your problems. You should recall that line of Vergil, where he says, “Happy was he, who could understand the causes of things.” So do you want to maintain this manner of yours in disputation, so that we shall arrive at no conclusions? But, lest I strike you as unlearned, I shall answer you with what springs to my lips. They say that this form of punishment was appointed for the snake that, being a very nasty animal, it seemed suitable to the devil to adopt its guise in order to beguile our first mother Eve. Likewise, for this selfsame reason, he convinced us that demons have great power over Venus, since the original corruption of sin, whereby Man has been made a sharer in guilt, has tainted us thanks to Mother Venus.
POLY. My goodness, nothing truer. For all over the world are men who, by means of their malevolent charms, make the man they wish much more sluggish in his venery, and if I understood the method in which this is accomplished, you would free me from a very great scruple.
19. ROB. You should be looking for the cause of this plague rather than its method. For, being a spirit, it can inhibit a man anywhere in the world, inflame him, enfeeble him, or often divert his mind (in which the power of sexual enthusiasm mainly resides). So if someone wants a man to be vexed by that kind of trickery, he needs must invoke demons to produce that result. And it is particularly women, armed with such forms of witchcraft, who daily obtain abortions or smother their babes, and likewise kill crops and pollute fountains: in sum, in that department of evildoing scurvy old hags are said achieve far more than any of their menfolk.
POLY. Why so?
ROB. Because women, partly because of their innate foolishness, and partially because of their unguarded credulity, are somehow more easily enmeshed in these crimes by the demons. Thus Eve, a woman, was foolish, to the great misfortune of herself and her descendents, in accordance with God’s will.
POLY. Are you telling me that such outrages occur with God’s permission.
POLY. Why, pray?
ROB. Where are your wits, since you seem unaware that God’s decisions can easily elude our understanding? Nevertheless, I shall tell you. God is not just the ruler of this man or that, but is the guardian and governor of all mankind. And He, operating in the same way as does nature when it produces beer from rotten grain, allows something bad to occur so that out of it He may harvest something good, as is attested in by Augustine in his Enchiridion, when he writes, “nor would He who is good allow the evil to be done, unless in His omnipotence He could bring good even out of evil.” For thus God provided: it has always been adjudged a supreme evil that men should end their lives by the torments of executioners and the rending of beasts, yet nevertheless God created His most blessed martyrs out of their number.
20. POLY. What you make out of these things is true and satisfactory. And yet, manufacturing one question out of another, I ask you whether among those incantations there is some method which religion does not forbid?
ROB. Yes indeed, the method which Christ bequeathed to His apostles in Mark, saying, “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” This method pas particularly employed by Peter. For at Jerusalem he healed a cripple, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” In this very same way, at Joppa he raised up a dead girl named Tabitha out of Hell. For this holy man came up to her lifeless corpse, knelt on the ground and prayed, saying, “arise, Tabitha.” Likewise the Apostle Paul, having healed many infirm people throughout Asia and freeing them from vexation by demons, finally, on the island of Malta hard by Sicily, healed his host Publius, a leading citizen suffering from fever and dysentery, after praying and laying on his hands. And at that same place, having been bitten on the hand by a viper without any threat to his life, he shook it off into a fire. And, not to say more, I could recount countless other miracles produced by these means, still used by our clergy, particularly when they wish to exorcize a man possessed by demons or heal the sick after the way of the apostles, who, as testified at Mark 6, was to anoint many infirm persons with oil and heal them. So this was the method about which you asked.
POLY. Assuredly, this was all accomplished miraculously. But (so as not to remain in doubt about any point) I wish to learn more. Is it granted to each of us that in his own right he can help afflicted bodies?
ROB. This is granted to those men who are most chaste and by far the most upright. But if other men dare attempt, it, that is fraudulent. Thus Luke recounts that this was the downfall of some Jews: “Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, ‘We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth.’ And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so. And the evil spirit answered and said, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye?’ And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.” But listen to Christ Himself preaching about this thing in Matthew: “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? and in Thy name have cast out devils? and in Thy name done many wonderful works?’ And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you.’”
21. POLY. Why is such an ability granted them?
ROB. In this context, let St. Jerome explain it to you, saying, “To prophesy, to do virtuous acts and exorcize demons — sometimes these are not done according to the merit of the man doing these deeds, or performing them by invoking the name of Christ, but sometimes it leads to the damnation of those who do the invocation and the advantage of those who see and hear it done, so that, even if they despise those employing these signs, they might nevertheless honor God, in Whose name such great miracles are performed.”
POLY. These are great inducements to deter mortals from having any truck with evil demons. Wherefore, so that we might have less difficulty in guarding against the shadow of this danger, I would like to return to first principles. So pray tell me, my dearest Robert, do demons always deceive, or are they sometimes deceived?
ROB. Good God, in what a hurry you are! Pardon me for saying so, but you are so unfriendly in pressing me, as if the day is not fading. Although the sun has not yet set, you nevertheless seem to be making me wish that it had. I thought I had already explained to you the deceptions of demons. But, since you seem to be suspended in doubt, take a single example of their falsehood out of the six hundred I could mention, full of unheard-of dishonesty. According to Book VIII of Levy’s Ab Urbe Condita, it chanced that games were being held in the circus on the same day on which a slave had been put to death by the master of his household at daybreak. Immediately afterwards a certain plebeian named Atinius had a dream, in which he was instructed by Jove to tell him it was the god’s wish that the games be held as soon as possibly. Suspecting he would be disbelieved, he kept his silence. A few days afterward he lost his son, and while he was prostrate with grief over this death the same vision appeared to him, asking if he had been punished enough for having disregarded a divinity, and threatening him with death if he did not hasten to do as he had been told. Nonetheless, he delayed, and was suddenly assailed by so great a disability that he could not stand upright. Then, prodded by the advice of this friends, he was carried to the consuls on a litter and, brought to the Fathers, recounted his dream. It is said that, after he had done this, he walked home. Behold the outrage of those demons. One of them, foreseeing that Atinius was about to lose his son and suffer a paralysis in his limbs, appeared to him in dream, so that that he might thus plunge the Roman people (that most deluded of them all) in yet greater darkness. Likewise lend an ear to Origen, who in his sixteenth homily on Numbers briefly lists all the nefarious arts of those demons, writing, “And so all this, be it augury, or gut-gazing, or any form of burnt sacrifice, or even the drawing of lots, or the observation of the movements of birds or beasts, or any manner of inspection of livers, or anything else that seems to peer into the future, I have no doubt, is done by the work of demons directing the movements of birds, beasts, or livers, or the selection of lots in accordance with those significations which these same demons have taught those whom they have instructed in the lore of this art to observe.”
22. POLY. So the art of augury is a demonic invention?
ROB. It most certainly is.
POLY. But the Etruscans did not share this view, for they attributed it to a certain Tagus, who in their territory suddenly popped up out of the earth, as I clearly set forth in Book I of my De Inventoribus Rerum.
ROB. True, but that’s obviously a fable. In the same way, they say that men were created out of stones. Vergil says, “...even from the day when Deucalion threw stones into the empty world, whence sprang men, a stony race.” For before Tagus, it was established by Moses in the Law that no man should devote himself to those sinister arts. Thus he ordains in Leviticus: “ neither shall ye use enchantment, nor observe dreams.” And in Deuteronomy: “If you enter into the land which the Lord your God gave you, you must not learn to act according to the abominations of those nations, not divining by divination, nor casting with the lots, being neither an evildoer, nor an enchanger, nor an observer of omens.”
POLY. If God abhors all these things, then prudence regarding future events does not strike me as deserving to be called divination, for, as the grammarians define it, it takes its etymology from a divine word, since it is peculiar to God to foretell the future. For the word divino is derived from divus, which means “divine.”
ROB. Upon my oath, I agree with you in this, and also with Origen, who in that homily on Numbers I just quoted calls divination a delirium, by a play on words. And in chapter 3 of his commentary on Micah, St. Jerome tells us that “divination” is a word never used in a positive sense by sacred writers, because in it there is nothing divine, but plenty of destruction of good minds, unless we are on our guard.
POLY. Do you believe that we must always be on our guard against it?
ROB. Nothing more so, inasmuch as demons use no other weapons in besieging, attacking and pressing us, so as ultimately to destroy us.
23. POLY. Let them go ahead and do so. Would that our own affections were not even more damaging!
ROB. We will easily control our affections, if we are willing to use our God-given reason, whereas they customarily harass us when we are off our guard. Those perverse spirits, on the other hand, are not the same, since they insidiously attack men while sound asleep.
POLY. You are describing something unheard-of in human history.
ROB. You think so? But you will come to believe this, I imagine. For when we go to bed, laden down with food and wine, we are wont to dream, and usually in our dreams to see many confused and troubled things. And after we come to our senses, being in the meantime terrified, behold how suddenly, at the instigation of demons, we think that this is not to be dismissed as nothing, and very foolishly inquire into the dream’s outcome rather than its cause. Are schemes of this kind not treacherous and a constant struggle, since, thanks to those enemies of our souls, we are not permitted to rest even in the night?
POLY. You have spoken both acutely and copious, but I stand by my opinion, that it is far better for us to wage war against our affections rather than fight with spirits, because those make their mischief from without, whereas the others constantly plot against us from within, as I clearly showed in my little commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.
ROB. The Apostle Paul disagrees with you. Thinking otherwise, he speaks when writing to the Ephesians: “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
POLY. “Against powers,” says Paul? What does he mean here? Do demons have the power to work harm?
ROB. They do.
POLY. Given them by who?
ROB. By their prince, the Devil.
POLY. But the Apostle contradicts you when he says elsewhere, “There is no power but of God.”
24. ROB. You are going farther than there is need to for our understanding, and seeking loftier causes for things you go higher than we, prostrate on the ground, are able to see. Let this suffice for your question, that, just as we use one vessel for our honorable purposes and a different one for our shameful ones, so the demons themselves have been made vessels for all manner of wickedness. As St. Jerome attests, they have been assigned such duties that they are rulers of the darkness, since they have refused to be princes of the light. And thus, as each one chooses, they apply themselves to different arts, good or bad.
POLY. Very clever. But I shall not act so as to give you any pretext for going astray. So let us turn to the principal thing. A little earlier you showed clearly enough how demons deceive us. It now remains that in consequence I should expect an explanation of how they are deceived. For, by reason of their flighty mobility, i. e., their airy body (as you have just told me), they have such acute perceptions that one would think they can scarcely be misled.
ROB. I shall not cheat you of such a reasonable expectation. As St. Augustine tells us, events do not always fall out as foretold by demons, since they are not privy councillors of the world’s supreme Ruler. Let this serve as an example of this thing. When a general commands that camp be broken, all his soldiers put their minds to a march, foreseeing that one is about to occur. Yet it frequently happens that one does not, because at that selfsame point in time the general changes his mind and issues a different command. Here’s an instance: under Moses’ guidance the Hebrew people had to make their way to their homeland by passing through desert places. So then clever spirits could both foresee and predict that by all means that people would die of starvation, when of a sudden out of His lovingkindness God provided that food they call manna.
POLY. So those pagan gods are not all-knowing, since the plans of divine providence elude them. But tell me, is there some way in which they are deceived?
ROB. I shall do as you want, Polydore, if only their many-faceted delirium occurs to me. And also demons are wont to see phantoms in their natural forecasts. Let this story be recounted by way of an example. When Hezekiah King of Judea was gravely ill and God had commanded the prophet Isaiah to tell him in his own words that death was at hand, at that time demons could divine just as well as physicians that he had no chance of recuperating from his malady, when lo, God, appeased by prayers, was so far removed from permitting the king to die that He even spared him for a number of years. They are further deceived together with ships’ helmsmen when strongly-blowing gales unexpectedly drop off. This is how we read in Luke that our Saviour settled a storm: “Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water: and they ceased, and there was a calm.” Thus, too, farmers are baffled and deceived when, in accordance with God’s will anmd contrary to what weather-signs promise, there a sudden change in the climate, such as in Book XVIII of his Jewish Antiquities Joseph says occurred in Judea, when, because of a drought men despaired of their crops, and on that selfsame day it began to rain contrary to everyone’s expectation, although in the early morning the sky had been clear and remained that way until the rain poured down as an act of divine intervention.
25. POLY. No more now, since the dinner-hour has nearly crept up on us. And yet I would greatly wish that we could speak briefly about various kinds of divination, so that we might seem to have dealt with all the forms of divination.
ROB. You posit methods in this mindlessness called divination?
POLY. You call the art of divination mindlessness?
ROB. Indeed. What crazier thing could be instilled in men’s minds than to have them gripped with an enthusiasm for peering into the future by nefarious arts? Especially since, if we trust the Stoics, this would be of no use to us, since they tell us that everything happens in accordance with fate. For if we knew of coming catastrophes which could not be avoided by taking any counsel, we should lose all the fruits of our earlier life by tormenting ourselves in advance. But if we were to foresee good things, we should waste all the intervening time in eager anticipation, and when they did happen, they would be much less welcome. So ignorance of future things is more to our advantage than knowledge, although that is by all means denied to us. Wherefore Plato in the Timaeus says (and rightly so in my opinion) that God gave divination only to brainsick folk, and desired it to be the part of rational men subsequently to interpret the things uttered by such distraught wits. There, for as I have said, there can be no method in divination, but only mental error.
POLY. You argue most prettily. And there will be no quarrel concerning this business, and we’ll deal with it more in the next Book, although in his On Dream-Divination Aristotle says that sane men do not divine in the same way as do the deranged. Pray continue.
ROB. Those sects have leaders, whom they call adepts. From the very beginning they surrender and pledge themselves to the friendship of demons, and, trusting in this, they consult omen, call down spirits, question the dead, raise up shades, and they are called necromancers. And there are artists in another kind of evildoer practising a kindred form of criminal behavior, called chiromancers because they divine by inspection of the lines on the palms of hands. There are hydromancers, who divine by water, geomancers, because they do so by the earth or figures inscribed thereon, pyromancers who rely on fire, and aeromancers who use air, by which I mean the flights birds or storms.
POLY. Well said, because this art is particularly forbidden by law and so has long ago disappeared from among our people.
26. ROB. You believe so? No, it still very much thrives among us, it thrives among our fools, whose minds are so uncouth and ignorant that they readily believe those worst villains in human history, who have spent a goodly part of their life in the mists of felonies and superstitions of that sort, and strive to divulge all its secrets for the sake of gain, mendaciously promising prosperity to this man, wealth and honors to that one. And so they work six hundred deceptions on the gullible. For how many of their predictions do you think turn out to be true? And yet there are those who put their faith in this art. Particularly unfortunate souls who have lost something (not to mention other catastrophes), in order to become considerably more unfortunate, think that there is nothing for it than to visit these necromancers and give them money in the hope that the thief will be brought to light, thus in their delusion piling one loss atop another. For these shrewd tricksters, once they have ascertained with what suspicions they can fill those fellows denuded of their property and on whom they imagine the guilt can be fixed, resort to their art, consult their demons, and finally, being so very fraudulent, do not indicate any particular man, but rather reinforce the suspicions they have already insinuated. Then, having had their opinions confirmed, the wretches goes a-flying home, ponder and sift the whole thing, and dash about hither and tither. And if some trial occurs or the thief is caught red-handed, in their very vain folly they vainly credit this boon, not to God, the Avenger of our injuries, nor to their own diligence, but exclusively to this art. Nevertheless at all times this art is discovered to be vain and useless, not just by others but also by its very own practitioners, when these contemptible gentlemen are particularly oppressed by constant poverty.
POLY. You are right to warn the wise what is to be guarded again, and you can run through the rest as briefly as possible.
ROB. There were those who, in accordance with the art, observed the guts of animals, who noted the song, taste, and flight of birds, who observed earthquakes and flashes of lightning, who, under nature’s guidance, interpreted dreams, and who prophesied on the basis of oracles. Such prophets gave their responses as instructed by the voices of demons, who issued such various, confused, obscure utterances from the statues around which they hovered, with such artfulness that, however some matter turned out, it appeared to have been accurately predicted.
POLY. You have explained truly and well the things I sought from you, and the rest I think best reserved for our next conversation. Let us go to dinner.
ROB. Let it be as you please.
BOOK II OF THE DIALOGUES ON PRODIGIES BY POLYDORE VERGIL OF URBINO
POLYDORE Now that we have heard Mass and had our breakfast, would you like us to sit under this shady vine in my little garden and devote ourselves to the remainder of our conversation?
ROBERT Why not? This is why I have come to visit you, so that I might deliver myself over to those things which invite mental quietude and delight, and because at the moment, when I am free of both care and business, nothing can be more pleasant than to talk with you about matters of the kind. I shall most gladly devote myself to completing the task we started yesterday concerning prodigies. But I beg you not not to interrupt. For yesterday you dragged out the business to a wonderful extent, so that, thanks to your manifold little questions, I was not able to bring the matter to a conclusion, as they say.
POLY. I shall do as you desire, if I can ask one thing first, which is the chief point of our entire disputation. How can a man distinguish between presentiments and visions?
ROB. In my mind I foresaw this would happen. How fine you are, in accordance with your habit, of delaying my discourse by interrupting it with new arguments, sometimes irrelevant to our topic!
POLY. I am not delaying the discussion we have begin, nor am I interrupting it, for it is proper that we have a little banter before we start out on our journey of relating prodigies.
ROB. I know you through and through, as they say. Once you drag me into the field of haggling, I am obliged to spend a long time contending with you,. You know how to be so clever and elegant at investigating causes, so that you might hold anyone back in a competition. And so, I beg you, play your part, begin, and continue straightway to set forth in detail that which is relevant to our business.
POLY. I shall begin to do so with a will, as much as my intelligence and my effort permits. Since in our disputation we have come to dream-visions, which confront us because of sleep, wine, or madness, I am minded to ask how the true ones can be confirmed and the false ones discarded, since first of all one needs to establish a standard of truth and falsehood, if we desire to gain a notion of them both such as allows us to distinguish God-sent dream-visions from the foolishness proclaimed by oracles, auspices, and the guts of animals.
ROB. Can anyone discover the truth in this matter?
POLY. With your help I can, which is why I shall listen to you all the more willingly, if you have no better reason to refuse.
2. ROB. You look to me for help in hunting down the truth, which (as Democritus wisely said) nature has completely hidden away. Hang me if the both of us can achieve this with our combined intellects. For it was about this single thing that the ancient philosophers so greatly disagreed, and the theologians of our age most greatly exert themselves, are tormented, and sweat. For thus they conclude their arguments: of the things which appear, some are true and some are false, but it cannot be determined which are false. For what true thing is seen is entirely such as can also be perceived as being false, and those things which have appeared are of a kind that there is no difference between them, and it cannot happen that some of them can be perceived as being true and others cannot. By all of which arguments they wish to make it plain that those things seen which have truthfulness attached to them do not differ from the false, and hence are not such that the intellect can apprehend them. But in his Academica Cicero easily refutes this definition by his questioning and convicts those who advance it, replying thus: “What are we to make of the language of these thinkers who hold that everything does not so much exist as seem to exist? But they are most completely refuted when they assume as mutually consistent these two propositions that are so violently discrepant, first, that some presentations are false, a view that clearly implies that some are true, and then in the same breath that there is no difference between false presentations and true ones. But your first assumption implied that there is a difference — thus your major premiss and your minor are inconsistent with one another.” Thus Cicero concludes his argument, by saying that in discriminating among visions there is need for perspicacity and diligence, insofar as perspicacity possesses the power to inform us what these visions are per se, and of their nature. And diligence makes us more steadfast in clinging to what perspicacity has told us. In irs absence, as if blinded and manipulated by certain pieces of trickery, we can easily be diverted from things which are clear. For example, in a dream a man can manufacture for himself, and by prolonged cogitation form an image of something, but as soon as he begins to move about and returns to his proper self, he perceives the difference between true things and vanity, if he applies the diligence of perspicacity. He will likewise do the same, if those things were to exist in his dream.
POLY. Later on, we can conveniently dispute about true and false things at the proper place. But now I think we should devote the full force of our disputation to discussing how divine presentiments can be recognized, so that our understanding of the truth is not disrupted by the deceits of demons, inasmuch as it is well agreed that there is a close kinship between natural presentiments and divine ones, and also between superstitious and anxious ones.
3. ROB. Where there is a close resemblance between the true and the false, there can be no judgment, insofar as one cannot discern that which belongs properly to the one or to the other by the signs they display in common. And, as I seem to perceive, it will be very difficult for what you are driving at to become clear.
POLY. No, this can be achieved with no difficulty. For by one means or another what we seek probably exists, or at least you will have some indication of truthfulness, if only you are willing to apply that very shrewd intellect of yours.
ROB. Why say more? I’ll apply it in full force. But see here, don’t confront me with the hallucinations of mindless folk. For to whatever extent we are to deal with these thinga, we must use our eyes very diligently lest we seem to join madmen in their lunacy.
POLY. So the monstrosities of drunkards and the brainsick make you shudder?
ROB. I certainly do shudder, and I’m ashamed to hear of them, let alone speak of them. For how many somnurnal visions (to use Varro’s word) do they babble about, particularly because the more delirious them become, the more often they either manufacture or believe the idea that they hold converse with the gods. Many people fancy this, and most of all our monks, simple-minded fellows and uncommonly suggestible, have among themselves (as often happens) in their great flock of devout souls, men affected by tedium vitae, who live a life devoid of arts and who regret the vows which they heedlessly made while still in their boyhood. In order to console themselves, they turn to issuing oracular responses and consult the gods on behalf of their friends, now about making marriages, now about travel, now about waging war, about the condition of the dead and the future happiness of the living, about their chickens laying eggs and the birthing of lambs, and about sudden changes in affairs. Blinded by the swindles of demons, at night they are swept up to heaven, visit the supernals and bring back their responses, and, wonderfully puffed-up by their title of sanctity and bubbling over with their futile enthusiasm, they disclose their visions to their friends, a mark of supreme empty-headedness and error. So let these things and others chock-full of the same vanity, not impede our discourse, which we have already drawn out far into the day.
POLY. You think we should abandon these humorous bits, which can both delight and refresh us after we have been wearied by the previous effort and progress of our disputation?
ROB. Indeed I do. For we have no time to waste on this kind of amusement, which I don’t regard as being at all witty, but rather sinful, since no small crowd of imprudent folk are now rushing headlong into the demons’ snares, thinking they have received instructions from the gods, which they actually have from their evil genius. What of the fact that our silly little women, nuns especially, who are always gullible after their way, are not ashamed to indulge in soothsaying, while in fact the wretched ladies are being swindled by demons and do not perceive the fraud? And since slipping, erring, and being deceived is as disgraceful as it is harmful, we have no reason to chase after the visions of prophets who, being obviously unsound in their minds, predict nothing certain, as will be sufficiently established hereafter.
4. POLY. So you should establish a rule so that our disputation does not waver.
ROB. I shall do so. According to Macrobius, there are five kinds of dream, namely 1.) the kind of dream we have when the attention or concern for something that grips a man while awake comes to attack him in his sleep, since (as Cicero says in his discussion of Scipio’s dream) it often happens that, in a dream, our thoughts and conversations beget something similar to that about which we thought or spoke while awake. 2.) a second kind of dream, which is wrapped in riddles, such that without the help of someone versed in the art of dream-interpretation cannot be understood; 3.) the apparitions which a man half-asleep sees as various shapes crowding in upon himself; 4.) the oracular dream, in which some grave personage or God Himself announces something is going to happen, whether it be a good thing that should be done or a bad thing that ought to be avoided; and 5.) the fifth kind of vision, which turns out just as we foresaw. But so far we have only been dealing with those visions which the Greeks, as Quintilian says, call fantasies, by which the images of absent things are represented in our minds, or visions which appear to us both at night and during the day.
POLY. I hugely like both your distinction among visions and your conclusion, and likewise your rule for our discourses. And yetit remains that we treat of the means by which a true vision can be distinguished from a false one.
ROB. I’ll explain that in a few words. For a true vision is one which contains no falsehood within itself, whereas a false one contains nothing of truth.
POLY. A very pretty conclusion, or rather a bon mot.
ROB. How, you evil man, to I seem to be joking if I answer your question?
POLY. I’m asking for something different. In what way does truth or falsehood manifest itself? How do I assure myself that what is predicted comes from that which is truthful, and therefore, as Plato says in the Republic, never deceives anybody though its signs or indications, or from the devil, who is a liar.
ROB. That assurance is not easy to obtain. For one requires divine help, so that a man may have an understanding of that thing. Thus Origen testifies in his third homily on Exodus, where he says, “Note what has been written about Judas, how it is reported that ‘Satan entered him,’ and that ‘the devil put it in his heart to betray Him’ He, therefore, having received the money, opened his mouth that ‘he might confer with the leaders and the Pharisees, how he might betray Him.’ Whence it seems to me to be no small gift to detect the mouth which the devil opens. Such a mouth and words are not discerned without the gift of the Holy Spirit.” So Origen. And so there exist prophets of God, true messengers who have foretold the future. For those who forecast the future (since prophecy is not to be identified otherwise) uttered their predictions when instructed by God, as the Apostle Peter maintains in his second epistle, writing, “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of Man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
5. POLY. Now, I were to heed you, it would be plain that prophets always speak the truth, but that others do not to the same, since you maintain that this title befits them exclusively. But this is not true, for in Numbers Balaam, and among the Cretans the priests of Jove, were called prophets, such as (according to Festus) these were priests of his temple who interpreted oracles. Likewise, according to St. Ambrose writing on 1 Corinthians, the interpreters of the writings of others were traditionally called prophets. Then too, in his Timaeus Plato calls those who interpret oracular statements prophets, although they are often capable of slipping and erring. Therefore not every prophet is a true one.
ROB. Why put up a fight? I agree with you, but I say that there is one kind of prophet who understands what he predicts, and another, false, kind who is capable of being deceived and does not comprehend his own pronouncements. Such was the prophet Saul, King of Judea, such was Caiaphas, and such, according to Ambrose, was Balaam.
POLY. But let’s return to first principles. You say that prophets are told what to say by God Almighty and that they understand the things they forecast. So what manner of sign does God give whereby a prophet may understand that he has been charged by God with the duty of predicting them?
ROB. Listen, in this context we will make great progress if we philosophize and show how it comes about that prophets are appointed for preaching. For Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas are not in agreement whether (if I may use their words) only God, or also His ministering servants. inspire human minds with prophetic revelations by means of intelligible forms.
POLY. How is this relevant to our subject? Or do you think we need to inquire about God’s function, and what He should provide Himself or what by means of others, as if He were removed at a far distance and has need for others’ help in performing His work? I refuse to listen to this.
ROB. Why so?
POLY. Because I see, I see it coming, that by means of these sophistic subtleties from which you cannot refrain, you are immediately pushing me onto the “ shallows and quicksands ,” as the Poet says.
6. ROB. Oh you warrior, brave and yet not brave! You demand much from me, and when I come to the point, you grow hot, as if that thing is very cold. If it is very hot, you grow cold. Pray hear the rest, since our conversation has been about prophets. The truth does not insinuate itself into men’s minds in any single way, but rather variously. For either a vision is impressed on the mind (thus David divined Christ’s mysteries), or signs of coming things are announced by a vision or by something heard (thus Moses heard much about the future, thus Daniel saw the writing on the wall), or by pondering of some form (thus Jeremiah contemplated at the pot being fired in the kiln). But this means of contemplation assumes different forms, since portentous visions are shown either to a sleeper or a wide-awake man, or are given by means of words or external signs, the man responsible for which is sometimes identifiable, but sometimes not. Thus (as the evangelist Mark relates) the Apostles Peter, James and John saw Elijah conversing with Christ on the mountain and heard a voice from above saying, “This is My beloved Son, hear him.” In this same way, Isaiah testifies he saw the Lord seated on His throne, and heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom should I send?” This one saw the speaker, whereas the others did not. And so the personage doing the speaking sometimes stands in the open, and is sometimes hidden. I could continue and mention ten more ways, if I wished to enter into detail about some ways which are spoken of with greater superstitiousness than utility and advantage.
POLY. Say no more. I am content with these three and do not know if anything can be added to them, since they easily embrace all prophetic visitation. But come, teach me at long last about the signs of true such visitations.
ROB. They call that which serves as an indication “illumination,” predicting something to mortals, which is instilled in prophets’ minds by God, for when they conceive His precepts in their minds, by a certain divine illumination they are brightened within that no darkness, no doubt or error can exist in them, for then they are wiser, more perceptive, more sensitive, and they are stronger in their minds. On the other hand, if something is whispered in their ear by an evil demon, even a happy thing, they say that the same perspicacity and keenness of wit does not exist in their senses, but rather a heavy sluggishness, and that the happiness engendered by the news of something pleasant is quickly cut short by gloom. But why say more? Perhaps they mean that this illumination is a sign of true prophecy, since visions rarely occur without it. Thus Moses was guided to a conference with God by a red flame. Thus, as is recounted in Acts, when the Apostle Peter was imprisoned, an apparition surrounded by a halo of light came to inform him of his rescue, and Paul, bathed in no little brightness during the daytime, was brought out of the darkness into the true light.
7. POLY. Gods love me, how very acutely and sagely you have handled this, dealt with it, and given me instruction! But it is not easy for a man to recognize this sign of illumination for sure, or for anybody except the man who saw the vision to make a sure distinction. So tell me if you have anything further which can be equally recognized by everybody else.
ROB. Why is this necessary?
POLY. It is very much necessary, since I do not yet have a standard whereby I can judge whether such visions are genuine.
ROB. I think I can satisfy you to the best of my ability, to the extent that I am able with my middling intellect and my mediocre attentiveness and zeal. But you should think that henceforth you will not be permitted to stray a finger’s breath from this rule you so greatly demand.
POLY. I am asking you for this very reason, so that I might no longer be left suspended in doubt.
ROB. I have previously told you that this illumination is a sign of prophetical truth, as some opine. Now I want us to interpret the Word of God sung about in Psalm 118, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” And Christ says in John, “I am the light of the world.” When you see this lamp and light, which is the Word of God, being manifested, you may take it for granted that signs of true prophecy will immediately follow after, since God first speaks and then, as we believe, adds signs. Mark says of the Apostles, “And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following.” And thus you should know that prophetical signs are never given without the Word.
POLY. I know that you have strayed a little from what I was driving at, albeit you draw a shrewd conclusion.
ROB. You say that he strays who has set his foot on the right path? You are plunged in error, not to mention in sin, since you appear not to have understood that thus far I have followed the opinions of others concerning the distinction between visions, but now I am telling you my own, being as it is more certain.
POLY. Well said. I have been plunged in error and you in sin, inasmuch as we have spent a good portion of today on our protracted competition, while, as I see, you have not yet mentioned a sign whereby I can understand, that which is usually done at the beginning of such a combat. But you did well. We abound in leisure so that we can deal once more with this sign which I, being a pugnacious soul, expect from you, the leader of our conversation. I expect to understand what this sign is which we are discussing so much at this juncture.
8. ROB. And you shall have it. For, just as I did yesterday, you do not manage to interrupt me to the extent that I don’t eagerly return to our subject. But pray conduct yourself with moderation, so that we don’t appear to be playing tricks on one another rather than having a disputation. Divine signs are evidence of God’s Word, confirmed by miracles, which the Apostle mentions when writing to the Hebrews: “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him, God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?” From this we can understand that in those visions we regard as divine the Word of God should be present: i. e., they should deal with the salvation of the soul, and usually signs ought to follow upon the Word. And these are the visions which befell Moses, Peter, and Paul, whom just now I cited as examples, who prophesied about God’s Word thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, shored up by their piety and innocence. But you may expect demon-sent visions to be without the Word and without signs, being obtained by those who, armed with much shamefulness in their lives, and likewise with feigned goodness, foolishly consult God about human affairs, and the demons give them the responses they deserve.
POLY. Now I grasp it, thus clear you have made everything concerning the difference between visions and the signs whereby they can be distinguished. But you have given me this scruple, which troubles me.
ROB. What’s that?
POLY. I’ll tell you. Yesterday you yourself showed that sometimes bad men predict the truth, and proved this with the example of Balaam. So now I myself am asking you whether those gifts, those signs with which you so excellently showed me genuine prophets to be endowed and strengthened were given to the Sybils. Both Lactantius Firmianus and St. Augustine report that many things pertaining to our religion were foretold in their verses. Or to Balaam, Saul, and Caiaphas, those worst of men, by whom future things were foretold, scarcely in vain?
9. ROB. Why ask me about such things? I have no ability, I am sure, to touch on or explain such things. And this no easy thing for a man who fears the criticism of the learned or the wise. For if I knew such things for a surety, I should be the same as the Apostle Paul, who said he had been snatched up to the third heaven, about which “it is not lawful for a man to utter.” And so I, being “one insignificant little man out of many,” will not issue a guarantee, since I am limiting myself to probable conjecture and have no way of going any further. I would have you rest content with the dicta of St. Ambrose, a man most well-approved in our Christian theology, who gives an abundant exposition of those things about which you are cross-examining me out of your eagerness to learn. In his commentaries on 1 Corinthians he gave this pronouncement on the logic of the Sibylline prophecies: “Among these worldly spirits is a more powerful one they call The Python, who is wont to rely on conjectures in divining things which pertain to this world. That is to say, he is deceived and deceiving by depending on probabilities, and it is he who spoke through the Sibyl. And Ambrose adds, “prophecy is done for the glory of God, as says the prophet David , One prophesies to the glory of God, as the prophet David says: ‘Not unto us, o Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.’”And Balaam prophesied too, although he was no prophet but rather a soothsayer. Caiaphas prophesied, not because of his own merits, but by dint of the dignity of his sacred office. And Saul prophesied even when he was possessed by an evil demon because of his disobedience, but for God’s sake he was not able to lay his hands on David, whom he desired to murder. But this same theologian, in the sixth of his letters to Chromatius provided a far better account, writing, “But there was no diviner of auguries in Israel according to the law of God. How then was it that Balaam said that he was forbidden by the oracle of God to go and curse the people of Israel? If he spoke as the oracle of God, whence did he derive the grace of the Divine inspiration? But you are not to wonder that the Lord should put into the mouth of a diviner what he should speak, when you read in the Gospel that it was put into the mouth even of the prince of the synagogue, one of the persecutors of Christ, that it is expedient that one man should die for the people? It is not therefore the merit of him who utters, but rather the oracle of God Who calls, the grace of God Who reveals.” Thus Ambrose.
POLY. You have very appropriately recited all this, thanks to which it is now sufficiently established that those bad seers prophesied in accordance with God’s will. But I desire to understand something else, if they received the same illumination and the same gift as true prophets used to receive.
10. ROB. Why not, inasmuch as, as I just told you, Ambrose said (if I may use his words), Balaam “had no share in the merit of divine inspiration.” But we read that this occurred rarely, and never sincerely, and that one needed to be on his guard against deception, as Ambrose attests, saying in that same place, “Now what was the guilt which Balaam incurred, but that he spoke one thing, and designed another? For God requires a clean vessel, not one defiled by uncleanness and pollution. Balaam therefore was tried and not approved, for he was full of deceit and treachery.” Thus said he. Caiaphas was tainted by this same blemish, when, in order to destroy Christ, he passed sentence that one man should be put to death as a means of saving his people.
POLY. You certainly say everything correctly, so much that my entire line of inquiry is nearly at an end. And yet I’ll pose you another question. You have previously said that Ambrose spoke copiously about the Sibylline verses, and afterwards you adduced his testimony, in which was only one single mention of the Sibyl, as if she sang only one prediction concerning Christ.
ROB. A shrewd observation. You noticed that?
POLY. Indeed I did, and, and if you don’t mind, you should tell me what was the point of that change of subject?
ROB. I’ll venture to say I can explain this without any trouble, if my memory doesn’t fail me. . You must understand that my authorities do not agree about the identity of the Sibyls’ nation, nor about their number, and likewise about the authorship of those verses whom we accept as containing testimony concerning Christianity. As Augustine says in Book XXVIII of The City of God, some assigned this work to the Sibyl of Erythrae, but others to the Cumaean one.
POLY. Enough about these things. Let us turn to greater issues, which we ignored at the beginning, particularly because we have no grounds for fear that the day will be too short for disputation.
ROB. To what are you turning, which you call greater? Is it your wish to joke, since a little earlier you said that our disputation had come to its end?
POLY. Our disputation, you say? Don’t you remember that I said “our question.” But now, as usually happens, another question has occurred to me, that needs to be discussed as you see fit.
ROB. Propose it. For, I seem to perceive that our discussion is of necessity nearer to its beginning than its ending.
11. POLY. I shall do something which, if I am not mistaken, will be greatly to your liking. Thus far we have said no small amount about prophecy, but not a word about how it originated. So all our effort will be liable to criticism unless we explain that before we quit this place. For every disputation on any subject should begin at the beginning, so that it can supply a proper definition of that thing.
ROB. Pardon me for saying so, but this omission has been your fault, since when one question has barely been resolved, lo, you add another.
POLY. Truly spoken. But (if I may say so without seeming arrogant), this seems to a a thing to my credit rather than something to be held against me. For yesterday our discussion was conducted in such a way that it made no definite beginning t day. The result was that a principle of the Peripatetics keeps coming to my mind, for their habit in disputation (as Cicero tells us in Book II of the Tusculan Disputations) was to dispute on both sides of a question, because that afforded the greatest scope for practising eloquence. I decided to to the same, for the sake of thoroughly enjoying your conversation. For if I had not detained you in your discourse, with my captious questions on this and that, confronting you with contrary views, by now you would stood up and made an end to your disputation.
ROB. I think you are frankly and seriously confessing your playful arts, which I can readily endure since I perceive that nothing is friendlier or more welcome than this talk of mine. But pray let us stand up and deal with the rest while strolling about.
POLY. It shall be so. But walk slowly so you won’t tire yourself or grow overheated, so that you may perform the final act of our disputation at your own convenience.
12. ROB. I’m beginning my task, but I’m already starting to sweat under the burden of the weight you have imposed on me so untimely. You want to know the origin of prophecy? Who would dare make a definite pronouncement? First you should hear a definition. Prophecy is a prediction of future events which can been known by no human effort, no attentiveness, no striving. It’s as Vergil says, “Oh, human mind, ignorant of fate or fortune to come.” And so an awareness of future events not in the immediate future (for, as I disputed yesterday, we have presentiment of impending storms thanks to natural divination, by means of signs derived from our conjectures and experiments) depends on God’s will, or rather His mercy. For how could David (a former shepherd and a future very warlike soldier) excel in that matter thanks to his own effort, exertion, or study? Or likewise Amos, likewise a shepherd? Or Jeremiah, a child? And, long thereafte,r the Apostles, pretty much all of them average men?
POLY. Contrary to what you say, there are those who ascribe this function of divination to the soul, since (as Plato perceived) the soul derives a certain power from its origins, being assisted by the idea (or, as we should say, the form) of the soul.
ROB. Our theologians, particularly Augustine, flatly deny this, since the soul cannot always divine when it wishes. What of the fact that all the Peripatetics agree in thinking the soul to be a tabula rasa in which nothing is inscribed, joined to the body, and that it cannot comprehend anything by the ordinary force of nature save by the operation of the senses and thanks to perceptions? For, just as Augustine tells us in his definition of faith, it is sufficiently established that the soul immediately takes form within the body, created in accordance with God’s judgment in a flash of time, with the result that Man, consisting of body and soul, begins to exist within the womb, and, thus alive, emerges from the very womb full of human substance, and thereafter his flesh is daily increased by his senses, just as his mind is by reason. The evangelist Luke alluded to this when writing of Christ’s childhood, saying, “and Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and Man.” Therefore no man achieves prophecy by means of his own effort and exertion, but rather by God’s favor, as the Apostle Peter affirms, writing that this once was granted, not by human volition, but by the Holy Spirit.
POLY. You have subtly, copiously, clearly and happily come to the epilogue to the first half of your promise. Now you must deal with its second half.
13. ROB. It is ready at hand, I am striving towards it. Now, prophets began to spring up virtually from the time of the world’s creation. For the prophet Abraham is called by the Lord at Genesis 20, where He commands King Abimelech, who had abducted his wife Sarah, “ Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet.” And in any event, Abraham was a prophet, as you will learn in due time, if our discourse touches upon him.
POLY. It will, I have no doubt. For I shall bring you to a context wherein you will have occasion to explain this.
ROB. Possibly I shall do so. Likewise the Lord said to Moses, “See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.” The story is found at Exodus 20.
POLY. And this was the beginning of prophecy?
ROB. Yes it was.
POLY. But this escapes me in my uncertainty: when was the office of prophet first bestowed on Abraham, as you say?
ROB. If you exhibit curiosity in this way about the time and causes of each and every thing, we shall encounter no end, not only of understanding, but also of investigation and doubting. Nevertheless, I shall show you. From the very beginning, the Lord started addressing Abraham in visions, when He bade him go to Canaan and foretold that his seed would possess that area of land reaching from the River Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates. Likewise He commanded circumcision and much else which He desired Moses to proclaim to the Jews for their observation. The Book of Genesis account is well known.
POLY. Enough. But after you have derived the origin of divine vision from its original source, it is proper that at the same time we ask the reason why it pleased God to disclose His secrets to mortals in this way, I mean those secrets it was most in their interst to understand.
ROB. But I think that it is not within the power of human wit to ask and pry into these things. For, as Isiah says, “With whom took He counsel?”
POLY. With the prophets, I fancy, with whom (as you have just showed in a couple of contexts) God shared those of Gis counsels about which He wished mortals to be made aware from the very start. So explain and disclose your understanding of this business.
14. ROB. At this juncture, the Prophet Amos certainly comes to mind, who gave the reason for this when he said, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret unto His servants the prophets.”
POLY. Has God revealed all His secrets to the prophets?
ROB. You do right to ask so that henceforth we may have nothing to doubt. So hear me. God scarcely reveals all He does in heaven, or what He has done, to His prophets, but only what He is going to do on earth: the things which pertain to mankind’s salvation, if they hear and believe. Thus Noah, being instructed, learned of the coming flood. Thus Abraham received intelligence of the downfall of Sodom and Gomorrah. Thus Joseph was advised of the coming seven years’ famine. And thus Isaiah predicted that Christ was destined to be born of a virgin and to redeem us from oblivion by His death.
POLY. But what, I am asking, moves God to take the trouble to indicate such things to mortals before they occur?
ROB. Both His mercy and His justice. For out of His kindness (as St. Jerome affirms in his commentaries on Amos) God always gives men forewarning of what is to come, lest He be obliged to inflict punishment, since it is His pleasure to spare those who repent and are possessed, delighted, and cherished by sure faith, and to punish those who delight in sin and viciousness. Now you have the answer you wanted about sacred visions.
POLY. Indeed I do, but I require more. Your discourse delights my mind so greatly that it always thirsts for it in abundance.
ROB. If you act thus, we shall be so far from dining or sleeping today that I expect we shall remain awake far into the night. Perhaps you are doing this deliberately so as to cheat me out of my dinner and at the same time have a care for your exchequer, lest I cost you anything.
ROB. Jpke if you want, this is a matter of no small importance, to which it is reasonable for us to devote some time so that we can say we have duly given a full account of divine visions, and, by your leave, I ask that this be done.
ROB. Then you must finally tell me what this is, before I suffer a surfeit of lengthy conversation.
15. POLY. I find that once upon a time it was the habit of the gods’ prophets to issue their oracles in one of three ways, by words, signs, and in writing. In Book III of the Aeneid Vergil describes the first way, when he has Aeneas consult Thymbraean Apollo about his navigation. For everything else about his future had been foretold by almighty Jove, as the Harpy Celaeno testifies when she sings, “‘Grant us a true home, Apollo, grant a weary people walls, and a race, and a city that will endure. Protect this second citadel of Troy, that survives the Greeks and pitiless Achilles. Whom should we follow? Where do you command us to go? Where should we settle? Grant us an omen, father, to stir our hearts.’ I had scarcely spoken: suddenly everything seemed to tremble, the god’s thresholds and his laurel crowns, and the whole hill round us moved, and the tripod groaned as the shrine split open. Humbly we seek the earth, and a voice comes to our ears: ‘Enduring Trojans, the land which first bore you from its parent stock, that same shall welcome you, restored, to its fertile breast. Search out your ancient mother. There the house of Aeneas shall rule all shores, his children’s children, and those that are born to them.” The same poet introduces Helenus employing the second method, when he gives a token of sure salvation to his fellow Trojans, saying, “Goddess-born,” and adds, “I shall explain a few things of many, in my words to you, so you may travel foreign seas more safely, and can find rest in an Italian haven.”
16. And he continues: “I shall tell you of signs: keep them stored in your memory. When, in your distress, you find a huge sow lying on the shore, by the waters of a remote river, under the oak trees, that has farrowed a litter of thirty young, a white sow, lying on the ground, with white piglets round her teats, that place shall be your city, there’s true rest from your labors.” This poet remembers the third way, when in his work Helenus advises Aeneas to visit the Sibyl: “Once brought there, approach the city of Cumae, the ghostly lakes, and Avernus, with its whispering groves, gaze on the raving prophetess, who sings the Fates deep in the rock, and commits names and signs to leaves. Whatever verses the virgin writes on the leaves, she arranges in order.” And in Book VI he summarizes the entire business, “just do not entrust your songs to leaves.” These things being the case, I want to ask you further, did those prophets, the spokesmen of God Almighty, imitate such seers in revealing the future?
17. ROB. How can one man imitate another when he himself was the earlier? Next to none of the pagan gods, let alone their oracles, were in existence at the time that supreme prophet Moses commenced using his words to reveal God’s secrets to the Hebrews, employing signs to induce them to believe, and instituting written laws teaching them how to live happily and well, as is related throughout Exodus. Therefore the gods’ seers did not invent this means of forecasting. Rather you should call them imitators, since this method originated among the Jews and became so deeply rooted that later prophets also observed it. For, not to speak of others, Elijah used many words, albeit no writing, and likewise Elisha said no little when they delivered their message to kings, as is clear in 4 Kings [K. J. V. 2 Kings]. Those prophets likewise delivered their forecasts by signs. For Elijah, being asked by Elisha that he bequeath him a double portion of his spirit, gave him a sign whereby he might understand he had gained his wish, saying, “If thou see me when I am taken from thee., it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.” The story is well known from the second chapter of that same book how Elisha employed a sure sign to foretell to King Joash that he would inflict great slaughter on Syria the same number of times that he had stricken the ground with his spear, which he did three times and afterwards greatly afflicted the Syrians thrice. But first of all Isaiah and then a number of others committed their forecasts to writing. And so the prophets predicted the future by words, signs, or writings before the soothsayers of the gods, who later, being mad deceivers, imitated them in their divination as a means of misleading gullible mortals.
POLY. Now, assuredly, I confess I am satisfied in full, and you have set forth the thing accurately, copiously, and learnedly.
ROB. Have I satisfied you? Gods love me, how I rejoice that I have been of service to your possible enthusiasms, which have done so much for both my health and my pleasure, inasmuch as this is the reason I visited you, that I might relax my mind a little bit, which I am doing by walking and disputing, and in a better way than by hunting or birding, something even the lowest of the low are capable of doing. This is why I am surprised that our nobility is so devoted only to the hunt, and exercise themselves in that from boyhood onwards. In comparison with that, a great number do little by way of devoting themselves to the other goodly arts. This is why I am greatly in your debt because, while I have been rusticating, you have obliged me to devote myself to this discourse, a source of both advantage and supreme happiness.
18. POLY. We’ll do this very same thing tomorrow and as many days that we spend at this villa, since, as I see, there’s nothing you would prefer and you are quite untroubled by conversing with me longer.
ROB. I shall be quite untroubled, if you take the right path in your disputation. For thus far you have taken the lead so often and with such enthusiasm in our discussion of prodigies that it is now necessary to turn back if we wish to accomplish what we intended to achieve at the outset.
POLY. This will be useful. For now that all stumbling-blocks have been removed from our way, we shall not trip up. But let’s return to dreams, so we may come to a conclusion about their nature. After that, all of today’s and tomorrow’s discussion will be about prodigies. So, first and foremost, there comes to mind that dream of Joseph, son of Jacob, about which Josephus writes in Book II of the Antiquities. Having reaped wheat with his brothers, during the following night he beheld in his sleep his standing sheaf being adored by the sheaves gathered by his brothers. Likewise he saw the sun, the moon, and eleven stars prostrate at his feet worshipping him. On the following day he revealed this dream to this father and brothers. And thus it did indeed come to pass: not long thereafter his father Jacob took his entire family and went down into Egypt to join Joseph, whom he had heard Pharaoh had set in the highest place of honor, just as he had already conjectured would come to pass, having interpreted the dream thus, that the moon and the sun were his parents (since the one had begotten him and the other had given him nourishment), and that the stars were his eleven brothers (for such was their number) who would someday look up to Joseph, revering and adoring him). Let me add another, namely the vision of Pharaoh, which the same Josephus recalls. He say seven fat cattle and the like number of lean, and likewise seven full ears of corn and seven empty ones. Joseph’s interpretation of his dream was that there would be seven years of abundant harvests and seven of scarcity. Likewise we may briefly consider the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who saw a statue with a golden head, silver arms, a brass belly, and iron feet, and a rock come down from a mountain smashing the statue, and growing so large that scarce the whole would could contain it. On the basis of this dream, the Prophet Daniel foresaw that after other kingdoms, even that of the Romans, gradually grew weak and were ultimately destroyed, only that stone would remain unchanged. And so it came to pass, since (as is said in Psalm 117) the stone is Christ’s, which the Jews, like builders, rejected, and yet everything is bound by its power.
ROB. You’ve made your speech, and I didn’t interrupt. By the gods, what’s the point of all that? We decided to deal with prodigies, but you forgot your duty and went back to dreams, which we’ve handled elsewhere.
19. POLY. I haven’t gone at all astray, indeed, I deliberately recounted dreams in which, I hear, things both true and important things were foreshadowed, to the extent that I imagine they deserve to be called prodigies. So I beg and beseech you to explain their oracles.
ROB. What need is there for interpretation, since in two of those everything is obvious? For the one, as said by St. Ambrose, deals with the mysteries of Christ, and in the other (as Origen says). the grace of God, is made manifest, Who refused to let the Israelites, whom He was determined to spare, perish of hunger. If anything is hidden in the third, you yourself have brought it to light. But, since we have wandered away from our intended course, I think it best for us to inquire about the nature and source of dreams, and then hasten on with our agenda after this thing has been disputed as briefly as we can.
POLY. Blessed be you for your virtue! How happy you make me, when that which I hope to gain from you is already at your fingertips, something which, as far as I can see, is more important to me than anything else!
ROB. They tell us there are two kinds of dream, the one divine and the other human, and to these they add a third called (if I may say so) demonic. Not only our Christian theologians approve of the divine kind: before their time, Homer said in Book I of the Iliad, “and a dream is sent by Zeus.” Then too, Plato and Aristotle were of the opinion that dreams were heaven-sent, but only to those men who are wise and vigilant, as Aristotle states in his book De Divinatione per Somnium, who suspected this because dumb beasts and the silly common run of mankind also have dreams. Our Christians do not greatly differ from him when they think that visions are sent by God to certain elect men, but not to everybody in general. Thus, as you just showed us, Joseph had such dreams, as those kings of Egypt and Babylon received oracles in their sleep. and so the Magi, and Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary, were warned in dreams: the former that they should not return to Herod, and the latter that he should take the infant Jesus and his mother and remove into Egypt, as is recounted by the evangelist Matthew. Furthermore, as Cicero writes, Posidonius held that men dream in accordance with divine inspiration in three ways: one which the mind foresees for itself, since it is gripped by an understanding of the gods; a second, because the air is full of immortal intelligences, in which whom identifiable marks of truth are apparent; and, third, that the gods themselves speak with sleepers. So much for divine dreams. But the authors of antiquity fail to agree on a single cause of dreams which are human (by which I mean natural). For Socrates in Plato divides all the mind’s power into three parts, one of which he thinks participates in intelligence and reason, a second containing a certain boorish ferocity, and a third in which exist passion and pleasure.
20. These things being the case, he thinks that, when the first part languishes in a stupor induced by food and drink, the second roisters in a dream, exults, and presents the dreamer with all kinds of foul, unclean, and cruel visions, so that he sees himself having intercourse with his mother or animals, or killing or torturing somebody, and many nasty things of that kind. On the other hand, if the third has become sedate and a person goes to bed after enjoying a moderate regimen and diet, his soul is then driven and impelled to taking counsel and to a feast of good thoughts, and so is lively and keen for dreaming, and so it will come about that calm visions occur to him, tranquil and true. Therefore Plato bids us go to sleep with our bodies so disposed that nothing exists which will purvey error or disturbance to our minds. This is why Pythagoras is said to have forbidden his disciples to eat beans, because this is a windy foodstuff inimical to the peace of a truth-seeking mind, inasmuch as when the mind is separated from any association with or awareness of the body, then it divines. This is particularly true upon the approach of death, as is the experience of those affected by any fatal disease. Indeed, if you want to dream more or less, you will be instructed by Pliny, who in Book XVIII, on the authority of Fabian, says that we dream the most when lying on our backs but not at all when lying face-down, just as the say that our dreams are more truthful after midnight. In the end of Book I of his Satires Horace says, “And as for myself, who was born on this side the water, when I was about making Greek verses, Romulus appearing to me after midnight, when dreams are true, forbade me in words to this effect.” And yet Aristotle says that natural dreams occur to us randomly and by happenstance, and he posits three kinds of these in his book De Somno et Vigilia. the first when there is a cause why those things are foreseen, the second when there are signs, and the third (which he calls accidental) occurs when the dream offers no cause or sign. For example, in a dream I suddenly see Italy suddenly ablaze with war, just as has happened. Just as that vision is not the cause of the war, so it is not a sign. But in those suffering disease, the causes of their afflictions of mind or body, are especially evident and dreams, which is why skilled physicians pay particular attention to them. Causes of future events exist in this way: if a manwho has decided to go to Rome but forgets his intention (although its image has been planted in his inner senses) subsequently dreams of doing this proposed thing, and, thus reminded, begins making his way Romeward, then it is agreed that such a dream was the cause of his journey. And so some dreams are said to present a cause, others a sign, and yet others neither of these. I come back to happenstance dreams, which occur in such a way that our waking thoughts can be the reason why we deal with these same things at night, as can happen if the things of which we dream are the starting-points of those things we undertake after our period of repose, as if the mind functions, as it were, as a route leading to those future actions, which were previously planned out by images as we slept.
21. POLY. All of this is highly pleasing, particularly the things you set forth taken from Socrates. But, according to these rules of yours, I do not see how dreams can be false.
ROB. Pardon me for saying so, but the things you are babbling are self-contradictory. You appear to be teasing me when you both say that everything pleases you and that I am ignoring error in dreams, as if what we think about, brood on, and imagine when wakeful contains nothing false, nothing invented, nothing vain, although just now I proved that our daytime activities often serve as models for our dreams.
POLY. I noticed that very thing, but it does not satisfy me. In the past twenty years I have seen hundreds of things in my sleep of which my mind had never previously beheld an image. So I agree with the poet, who accurately sang concerning this matter, “but the ghosts of Hades send up false dreams into our world.”
ROB. Yes, but elsewhere he affirms that our dreams imitate our actions, when he makes Dido, love-stricken, anxious and distraught, say to her sister Anna, “Sister Anna, what dreams terrify me in my suspense!” But I am surprised that such visions occur to you, who are plunged in books day and night, since, as the same Aristotle bears witness, men do not dream of things outside their own experiences.
POLY. I have indeed devoted myself wholeheartedly to my studies, as you say, and I find the greatest repose in so doing. But I admit that I am occasionally disturbed by concern for some domestic matter. For at home we have servants who are idling almost all the time, and do our priests act otherwise? When, as is they are habit, they are constantly armed with very long swords and shields, they don’t know how to stay at rest and sometimes get into squabbles and quarrel. But since, as you know, such gentlemen serve as an ornament to a household, of necessity we swallow the inconveniences they cause us.
ROB. Surely this is the reason you think of things inconsistent with yourself, inasmuch as, just as water greatly riled up reflects no image or form, so a troubled mind perceives nothing genuine when asleep.
22. POLY. And so the dreams served up to carefree clowns and fools are truer?
ROB. You should not say truer, but rather fewer. And so you should understand that dreamers sometimes dream the truth. For who is so unskilled that, if he has been throwing all day, he doesn’t sometimes hit the mark? Wherefore you shouldn’t deny that we are sent false dreams, but rather I tell you, as does Cratippus, that the man who uses his eyes so as to see true things has the perception of truth-seeing eyes whereas, on the contrary, the man deceived in his eyesight frequently observes false things. And, inasmuch as there nobody who is not deceived by his vision (which is very misleading), so, with the exception of divine dreams and, if you will, certain natural ones which can foreshadow our actions, since chance dreams often befall us so that, like drunkards, we often dream all manner of dreams with are unclean (as we have previously gathered from Socrates) or about things we have never seen. The result is that we say those who are mistaken, delirious or mad are dreaming. This is the reason why Moses wisely ordained by law that dreams should not be interpreted, since (always excepting divine one), they are generally found to be vain, so that superstitious antiquity found very few results to correspond to their observation.
POLY. Can you plainly state whether you think natural dreams are to be excluded or not?
ROB. If their cause is natural, why should I think they ought to be ruled out or condemned, since (as St. Ambrose says in De Fuga Saeculi, nature is the mother of good work? Let this serve as an example: I think, diberate, and decide about going to the countryside tomorrow. If I dream of the countryside again tonight, am I observing any novelty other than that I shall do what I have decided? Or what is surprising if I think I am doing some base misdeed and something of the sort soon thereafter appears to me in my sleep? And even if it could stand me in good stead, if I am wise, moved by that apparition of criminality I should then shrink from committing the felony. And thus nature is “the mother of good work.” So you shouldn’t delay me with those trivial questions of yours.
POLY. We should pass over these things, so that that which you ask for so vehemently may be granted you. But I require to learn this one thing: what’s the reason why our visions sometimes come wrapped in so many riddles?
23. ROB. If the dream is divine, this happens so that the man who understands it may realize he is being inspired by divine illumination, since there’s always some illumination in divine dreams, declaring the nature of God’s mandate. Thus Joseph understood it when, moved by a dream, he realized that he had to flee into Egypt as quickly as possible, taking that infant boy and his mother. Thus the Magi perceived they should not return to Herod. If there is no natural cause present and the dream is not easily understood, then the dreamer may rest assured that this vision was presented to him by the cunning of demons. And this is our third kind of dream, by which plenty of men are ensnared if they are not prudently on their guard. You have what you asked for. Now do your duty.
POLY. Nunc there’s need for your virtue, since (as Cicero said in De Officiis) it particularly in our interest to ascertain what in any given instance is true and real, what its relations are, its consequences, and its causes, something most greatly requisite in a consideration of prodigies. And you should think that you need strive might and main to provide an account of this. And I for my part will first of all propose something which is mentioned by Josephus in Book V of his Antiquities. When five allied kings of the Ammorrhites attacked the citizens of Gabaon, while the Hebrew commander Joshua, bent on bringing supplies to those friends (for he had already entered into a league with the Gabaonies), was marching against the kings, behold, in accordance with God’s will a cloud thick with hailstones arose against those kings, and when Joshua pursued them as they fled, terrified by this miracle, the sun is said to have stood still a while so that the day would not fail him, with the result that the tradition existed among the Hebrews that no longer day had ever existed.
ROB. I deny that that can be called a prodigy since, as you say, this was done in accordance with the will of God, and because there was nothing a man could have adjudged to be portended, inasmuch as this event occurred of a sudden. And so you may better call it a miracle or a timely divine help. And the result of this is that I do not believe there is any causation I need to describe in this case. So you should henceforth desist from recounting miracles, so that we may not be said to be over-bold in prying into God’s secrets, which He wished us to admire rather than to understand.
24. POLY. I shall do as you command, and, so that everything will be happy and speed well, the starting-point of my narration will be the prodigy involved in the foundation of the city of Athens, from which in his speech for Lucius Flaccus Cicero says we should regard civilization, learning, religion, agriculture, justice and laws to have been broadcast throughout the earth. It is said that, after Cecrops had gained the throne in Attica, an olive tree spntaneously sprang up in that citadel which in after times was dedicated to Pallas, and that not far away a fountain suddenly gushed forth, so that, provoked by those prodigies, the king sent to the Oracle of Delphi. He was given the response that the olive tree represented Minerva, because she was patroness of that tree, and the water stood for Neptune, and it was up to the citizens to choose by which of their names they wished the new city to be called. A public meeting was convened, at which the women (who among the people of Attica were permitted to vote, just like their menfolk) outnumbered the men, and for this reason the city was named Athens after Minerva, whom the Greeks called Ἀθηνᾶ, i. e., Athena.
ROB. From what ditch-water did you imbibe that stuff? Have you been recounting a myth or the story of a prodigy?
POLY. Since I know you are annoyed by trifles, I have purposefully omitted the myth upon which the Poet touches in Book I of his Georgics: “And you, Neptune, for whom the earth first produced whinnying horses, stricken by your trident.” And a little later: “Minerva, who discovered the olive.”
ROB. If that’s a history, it was no prodigy. For was there anything about the origin of that tree to make men suspect that anything was being foretold about naming that new town, when daily we see trees of that kind springing up in strange places, sown by nuts or berries, such as a nut tree within an oak, a laurel in a cherry tree, a cherry in walls, arising from a seed which has chanced to be brought to those placesand planated within crannies in tree bark by birds, or thrown by human force, and yet no event follows from them? Likewise, where in the world do fountains not gush forth if the earth (which is abundant with water) is dug a little? So I see no prophecy in that business. Oh, the blindness of truly mindless men! Was Minerva inspired when an olive was born in a strange place, or Neptune when a fountain suddenly welled up, to honor Attica with their gifts? This was the craft of demons, by which Cecrops was gulled into foolishly consulting them about a thing requiring no investigation, being something that should have provoked no doubt. I see you are ready to oppose me by citing Book XVII of Pliny’s Natural History, who counts it among prodigies when trees grow in soil not their own.
25. POLY. Indeed I was. For he calls it a prodigy when crab apples grow out of a sweet apple tree or vice versa, or a fig from a wild olive. Likewise that a tree collapsed in the district of Cumae, followed by great upheavals and even civil wars.
ROB. A fine prediction of events, by Hercules, as if every day we don’t see fertile trees grow barren and barren ones turn fruitful, if they are transplanted to fat soil, as Vergil shows in Book II of the Georgics: “Trees that lift themselves into the regions of light spring up unfruitful, but are pleasing and vigorous, since there’s a natural power in the soil: these too, if grafted, or transplanted in well-dug trenches, they will lose their woodland nature, and in careful cultivation will not be slow to follow any pattern you wish. And indeed the barren sucker that springs from the base of the stem will do this if set in open ground.” Likewise, is is not well known that sometimes, when great rains have fallen, there is a widespread blight in the countryside, the ground sinks to an immeasurable depth, and villas and even trees often fall into that chasm? This being so, it is equally a mark of a silly judgment to observe such things and measure the outcomes of events from them, in which there can scarcely reside any causations. It’s like asking why a little gnat makes its way, shrilly buzzing amidst great heat, and flits about the banks of the Po.
POLY. Let’s move on to other things. In Book I of his Ab Urbe Condita Livy writes that the head of Servius Tullius, Tarquinius Priscus’ successor as King of Rome, was surrounded with fire, which his queen Tanaquil, interpreting this as a prodigy, affirmed that this boy, after he grew to manhood, was destined to gain the highest honors, which did come to pass.
26. ROB. I understand the outcome but I discern no causation, and do not think we should look for one. For Pliny, II.cvii, attributes that flame surrounding the sleeping lad’s head to the wonderful nature of fire, writing, “and suddenly-erupting fires do exist, and blaze forth both on waters and also human bodies.” Valerius Antias likewise narrates how in Spain, after the Scipios were killed, Lucius Marcius was haranguing the soldiers urging vengeance, and broke out in flames in a similar way. Look here, in this passage Pliny does not claim the flame portended anything. Nor does Livy go to show that Lucius Marcius’ flame was prodigious, since in Book XXV he writes about it, “All these authors dwell upon the greatness of Marcius, and they exaggerate the glory he really won by describing a supernatural incident. Whilst he was addressing his troops they say that a flame shot from his head, without his being aware of it, to the great terror of the soldiers standing round. ” Thus Livy. So did one flame predicted the kingship for Servius, and the other nothing at all for Marcius? But you’ll say, “Yes, it promised Marcius the victory he won over the Carthaginians a little later.” I’ll answer, this was scarcely appreciated by the Roman soldiers, who, as Livy says, regarded the flame as a miracle, not a prodigy. And they were wise so to do, for in Book I of his Meteorology Aristotle teaches that such flames are created in the lowest region of the air by the wonderful force of nature, and assume various forms. Hence we may conclude that it was according to the vain opinion of men that that flame was a prodigy predicting Servius kingship, after antiquity chose to to measure such works of nature not by reason, but only by their own futile observation, and foolishly to infer their cause. The flame was not the reason why Tarquinius Priscus chose his son-in-law as his successor (for he had married his daughter to him); rather it was because of his character, since he, born into a royal family on his father’s side: his father had died at Corniculum fighting bravely on behalf of his nation and he was also born of his mother Ocretia, a noblemen, but was reckoned as a slave because she had been taken captive at Tarquini.
27. POLY. Are you at least willing to concede that that flame brought to Tanaquil’s mind a presentiment of Servius’ character? For, as Cicero attests, Plato’s future eloquence was foreseen because bees settled on his lips whilst he was asleep in his cradle. The same is recalled to have befallen St. Ambrose. And what of the fact that it was predicted that the wealth of the Phyrgian Midas would be boundless because while he was sleeping as a boy ants stored grains of wheat in his mouth?
ROB. I concede it, but only of all that is true. For they strike me as pretty conjectures, or, if the common tales are to be believed, if you do not deny that they occurred by divine intervention. It is no obstacle that Plato and Midas were not our fellow Christians. For virtue and good deeds count for so much in God’s eyes (and He say that these were destined to be present in both of them) that, as St. Augustine put it in Book V of The City of God, the Romans were so well-deserving that the true God increased their empire although they did not worship Him.
POLY. As always, you have explained that about which I was curious lucidly, learnedly, sententiously, and very truthfully. And so of necessity we must now make and end to our conversation and our walk. For, as you see, we are prevented by the time of day, and the sun is hastening towards its setting.
BOOK III OF THE DIALOGUES ON PRODIGIES BY POLYDORE VERGIL OF URBINO
ROBERT Lest we allow this third day which has crept up on us to remain devoid of a disputation, let us happily complete the voyage of our discussion concerning prodigies, having been carried this far by fair winds. But so that in your discourse may at least be organized, although I can scarcely tell how much truth and reason it can possess, since it deals with a superstitious, vain subject, I hope itis your pleasure to derive it from sources. Let the first of these consist of all displays and auguries, the second of the movements of heaven and earth, the third of monstrosities and portents, and the fourth of wonders, all of which antiquity appears to have counted as prodigies. Thus we may unerringly make our way to reason by traveling this highway of truth by which we begun our journey. If you persist in the profitable manner you have begun, I at the same time will be able to approach them in my argumentative way.
POLYDORUS I am happy that you have issued me with this injunction concerning how far in disputation you desire me to go, so that I might not depart from this line by so much as a finger’s breath. But now let’s get down to business. When Aeneas was striving to reach Italy, his father Anchises discovered an omen of the coming upheaval in some horses he witnessed grazing. Vergil testifies to this when he sings in Book III, “Here I see four horses in the long grass, white as snow, grazing widely over the plain, our first omen. And my father Anchises cries: ‘Oh foreign land, you bring us war. Horses are armed for war, war is what this herd threatens.’” When discord broke out between Romulus and his brother Remus about power, he who managed to name the city after himself was declared king by an augury, and to this day it is regarded as the queen of cities. After Tarquinius Priscus, the son of Demarathus of Corinth, fled his home because of civic strive and came to Etruria, while he was making his way to from Tarquinium to Rome, it happened that while he was sitting in his wagon hard by the Janiculum, an eagle snatched up his cap, soared aloft, than set it back on his head. At which point, his wife Tanquil (being an Etruscan woman skilled in prodigies since her girlhood), interpreted this as an omen of his coming rule, and not long thereafter Priscus replaced the dead Roman king Ancus Marcius. It is said that the Roman king Tarquinius Superbus suddenly obtained an omen of Rome’s eternal empire while laying the foundations of a temple of Jove on the Tarpeian Hill. The god Terminus, who along with several other gods had a shrine at that place, refused to defer to that omen. But then a second omen concerning the magnitude of the empire followed, when a human head (caput) with its face intact was discovered in those same foundations, a thing which gave the hill its name of the Capitoline. A third omen, of a contrary sort, befell Rome’s last king, when a snake slithered into his palace, from which Tarquin is said to have gathered a foreboding of his downfall. The story is told by Titus Livy.
2. In addition to these, a very famous manifestation has come down to posterity. For when the consul Marcus Marcellus (whose colleague was Titus Quintius Crispinus) was making the sacrifices, a headless liver was discovered in the victim. A swarm of bees settled at Casinum, and mice were nibbling at the gold stored on the Capitoline. On that very day both consuls were ambushed by Hannibal near Tarentum, in which struggle Marcellus was killed. In the consulship of Caius Domitius Ahenobarbus and Lucius Quintius, the Tiber (contrary to its usual custom) flooded the low-lying parts of the city. Not long thereafter a war broke out with King Antiochus of Syria. In the year 619 after the city’s foundation, the consul Paulus Aemilius, about to wage wage war against Perseus the Macedonian, received an omen of victory from his daughter Tertia. For coming home from the Senate he found the girl plunged into gloom and asked her the reason for her sorrow. “Oh father,“ se said, “Persa has died.” Then the father tightly embraced the girl, saying to his daughter “I accept this omen.” For a cat named Persa had died. At about the same time two snakes were found in the bed of Sempronius Gracchus, and when he had seized them he was advised by a haruspex, if he let go of the male, his wife would soon die, but if he released the female, then he would. He was so far from preferring his own welfare to the life of his wife Cornelia that he immediately let the female go, and he himself died a few days thereafter. On the selfsame day that he was murdered on the Capitoline, this man’s son Tiberius Gracchus, the Tribune of the People, stumbled, and was so frightened by that evil omen that he wanted to return home, but his spirits were bucked up by the encouragement of his friends, so he went to meet his doom. When the consuls Caius Claudius and Lucius Petellius were making the customary sacrifices, a liver suddenly suddenly started to waste away, and soon afterwards Claudius died by a disease and Petellius by the arms of the Ligures. In the consulship of Marcus Marcellus and Publius Sulpicius, while the public elections were being conducted, a soaring kite carrying a weasel it had snatched from Jupiter’s shrine dropped it amidst the Fathers, and in that very same year peace prevailed all over the world. It was then, I fancy, that the encounter with the weasel acquired an ominous value in men’s minds, something which is observed even nowadays, since it was beneficial for the Roman Republic that the weasel was removed from their midst, with the result that it would not encounter men going to and fro from the elections and fill them with fear from some impending peril.
3. During the consulship of Publius Africanus and Caius Fulvius, a wolf savaged a night watchman at Minturnae. A Roman army was bested by fugitive slaves in Sicily. King Antiochus fought a war against the Parthians, and a swallow built its nest in his tent. When battle was joined, he was killed. In the consulship of Servius Flaccus and Quintus Calpurnius, an owl hooted on the Capitoline while Rome suffered a defeat at Numantia. In the consulship of Publius Plautus and Marcus Fulvius, an owl was seen on the Capitoline when Fregalla was sacked because it had joined in a league against Rome. During the consulship of Marcus Aemilius and Decimus Brutus, Pompey’s legate Didius Laelius fought a war against Quintus Sertorius in Spain and was killed while fighting alongside his foragers, a fate which he was said to have feared because he had seen a hawk flying above his head. In the consulship of Sergius Galba and Marcus Scaurus, a fiery bird was seen in the city, and then the Po and Lake Aretinus overflowed and many thousands of men were overwhelmed. On the day when Caius Julius Caesar sat on his golden throne, when he sacrificed he found no heart in the bull’s innards, and from this he could have gained a presentiment of his death. In the consulship of Marcus Lepidus and Munacius Plancus, while hard by the Thracian city of Philippi Brutus’ soldiers marched to do battle against Octavius and Mark Antony, they encountered an Ethiopian at the gate of their encampment, whom they straightway cut down as if he were the messenger of some reverse, but nevertheless they lost the battle and their commanders Brutus and Cassius were killed. Around 50 A. D., during the reign of Claudius, in Britain the statue of Victory at Camulodunum was suddenly turned backwards as if fleeing its enemies, and then a revolt of the islanders suddenly erupted and about seventy thousand of the Romans and their allies were killed, as described by Cornelius Tacitus. When in the year 1067 Duke William of Normandy invaded England, he accepted it as an omen when his feet stuck in the sand, and immediately thereafter he got the better of King Harold and came into possession of the island. What of the fact that an omen can be discovered in anything you care to name? For good and bad outcomes continue to be perceived in the sound of breezes or the spilling of wine or salt at a dinner table. Likewise, encountering one of our monks anywhere, particularly in the morning, is commonly deemed ominous, and this vain opinion has filled men’s minds throughout the world. If anybody has praised a handsome baby or a pretty animal, unless he immediately adds “God save this baby“ and “May Saints Antony and Eligius protect this animal” (they are patron saints of horses), this is deemed to be of ill omen. But I’ll mention no more out of countless examples, since they’re all of the same sort, so much so that, if one has exploded these, it is necessary that the others collapse as well. So what to you have to say about them?
4. ROB. You’ve made your summation, as is your right. Now now I’ll respond a little for the sake of refuting the pestilent foolishness of the ancients and the devices of demons, and particularly that which you say about Aeneas’ advent in Italy. At the display of the horses, Anchises predicted war between Aeneas’ son and the Italians, and you set your seal of approval on this because of Vergil’s testimony. Then, going no farther, you passed on to other subjects. What, damn it, is this reticence of yours? You only quoted half of Anchises’ interpretation, and shrewdly, as I think, kept silent about what he went on to say about the horses in the same poet: “Yet those same creatures one day can be yoked to a chariot, and once yoked will suffer the bridle in harmony: there’s also hope of peace.” Pray notice how convenient and conjoined is the constancy of this interpretation, which so points in both directions that it can show nothing certain, nothing that creates confidence, since it contains within itself such strongly self-contradictory elements. For nothing is as inconsistent with peace as war, or with war as peace. Hence it follows that those horses, which chanced to be pasturing there at the time, should not strike anybody as portending anything at all definite, except the fullness of their bellies and the danger of that grass. As for Romulus founding the city of Rome auspiciously, what else did he accomplish than what he clearly showed: that he, bewitched in both his eyes and his mind, was under the impression that there was some science in foreseeing things by augury, and set an example for posterity whereby it was forever mad? And this is what ensued, with a vengeance. For it was always so highly valued by the Romans, albeit it was full of malevolent delirium that Rome doggedly clung to it all the time and punctually, more to satisfy popular opinion than for any advantage to the state, albeit they were always of the opinion that Romulus with his auspices and Numa with his sacred innovations had laid such foundations for their nation that it could never fail. Led by these false opinions, they established a college of augurs and gave it authority, as if it were the governor of things that would endure forever. Oh the mighty power of error! By the immortal gods, let us see how much human advantage and profit was brought by birds with their flight, their chattering, their eating, or their song, when, contrary to Romulus’ auspices, the Roman Republic, that consummate observer of auguries, was entirely stripped of all the benefits of its liberty, immediately after celebrating the seventh century of its foundation, when overturned by Julius Caesar. And so the Romans squandered all the effort they had foolishly invested in taking auspices. That this is the common experience was wisely shown by Solomon, that most insightful of men, when he spoke about a deceiver in his proverbs, “He who employs deceits feeds the winds, and likewise he who chases after birds on the wing.” And furthermore he who chases after birds on the wing when he can’t catch them, and likewise he who observes their flight, is wasting his effort, insofar as no man knows for sure whither they are going.
5. But let us now turn to natural reason, under the guidance of which, I trust, we shall abolish the religion of the ancients. For beasts are only moved by that which is currently at hand, and accommodate themselves to that which is present, having forebodings about nothing other than fair or stormy weather (as was fitly shown in our conversation the day before yesterday). Wherefore (to deal with our subject) birds rely on the impulse of nature in their physical movements as they fly, stretching, contracting and bending their limbs, and they do all these things before they think about it. This being the case, who is so demented as to think it wonderful if birds, flitting hither and thither, should go off in this way or in that? If they sing from the right or from the left? For, as Cicero attests, our folk thought the left hand side was favorable, whereas the Greeks and the barbarians imagined it was the right. What if they are famished and eat greedily, and if something drops from their mouths? If afterwards they hop around? And yet the majority of mankind most stupidly observed their movements as if they were definite indications of future events, as if those birds (who in their eyes are the equivalent of God Almighty) were themselves interpreters of Jove. This manner of thinking should make Man, that single one out of all beings filled with reason and counsel, to blush no small amount at believing that God grants him means of forecasting the outcome of things by means of little birds who, when they take wing, themselves have no idea where they want to go, and so places his trust in the art of augury, that most deceptive art in human history, invented (as they boast) by the Etruscans, once upon a time deviously dreamt up for the sake of turning a profit. And no man has more clearly and wittily described its worth than Mosollamus, a Jew endowed with military skill and singular wisdom. As Joseph attests in Contra Appion, he joined the Macedonians and Greeks after the death of Alexander. After he had been taken along in their expedition for a while, and while an augur caught sight of a bird in a tree and wished to take auspices whether it was better to march onwards or turn back, and so bade the army come to a halt, he, repelled by this superstition, killed the bird with an arrow. At the sight of this the augur and his companions boiled over with wrath, but he picked up the bird from the ground and said, “Are you mad, you evil demons? Take a look: could this bird predict the outcome of our expedition when it was ignorant about its own future?” For if it had foreseen its future, it would hardly have perched in that tree, fearing lest it be hit by Molossam’s arrow. You very aptly included this as an anecdote full of wisdom in your work De Inventoribus Rerum. You now have been shown that the whole business of bird-gazing is bogus, and is defeated here to the point that the man who places his trust in it indubitably involved in manifest error. But perhaps you will object to me (not untimely and not unjustifiably) those ravens we read about in 3 Kings [K. J. V. 1 Kings], which brought the prophet Elijah food in the wilderness. There is no reason for you to demand a cause or an explanation for this thing, since it is agreed all of this was done in conformity with God’s command. Is there any man who could or should pass judgment on so great a Ruler?
6. So far these things have gone well enough, being said merely for the sake of my discourse. For our affairs are in good order. Nowadays augury is obsolete among us, we do not observe little birds as if they were God’s messengers. Rather we either keep them in our homes to sing for our amusement or sometimes catch them outdoors and take pleasure in eating them, all that remains for the Christian religion, which has given us such instruction that at length we have come somewhat to our senses. Let’s move on to the rest. As for the fact that Tanaquil, that Etruscan women skilled in deceit, perceived by means of an eagle’s augury that her husband Tarquinius Priscus was destined someday to be made king, I deny that this happened. For Livy does not report that anybody other than his wife saw that eagle carrying off and replacing the cap on his head. More likely relying on wealth (of which she possessed an abundance, as Livy reports) than wings, desired her husband (whom she desired to have honored) to remove to Rome. For the fortune of King Tatius, a Sabine gentleman who had gained the throne there, had come to her mind, and likewise that of Numa, a foreigner fetched there. Their examples fired the woman with such lust for honor that she persuaded her husband to migrate from Tarquinium to Rome, and, hearing that its new and ignorant people were easily swept off their feet with admiration for augurs, she resorted to this artifice so that the multitude would be inspired (and at the same time be bribed by her largesse) to think Priscus worthy of the highest fortune. Let us go on to that omen of Rome’s eternity. The god Terminus refused to make way for King Tarquinius Superbus when he intended to erect a temple of Jove on the Tarpeian Hill. Thus a fixed opinion, as it were, entered men’s heads that Rome’s affairs would last forever. Hence that oracle of Jove in Vergil, “I gave them empire without end.” Even Horace alludes to it, when in Book III of his Odes he flatters himself on the eternity of his work, singing thus: “I’ll not utterly die, but a rich part of me will escape Persephone and, fresh with the praise of posterity, I’ll rise beyond. As long as the high priest, and the silent virgin, climb the Capitol, I’ll be famous.” But, alas, being a vain omen, it had no effect. For that great empire fell even before its time, since it scarcely existed for seven hundred years with its liberty intact. For such was the number of years from the city’s founder Romulus down to Caesar and Pompey, who overthrew the Republic. Catullus wrote: “Is it on this score that you have wrecked everything in this richest of cities, father-in-law and son-in-law?”
7. According to your exposition another omen portended the greatness of the thing, that, when a human head was found in the very foundations of that Tarpeian temple, the soothsayers proclaimed that the citidel of an empire would be established in that very place. Here I want you to pay attention with an open mind, so that you may finally comprehend that these soothsayers, always armed with wiles, have by their fraudulent interpretation of this kind of manifestation rendered both their art empty of any religion, and men’s hearts (if they were had any sense) forever devoid of any enthusiasm for peering into the future. When this manifestation had been observed, the Senate sent representatives to Eururia to discover what it portended. Olenus Calenus, by far the most famous seer of his time, thought this omen to be favorable, and by a canny cross-examination he attempted to transfer its force to his own nation. After he had taken his staff and drawn a circle in the ground where a temple was to be constructed, he said, “Tell me, Romans, is this temple destined for Jupiter? Is this where we found the head?” Warned by the seer’s son that if they said “yes,“ the destiny would pass over to Etruria, they answered, “the head was not found here, we tell you, but at Rome,” And so they kept the augury for themselves Oh unheard of silliness, but highly useful for those who do not believe anything rashly! Here we can learn what weight auguries, apparitions, and portents can have in our minds if we think straight. But since I believe that all crazed delusions of this kind can be refuted by a single argument, let me rely on Pliny, a rich purveyor of information on this fateful business, a member of the same college as were they who first began to observe prodigies. In Book XXVIII of his Natural History, after describing the swindle of Olenus the seer and something else of the kind that occurred elsewhere when the clay chariots which were intended to be placed on the roof of the same temple swelled in the furnace, add these words: “Let these instances suffice to show that the power of omens is really in our own control, and that their influence is conditional upon the way we receive each. At any rate, in the teaching of the augurs it is a fundamental principle that neither evil omens nor any auspices affect those who at the outset of any undertaking declare that they take no notice of them.” Thus far Pliny. Here you have the gist of my argument. Let this one reasoning, conclusion, and attestation of the truth serve for all argumentations, inasmuch as now, by the evidence of such a great author, in the case of auspices and prodigies it has become clear that there is nothing of religion, nothing of destiny, and nothing of truth, but only a vain opinion of ours, belonging to superstition, since we know for sure that those methods of prediction, unsupported by those things, have no validity.
8. From this it follows that there would be no auspice-taking, nor augury, no prodigy, if we are not keeping a look-out for them, and nothing closer to the mark can be said. And so, since you are on the verge of beginning somehting, you should pray to God for good fortune and give your all to that thing alone and to nothing else, not to birds, portents, animal guts, or false seers. Do this and it will serve your advantage, since prodigies will not affect you so much. Pliny calls this a divine duty, and rightly so. For since so many evil arts have come down to us, it is an act of God’s mercy if we can keep our hands off them. So cease to make observations and believe that birds, or other beasts, or movements of heaven and earth can portend anything for you. Doing this is within your power, as Pliny says, and thus you will free yourself from wretched anxiety. Pray mark the fate of that head they found. If this was done by fraud, could it have been a good thing for the Etruscans and a bad one for the Romans? Whence did it come? From God, Whom they used to say thus gave mortals ways to gain an understanding of future events? Make this assumption, and it will seem that the lack of consistency belongs to God Himself, and nothing is more alien to Him. Therefore we have no more reason to regard the questionable evidence of prodigies as sure and definite things, since their powers reside in our own opinion, just as the seriousness of a disease resides in the thoughts of the ailing. For if the onset of a fever makes a vehement impression on the mind, it comes about that that onset comes all the quicker. And here let the contention of our entire disputation come to an end, since the observation of prodigies is a mark of foolishness, and the refusal to observe them is a sign of wisdom, so that the man who is concerned with them loads himself down with fear and vain hope, whereas the man who remains unconcerned frees himself from danger.
9. POLY. Hang me if I think anybody could handle the subject of our disputation more shrewdly and truthfully than yourself. Nevertheless, there’s a contrary argument which makes it seem that auspices or prodigies do pertain to us, if we heed them, as is easily shown by the outcomes of events I have already mentioned. So how does it come about that, if we heed portents, they have validity for us, but if we don’t, then they do not?
ROB. I’ve just said that they don’t. But the fact that they are considered valid comes about thanks to the craft of demons, who are always at hand setting snares for us. And this comes about not without God’s consent, for He wants us to be tried and put to the test to see if we are found to be perfected or not. Christ, Who wished to be tried, taught the truth of this when he said to Pilate (as it is told in Matthew and John), “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” Therefore we should ignore things of this light weight lest, should we think they warrant our attention, lest, if we did, we should deservedly fall into he traps of demons.
POLY. Now I grasp it properly. I beg you to continue with the rest, lest you seem to break the rule of our discourse which you yourself laid down previously.
10. ROB. You compel me to enter into a business I have already concluded, inasmuch as I have proved that apparitions depend on our futile opinion, and it is self-consistent that we abolish these things and hold them in scorn according to the same logic that we do portents and prodigies. But for your sake I’ll make a longer job of it. When King Tarquinius Superbus saw a snake in his palace, I believe, the poison of his guilty conscience overcame his mind, by which in the end he was undone. Look here, did the release of ether snake portend death for Gracchus? If Gracchus had not let go of either snake he would have been doing the duty of a good head of a family, who should allow no noxious beast to live around his house. If he did this, I must tell you, the soothsayers do not relate what followed, so much did they crave to have all men join in their folly. That while sacrificing victims Marcus Marcellus, Caius Claudius, and Caius Julius Caesar saw, respectively, a liver without a head, a rotting liver, and one without a heart, and that this portended their deaths — I find this more laughable than wonderful, because I deem it far more deserving of a stamping of feet than of an answer. Were we to ask the augurs about the causes of all these things, I am sure they would not know how to give answer and would prettily excuse their ignorance on the grounds that the inspection of innards pertains more to the functions of physicians and butchers than to their own. For a butcher is better than a seer, and a doctor than a soothsayer, at carefully inspecting innards to see if they are healthy, septic, or shrivelled by emaciation, and adjudging whether the beast would have continued to live had it not been slaughtered, or, if a man is dead by some undiagnosed disease, by what remedies he could have been helped, so that thus measures might be taken for the health of the living. Indeed, I would say that this job pertains to the shepherd and the farmer, so that, if the former sees the guts of his sheep ill affected, he might immediately take precautions for the remainder of his flock by changing pastures, and the latter, by studying the condition and color of those innards might in a timely way forecast the fertility of his fields (if we believe Democritus), and so take precautions for his farmstead in a timely manner.
11. But you will ask me, “Since this was not part of their responsibility, why did those soothsayers divine by means of guts?” Because they were very bold-faced swindlers, and since they were generally believed, in their deceit they concocted their very deceitful art, which finally disappeared when men began to be less gullible, as is shown by our own times. For nowadays nobody forms judgments by means of guts, since no man is so mad as to place any trust in what they say. What ancient crone could be convinced that in guts there resides any power for pronouncing future events? Or that any animal possessed of blood could live without a heart, since in Book IV of De Natura Animalium Aristotle affirms that no animal is ever born heartless? And so, just as this runs contrary to nature, so it also does to credibility. Likewise rumor holds that that that swarm of bees which settled at Cassinum, those mice which nibbled the gold on the Capitoline, and that overflow of the Tiber heralded dangers and war. Fine signs: that swarm of bees was a loss for the man from whose land they flew off. Perhaps those gold-chewing mice broke a tooth, but it would be more wonderful if they devoured the gold, since the characteristic of mice is to gnaw. An overflow of the Tiber, like the fury of war, often serves as a great bane in the countryside. But you are placing a serious interpretation on a silly thing, and I want you to be content with this as I hasten on to that omen of a Macedonian victory. As he was marching to war against King Perseus of Macedon, Lucius Paulus received an omen of victory from his daughter, as you have described. But I deny that it is an omen in which there is anything either natural or divine. Surely a statement by a little girl to her father, while she was ignorant both of the responsibility given her father by the Senate and the thing that he needed to do, could not indicate anything definite about the outcome of such a great war? Or did God use a cat’s death to encourage a military commander about a victory? This was a mental error, or revealed his greed for honor. Hearing of the demise of Persa the cat, Paulus imagined that the similarity of their names referred to King Perseus, whom he desired to defeat, or perhaps thanks to this domestic inconvenience he was bound to avoid a greater loss, and so was destined to come home safe and sound, victorious in war. For even nowadays the insanity remains embedded in popular opinion that, if one loses a pet, he consoles himself with the thought that he has averted any evil hanging over himself. So let us omit disputing any superstition of this kind, lest we squander our good time on fables, since the smallest stumble can bring to mind an omen, as you have said happened to Tiberius Gracchus. For example (if it is not disgraceful to say this), since nowadays one hears gunfire in a battle more than the clash of arms, if a man going off to war chances to hear a comrade farting, surely he does not deserve to get the idea that he is destined to die by gunfire? And yet you will daily be terrified by hundreds of such instances unless guided by reason, you are willing to scorn such things and always commit yourself and that which is yours to God’s care.
12. It’s no wonder that a weasel and a wolf are held to be inauspicious animals, since they live by plunder, particularly the wolf, who, driven by hunger, does not abstain from flesh lying on the ground, not to mention flesh already buried. Amd in the dark of night he does not fear encountering a man. So it was nothing strange if he savaged a night watchman, and it is not fitting that we foolishly imagine it is harmful to us if we catch sight of these beasts doing their hunting. The same is true about thinking an owl, a swallow, a hawk, that fire-bird they call the spinturnix, or any bird carrying off a live coal from a sacrificial pyre was a messenger of doom — I do not see what antiquity had in mind becoming involved in watching for extremely insignificant things of this kind. For if those birds were messengers of doom, it would follow that they would always be announcing something evil and offer nothing other than doomful signs. But since you have shown by examples of the ancients’ slack-jawed idiocy (to call it that rather than observation) that an owl sometimes signified something happy and sometimes something deadly to the Romans, this is contrary to what fate brings us, since, when every prediction of evil comes along with its attached caveat, how can this occur if the signification of the announcement cannot be determined? And so harmless little birds, flitting hither and thither for the sake of gathering their food, or loudly chirping in accordance with the dictates of their nature, surround you, there is no reason for you to feel fear if you are wise. Rather, you ought to think it is your deeds which portend good or evil things, even if even these days there are many men of unsound mind who dread the sound of an owl as a fatal thing.
13. And it is even sillier to say, let alone to actually believe, that that swallow nesting in Antiochus’ tent was a sign of that king’s death, since that bird, which we regard as a domestic one, is never happier building its nest anywhere than in our houses. And, finally, that the statue of Victory was turned backwards in Britain a little before the massacre of the Romans, and that Duke William of Normandy took a particularly deep footprint as an omen that he would gain the kingship, I would say that the former was the product of human deceit. For so the Britons, ready to revolt, terrified the Romans, imbued with the poison of that superstition from boyhood. And the latter is full of vanity. Granted that on the basis of a foot planted deep in the sand the Duke conjectured that he was destined to gain England, what reason did he have for entertaining that hope? For a foot has nothing in common with a throne, since it is a part of one’s body, nor sand with such a noble region: this is a pretty form of mindlessness rather than a metaphor. His foot slipped. Why? Because sand, dry by its nature, is slippery and gives no solid footing. And you should think the same about the ominous nature of birdsong or the spilling of salt. In the Timaeus Plato defines sound as a stroke in the air, penetrating through the ears and reaching the brain, the blood, and the liver. But Galen says that our ears have their maladies, particularly when their passage of air is obstructed, for which reason sounds are often produced. Therefore the man who imagines he hears favorably when the air makes a noise on the right, or unfavorably when on the left, he is filled with vanity and cannot distinguish between his own good and bad physical health. According to the ancients’ traditional way of thinking, spilt wine is a sign of happiness, not a cause for superstition. For, as the same Plato attests in Book I of his Laws, the Scythians and Thracians took pleasure in pouring wine on their clothes, as today the Germans do in their banquets. And wine is holy and a substance dear to God, as Plato calls it, because it is a prime purgative of corruption, and without it no sacrifice was performed. In the same way, the man who uses salt for some unnecessary purpose, or perhaps who throws some away, was deemed to be a sinner, and it seems some punishment awaited him, which is why an opinion of ominousness attached to it. As for meeting monks being ominous, I would ascribe this to the variety of their habits. For a goodly portion of them are clad in black robes, and the rest use wonderful artifice in making ones in a variety of colors. As result of which, since they perhaps desire to be considered rare men among men, they are very dissimilar to everyone else in their appearance, and meeting them makes a strong impression on men’s weak minds, even today gripped by harmful suspicion, just as is manifest when, as you have shown us, praise of the things we hold most dear unaccompanied by a well-wishing prayer seems to be harmful.
14. Once upon a time, the malice of evil demons was such that they had men convinced that there was something in their midst by which they could harm a man, not just by their words, but even by a glance, that which is called “the evil eye.” Vergil: “Some eye bewitched my tender lambs.“ About this thing Solinus writes, “There are certain families on the continent of Africa which cast spells with their voices and tongues. If someone extravagantly praises fair trees, fertile crops, pleasing babes, excellent horses, or well-pastured sheep, these suddenly die. At VII.ii Pliny says that there were men of the same kind in Illyria who were able to kill those at whom they stared long enough, particularly when their eyes were glaring. Now, however, thanks to the kindness and bounty of Christ our Saviour, Who, as I have said, has long ago subdued the power of evil demons, things of this kind rarely occur. If infants or livestock which have been praised should die, even if the common run of mankind believes that babes are harmed by witchy crones with their dire imprecations, as has been sufficiently discussed in Book I. So you have the first part of your question explained. Ask for the second, if you will.
16. POLY. I shall continue with my account. In the consulship of Agrippa Menenius and Publius Posthumius, as they were campaigning against the Sabines, it is reported that late at night flaming military spears were seen in the sky, but that they were not consumed by the fire, and that the Romans, encouraged by this prodigy, redoubled their assault and prevailed. In the consulship of Spurius Posthumius and Quintus Servilius, the sky was seen to be afire during a year which was most pestilent both for men and for their cattle. Not long thereafter, a certain man of Veii was heard to say that it was destined for Rome soon to gain control of Veii if the waters of Lake Albano, which had risen to an unusual height for no logical reason, were drained as soon as possible, and that this had been confirmed by the Oracle of Delphi, which bade that a gift be sent to Apollo. Thus, after the lake had been drained, the citizens of Veii were brought under Roman rule by Camillus. During the consulship of Cnaeus Domitius and Lucius Annius, three moons were seen at Rimini. A little while afterwards, the Ligurian War was fought. In the consulship of Cnaeus Servilius and Caius Flaminius, a phantom ship appeared in the sky, the temple of Hope was struck by lightning, there was a great earthquake throughout Italy, and the Romans suffered a grievous defeat hard by Late Trasimeno. During the consulship of Marcus Marcellus and Valerius Levinus, the statue of Victory atop the roof of the temple of Concord was cast down by lightning. There followed a great fire in the city, set by young men from Campania. In the consulship of Lucius Veturius Philo and Quintus Caecilius Metellus, two suns were seen at Alba. A light shone at night at Fregellae, when the Carthaginians, defeated by Scipio at Betula, ceded possession of Span to the Romans. In the fourteenth year of the Second Punic War, during the consulship of Caius Servilius Caepio and Cnaeus Servilius Geminus, fires first spread through the sky at Anagna, then a comet glowed. In Africa, Scipio set fire to a Carthaginian camp near Utica. In the consulship of Cnaeus Cornelius Lentulus and Publius Aelius Petus, the orb of the sun seemed to shrink, and the district of Veliturnum the earth subsided with a great chasm. Then peace was granted to the Carthaginians and the Second Punic War was concluded. In the consulship of Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Lucius Valerius Flaccus, the column standing before the temple of Jupiter was overthrown by a gale together with its golden statue. At the sight of this, in accordance with the response of the haruspices, all the magistrates immediately resigned office. In the consulship of Publius Africanus and Laelius, a star continually flared up for thirty-two days, and soon thereafter Carthage was sacked by Scipio Aemilianus. In the consulship of Publius Africanus and Cnaeus Fulvius, a slave’s tunic caught fire at Anagnia and when the fire was extinguished no trace of its flame remained. A little later, the Fugitives’ War commenced. During the consulship of Cnaeus Cornelius Lentulus and Publius Licinus, at Pisaurum the earth could be heard from a distance, and the battlements of its walls were overthrown although there was no earthquake. Not long thereafter, the Civil Wars commenced.
17. In the consulship of Caius Marius and Lucius Valerius, households were flattened by an earthquake throughout Picenum, then the fugitives in Sicily were butchered. In the consulship of Mark Anthony and Publius Dolabella, a comet appeared at the time when the civil war between Octavius and the said Mark Antony began to blaze. But far happier was that star which guided the Magi from Jerusalem as they seached for the newly-born Jesus Christ. And thirty-three years later, when Christ was killed by thge Jews, there was a sudden earthquae, stones were rent asunder, and an eclipse of the sun lasted longer than three hours. A few years after these prodigies there followed the destruction of Jerusalem. In the year of salvation 778 the sun experienced an eclipse three days after the moon had suffered the same thing, and the planet Mercury was visible in the center of the sun like a black spot. At that same time, Charlemagne was returning victoriously from Spain and, while crossing the Pyrenees, he was ambushed by the Vascones and suffered a great defeat. In the year of salvation 1012 a meteor looking like a tower was seen to fall to earth with a great crash, at the time when the city of Jerusalem was taken by the Turks. In the year 1109 the sea swelled abnormally, a comet was visible for a number of days, and the earth shook In the year 1012 the sea surrounding England swelled to a wonderful extent for some unknown reason, and not long thereafter the island came into the power of the Danes. In the year 1190 in England, a cross appeared in the sky around noon while King Richard was preparing to wage war against Saladin. These, perhaps are a few examples out of very many, listed by way of illustration.
18. ROB. Indeed —yet more than I had wanted.
POLY. With your permission, I shall add what I failed to mention regarding this point. Juas as the obervation of prodigies has came down to us, so has their procurement, inasmuch as the ancients (just as ourselves when confronted with any calamatity or cause for fear) employed many prayers, sacrifices, votives and donatives to avert the evils which auspices, monstrosities, prodiges, and portents were thought to indicate.
ROB. I have heard you out with both pleasure and irritation: just as that the beginning I could scarcely restrain my laughter, so at the end I could barely hold back my tears. Who would not smile at the ancioent’s folly, uncouthness, and stupid lack of lack of insight, so that one earthquake, one bolt of lightning, one celestial sign was thought to portend a favorable thing, yet another earthquake, another thunderbolt, another sign represented an adverse one, in the manner you have previously shown? This is an impossibility if we believe the soothsayers hwo sell us that theri Jove employs these signs to advise mankind what to do or what to avoid, since nothing more absurd can be said than that anything definite can be indicated by things which are ambiguous, such as are these prodigies of yours that have just been described. But you will say, “If they occurred on the lieft, then they will be propitius, inasmuch as, according to Pliny in his second Book, the Etruscans divided the sky into sixteen regions, so they could distinguish the dire portents.” To this I reply by asking what would a stroke of lightning signify if it were to fall in the mid-ocean? Or an earthquake in a desert, where there was no man to observe such prodigies? And so that which is done by the force of nature, at one time or another, without any consistency, cannot in all ways make a signification of consequent events. And so I deny that there are an prodigies which, placed in some particular region, can have even the slightest weight, as you can see. Thus you understand that your prodigies bring nothing certain — save to those folk who are killed by thunderbolts or are are buried in landslides created by earthquakes. I grieved to learn that the ancients,unacquainted with the true God, could have berqueathed this craziness of observing prodigies even to men of our own time. Damn it, what is this folly of Christian men other than both to be deluded and to sin? And so you did no wrong when in the first Book of your English History, as you have told me at another time, in order to avoid unpopularity, when it came time to write about prodigies, you excused yourself by pointing out this was popular opinion, lest you be blamed for having written about them.
19. But lest us continue with the causes of this sort of celestial movements. We seem to agree that there four elements, two higher onces, fire and air, and the like number of lower ones, water and earth in its midst. There are likewise three regions of the sky: one which is the highest, which gathers the power of heat from its nearness to fire, the lowest, which contains sunbeams reflected from the earth, and a middle part, to which pertain all the power of heat radiated by the highest part or the sunbeams of the lowest. And inasmuch as, according to Pliny, the stars continually feed on earthly humor, hence in the first place we have the cause of heavenly fires, insofar as, as Aristotle tells us in Meteorology I, the land, when warmed by the sun, sends forth a twofold evaporation, one of which we call a hot and dry exhalation, but the other a warm and humid one. And this latter, being the lighter of the two, seeks to rise upwards, just as the former settles down, and, condensed by contact with that cold mid-region of the sky, is dissolved into rain. And so when that other exhalation arrives at the highest region, it is immediately set ablaze, from which fires arise, and flames shine in the sky, assuming various shapes amidst the clouds. Hence you have your spears blazing in the sky, your sky itself ablaze, your visions of ships, light arising during the night, scattered fires, burning torches, stars ablaze when they absorb more humidity than is necessary, and firery red crosses. From this same exhalation arises the comet, that fearful star possessed of such great power that it produces the greatest changes in our affairs, and thus increases the bile in mortals, so that wars break out. This is why you were not wrong in saying that a comet announces momentous events and the deaths of kings. Likewise, when the earth exhales its vapors, the spirits that suddenly arise, if they are fluid, become winds; if they clump together into a cloud and begin to shed their most rarified part, their darkness is thus redoubled and lightning flashes amongst them, and hence the sky will resound with thunder and hail commingled with rain falls. If the heat within clouds is released by their collision, thunderbolts will erupth. If they are aimed downward when a cloud contracts, savage whirlwinds will come into being. And Aristotle says their are three kinds of lightning: one that scorches, a second smokes, and a third, possessed of a wonderful nature, such as you described to have made the slave’s tunic, blaze without leaving any trace of a fire.
20. But let us turn to the manifold appearances of our greatest sources of light. For as often as a dense cloud stands beside the sun, about to shed water, if the sun manifests its image beforehand with broken beams (which it does in smooth air), then it will appear to be manifold. The same will be done even by the moon. This is why two or three suns, or the same number of moons, are seen, just as the reason for an eclipse of either is that the moon interferes with the sun, or the earth with the moon, so that they appear to be reduced to nothing, so that the eclipse of either of these heavenly bodies is interpreted as a natural prodigy. Finally, so that no unexpected earthquake will frighten you, learn its cause. For winds hidden in the veins and hollows of the earth create these as they struggle to find an outlet, so that the shaking in the earth is the same as that which occurs in heaven because of the force of winds and thunder. The result is that, as Pliny attests, earthquakes only occur during clear weather, and for the same reason the sea swells and boils when no wind is blowing, and this is why you said that the ocean sometimes grows with no evident cause. Since they have these related causes, do you think that they should be accounted prodigies? And furthermore, concerning the spillage of water at Lake Albano, I cannot refrain from laughing at the gullibility and superstition of the Romans in this respect. For, having finally taken Veii thanks to the patience and strength of their soldiers and the virtue of their commander Camillus, they wanted to attribute that victory to Apollo, since, partially by the activity of demons and partly by human deceit, that Delphic oracle agreed with the joke of a certain elderly Veian gentleman claiming that it would be as difficult to take Veii by storm as to drain the lake. This the kind of claim we are in the habit of making when we indicate that something would not be easy to accomplish. Thus the Poet: “}So the swift deer will sooner feed on air, and the seas leave the fish naked on shore, than that gaze of his will fade from my mind.” But in the end, I believe, the Romans repented their folly, when they finally saw that oracle at Delphi vanish along with the rest, which would never have occurred had the gods responsible for that thing been untouched by mortality. For that altar of most scurvy seers, accumulating wealth from all over the world with its very deceptive responses, had failed a little before Cicero’s day, at a time when Christ our Saviour’s advent was approaching. Cicero attests this in Book I of his De Divinatione, saying, “the oracle at Delphi never would have been so much frequented, so famous, and so crowded with offerings from peoples and kings of every land, if all ages had not tested the truth of its prophecies. For a long time now that has not been the case. Therefore, as at present its glory has waned because it is no longer noted for the truth of its prophecies.” Therefore the truth has singlehandedly erased the memory of Apollo, as predicted by the Prophet Zacariah: “and also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.”
21. Now you have it explained to you that signs amount to nothing: i. e., that blazing spears, a burning sky, a comet, eclipses of the sun and moon (which can be predicted many years in advance) are not things occurring by happenstance or the will of Jupiter, but by the force of nature. Likewise flashes of lightning, earthquakes, and the other things you have previously suggested to be portentous are things which nature’s necessity produces at her own good time. Nothing remains but to speak about your star which guided the Persian magi to Christ’s native soil, and this too was not portentous, inasmuch as it predicted nothing that needed to be done, but rather something already accomplished, i. e., it attested that our Saviour had been born. Nor did such a star exist, first, because it would have been contrary to the nature of the other stars, for it is well known that they are carried from east to west, whereas this one rose in the east and then hung shining in mid-heaven, as was required by the location of the place, since Palestine, ennobled by Christ’s birth, stands in that region which faces Persia, whence came the Magi. Also because it shone days and nights, which the sun prevents the other stars from doing. And likewise because its light was now hidden, now revealed. And lastly, because it ran nearly along the ground while it pointed out a certain hovel where the infant Jesus was, something it would not have done had its course been through the higher region of heaven. But you will say, “Then what was it?” Let St. John Chrysostom give you your answer since perhaps you will not believe. In his sixth homily on Matthew he wrote about this matter thusly: “This was not a single star compounded out of several; indeed, as I think, it was not a star at all, but a certain unseen virtue figured in the form of a star, as first is shown by its very course. And then he continues with pretty much the same arguments as those I have summarized for you as briefly is possible. And lastly, the things which you have affirmed with your claim that what happened when Christ was put to death, the earthquake, the riven stones, and the solar eclipse, were all prodigious, this is not so. Rather you should mark this, that at the very beginning Jacob foretold a future time when, after the birth of the Saviour,, the destruction of the Jews would fallow, saying, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” Therefore the Lord on the cross wanted His death to be proclaimed on heaven and earth and, as Chrysosotom would have it, gave those signs to the infidel Jews, to whom, as it says in John, He answered, “When ye have lifted up the Son of Man, then shall ye know that I am He.” Thus these things belonged to God’s just wrath against the Jews, whereby they might understand that time had come when they would most justly be punished. Content with these explanations, I ask you now to waste any more time inquiring into these things. But, if you have anything to say, then free your mind of that concern which, as I perceive, gives you the greater desire to explore these superstitions, the further you go.
22. POLY. So I shall address the third part of our disputation, and touch on portents a little. When King Xerxes of Persia first set foot on European soil during his campaign against the Greeks, he learned that within his army a mare had foaled a hare, and a jenny a mule of doubtful sex, and, although there were those who conjectured that their war would have an evil ending, he himself, scorning both omens, finally suffered a great loss. When Dio of Syracuse marched against Dionysius the Younger, the tyrant of Sicily, then they say that piglets were born sans ears. Then Dionysius, distrusting his own strength, yield power to his enemy and went into exile. And so it was stuck in men’s minds that a sign had been given that after a brief while the citizens’ ears would be freed of that tyrant’s noise. When Lucius Scipio and Caius Laelius were consuls, la jenny gave birth at Reate. In the consulship of Lucius Quintius and Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a goat gave birth to six kidlings at once, and at Aretium a boy was born with only a single hand, and then the Romans declared war on King Antiochus of Syria. In the consulship of Marcus Messala and Caius Livius, a hermaphrodite about twelve years old was put to death on the spot by command of the haruspices, when the Gauls who had crossed the Alps were suddenly thrown into a panic and retired, as if by their own volition. Likewise in the consulship of Quintus Fabius Maximus and Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, a baby was born with both sets of genitalia, a so-called hermaphrodite, or, as the Greeks say, androgynous, and another infant with the head of an elephant. Then Marcellus fought Hannibal at Canusium and was routed. In the consulship of Publius Sulpicius Galba and Cnaeus Aurelius, a little before the outbreak of the war between the Romans and King Philip of Macedon, a lamb with the head of a piglet was born at Frusinona, and at Lusina a five-legged horse, and a pig with a human head at Sinuessa. In the consulship of Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and Aulus Julius Appulus, three three-footed chicks were hatched at Brutiium. In the consulship of Caius Bebo Tamphilus and Lucius Aemelius Paulus, a three-legged mule was born at Reate, and in that of Tiberius Gracchus and Marcus Juventius was born a one-handed girl. During the consulship of Caius Claudius and Marcus Pepenna, a boy was born without an anus, while the Roman province of Macedonia was laid waste by the Medes. In the consulship of Lucius Scipio and Caius Norbanus, a mother in Eturia gave birth to a live snake: cast in a river, it swam off upstream, at the time when that wicked proscription of Sulla burst forth on our wretched citizenry.
23. At the end of the principate of Augustus, some plebeian woman at Ostia gave birth to two boys and two girls, a portent followed by a great famine. About 608 A. D. King Cosdras of the Persians began to harry the Roman borders, which evil was thought to have been predicted by the birth of a four-headed boy. In France, in the year 1018 a sow gave birth to a piglet with a human face, and a plague year ensued. Before the year 1111 a four-legged chicken was born in England, when a great war between the French and Henry I blazed forth. In the year 1416 a two-headed calf was born at Abruzzo, and at Picenum a baby with six teeth. At that time, the Turks began their widespread conquests. And in the year 1493 Siamese twins were born at Rome, joined in their hands and faces, who survived a very few days, and not long thereafter a girl gave birth to a boy who was half a dog. Surely these prodigies indicated the massacres and conflagrations which occurred during the papacy of Alexander VI. By this small handful of examples I have shown the nature of all monstrosities. You must whet yourself to refute these, if by any means you are able.
ROB. You give me the excellent advice that I should prepare myself to discredit things scarcely credited by any man alive who understands the power of nature, about whose wonderful artistry in manufacturing all things I have discoursed a little earlier. If you have been paying close attention to those, I’ll have no need to answer your question.
POLY. You’ll be doing something worthwhile if you give me a brief explanation what nature itself is, and wither it is in accordance with God. Since nature is so great, if should stand to my advantage, to understand these things, which still are among the things of which I am ignorant.
24. ROB. I’m afraid this is a silly question, as Aristotle says in Book I of the Physics, and as I have said at the end of our disputation, since thus far we do not think we have exterminated and uprooted a goodly part of this superstition, being guided by nature. For if a man does not see our object, who is to show it to him? Nevertheless I shall dutifully do that which you ask, more zealously than appropriately. The philosophers define nature as the principle of motion per se rather than just by accident. For example, universal bodies have motion per se. Thus fire is borne upwards by its own volition, and like wise earth downwards, and this not done accidentally. For if either were to change its course, this would be done by art, not by nature. In Book II of his De Natura Deorum Cicero explains this business far more subtly, writing thus: “Some persons define nature as a non-rational force that causes necessary motions in material bodies; others as a rational and ordered force, proceeding by method and plainly displaying the means that she takes to produce each result and the end at which she aims, and possessed of a skill that no handiwork of artist or craftsman can rival or produce. For a seed, they point out, has such potency that, tiny though it is in size, nevertheless if it falls into some substance that germinates and enfolds it, and obtains suitable material to foster its nurture and growth, it fashions and produces the various creatures after their kinds, some designed merely to absorb nourishment through their roots, and others capable of motion, sensation, appetition and reproduction of their species.” Thus far Cicero. And in Book IV of De Beneficiis Seneca defines nature thus: “‘Nature,” says my opponent, ‘gives me all this.’ Do you not perceive when you say this that you merely speak of God under another name? For what is nature but God and divine reason, which pervades the universe and all its parts?” And in the volume he wrote entitled De Noe et Arca, St. Ambrose all called nature “the mother of all .” Here you have nature, accept that its works are accomplished by reason, although I understand that the habit has become ingrained of saying they are portentous, just as you yourself call them.
25. For nature (as Aristotle attests in Book II of the Physics ) always strives towards the more perfect, and does not go wrong if it is not impeded by overabundance, scarcity, or corruption of its material which (not to mention other things) is required in the procreation of living beings. This material is the semen which, if its superabundant, produces countless monstrosities of the kind you mentioned; if deficient, it produces one offspring, but a feeble one. Or, if it is corrupt, it is cadaverous. Furthermore, by this same logic it is established that the things you call monsters are born: for if the semen is superabundant, superfluous parts will be created, like that four-legged boy or the one with teeth, the three-legged mule, and others of the kind you have described. If the semen is deficient, some members will be lacking. Thus you may understand your handless girl and your earless pigs, as you have mentioned. If it is corrupt, then a confused and imperfect body is produced, like those Siamese twins born when Alexander was Pope at Rome, and your boy without an anus, and your hermaphrodite. In Book IV of De Natura Animalium Aristotle discusses these things in more detail, concerning those animals which give birth to multiple offspring, and particularly in the tribe of birds, most of all in chickens, who give birth countless chicks, not only because they give birth often, but also because they have many experiences of sexual intercourse after they have already conceived. Hence it comes about that, if their yolks are thus positioned that they are not separated by any interposed membrane, monstrous chicks are hatched, such as you have previously shown to be born.
26. Now let is turn to hermaphrodites, and you may learn the cause of their creation from Aristotle, who describes their generation in the same place. When they beget these children, the abundance of each sex impedes the perfection of the other and its progenitive power. And thus sometimes children are born with an excessive number of fingers, and the same logic applies in other births which prove either excessive or deficient. Some are born with a double set of genitals, male and female, both humans and especially goats, so that they have both male and female genitals. But more recent physicians think differently about the reason for this phenomenon (how correctly, I do not know), teaching that there are seven chambers in the womb, which they divide so that there are three on the right in which males are engendered and the like number on the left in which females are created. And one exists in the middle, and in that one hermaphrodites or androgynous infants are formed, as if because nature is contributing its force from both sides. But Aristotle does not appear to cast his vote for our medical men, for in Book V of De Natura Animalium he says that a woman produces at most five children in a single childbirth, so that a man might imagine what they say is a falsehood. It remains for me to speak of more repulsive monsters, and it is so far from the case that I can speak of these without experiencing disgust that, by your leave, I would prefer to go without a meal until this evening and set forth the remainder of my discourse, rather than linger over such a foul business, which, I am sure, would trouble your mind and do nothing to settle my on.
POLY. Pray persevere, since the obscenity lies in those things themselves, and not in your words.
ROB. No, the felonies of those criminal lusts are disgusting both in word and in deed. Nevertheless, if such can be done, I shall touch on this matter in a decent way. For you must not blame me, because those who are not ill-disposed towards me can understand that when I am relating this outrage I am imitating the example of Pliny, who at VII.ii cites the Greek writer Artemidorus in relating that certain men of India have sexual intercourse with beasts, so that mixed half-beats are born. And this is the reason why at Rome, within our memories, a girl gave birth to a half-dog, doubtless after having intercourse with a hound, and why you tell me a pig has been born with a human face. And, since nature preserves species the same occurs with other mute animals, if beasts of different kinds have sexual congress, this is why you have told me that a lamb distinctive for its pig’s head has been born, because a boar had fertilized her egg. Enough about these things.
27. You’re surprised that a jenny has given birth. I think it’s surprising that she conceived. For if a mule was pregnant, it was necessary that she should do so. “But the novelty of the thing moves me,” you will say, “and creates a sense of wonder, because the mind is moved by nothing but a new and wonderful thing.” This is why nobody takes notice of the rising, the course, and the setting of the sun, because it is an everyday event. Why should it move you, since nothing is transacted which is not possible? According to Pliny, Theophrastus said that jennies give birth in Cappadocia, and Aristotle says that in the land of Syria, above Phoenicia all jennies have intercourse and breed. If this sometimes occurs elsewhere, I fail to see why you say there is anything monstrous about such birthing, since nature is responsible for it. And so I imagine you have a good understanding of the reason for the birth of monsters which you eagerly seek, and there is nothing in them which could not occur. And, if it did, there is nothing remarkable. And thus it is declared that nothing possible ought to be reckoned a monstrosity or a portent. Therefore, as Cicero says in De Divinatione, according to the opinion and evidence of those who interpret portents, this single argument prevails against all apparitions, monstrosities and portents. Nothing impossible is done; if it is possible, it is not miraculous. And thus it is pronounced that nothing possible should be deemed a monstrosity or a portent. So you should beware lest you persist in that error into which you were previously drawn by the novelty of monstrosities (since they are rarely engendered), being at length moved (or rather bested) by the logic of nature. and do not imagine that by means of monstrosities of this kind, created at their own proper time and for good reason, the gods indicate anything in the future. For who would be so mindless as to imagine that God, the sole Ruler of the this world, would want to have his mankind forewarned of future events by means of those monsters, the most foul and obscene things to have been born within human memory? Concerning that hare foaled by a mare in Xerxes’ army, there is nothing for us do dispute. For I will not unwillingly allow you to retain that pretty fiction among your Greek tales, if the Greeks were mocking the king, inventing a tale that a mare, that most warlike beast, had foaled a timid runaway rabbit, because Xerxes had invaded Greece at the head of a huge army, and eventually taken to his heels like a helpless hare, just as we read in Herodotus and Trogus. Similar to this story is the other one you told about the woman who, as I conjecture, dreamed (or, as you less plausibly assert, believed) she had given birth to a living snake. For a female snake rather than a woman to have given birth to a snake is not inconsistent with the truth. Had you appreciated this, you would have said that a female snake had given birth, and that the remarkable thing was that a newborn snake was able to swim against the current. And so, with the truth revealed, the story would have lost its interest. You have an answer worthy of physiology, which is to say, of the logic of nature, and so now you should come to the ending of today’s discourse.
28. POLY. Since you press me in your haste, I shall resort to no circumlocution but make straight to the end of our conversation since, to tell the truth, I too am pretty much satiated with disputation. But your learned discourse delights me to the point that I see I cannot be deterred by any consideration of time, or exhausted by any effort. So here’s my Act Five. In the consulship of Publius Volumnus and Servius Sulpitius, it rained meat, and it said that that storm destroyed a huge multitude of birds. Likewise a cow spoke. In the following year, Roman exiles and slaves to the number of more than four thousand occupied the Capitoline under the leadership of Appius Herdonius, a Sabine man, and were driven off not without a slaughter of our citizens. While Alexander of Macedon was besieging Tyre, as bellows began to do their work, rivers of blood flowed through the fire, and in the camp, when a soldier broke his bread, drops of blood welled forth. When Alexander was frightened to no small degree by this prodigy, the seer Aristandrus consoled him, affirming that the evil which the portents were forecasting would befall the besieged, since the blood was being shed from within, not without. The fall of the Tyrians ensued not long thereafter. During the consulship of Fabius Maximus and Publius Decius, the earth is said to have rained down, when a Roman legion was destroyed at Clusium by the Gallic Senones. In the consulship of Cnaeus Domitius and Lucius Annus, a river ran red with blood in Picenum. In that of Cnaeus Servilius and Caius Flaminius, it rained stones in Picenum, and at the same time in Sardinia two shields sweated blood, and again it was reported that it had rained stones at Aricia, when at Cannae a very great catastrophe was suffered by the Romans. In the consulship of Publius Cornelius Africanus and Titus Sempronius Longus, drops of blood were seen in the Roman Forum and on the Capitoline, the earth came raining down, and the lake overflowed at Interanna. Then a battle was fought against the Boii, a people of Cisalpine Gaul, with great losses on both sides. During the consulship of Cnaeus Fulvius Flaccus and Appius Claudius Pulcher, a great boulder was seen to be flying, when Marcellus was driven to his camp by Hannibal, not far from Canusium. In the consulship of Caius Bebius Tamphilus and Lucius Aemilius Paulus, a statue of Juno wept at Lanuvium, and then the Ligurians were conquered and came under Roman control. In the consulship of Publius Plautius and Marcus Fulvius, it rained oil and milk at Veii. About the year of human salvation 53 the sea was seen to flow with blood for a number of days before the Roman garrison was slaughtered by the islanders who suddenly mutinied. Around the year of salvation 553 blood is said to have poured down from the sky, when at the same time the Langobards poured into Italy under the leadership of Alboin, where they established a kingdom that lasted more than two hundred years. From your glare and your scowl I gather that these things irk you, and so, lest I become an annoyance I shall gladly restrain my enthusiasm for itemizing more portents of this kind, which are countless, and omit many things which would kindle your sense of wonder.
29. ROB. Now you are most certainly being wise. For if you were to be overabundant in listing these dreams, which belong to demons and are unheard-of in human history, you would disgust both me and those who read about them hereafter (for I have no doubt you will someday commit to writing our discussions of these three days). But so far, so good, since you have made a fine ending for this comedy of ours, and you are aware that a happy ending is the hallmark of this kind of play. For in this final act there is nothing which is not ridiculous, nothing not invented, nothing not vain, and nothing not effective for raising a laugh, inasmuch as you have not only woven in unheard-of things with your fabulous ones, but also incredible ones with your improbabilities. Good God, who ever heard of a talking cow? Or heard of rains or rivers of meat, earth, oil, milk, and stones, or weeping statues, or sweating shields? There is not only no showing of truth in these things, but not even a shadow or a reflection. And you, by Hercules, who have visited a goodly part of our Christian world, pray ell me if you have ever seen anything of the kind? You stay silent? I rejoice that, as I perceive, in your eyes the truth had more weight than wicked vanity. And so, since it is agreed that all that stuff has never happened and could never happen, are we to call them monsters, apparitions, prodigies, and portents? Nothing less. Rather, these are the pure inventions of the interpreters of portents, even if their view is held in jest, that nothing which can occur is to be deemed a monstrosity or a portent. And, since we have previously come to an agreement on this point, we can easily turn this argument against them and destroy their argument in this way: so that which can occur, should it occur, this will be a portent in the way you have just explained; but if it cannot occur, how will it occur unless one pretends that it has occurred? And thus pretense is the sole mother of portents. For all the strivings of augurs and seers tends towards this, that they should appear to be knowledgeable concerning divinity. Thus they speak about your talking cow. But no authority discloses what the cow has to say, because nobody has heard a word. Some crazy seer mistook mooing for a word, perhaps the same one who once heard Balaam’s ass speaking, so that the might ape religiousity. But, as it says in Numbers, the donkey uttered words at God’s command, whereas that cow is supposed to have spoken thanks to human guile, although mooing according to its habit, since words were never pronounced.
30. Others are of this same kind, by which I mean none, since one despairs that they can occur with the exception of that last one you described, that it sometimes rains stones. For Pliny (II.xxxviii) does not deny this occurs, writing, “Meanwhile it rains stones for this reason, that they are snatched up by the wind, and many other things of this sort.” These are his words. The same logic can apply to the raining of earth. For it is well known that dust (which is minute bits of earth) is borne aloft by winds and falls on the earth like rain. And I want some logical explanation to be provided for other “wonders,” lest I be said to have undertaken the labor of a Sisyphus after duly refuting the arguments in favor of the those ancient superstitions, but have nothing to say about the reason standing behind this popular opinion about that most monstrous rain. For Mother Nature, imparts color to many other things, and particularly to rain water. If this water acquires a red tinge, then it produces a flow of red resembling blood; if white, than it looks like milk. If it is fat, it becomes viscous like oil. Hence discoloration and contamination with earthly substances once caused gullible mortals to err, if they believed that the gods’ counsels were revealed by the resemblance to such things. Sweat and tears are products of living bodies, but moisture produced outside the body, such as we see on walls, can imitate them both (although this is more of the the product of human deceit, as we are has happened within our memories). I myself have seen a statue of the Mother of God grieving in this way, because, by the contrivance of a certain money-grubbing monk, it would annually weep during the month of March, thanks to a length of cane inserted in its rear and leading to holes pierced in its eyes. But when the trick was found out, the responsible fellow was convicted of fraud.
POLY. You certainly exercised great care in probing the cause and you have briefly and diligently disclosed it, and by this I am led to agree with you. But it remains that we have some discussion about lots, so that nothing will be found wanting in our conversation.
31. ROB. If one thing after another keeps occurring to you and you never cease turning back to the same place, how will it be that we can ever finish this discussion? Do you fancy it would be a trifling matter to consider lots? If I remember aright, you discussed their Roman origin in the final chapter of Book I of De Inventoribus Rerum, and his day Cicero maintained that they were quite discredited as having been fraudulently invented so as to generate both profit and error, because in them chance and randomness prevails, but no logic or counsel. There is therefore no reason we need to bring them up in our talk. And so let our effort, expended on this long discussion, come to an end, and you must not exercise your right (although you are within this realm of yours) to enmesh me in the snares of disputation by cross-examining me about many things.
POLY. Do not skip over this final act, I beg you. For in it there will be so much delight and so much usefulness that you can readily say that I am more eager to arrive at the truth than to drag this thing out, because I am not unaware how much men sin in their use of lots.
ROB. I won’t argue with you any further, Polydore. From both Plato’s Laws and Origen’s twenty-third homily on Joshua I discover that there are two kinds of lots, one human and the other divine. But let speak first of the latter. A divine lot is defined as an indication of God’s judgment, besought beforehand with many prayers and entreaties by those who seek it. Thus by means of Moses God commanded Aaron to choose goats, saying at Leviticus 16, “And the Lord said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother.” Then he adds, “And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. And Aaron shall offer his bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make an atonement for himself, and for his house. And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord's lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering &c.”And thus by a drawing of the lots Moses marked off for the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh, the land across the Jordan they had requested. Thus Joshua said to his people, “Ye shall therefore describe the land into seven parts, and bring the description hither to me, that I may cast lots for you here before the Lord our God.” And so by a casting of the lots their heritage was shared out among God’s people, and this lottery was managed according to God’s injunction. And thus the possession of the land was distributed to the seven tribes of Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulon, Asher, Napthali and Dan.
32. What of the fact that other nations, which know not God, are accustomed to resort to lots concerning a doubtful matter? For when the Prophet Jonah, fleeing from the face of the Lord, sailed to Tarsus and, a storm suddenly brewed up, the sailors employed lots to discover which man was responsible for the great danger that overhung them, and compelled Jonah to reveal this. By the will of God Himself, according to Whose desire this all was being done, it chanced that the lot fell on Jonah. Likewise in Acts we read that the apostles very prayerfully dealt with God that he might indicate what man He wished to replace Judas, and when the lots were cast Mathias was chosen in his place. But why say more? Now you understand that a divine lottery exists and that we much very prayerfully seek it, so that we may thank God for the lot we receive. But the category of human lots is that which those seers employ, foolishly resorting to dice, scraps of paper with the names of those seeking the lot are written, the game of morra, long and short straws, and a thousand such puerile methods, relying on chance and fortune and meanwhile failing to beg God that all turn out well. All of this, being full of human follow, are forbidden by Christians laws, so that nobody exists who fancies that the will of God can be determined by these means. But men who transgress this law are never wanting, men such as are found even nowadays, who thus take the auspices when they are about to do something. For they will open a volume of the Psalms or of some poet at random and interpret the first verse that strikes their eye as if it contains something happy or sad, thus foreseeing that their business will turn out to their advantage or against it. Thus we read in Aelius Spartianus that Hadrian used lots to discover how he was regarded by the Emperor Trajan and when he glanced at some verses of Vergil, he was put in hope of gaining the throne. The verses were “But who is he apart, crowned with sprays of ivy, offering sacrifice? Ah, I recognize the hoary hair and beard of that king of Rome who will make the infant city secure on a basis of laws, called from the needy land of lowly Cures to sovereign might.”
33. How much better would they have done had they, after invoking the Almighty, clung to the proper methods of establishing and managing their affairs? And furthermore there was another custom of using lots among the ancients, mentioned by Cicero in his Against Verres, which is observed even today, and which, as many suppose is not contrary to the injunction of the law, if the mind of those casting the lots, if the minds of those casting them are upright, as I have just shown. For example, when some magistrate or prefect is to be elected, for the sake of avoiding ill-will, two or three men are chosen by vote. Then the business is transacted by lot: each man’s name is placed in a jar, and the man whose name is drawn receives the magistracy or prefecture. And, finally, people resort to lots for any old thing. Caesar testifies to this when at the end of Book I of his Gallic Wars he speaks of Marcus Valerius Procillus after he was taken prisoner by the enemy, writing, “He said that, in his own presence, the lots had been thrice consulted respecting him, whether he should immediately be put to death by fire, or be reserved for another time:, and that by the favor of the lots he was uninjured.” These things, very hastily, about the taking of lots. Now we have spoken straight through to the day’s ending. Let us retire within. Now that we have spent three days in this friendly conversation, as you know, tomorrow I must go on my way to Cambridge, which is nearly a two days’ journey. So farewell to you, and when your affairs permit, you must preserve for posterity the things we have worried over with our many words, in that terse and elegant style of yours.
The end of the dialogue on prodigies by Polydore Vergil of Urbino