Roman Mythology

Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

Bulfinch's Age of Fable

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

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

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

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

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

"Thou fell'st mature; and in the loamy clod,

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

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

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

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

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

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