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L. Piso informs us, in the first Book of his Annals, that King Tullus Hostilius,1 while attempting, in accordance with the books of Numa, to summon Jupiter from heaven by means of a sacrifice similar to that employed by him, was struck by lightning in consequence of his omission to follow certain forms with due exactness. Many other authors, too, have attested, that by the power of words a change has been effected in destinies and portents of the greatest importance. While they were digging on the Tarpeian Hill for the foundations of a temple, a human head was found; upon which deputies were sent to Olenus Calenus, the most celebrated diviner of Etruria. He, foreseeing the glory and success which attached to such a presage as this, attempted, by putting a question to them, to transfer the benefit of it to his own nation. First describing, on the ground before him, the outline of a temple with his staff—"Is it so, Romans, as you say?" said he; "here then must be the temple2 of Jupiter, all good and all powerful; it is here that we have found the head"—and the constant asseveration of the Annals is, that the destiny of the Roman empire would have been assuredly transferred to Etruria, had not the deputies, forewarned by the son of the diviner, made answer—"No, not here exactly, but at Rome, we say, the head was found."

It is related also that the same was the case when a certain four-horse chariot, made of clay, and intended for the roof of the same temple, had considerably increased while in the furnace;3 and that on this occasion, in a similar manner, the destinies of Rome were saved. Let these instances suffice then to show, that the virtues of presages lie in our own hands, and that they are valuable in each instance according as they are received.4 At all events, it is a principle in the doctrine of the augurs, that neither imprecations nor auspices of any kind have any effect upon those who, when entering upon an undertaking, declare that they will pay no attention whatever to them; a greater instance than which, of the indulgent disposition of the gods towards us, cannot be found.

And then besides, in the laws themselves of the Twelve Tables, do we not read the following words—"Whosoever shall have enchanted the harvest,"5 and in another place, "Whosoever shall have used pernicious incantations"?6 Verrius Flaccus cites authors whom he deems worthy of credit, to show that on the occasion of a siege, it was the usage, the first thing of all, for the Roman priests to summon forth the tutelary divinity of that particular town, and to promise him the same rites, or even a more extended worship, at Rome; and at the present day even, this ritual still forms part of the discipline of our pontiffs. Hence it is, no doubt, that the name7 of the tutelary deity of Rome has been so strictly kept concealed, lest any of our enemies should act in a similar manner. There is no one, too, who does not dread being spell-bound by means of evil imprecations;8 and hence the practice, after eating eggs or snails, of immediately breaking9 the shells, or piercing them with the spoon. Hence, too, those love-sick imitations of enchantments which we find described by Theocritus among the Greeks, and by Catullus, and more recently, Virgil,10 among our own writers. Many persons are fully persuaded that articles of pottery may be broken by a similar agency; and not a few are of opinion even that serpents can counteract incantations, and that this is the only kind of intelligence they possess—so much so, in fact, that by the agency of the magic spells of the Marsi, they may be attracted to one spot, even when asleep in the middle of the night. Some people go so far, too, as to write certain words11 on the walls of houses, deprecatory of accident by fire.

But it is not easy to say whether the outlandish and unpronounceable words that are thus employed, or the Latin expressions that are used at random, and which must appear ridiculous to our judgment, tend the most strongly to stagger our belief-seeing that the human imagination is always conceiving something of the infinite, something deserving of the notice of the divinity, or indeed, to speak more correctly, something that must command his intervention perforce. Homer12 tells us that Ulysses arrested the flow of blood from a wound in the thigh, by repeating a charm; and Theophrastus13 says that sciatica may be cured by similar means. Cato14 has preserved a formula for the cure of sprains, and M. Varro for that of gout. The Dictator Cæsar, they say, having on one occasion accidentally had a fall in his chariot,15 was always in the habit, immediately upon taking his seat, of thrice repeating a certain formula, with the view of ensuring safety upon the journey; a thing that, to my own knowledge, is done by many persons at the present day.

1 It has been suggested that Tullus Hostilius was acquainted with some of the secrets of electricity, and that he met his death while trying experiments with a lightning conductor. See B. ii. c. 54.

2 Ajasson thinks that there is an equivoque here upon the word "tem- plum," which signified not only a building, but certain parts of the heavens, and corresponding lines traced on the earth by the augur's staff.

3 This story is mentioned by Plutarch, in the Life of Publicola.

4 In which case it was considered necessary to repeat the words, "Accipio omen," "I accept the omen."

5 "Qui fruges excantassit."

6 "Qui malum carmen incantassit."

7 Ajasson is of opinion that this name was either Favra or Fona, Acca, Flora, or Valesia or Valentia.

8 "As in saying thus, The Devill take thee, or The Ravens peck out thine eyes, or I had rather see thee Pie peckt, and such like."—Holland.

9 It is a superstition still practised to pierce the shell of an egg after eating it, "lest the witches should come." Holland gives the following Note—"Because afterwards no witches might pricke them with a needle in the name and behalfe of those whom they would hurt and mischeefe, according to the practice of pricking the images of any person in wax; used in the witchcraft of these daies." We learn from Ajasson that till recently it was considered a mark of ill-breeding in France not to pierce the shell after eating the egg. See also Brand's Popular Antiquities, Vol. III. p. 19, Bohn's Ed.

10 See the Eighth Eclogue of Virgil.

11 "That is to say, Arse verse, out of Afranius, as Festus noteth, which in the old Tuscane language signifieth, Averte ignem, Put backe the fire." —Holland.

12 Odyss. xix. 457. It is not Ulysses, but the sons of Autolycus that do this. Their bandages, however, were more likely to be effectual.

13 De Enthusiasmo.

14 See B. xvii. c. 47.

15 In passing along the Velabrum, on the occasion of his Gallic triumph, the axle of the carriage having broke.

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  • Cross-references to this page (3):
    • A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890), AMULE´TUM
    • Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854), ROMA
    • Smith's Bio, Pelops
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