Fortune-telling, Roman style

Roman temple

The old jokes are the best, aren’t they? I remember a radio spoof on Shakespeare’s famous…the one that superstitious actors call the Scottish Play. Macbeth meets the three witches and the dialogue goes:
Macbeth: “Greetings, ladies. I want to ask you a question.”
Witches, in chorus: “Yes, we can.”
Macbeth: “Can you really foretell the future?”

It’s human nature to want to know what’s going to happen next. The Romans certainly had plenty of ways of trying to find out. They took omens very often and very seriously, observing the flights of birds or the innards of sacrificial animals, to discover whether the gods would favour this or that war, journey, or building project. They consulted sacred oracles in grand temples or spooky caves. Or maybe they visited a cheaper professional fortune-teller who claimed to find glimpses of the future within the pages of a book. Such a weird and wonderful tome was the ORACLES OF ASTRAMPSYCHUS. Nobody knows who wrote it (certainly the book’s claims to having been consulted by Alexander the Great are pure marketing invention) but it was extremely popular, and was re-worked for Christian rather than pagan readers in later centuries.

Here’s how the book works. You desperately need the answer to a particular question? Then pick a query that most nearly matches your own from a list of 92 numbered questions. There’s plenty of choice: many of the topics would be familiar today, dealing with money, love, travel, family, business. “Will I sail safely?” “Am I going to marry my girlfriend?” “Will I inherit from my parents?” There are also, and more interestingly to history geeks, questions that reflect specifically Roman anxieties. “Will I be a senator?” “Am I going to be sold?”

Having chosen your question, pick a number between 1 and 10 and add this onto the question’s list number. Then, through a series of ingenious lists and cross-references, the fortune-teller (acting for the gods or the Fates of course) will guide you to one of more than a thousand possible answers. It’s very cleverly constructed. The responses are appropriate, some good and some bad, and the method looks convincingly random.

Let’s test the oracles. I’ve got a copy here (English, not Greek,) and I promise I won’t cheat. I’ll ask, “Will I have a long life?” which is number 44 on the list. Add to that, let’s say, 7, making a total of 51. Check this out in a “table of correspondences,” where each possible chosen number has another, different number alongside it. 51 = 41. (Don’t ask…) and 41 means not a single answer, but a group of ten numbered answers, called a “decade”. Each decade of answers is numbered 1 to 10 and now, finally, I can discover what I need to know in decade 41 by finding the number I first thought of, number 7.

So, “Will I have a long life?” Answer from 41.7: “After a time you’ll succeed and grow old.” That’ll do nicely. Success in the future, and also long life! What more could a writer ask for?

So the oracle must be true, mustn’t it?

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Mad Dogs and Dog-walkers

“Oh to be in England, now that April’s there.” Oh really, Mr. Browning? I expect it was easy to rhapsodise about April in England when living in sunny Italy. I prefer T. S. Eliot’s comment, “April is the cruellest month.” (I don’t think he was primarily talking weather; but I find his WASTE LAND hard going, to be honest. OK, call me a Philistine…many have!)

According to the calendar I should be waxing lyrical about sweet little showers alternating with warm sunshine, and gentle breezes fanning me as I enjoy blissful walks with my dog Rosie through the trees behind our house. Well I’ve got a good imagination, but not THAT good.

Rosie and I still go walking every day, squelching along muddy paths with a group of friends, canine and human. It’s just as well their company is great, because the weather’s been horrible all week: autumnal mist and drizzle alternating with wintry gales bearing rain and sleet.

So here’s my take (with apologies to Noel Coward) on April, and what it’s really like being a dog-walker now.

Mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.
The cricketers don’t care to,
The footballers don’t dare to.
Athletes and tennis buffs gaze out through their window-pane,
But we just put a mac on
And crack on.
When thunder rolls over eighteen holes
There is not a soul in view,
Yet dogs abound in the woods around,
And their dripping owners too.
For dog-folk don’t mind a soak
Though friends tell us we’re insane,
Yes, mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.

Mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.
The smallest lop-eared rabbit
Deplores this foolish habit.
Badgers and moles regard wet days with immense disdain,
They stay safe underground for
A downpour.
Every cow will head for a nice dry shed,
Every horse will find a stall,
But canines tramp through the cold and damp,
And they just don’t care at all.
And why we’re so full of cheer
Is something we can’t explain,
But mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.

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