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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Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday

tin of plum and apple jam

…But never jam today. A good cynical comment on the promises made by the powers-that-be. Who first said it? I’d always assumed it originated in World War 1 with that prolific author, Anon, who was probably a soldier.

Actually it dates back to 1871, when Lewis Carroll sent Alice venturing through the looking glass. There she met the White Queen, who propounded the rule about never having jam today. Alice, characteristically, objected: ‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day.”‘ ‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’ Weird logic, but the message got through!

I associated “jam tomorrow” with World War 1 because my father, who wasn’t even a teenager by 1918, remembered a comic music-hall song about plum and apple jam. This confection was shipped out to the troops in industrial quantities, literally, by businessmen like Thomas Tickler from Grimsby. He had a Government contract to supply tins of it, or do I mean tons of it, to the front line. It made him a million pounds.

I’ve tracked down the song my father remembered, and even found a 1917 recording of it by Fred Hilton. (Isn’t the Internet amazing?) It’s called, you’ve guessed it, “Plum and Apple”, and each chorus includes a complaint about the monotonous fare, plus a suggestion for military HQ:

“If we’d used these tins of jam, you see,
As shells for our artillery,
We’d have won this war quite easily
And be in Berlin today.”

I promised in my last post to find out when jam originated. Answer: surprisingly early. The story begins in the era of the Crusades. No, I don’t mean we should picture Richard the Lion Heart sitting down to jam sandwiches with Saladin! But this was when sugar started to become available, if not exactly cheap, in western Europe. The Arabs had grown sugar cane for centuries in their Middle Eastern homelands, and brought the plants with them as they expanded into North Africa and Spain. When the crusaders conquered the Eastern Mediterranean lands we now call Jordan, Syria and Israel, they learnt that sugar was not only a delicious sweetener but also a lucrative export. Using it to preserve fruit and make jam was the next step.

Soon jam was valued as a delicacy in its own right, but a luxury one. Joan of Arc is said to have eaten quince jam before every battle, to give her courage. Catherine de Medici took it with her when she married Henry II of France….along with forks, also ice cream. Mary Queen of Scots, her daughter-in-law, introduced marmalade into Scotland. Other jam-lovers have included Nostradamus, who wrote a treatise on it, Voltaire, and Marie Curie.

Then once the New World was opened up, sugar plantations multiplied, and jam spread (sorry!) to become something we can all enjoy. My favourite kind is home-made raspberry, from our own home-grown fruit. What’s yours?

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Who wants to win a free booK? Well here’s your chance!

Welcome, everyone, to my new blog. Yes, I’m back after four years away. I’ve missed you, my friends in the blogosphere. Have you missed me? No, of course you haven’t. Too bad, I’m here anyway, and to soften the blow, I’m giving away some books.

I’ll be posting about a mixture of topics. Books of course, mine and other people’s; writing, ditto, and guest posts from other writers; history, especially ancient Roman. Then how about “shoes and ships and sealing-wax, and cabbages and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.” in my last series of blogs I certainly covered shoes (if you count Wellington boots,) and ships (the voyages of Pythias the ancient Greek explorer.) This time…who knows? I daresay pigs with wings will turn up. Oh yes, Walrus, they do exist; how often have I been watching some politician strutting his stuff on tv, and observed porkers looping the loop joyously in the background?

First of all I’m offering the chance to win a free book. Three chances, actually, as I’ll be giving away three copies of BOUND BY MYSTERY, the amazing anthology that Poisoned Pen Press brought out earlier this year. The 30+ stories are a real mixture, with settings from all over the world and periods from modern to ancient. One of the latter is a story of mine, WILD BY NAME, WILD BY NATURE, set in Roman Britain, like my novels, and tells of the night when innkeeper Aurelia Marcella has a surprise celebrity guest, a famous gladiator.

I’m delighted to be part of this book. Some of my very favourite authors are in it. And I love short stories. They’re fascinating to read and fun to write, the ideal form for mystery ideas. They are a subject I’ll be returning to in a future post. Which are my favourite short stories? Which are yours?

Meanwhile, winning a bumper bunch of them needs no big brain-teaser, just a prize draw. Everyone who posts a comment on my blog between now and midnight on August 31st is automatically included. Your names will be put into a hat or mug or dustbin – whichever container is suitable – and three winners will be drawn out on September 1st, and announced here. Then I’ll need your snail-mail addresses, and the books will be on their way.

Watch this space. I’ll be with you again before the end of the month., because I want to show you the view from my office window, which has been keeping me entertained all summer long. When I need a break from writing, (only very very rarely of course!) I look out and…I can spy with my little eye, something beginning with S.

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