And yet it is the case. This is why I am fascinated by the sortes Vigilianae and Homericae, a method of divination apparently widespread in antiquity, and yet more widespread in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The method consists in the random selection of a line or sentence from Homer or Virgil, usually done by opening one's book at random and then letting a staff fall on the page; or else by throwing dice. The persistence of this rite into the Renaissance and beyond seems to me to be one of those cases where refinement and learning, far from edging out superstition, depend on it for their very survival. Erudite rationalism and dumb superstition are shown to be two sides of the same coin.
Such methods of divination have long been applied to sacred texts. They still are, no doubt; but there can't be many people today who use the pagan classics in this way. Still, every reader of Dante knows that Virgil, the poet's guide to the ins and outs of sin and redemption, was a proselytizing Christian avant la lettre. And Virgil's books, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, were sacred texts, a reputation that relied mostly on people's appreciation of the Messianic flavour of the fourth eclogue. In the Purgatorio, Dante meets the ancient Roman poet Statius, who explains how he became Christian after reading this very poem (a poem written before the birth of Christ, don't forget).
Homeric lots had a long history in antiquity: Socrates in prison used them to determine the day on which he was to die. The Roman emperor Marcus Opellius Macrinus fell upon a line in the Iliad that told him his time in the top job would not last long: sure enough, he was deposed and executed by a rival within fourteen months. Homeric lots told Brutus that Pompey would lose the battle of Pharsalus. One wonders why he didn't switch sides there and then, instead of waiting to do it after the inevitable defeat.
Plenty of emperors used Virgilian lots to figure out their fate (among them Alexander Severus, Hadrian, Gordian II, and Claudius II), but, in contrast to those that diced with Homer, these seem almost always to have got a positive response: your reign will be long, you will defeat the enemies of Rome, you know the drill. I wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that the Iliad (much more popular than the Odyssey for this sort of thing) is all about war and slaughter and being killed in imaginatively brutal ways, whereas the Aeneid tempers that stuff with a fair bit of the old 'Rome is great, Empire's definitely the way to go' (pace, of course, the revisionist readers of Virgil's epic who see it as essentially antagonistic to Augustan ideology).
Using Homer and Virgil to determine their fate didn't seem to do much good for any of these people, since they had no choice but to fulfil the prophecy and get on with things. The destinies predicted by Homeric and Virgilian lots – at least, those recorded by history – are suspiciously self-fulfilling, almost as if the historical instance has been chosen retroactively to match the verse. Funny, that: destiny's a rum old deal.
Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica (about which I made some nugatory remarks here) has a whole section devoted to the debunking of beliefs in the efficacy of Virgilian lots. There is a footnote to this section, a late addition by another hand, which is worth quoting in full, if only for the deliciously laconic conclusion:
King Charles I. tried the sortes Virgilianæ, as is related by Wellwood in the following passage: —
"The King being at Oxford during the civil wars, went one day to see the public library, where he was showed among other books, a Virgil nobly printed, and exquisitely bound. The Lord Falkland, to divert the king, would have his majesty make a trial of his fortune by the sortes Virgilianæ, which every body knows was an usual kind of augury some ages past. Whereupon the king opening the book, the period which happened to come up, was that part of Dido's imprecation against Æneas; which Mr. Dryden translates thus:
Yet let a race untam'd, and haughty foes,
His peaceful entrance with dire arms oppose.
Oppress'd with numbers in th'unequal field,
His men discourag'd and himself expell'd,
Let him for succour sue from place to place,
Torn from his subjects, and his son's embrace,
First let him see his friends in battle slain,
And their untimely fate lament in vain:
And when at length the cruel war shall cease,
On hard conditions may he buy his peace;
Nor let him then enjoy supreme command,
But fall untimely by some hostile hand,
And lie unburied in the common sand.
"It is said that King Charles seemed concerned at this accident...."
Most of the above examples I lifted from Rabelais, in whose Tiers Livre there is a rather amusing treatment of the Virgilian lots phenomenon. Panurge wants to use them to determine whether or not he should marry (in fact, the whole book is taken up with his attempts to find an answer to that question). Pantagruel, ever the voice of reason (well, almost), counsels Panurge thus:
Aussi (respondit Pantagruel) en vos propositions tant y a de si et de mais, que je n'y sçaurois rien fonder ne rien resouldre. N'estez vous asceuré de vostre vouloir? Le point principal y gist: tout le reste est fortuit, et dependent des fatales dispositions du ciel.
Likewise, (replied Pantagruel) your proposals are so full of ifs and buts that I wouldn't know where to begin, or how to resolve anything. Are you not assured of your own will? That's the main thing in all this: the rest is a matter of chance, and all depends on the fatal dispositions of the heavens.
In other words, know your own mind before you start trifling with matters beyond your control. Nice advice, but even the most rational among us know that our decisions are not made by reason alone; and our 'decision procedures' (to borrow a term from computing) are not entirely calculable. We do very often require some arbitrary determining factor in order to pass from thought to the act. And if we're going to act irrationally, better to do it on the basis of a beautiful line of poetry than the flip of a coin or a badly-written horoscope.
With this in mind, I decided to give the Virgilian lots a go myself. Naturally, I carefully replicated the method set out by Rabelais in the Tiers Livre (well, not quite: I used a random number generator on the web). I have a two-volume edition of the Aeneid, so the rite proceeded in three stages: first, a number between 1 and 2 (result: 1); second, a number between 1 and 153 (excluding the commentary pages; result: 41); third, a number between 1 and 32 (the number of lines on the page; result: 25).
Now, I did say earlier that the Aeneid probably gave more positive auguries than the Iliad because it's less preoccupied with violent death than with the glorification of the Roman race. Here's what I ended up with (honest!):
ut tandem ante oculos evasit et ora parentum,
concidit ac multo vitam cum sanguine fudit.
Which gives something like:
When at last he came within sight of his parents,
He fell and poured out his life in a torrent of blood.
Ah well. I'll let you know how that works out for me.