Divination for sub-Romans and schoolchildren II: some notes on the text

I don’t want to translate this whole thing, even though it’s not very long, because it’s not very interesting, and there is, you know, an actual edition out there, and even a translation into Spanish.1 But a typical entry breaks down like this,

C III III About the matter on which you first meditate and consult, your heart, rather, will have great glory therein.

or in the negative, this,

C II II What you have considered is unsound. Think of something else. The things you desire belong to lucre.

As you can tell from that the tone is actually weirdly moralising. Very many of the answers repeat the phrase , “Deum roga“, `ask God’, and there is a fairly basic uncertainty about the morality of the lots in general built into their own responses. They do a certain amount of self-promotion, but compare this,

III III II These are the lots that manifestly respond to enquirers and disclosed the secrets of men, therefore I advise you to make a custom of asking them necessary things, but seek you glory rather in God so that you may find answers to the petitions of your soul.

to these two:

IIII IIII III Get away from us [“recede a nobis“!] this hour, for my lots do not give you an answer. Come you another day and observe your condition.

IIII II II What have you come to consult us for? You are neglecting God, to whom you have promised much and fulfilled it not. Placate first God so that he may be more propitious to you and because he is seriously angry with you!

This reminds me of the death outcomes in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book: `the goodwill of God collapses. You die’. Damned if you do, damned if you, well, actually just damned if you do, sorry… But actually if the sortes are to be trusted, then the chances of those who consult are pretty good: 14 answers tell you that what you’re after is evil or simply won’t come to be, but 6 say that it won’t but something else that’s good will, and 26 promise you your desired outcome. A further 8 basically say that persistence and faith despite adversity will bring reward, hedging their bets as you might just not be persistent and faithful enough, and the remaining two don’t really give an answer but just sound serious.

Two other things strike me that may say something about the author, if any of his or her original text is left. Firstly, he or she seems to have liked maritime metaphors: storms and difficult passages come up four or five times, this being the best:

C IIII II Just as the ship in a storm comes steered to the place it had desired, thus it happens to you that you may attain what you desire. Ask your God that he may be placated toward you. They wish to deceive you with soothing words. You beware, indeed, and look to your simplicity lest afterwards you come to pay.

This is the best but it’s not the only, and I wonder if this is why one editor apparently placed a similar text in the south of Gaul.2 I would say, indeed, the coast, if so: I think this man or woman saw a lot of ships. That example also shows the other theme, however, which is simplicity: despite the advice of the lots to check in with them, some of the answers are almost anti-intellectual: stop thinking about it! Clean up your act! Good things come to the pious! Stop scheming! that sort of thing. Cogito, the verb it usually uses for thought, is sometimes almost pejorative: don’t think! That might wreck it all! Witness:

C III I Your petition will be accepted. Do not ponder on what you ask. It will happen to you in a short space of time, therefore ask God and you will obtain what you desire.

In the end then this author seems to have been almost suspended between a sense of proper piety and an improper fascination with this secret method, or perhaps he or she was just anxious to keep the door shut between the answers and the idea that anyone might write these things. Don’t question, don’t think, these are the answers, but you better be clean before you cross this threshold! It’s psychologically an interestingly conflicted thing to put to papyrus (as I guess the original would have been). And that flavour makes me more confident that we might indeed be looking at a single source text, albeit much adulterated, since it seems to suggest a single authorial personality in some of the entries. I tell you, we never had this sort of problem with our sorters

1. Enrique Montero Cartelle, “Las sortes sanctorum. La adivinación del porvenir en la edad media” in Maurilio Pérez González (ed.), Actas, II Congreso Hispánico de latí medieval (Leon, 11-14 de Noviembre de 1997) vol. I (Leon 1998), pp. 111-132 at pp. 130-132; the translation is idem (transl.), Códice de Metz. Una compilación medieval de cómputo y astronomía (Madrid 1994) (non vidi).

2. Alban Dold, Die Orakelsprüche im St. Galler Palimpsestcodex 908 (Die sogenannten ‘Sortes Sangallienses’), Sitzungsberichte der Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 225.4 (Wien 1948), cit. Montero, “Sortes sanctorum“, p. 120 n. 38.


One response to “Divination for sub-Romans and schoolchildren II: some notes on the text

  1. Das könne von mir kommen.

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