Definitions

virgilianae

Sortes Virgilianae

The Sortes Virgilianae or Sortes Vergilianae (Latin - Virgilian lots; singular - sors Vergiliana) is a form of divination by bibliomancy in which advice or predictions of the future are sought by randomly selecting a passage from Virgil's Aeneid. It was most widely practiced in the later Roman Empire and in medieval times. It seems to have been modeled on the ancient Roman sortes as seen in the Sortes Homerica, and later the Sortes Sanctorum.

History

Classical instances

Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie describes Roman beliefs about poetry and recounts a famous Sors Vergiliana by Decimus Clodius Albinus, a Roman who ruled Britain and laid claim to the Roman Empire, but was defeated in battle by Septimus Severus:

Among the Romans a poet was called vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words, vaticinium and vaticinari, is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge. And so far were they carried into the admiration thereof, that they thought in the chanceable hitting upon any such verses great fore-tokens of their following fortunes were placed; whereupon grew the word of Sortes Virgilianae, when by sudden opening Virgil's book they lighted upon some verse of his making. Whereof the Histories of the Emperors' Lives are full: as of Albinus, the governor of our island, who in his childhood met with this verse,
Arma amens capio, nec sat rationis in armis,
and in his age performed it.

Rabelais also relates that he drew the more optimistic Aeneid 6, 857, which he took to mean himself.

Other recorded Roman instances of the practice are by

  • Hadrian - drew Aeneid 6, 808, taken as predicting his adoption by Trajan and succession to the imperial throne
  • Alexander Severus - drew Aeneid 6, 851, taken as predicting his later becoming emperor
  • Gordian II - drew Aeneid 1, 278 when concerned as to whether he would have a long line of successors or not, taken as predicting the former
  • Claudius II - drew Aeneid 1, 265, apparently predicting he would rule for three more years (he in fact only ruled for two); consulting as to whether his brother Quintillus should be made joint emperor with him, drew Aeneid 6, 869, which was taken to predict Quintillus' death 17 days after being made joint emperor

Medieval instances

In the medieval era Vergil was often thought to have magic powers or a gift of prophecy (eg in the works of Dante, where he is the author's guide in the underworld). Clyde Pharr, in the introduction to his edition of the Aeneid, notes that

In the mediaeval period a great circle of legends and stories of miracles gathered around [Vergil's] name, and the Vergil of history was transformed into the Vergil of magic. He was looked upon not only as a great magician but as an inspired pagan prophet who had foretold the birth of Christ. It was at this period that the spelling Virgil came into vogue, thus associating the great poet with the magic or prophetic wand, virga.

Renaissance instances

Viscount Falkland once went to a public library in Oxford with King Charles I and, being shown a finely printed and bound copy of the Aeneid, suggested to the King that he use the Sortes Virgilanae to tell his future. The king opened the book but happened on Dido's prayer against Aeneas in Book 4.615, at which he was troubled. Nevertheless, Falkland took his own lots, hoping to pick a passage that did not relate to him and thus stop the king from worrying about his own. However, he picked the expressions of Evander upon the untimely death of his son Pallas in Book 11, which contemporaries later took to presage Falkland's death at the first Battle of Newbury in 1643 (with Charles's passage predicting his beheading in 1649).

In fiction

The sortes Vergilianae appear in several of Graham Greene's books, including The Comedians, Travels with My Aunt, and Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party.

References

Sources

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