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Sortes Homericae, Vergilianae, Biblicae


Divination by the use of tablets containing letters of the alphabet, which were drawn at random from a receptacle, and usually by a child, was practiced at ancient Praeneste in Italy and elsewhere. The tablets with individual letters were replaced subsequently by others containing phrases selected from books inspired by the Muses, especially books of Homer, Hesiod, and Vergil, or from collections of divinely inspired oracles. This form of divination was called rhapsodomancy. Finally, in place of such extracts, it became customary to open a copy of Homer or Vergil at random and to regard the first words to catch the eye as giving an answer to the problem of the consultant. In the Historia Augusta (Vita Hadr. 2.8) it is recorded that Hadrian, in consulting Vergil in this manner, hit upon Aeneid 6.808812 and felt these lines indicated that he enjoyed the favor of Trajan and was to be his successor. In the same work (Vita Sev. Alex. 14) it appears that Alexander Severus also consulted Vergil and chanced upon Aeneid 6.848854; he interpreted the passage to mean that he was to become emperor. The Vergilian sortes have had a long history. R. Ganszyniec found 169 examples of their use in the 16th century. Charles I (162549) of England was persuaded to consult them at Oxford and chanced upon Aeneid 4.615621, the curse of Dido. D. A. Slater has shown that they are still being consulted in the present century.

The term Sortes Biblicae is employed to designate a similar Christian practice, noted from the early 4th century. The most famous ancient example is that described by Augustine in his Confessions. When he opened a codex of the New Testament at random, the first passage to meet his eyeand one most appropriate under the circumstanceswas Rom 14.1 (Conf. 8.12.29). However, he realized the dangers of such consultations and warned against them in Letter 55.37.

The term biblical sortes is used rather loosely to include the similar employment also of liturgical texts and lives of the saints. P. Courcelle has listed a number of examples (see bibliography) and he has indicated the role played by children, and particularly by young lectors, either official or chosen for the occasion. In late antiquity and into the Carolingian age, widespread use of the biblical sortes in various matters of importance included that of the election of bishops and other ecclesiastical officials. Naturally, such a procedure led to abuses, and the use of the sortes, especially of the collection known as the Sortes Sanctorum, which should not be confused with the biblical sortes proper, was repeatedly condemned by medieval councils.

The use of the biblical sortes declined from the beginning of the Carolingian age, but persisted sporadically; it occurs as an individual aberration in the spiritual realm even in recent times.

See Also: divination.

Bibliography: a. bouchÉ-leclercq, "Divination," c. daremberg and e. saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines d'après les monuments (Graz 196263) 2.1:292319, esp. 302. d. a. slater, "Sortes Vergilianae" or Vergil Today (Oxford 1922). h. a. loane, "The Sortes Vergilianae, ' 'Classical Weekly 21 (192728) 185189. r. ganszyniec, "Vergiliana: De sortibus Vergilianis," Eos (193031) 194, 201, 597, 650. h. leclercq and h. i. marrou, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 15.2: 159092. p. courcelle, "L'Enfant et les 'sorts bibliques'," Vigiliae Christianae 7 (Amsterdam 1953) 194220, with copious examples and bibliog. c. du cange, Glossarium ad scriptores mediae et infimae latinitatis (Niort 188388) 7:532534.

[m. r. p. mcguire]

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