My wife asked what I was doing with the dice. “Divination,” I said.
On the train coming home from San Francisco yesterday I read the portion of Rabelais’ third book in which Panurge begins to wonder if he should marry. Pantagruel suggests he test his fortune by the Virgilian Lots. “Bring me the works of Virgil,” he says. “If you open it three times at random, and on the page that your finger strikes read the lines whose number we have agreed on, then we can explore your future as a husband.”
Having already given my soul to the devil by playing with a Ouija board (age eight) and chanting “I believe in Bloody Mary” before a mirror in a dark room (age nine), I thought I might as well try the Virgilian Lots. I had no specific question to pose. It’s been eleven years since the wedding bells rang for me, so Panurge’s problem isn’t mine. But I thought I might simply present myself, in the form of a question mark, for the general sentence of the oracle.
Following the example of Pantagruel and Panurge, I took my copy of the Aeneid from the shelf, the Robert Fitzgerald translation. I ransacked the game closet and found some dice. I saw there were about thirty lines on each page of my copy of the Aeneid, so I rolled five times and added up the results: 14. In order to avoid garbled prophecies, I decided that if the fourteenth line on the page weren’t a complete sentence I would instead take the whole sentence of which it was a part for my answer.
I opened the book at random. My first trial landed me on the following lines from Book IV:
Why will he not allow my prayers to fall
On his unpitying ears?
I’m not sure what to do with this. The words are Dido’s. Should I put myself in her place? Am I the one whose prayers go unanswered? Or am I playing Aeneas to someone else’s Dido and being pitiless and unsympathetic? Maybe, I thought, my second trial will help clarify things. I found myself, then, in Book X, with these lines:
Either you stay here for the carrion birds
Or the sea takes you under, hungry fishes
Nibble your wounds.
A dilemma. I think that, given the choice, I would rather be nibbled by fishes. Prometheus is famously pecked at by birds, but I imagine he’s bad company. Under the waves I could hobnob with Milton’s school pal, Edward ‘Lycidas’ King. He’s sure to have some dish on the old poet. How any of this relates to falling prayers and unpitying ears, I don’t know. But my last trial brought me the following lines from Book II:
………………And out we go in joy
To see the Dorian campsites, all deserted,
The beach they left behind.
This sounds more encouraging. My enemies have decamped. I am alive, though Troy is fallen. Were my prayers finally answered? Will I pass unscathed through the jaws of Dilemma like Odysseus through the monstery Strait of Messina? Encouraging, maybe, but still unsatisfying.
As a child I knew people who used the Bible for divination. Peter De Vries describes the phenomenon in The Blood of the Lamb. You start by holding the book up with its spine resting on the table. Then you quickly remove your hands and let it fall open and with eyes closed point a finger randomly at the page. Whatever question you had put to God, the answer was in that verse. (“Moab is my washpot” was the omniscient reply in the De Vries book.) I wonder how long people have been using books this way, whether the Bible or Virgil or the I Ching, or whatever?
So much for my experiment with the Virgilian Lots. As one comes to expect with oracles, the answers I was given were as doubtful as the question I had posed, which was myself. Perhaps I’ll try it again in the future with something other than the Aeneid, something more playful. Maybe Breakfast of Champions or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.