“The obscurity of the oracles was of inexpressible service to the cause of superstition.”

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In our fourth number from Godwin’s Lives of the Necromancers, our author explores the mystical life of the ancient Greeks. Godwin begins the section by restating his basic argument: “to the eye of uninstructed ignorance every thing is astonishing, every thing is unexpected.” While legend might hold that Amphion could arrange stones on command with his lyre, the truth is probably far more mundane. Like the geometer and philosopher Pythagoras, Amphion was in all likelihood merely one of the few existing truly skilled engineers or architects in the Greek world. Pythagoras, in fact, was so brilliant that Godwin laments his rather bizarre pretensions to divinity. The great thinker commanded the worship of his followers, who gladly (for Godwin: ignorantly) followed his will. Between Pythagoras and his students, the master’s word was unquestioned law. Thus did the master ensure that no students may ever take his place or surpass his grandeur. His student Epimenides, however, seems to have learned much. A man of apparently few scruples, Epimenides claimed to be in contact with invisible entities (“nymphs”) and spirits which accorded him unique powers and abilities in our world. He was supposed to have practiced a sort of remote viewing or astral projection and seems to have supported himself by performing exorcisms throughout the countryside, restoring ruined farms to prosperousness. But perhaps the most powerful of all ancient Greek cultists were the Oracles at Delphi. With precision empiricism and rationalism, Godwin identifies the oracular operation as a natural gas‐​induced fever dream, dressed with various theatricals, and filtered entirely through the secretive, exclusionary priestesses. The combined influence of the Oracles’ abilities to deceive and the Greeks’ penchant to believe such nonsense affected the histories of entire states, societies, and western civilization itself. Events always turn, after all, at the intersection of interests and ideas.

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By William Godwin. London: Frederick J. Mason, 1834.

Lives of the Necromancers: Or an Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power (Excerpts)


Thus obscure and general is our information respecting the Babylonians. But it was far otherwise with the Greeks. Long before the period, when, by their successful resistance to the Persian invasion, they had rendered themselves of paramount importance in the history of the civilised world, they had their poets and annalists, who preserved to future time the memory of their tastes, their manners and superstitions, their strength, and their weakness. Homer in particular had already composed his two great poems, rendering the peculiarities of his countrymen familiar to the latest posterity. The consequence of this is, that the wonderful things of early Greece are even more frequent than the record of its sober facts. As men advance in observation and experience, they are compelled more and more to perceive that all the phenomena of nature are one vast chain of uninterrupted causes and consequences: but to the eye of uninstructed ignorance every thing is astonishing, every thing is unexpected. The remote generations of mankind are in all cases full of prodigies: but it is the fortune of Greece to have preserved its early adventures, so as to render the beginning pages of its history one mass of impossible falsehoods…


The story of Amphion is more perplexing than that of the living Orpheus. Both of them turn in a great degree upon the miraculous effects of music. Amphion was of the royal family of Thebes, and ultimately became ruler of the territory. He is said, by the potency of his lyre, or his skill in the magic art, to have caused the stones to follow him, to arrange themselves in the way he proposed, and without the intervention of a human hand to have raised a wall about his metropolis. It is certainly less difficult to conceive the savage man to be rendered placable, and to conform to the dictates of civilisation, or even wild beasts to be made tame, than to imagine stones to obey the voice and the will of a human being. The example however is not singular; and hereafter we shall find related that Merlin, the British enchanter, by the power of magic caused the rocks of Stonehenge, though of such vast dimensions, to be carried through the air from Ireland to the place where we at present find them.—Homer mentions that Amphion, and his brother Zethus built the walls of Thebes, but does not describe it as having been done by miracle…


…He was a profound geometrician…Pythagoras is the first person, who is known to have taught the spherical figure of the earth, and that we have antipodes; and he propagated the doctrine that the earth is a planet, and that the sun is the centre round which the earth and the other planets move, now known by the name of the Copernican system.

To inculcate a pure and a simple mode of subsistence was also an express object of pursuit to Pythagoras. He taught a total abstinence from every thing having had the property of animal life…

One revolution that Pythagoras worked, was that, whereas, immediately before, those who were most conspicuous among the Greeks as instructors of mankind in understanding and virtue, styled themselves sophists, professors of wisdom, this illustrious man desired to be known only by the appellation of a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. The sophists had previously brought their denomination into discredit and reproach, by the arrogance of their pretensions, and the imperious way in which they attempted to lay down the law to the world.

The modesty of this appellation however did not altogether suit with the deep designs of Pythagoras, the ascendancy he resolved to acquire, and the oracular subjection in which he deemed it necessary to hold those who placed themselves under his instruction. This wonderful man set out with making himself a model of the passive and unscrupulous docility which he afterwards required from others. He did not begin to teach till he was forty years of age, and from eighteen to that period he studied in foreign countries, with the resolution to submit to all his teachers enjoined, and to make himself master of their least communicated and most secret wisdom…

When he came forth, he appeared in a long garment of the purest white, with a flowing beard, and a garland upon his head. He is said to have been of the finest symmetrical form, with a majestic carriage, and a grave and awful countenance. He suffered his followers to believe that he was one of the Gods, the Hyperborean Apollo, and is said to have told Abaris that he assumed the human form, that he might the better invite men to an easiness of approach and to confidence in him. What however seems to be agreed in by all his biographers, is that he professed to have already in different ages appeared in the likeness of man: first as Aethalides, the son of Mercury; and, when his father expressed himself ready to invest him with any gift short of immortality, he prayed that, as the human soul is destined successively to dwell in various forms, he might have the privilege in each to remember his former state of being, which was granted him. From, Aethalides he became Euphorbus, who slew Patroclus at the siege of Troy. He then appeared as Hermotimus, then Pyrrhus, a fisherman of Delos, and finally Pythagoras. He said that a period of time was interposed between each transmigration, during which he visited the seat of departed souls; and he professed to relate a part of the wonders he had seen. He is said to have eaten sparingly and in secret, and in all respects to have given himself out for a being not subject to the ordinary laws of nature.

Pythagoras therefore pretended to miraculous endowments. Happening to be on the sea‐​shore when certain fishermen drew to land an enormous multitude of fishes, he desired them to allow him to dispose of the capture, which they consented to, provided he would name the precise number they had caught. He did so, and required that they should throw their prize into the sea again, at the same time paying them the value of the fish. He tamed a Daunian bear by whispering in his ear, and prevailed on him henceforth to refrain from the flesh of animals, and to feed on vegetables. By the same means he induced an ox not to eat beans, which was a diet specially prohibited by Pythagoras; and he called down an eagle from his flight, causing him to sit on his hand, and submit to be stroked down by the philosopher. In Greece, when he passed the river Nessus in Macedon, the stream was heard to salute him with the words “Hail, Pythagoras!” When Abaris addressed him as one of the heavenly host, he took the stranger aside, and convinced him that he was under no mistake, by exhibiting to him his thigh of gold: or, according to another account, he used the same sort of evidence at a certain time, to satisfy his pupils of his celestial descent. He is said to have been seen on the same day at Metapontum in Italy, and at Taurominium in Sicily, though these places are divided by the sea, so that it was conceived that it would cost several days to pass from one to the other. In one instance he absented himself from his associates in Italy for a whole year; and when he appeared again, related that he had passed that time in the infernal regions, describing likewise the marvellous things he had seen. Diogenes Laertius, speaking of this circumstance affirms however that he remained during this period in a cave, where his mother conveyed to him intelligence and necessaries, and that, when he came once more into light and air, he appeared so emaciated and colourless, that he might well be believed to have come out of Hades…

His discoveries of various propositions in geometry, of the earth as a planet, and of the solar system as now universally recognised, clearly stamp him a genius of the highest order.

Yet this man, thus enlightened and philanthropical, established his system of proceeding upon narrow and exclusive principles, and conducted it by methods of artifice, quackery and delusion. One of his leading maxims was, that the great and fundamental truths to the establishment of which he devoted himself, were studiously to be concealed from the vulgar, and only to be imparted to a select few, and after years of the severest noviciate and trial. He learned his earliest lessons of wisdom in Egypt after this method, and he conformed through life to the example which had thus been delivered to him. The severe examination that he made of the candidates previously to their being admitted into his school, and the years of silence that were then prescribed to them, testify this. He instructed them by symbols, obscure and enigmatical propositions, which they were first to exercise their ingenuity to expound. The authority and dogmatical assertions of the master were to remain unquestioned; and the pupils were to fashion themselves to obsequious and implicit submission, and were the furthest in the world from being encouraged to the independent exercise of their own understandings. There was nothing that Pythagoras was more fixed to discountenance, than the communication of the truths upon which he placed the highest value, to the uninitiated. It is not probable therefore that he wrote any thing: all was communicated orally, by such gradations, and with such discretion, as he might think fit to adopt and to exercise…

He was probably much under the influence of a contemptible jealousy, and must be considered as desirous that none of his contemporaries or followers should eclipse their master. All was oracular and dogmatic in the school of Pythagoras. He prized and justly prized the greatness of his attainments and discoveries, and had no conception that any thing could go beyond them. He did not encourage, nay, he resolutely opposed, all true independence of mind, and that undaunted spirit of enterprise which is the atmosphere in which the sublimest thoughts are most naturally generated. He therefore did not throw open the gates of science and wisdom, and invite every comer; but on the contrary narrowed the entrance, and carefully reduced the number of aspirants. He thought not of the most likely methods to give strength and permanence and an extensive sphere to the progress of the human mind. For these reasons he wrote nothing; but consigned all to the frail and uncertain custody of tradition. And distant posterity has amply avenged itself upon the narrowness of his policy; and the name of Pythagoras, which would otherwise have been ranked with the first luminaries of mankind, and consigned to everlasting gratitude, has in consequence of a few radical and fatal mistakes, been often loaded with obloquy, and the hero who bore it been indiscriminately classed among the votaries of imposture and artifice.


Epimenides has been mentioned among the disciples of Pythagoras; but he probably lived at an earlier period. He was a native of Crete…

Epimenides appears to have been one of those persons, who make it their whole study to delude their fellow‐​men, and to obtain for themselves the reputation of possessing supernatural gifts. Such persons, almost universally, and particularly in ages of ignorance and wonder, become themselves the dupes of their own pretensions. He gave out that he was secretly subsisted by food brought to him by the nymphs; and he is said to have taken nourishment in so small quantities, as to be exempted from the ordinary necessities of nature. He boasted that he could send his soul out of his body, and recal it, when he pleased; and alternately appeared an inanimate corpse, and then again his life would return to him, and he appear capable of every human function as before. He is said to have practised the ceremony of exorcising houses and fields, and thus rendering them fruitful and blessed. He frequently uttered prophecies of events with such forms of ceremony and such sagacious judgment, that they seemed to come to pass as he predicted…


One of the most extraordinary things to be met with in the history of ancient times is the oracles. They maintained their reputation for many successive centuries. The most famous perhaps were that of Delphi in Greece, and that of Jupiter Ammon in the deserts of Lybia. But they were scattered through many cities, many plains, and many islands. They were consulted by the foolish and the wise; and scarcely anything considerable was undertaken, especially about the time of the Persian invasion into Greece, without the parties having first had recourse to these; and they in most cases modified the conduct of princes and armies accordingly. To render the delusion more successful, every kind of artifice was put in practice. The oracle could only be consulted on fixed days; and the persons who resorted to it, prefaced their application with costly offerings to the presiding God. Their questions passed through the hands of certain priests, residing in and about the temple. These priests received the embassy with all due solemnity, and retired. A priestess, or Pythia, who was seldom or never seen by any of the profane vulgar, was the immediate vehicle of communication with the God. She was cut off from all intercourse with the world, and was carefully trained by the attendant priests. Spending almost the whole of her time in solitude, and taught to consider her office as ineffably sacred, she saw visions, and was for the most part in a state of great excitement. The Pythia, at least of the Delphian God, was led on with much ceremony to the performance of her office, and placed upon the sacred tripod. The tripod, we are told, stood over a chasm in the rock, from which issued fumes of an inebriating quality. The Pythia became gradually penetrated through every limb with these fumes, till her bosom swelled, her features enlarged, her mouth foamed, her voice seemed supernatural, and she uttered words that could sometimes scarcely be called articulate. She could with difficulty contain herself, and seemed to be possessed, and wholly overpowered, with the God. After a prelude of many unintelligible sounds, uttered with fervour and a sort of frenzy, she became by degrees more distinct. She uttered incoherent sentences, with breaks and pauses, that were filled up with preternatural efforts and distorted gestures; while the priests stood by, carefully recording her words, and then reducing them into a sort of obscure signification. They finally digested them for the most part into a species of hexameter verse. We may suppose the supplicants during this ceremony placed at a proper distance, so as to observe these things imperfectly, while the less they understood, they were ordinarily the more impressed with religious awe, and prepared implicitly to receive what was communicated to them. Sometimes the priestess found herself in a frame, not entirely equal to her function, and refused for the present to proceed with the ceremony.

The priests of the oracle doubtless conducted them in a certain degree like the gipsies and fortune‐​tellers of modern times, cunningly procuring to themselves intelligence in whatever way they could, and ingeniously worming out the secrets of their suitors, at the same time contriving that their drift should least of all be suspected. But their main resource probably was in the obscurity, almost amounting to unintelligibleness, of their responses. Their prophecies in most cases required the comment of the event to make them understood; and it not seldom happened, that the meaning in the sequel was found to be the diametrically opposite of that which the pious votaries had originally conceived.

In the mean time the obscurity of the oracles was of inexpressible service to the cause of superstition. If the event turned out to be such as could in no way be twisted to come within the scope of the response, the pious suitor only concluded that the failure was owing to the grossness and carnality of his own apprehension, and not to any deficiency in the institution. Thus the oracle by no means lost credit, even when its meaning remained for ever in its original obscurity. But, when, by any fortunate chance, its predictions seemed to be verified, then the unerringness of the oracle was lauded from nation to nation; and the omniscience of the God was admitted with astonishment and adoration…