At first, by the murmuring of waters, and afterward by noises among the trees, the sacred impostors interpreted the voice of the god. It is an old truth, that mystery is always imposing and often convenient. To plain questions were given dark answers, which might admit of interpretation according to the event. The importance attached to the oracle, the respect paid to the priest, and the presents heaped on the altar, indicated to craft and ambition a profitable profession. And that profession became doubly alluring to its members, because it proffered to the priests an authority in serving the oracles which they could not obtain in the general religion of the people. Oracles increased then, at first slowly, and afterward rapidly, until they grew so numerous that the single district of Boeotia contained no less than twenty-five. The oracle of Dodona long, however, maintained its pre-eminence over the rest, and was only at last eclipsed by that of Delphi , where strong and intoxicating exhalations from a neighbouring stream were supposed to confer prophetic phrensy. Experience augmented the sagacity of the oracles, and the priests, no doubt, intimately acquainted with all the affairs of the states around, and viewing the living contests of action with the coolness of spectators, were often enabled to give shrewd and sensible admonitions, - so that the forethought of wisdom passed for the prescience of divinity. Hence the greater part of their predictions were eminently successful; and when the reverse occurred, the fault was laid on the blind misconstruction of the human applicant. Thus no great design was executed, no city founded, no colony planted, no war undertaken, without the advice of an oracle. In the famine, the pestilence, and the battle, the divine voice was the assuager of terror and the inspirer of hope. All the instincts of our frailer nature, ever yearning for some support that is not of the world, were enlisted in behalf of a superstition which proffered solutions to doubt, and remedies to distress.
Besides this general cause for the influence of oracles, there was another cause calculated to give to the oracles of Greece a marked and popular pre-eminence over those in Egypt. A country divided into several small, free, and warlike states, would be more frequently in want of the divine advice, than one united under a single monarchy, or submitted to the rigid austerity of castes and priestcraft; and in which the inhabitants felt for political affairs all the languid indifference habitual to the subjects of a despotic government. Half a century might pass in Egypt without any political event that would send anxious thousands to the oracle; but in the wonderful ferment, activity, and restlessness of the numerous Grecian towns, every month, every week, there was some project or some feud for which the advice of a divinity was desired. Hence it was chiefly to a political cause that the immortal oracle of Delphi owed its pre-eminent importance. The Dorian worshippers of Apollo (long attached to that oracle, then comparatively obscure), passing from its neighbourhood and befriended by its predictions, obtained the mastership of the Peloponnesus; - their success was the triumph of the oracle. The Dorian Sparta (long the most powerful of the Grecian states), inviolably faithful to the Delphian god, upheld his authority, and spread the fame of his decrees. But in the more polished and enlightened times, the reputation of the oracle gradually decayed; it shone the brightest before and during the Persian war; - the appropriate light of an age of chivalry fading slowly as philosophy arose!
XVIII. But the practice of divination did not limit itself to these more solemn sources - its enthusiasm was contagious - its assistance was ever at hand . Enthusiasm operated on the humblest individuals. One person imagined himself possessed by a spirit actually passing into his soul - another merely inspired by the divine breath - a third was cast into supernatural ecstasies, in which he beheld the shadow of events, or the visions of a god - a threefold species of divine possession, which we may still find recognised by the fanatics of a graver faith! Nor did this suffice: a world of omens surrounded every man. There were not only signs and warnings in the winds, the earthquake, the eclipse of the sun or moon, the meteor, or the thunderbolt - but dreams also were reduced to a science ; the entrails of victims were auguries of evil or of good; the flights of birds, the motions of serpents, the clustering of bees, had their mystic and boding interpretations. Even hasty words, an accident, a fall on the earth, a sneeze (for which we still invoke the ancient blessing), every singular or unwonted event, might become portentous, and were often rendered lucky or unlucky according to the dexterity or disposition of the person to whom they occurred.