Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book VII/Chapter 35
Chapter 35.—Concerning the Hydromancy Through Which Numa Was Befooled by Certain Images of Demons Seen in the Water.
For Numa himself also, to whom no prophet of God, no holy angel was sent, was driven to have recourse to hydromancy, that he might see the images of the gods in the water (or, rather, appearances whereby the demons made sport of him), and might learn from them what he ought to ordain and observe in the sacred rites. This kind of divination, says Varro, was introduced from the Persians, and was used by Numa himself, and at an after time by the philosopher Pythagoras. In this divination, he says, they also inquire at the inhabitants of the nether world, and make use of blood; and this the Greeks call νεκρομαντείαν. But whether it be called necromancy or hydromancy it is the same thing, for in either case the dead are supposed to foretell future things. But by what artifices these things are done, let themselves consider; for I am unwilling to say that these artifices were wont to be prohibited by the laws, and to be very severely punished even in the Gentile states, before the advent of our Saviour. I am unwilling, I say, to affirm this, for perhaps even such things were then allowed. However, it was by these arts that Pompilius learned those sacred rites which he gave forth as facts, whilst he concealed their causes; for even he himself was afraid of that which he had learned. The senate also caused the books in which those causes were recorded to be burned. What is it, then, to me, that Varro attempts to adduce all sorts of fanciful physical interpretations, which if these books had contained, they would certainly not have been burned? For otherwise the conscript fathers would also have burned those books which Varro published and dedicated to the high priest Cæsar. Now Numa is said to have married the nymph Egeria, because (as Varro explains it in the forementioned book) he carried forth water wherewith to perform his hydromancy. Thus facts are wont to be converted into fables through false colorings. It was by that hydromancy, then, that that over-curious Roman king learned both the sacred rites which were to be written in the books of the priests, and also the causes of those rites,—which latter, however, he was unwilling that any one besides himself should know. Wherefore he made these causes, as it were, to die along with himself, taking care to have them written by themselves, and removed from the knowledge of men by being buried in the earth. Wherefore the things which are written in those books were either abominations of demons, so foul and noxious as to render that whole civil theology execrable even in the eyes of such men as those senators, who had accepted so many shameful things in the sacred rites themselves, or they were nothing else than the accounts of dead men, whom, through the lapse of ages, almost all the Gentile nations had come to believe to be immortal gods; whilst those same demons were delighted even with such rites, having presented themselves to receive worship under pretence of being those very dead men whom they had caused to be thought immortal gods by certain fallacious miracles, performed in order to establish that belief. But, by the hidden providence of the true God, these demons were permitted to confess these things to their friend Numa, having been gained by those arts through which necromancy could be performed, and yet were not constrained to admonish him rather at his death to burn than to bury the books in which they were written. But, in order that these books might be unknown, the demons could not resist the plough
by which they were thrown up, or the pen of Varro, through which the things which were done in reference to this matter have come down even to our knowledge. For they are not able to effect anything which they are not allowed; but they are permitted to influence those whom God, in His deep and just judgment, according to their deserts, gives over either to be simply afflicted by them, or to be also subdued and deceived. But how pernicious these writings were judged to be, or how alien from the worship of the true Divinity, may be understood from the fact that the senate preferred to burn what Pompilius had hid, rather than to fear what he feared, so that he could not dare to do that. Wherefore let him who does not desire to live a pious life even now, seek eternal life by means of such rites. But let him who does not wish to have fellowship with malign demons have no fear for the noxious superstition wherewith they are worshipped, but let him recognize the true religion by which they are unmasked and vanquished.
- Comp. Lactantius, Instit. i. 6.