In Pagan days the curious would endeavour to peer into the future by opening the pages of Homer or Virgil, and noting the lines covered by the thumb the instant the book was opened. They were read with a view to casting some light on the problem which occasioned the consultation. King Charles I. adopted this method of learning his fate. According to one account--that of Aubrey--"the King, in December, 1648, being in great trouble, and prisoner at Carisbrooke, or to be brought to London to his tryal, Charles, Prince of Wales, being then at Paris, and in profound sorrow for his father, Mr Abraham Cowley went to wayte on him. His Highness asked him whether he would play at cards to divert his sad thoughts. Mr Cowley replied he did not care to play at cards, but if His Highness pleased they would use Sortes Virgilianae--(Mr Cowley always had a Virgil in his pocket)--the Prince liked the proposal, and pricked a pin in the fourth book of the AEneid," &c. "The Prince understood not Latin well, and desired Mr Cowley to translate the verses, which he did admirably well." The lines were:
"But vex'd with rebels and a stubborn race,
His country banish'd, and his son's embrace,
Some foreign Prince for fruitless succours try,
And see his friends ingloriously die:
Nor, when he shall to faithless terms submit,
His throne enjoy, nor comfortable light,
But, immature, a shameful death receiye,
And in the ground th'unbury'd body leave."
They were not at all inapt, and it is easy to see how a few coincidences of this kind set up a "law" and establish a cult. Even Christians are not free from this method of seeking Divine guidance. A man in great distress will decide to open the Bible, and be guided by the first words his eyes light upon, thereby imitating a devout practice dating back to the first formation of the Scriptures. If the words should be, "Be still, and know that I am God," he will resolve to do nothing but wait; and yet sometimes the words have been, "Saddle me the ass," or "There is death in the pot." The result is just like the probabilities of any other event containing the same possibilities, and at bottom differs in nowise from the latest Monte Carlo system.
The origin of the practice is to be found in the respect and veneration for certain books arising out of their wisdom and reputation.