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Gerald of Wales

places mentioned

Book 1, Ch. 16: The soothsayers of this nation

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Concerning the soothsayers of this nation, and persons as it were possessed

There are certain persons in Cambria, whom you will find nowhere else, called Awenddyon, (24) or people inspired; when consulted upon any doubtful event, they roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit. They do not deliver the answer to what is required in a connected manner; but the person who skilfully observes them, will find, after many preambles, and many nugatory and incoherent, though ornamented speeches, the desired explanation conveyed in some turn of a word: they are then roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep, and, as it were, by violence compelled to return to their proper senses. After having answered the questions, they do not recover till violently shaken by other people; nor can they remember the replies they have given. If consulted a second or third time upon the same point, they will make use of expressions totally different; perhaps they speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits. These gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; others fancy that a written schedule is applied to their mouths and on awaking they publicly declare that they have received this gift. Such is the saying of Esdras, "The Lord said unto me, open thy mouth, and I opened my mouth, and behold a cup full of water, whose colour was like fire; and when I had drank it, my heart brought forth understanding, and wisdom entered into my breast." They invoke, during their prophecies, the true and living God, and the Holy Trinity, and pray that they may not by their sins be prevented from finding the truth. These prophets are only found among the Britons descended from the Trojans. For Calchas and Cassandra, endowed with the spirit of prophecy, openly foretold, during the siege of Troy, the destruction of that fine city; on which account the high priest, Helenus, influenced by the prophetic books of Calchas, and of others who had long before predicted the ruin of their country, in the first year went over to the Greeks with the sons of Priam (to whom he was high priest), and was afterwards rewarded in Greece. Cassandra, daughter of king Priam, every day foretold the overthrow of the city; but the pride and presumption of the Trojans prevented them from believing her word. Even on the very night that the city was betrayed, she clearly described the treachery and the method of it:

" - tales casus Cassandra canebat,"

as in the same manner, during the existence of the kingdom of the Britons, both Merlin Caledonius and Ambrosius are said to have foretold the destruction of their nation, as well as the coming of the Saxons, and afterwards that of the Normans; and I think a circumstance related by Aulus Gellius worth inserting in this place. On the day that Caius Caesar and Cneius Pompey, during the civil war, fought a pitched battle in Thessalia, a memorable event occurred in that part of Italy situated beyond the river Po. A priest named Cornelius, honourable from his rank, venerable for his religion, and holy in his manners, in an inspired moment proclaimed, "Caesar has conquered," and named the day, the events, the mutual attack, and the conflicts of the two armies. Whether such things are exhibited by the spirit, let the reader more particularly inquire; I do not assert they are the acts of a Pythonic or a diabolic spirit; for as foreknowledge is the property of God alone, so is it in his power to confer knowledge of future events. There are differences of gifts, says the Apostle, but one and the same spirit; whence Peter, in his second Epistle, writes, "For the prophecy came not in the old time by the will of man, but men spake as if they were inspired by the Holy Ghost:" to the same effect did the Chaldeans answer king Nebuchadonazar on the interpretation of his dream, which he wished to extort from them. "There is not," say they, "a man upon earth who can, O king, satisfactorily answer your question; let no king therefore, however great or potent, make a similar request to any magician, astrologer, or Chaldean; for it is a rare thing that the king requireth, and there is none other that can shew it before the king, except the Gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh." On this passage Jerome remarks, "The diviners and all the learned of this world confess, that the prescience of future events belongs to God alone; the prophets therefore, who foretold things to come, spake by the spirit of God. Hence some persons object, that, if they were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they would sometimes premise, "Thus saith the Lord God," or make use of some expression in the prophetic style; and as such a mode of prophesying is not taken notice of by Merlin, and no mention is made of his sanctity, devotion, or faith, many think that he spake by a Pythonic spirit. To which I answer, that the spirit of prophecy was given not only to the holy, but sometimes to unbelievers and Gentiles, to Baal, to the sibyls, and even to bad people, as to Caiaphas and Bela. On which occasion Origen says: "Do not wonder, if he whom ye have mentioned declares that the Scribes and Pharisees and doctors amongst the Jews prophesied concerning Christ; for Caiaphas said: "It is expedient for us that one man die for the people:" but asserts at the same time, that because he was high priest for that year, he prophesied. Let no man therefore be lifted up, if he prophesies, if he merits prescience; for prophecies shall fail, tongues shall cease, knowledge shall vanish away; and now abideth, faith, hope, and charity: these three; but the greatest of these is Charity, which never faileth. But these bad men not only prophesied, but sometimes performed great miracles, which others could not accomplish. John the Baptist, who was so great a personage, performed no miracle, as John the Evangelist testifies: "And many came to Jesus and said, Because John wrought no signs," etc. Nor do we hear that the mother of God performed any miracle; we read in the Acts of the Apostles, that the sons of Sheva cast out devils in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preached; and in Matthew and Luke we may find these words: "Many shall say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? and then I will profess unto them, I never knew you." And in another place, John says: "Master, we saw a certain man casting out devils in thy name, and forbade him, because he followeth not with us." But Jesus said: "Forbid him not; no man can do a miracle in my name, and speak evil of me; for whoever is not against me, is for me."

Alexander of Macedon, a gentile, traversed the Caspian mountains, and miraculously confined ten tribes within their promontories, where they still remain, and will continue until the coming of Elias and Enoch. We read, indeed, the prophecies of Merlin, but hear nothing either of his sanctity or his miracles. Some say, that the prophets, when they prophesied, did not become frantic, as it is affirmed of Merlin Silvestris, and others possessed, whom we have before mentioned. Some prophesied by dreams, visions, and enigmatical sayings, as Ezechiel and Daniel; others by acts and words, as Noah, in the construction of the ark, alluded to the church; Abraham, in the slaying of his son, to the passion of Christ; and Moses by his speech, when he said, "A prophet shall the Lord God raise up to you of your brethren; hear him;" meaning Christ. Others have prophesied in a more excellent way by the internal revelation and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as David did when persecuted by Saul: "When Saul heard that David had fled to Naioth (which is a hill in Ramah, and the seat of the prophets), he sent messengers to take him; and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing at their head, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied; and he sent messengers a second and again a third time, and they also prophesied. And Saul enraged went thither also; and the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on, and prophesied until he came to Naioth, and he stripped off his royal vestments, and prophesied with the rest for all that day and all that night; whilst David and Samuel secretly observed what passed." Nor is it wonderful that those persons who suddenly receive the Spirit of God, and so signal a mark of grace, should for a time seem alienated from their earthly state of mind.

Gerald of Wales, The Description of Wales (Oxford, Mississippi, 1997)

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