Gargantua and Pantagruel, by Francois Rabelais

Chapter 27

Pantagruel’s discourse of the decease of heroic souls; and of the dreadful prodigies that happened before the death of the late Lord de Langey.

I would not, continued Pantagruel, have missed the storm that hath thus disordered us, were I also to have missed the relation of these things told us by this good Macrobius. Neither am I unwilling to believe what he said of a comet that appears in the sky some days before such a decease. For some of those souls are so noble, so precious, and so heroic that heaven gives us notice of their departing some days before it happens. And as a prudent physician, seeing by some symptoms that his patient draws towards his end, some days before gives notice of it to his wife, children, kindred, and friends, that, in that little time he hath yet to live, they may admonish him to settle all things in his family, to tutor and instruct his children as much as he can, recommend his relict to his friends in her widowhood, and declare what he knows to be necessary about a provision for the orphans; that he may not be surprised by death without making his will, and may take care of his soul and family; in the same manner the heavens, as it were joyful for the approaching reception of those blessed souls, seem to make bonfires by those comets and blazing meteors, which they at the same time kindly design should prognosticate to us here that in a few days one of those venerable souls is to leave her body and this terrestrial globe. Not altogether unlike this was what was formerly done at Athens by the judges of the Areopagus. For when they gave their verdict to cast or clear the culprits that were tried before them, they used certain notes according to the substance of the sentences; by Theta signifying condemnation to death; by T, absolution; by A, ampliation or a demur, when the case was not sufficiently examined. Thus having publicly set up those letters, they eased the relations and friends of the prisoners, and such others as desired to know their doom, of their doubts. Likewise by these comets, as in ethereal characters, the heavens silently say to us, Make haste, mortals, if you would know or learn of the blessed souls anything concerning the public good or your private interest; for their catastrophe is near, which being past, you will vainly wish for them afterwards.

The good-natured heavens still do more; and that mankind may be declared unworthy of the enjoyment of those renowned souls, they fright and astonish us with prodigies, monsters, and other foreboding signs that thwart the order of nature.

Of this we had an instance several days before the decease of the heroic soul of the learned and valiant Chevalier de Langey, of whom you have already spoken. I remember it, said Epistemon; and my heart still trembles within me when I think on the many dreadful prodigies that we saw five or six days before he died. For the Lords D’Assier, Chemant, one-eyed Mailly, St. Ayl, Villeneufue-la-Guyart, Master Gabriel, physician of Savillan, Rabelais, Cohuau, Massuau, Majorici, Bullou, Cercu, alias Bourgmaistre, Francis Proust, Ferron, Charles Girard, Francis Bourre, and many other friends and servants to the deceased, all dismayed, gazed on each other without uttering one word; yet not without foreseeing that France would in a short time be deprived of a knight so accomplished and necessary for its glory and protection, and that heaven claimed him again as its due. By the tufted tip of my cowl, cried Friar John, I am e’en resolved to become a scholar before I die. I have a pretty good headpiece of my own, you must own. Now pray give me leave to ask you a civil question. Can these same heroes or demigods you talk of die? May I never be damned if I was not so much a lobcock as to believe they had been immortal, like so many fine angels. Heaven forgive me! but this most reverend father, Macroby, tells us they die at last. Not all, returned Pantagruel.

The Stoics held them all to be mortal, except one, who alone is immortal, impassible, invisible. Pindar plainly saith that there is no more thread, that is to say, no more life, spun from the distaff and flax of the hard-hearted Fates for the goddesses Hamadryades than there is for those trees that are preserved by them, which are good, sturdy, downright oaks; whence they derived their original, according to the opinion of Callimachus and Pausanias in Phoci. With whom concurs Martianus Capella. As for the demigods, fauns, satyrs, sylvans, hobgoblins, aegipanes, nymphs, heroes, and demons, several men have, from the total sum, which is the result of the divers ages calculated by Hesiod, reckoned their life to be 9720 years; that sum consisting of four special numbers orderly arising from one, the same added together and multiplied by four every way amounts to forty; these forties, being reduced into triangles by five times, make up the total of the aforesaid number. See Plutarch, in his book about the Cessation of Oracles.

This, said Friar John, is not matter of breviary; I may believe as little or as much of it as you and I please. I believe, said Pantagruel, that all intellectual souls are exempted from Atropos’s scissors. They are all immortal, whether they be of angels, or demons, or human; yet I will tell you a story concerning this that is very strange, but is written and affirmed by several learned historians.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33