Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

ORDEAL.

It might be imagined that all the absurdities which degrade human nature were destined to come to us from Asia, the source at the same time of all the sciences and arts! It was in Asia and in Egypt that mankind first dared to make the life or death of a person accused, dependent on the throw of a die, or something equally unconnected with reason and decided by chance — on cold water or hot water, on red hot iron, or a bit of barley bread. Similar superstition, we are assured by travellers, still exists in the Indies, on the coast of Malabar, and in Japan.

This superstition passed from Egypt into Greece. There was a very celebrated temple at Trezene in which every man who perjured himself died instantly of apoplexy. Hippolytus, in the tragedy of “Phædra,” in the first scene of the fifth act, addresses the following lines to his mistress Aricia:

Aux portes de Trezène, et parmi ces tombeaux,

Des princes de ma race antiques sepultures,

Est un temple sacré formidable aux parjures.

C’est là que les mortels n’osent jurer en vain;

Le perfide y reçoit un chàtiment soudain;

Et, craignant d’y trouver la mort inévitable,

Le mensonge n’a point de frem plus redoubtable.

At Trezene’s gates, amidst the ancient tombs

In which repose the princes of my race,

A sacred temple stands, the perjurer’s dread.

No daring mortal there may falsely swear,

For swift the vengeance which pursues his crime,

Inevitable death his instant lot;

Nowhere has falsehood a more awful curb.

The learned commentator of the great Racine makes the following remark on these Trezenian proofs or ordeals:

“M. de la Motte has remarked that Hippolytus should have proposed to his father to come and hear his justification in this temple, where no one dared venture on swearing to a falsehood. It is certain, that in such a case Theseus could not have doubted the innocence of that young prince; but he had received too convincing evidence against the virtue of Phædra, and Hippolytus was not inclined to make the experiment. M. de la Motte would have done well to have distrusted his own good taste, when he suspected that of Racine, who appears to have foreseen the objection here made. In fact, Theseus is so prejudiced against Hippolytus that he will not even permit him to justify himself by an oath.”

I should observe that the criticism of La Motte was originally made by the deceased marquis de Lassai. He delivered it at M. de la Faye’s, at a dinner party at which I was present together with the late M. de la Motte, who promised to make use of it; and, in fact, in his “Discourses upon Tragedy,” he gives the honor of the criticism to the marquis de Lassai. The remark appeared to me particularly judicious, as well as to M. de la Faye and to all the guests present, who — of course excepting myself — were the most able critics in Paris. But we all agreed that Aricia was the person who should have called upon Theseus to try the accused by the ordeal of the Trezenian temple; and so much the more so, as Theseus immediately after talks for a long time together to that princess, who forgets the only thing that could clear up the doubts of the father and vindicate the son. The commentator in vain objects that Theseus has declared to his son he will not believe his oaths:

Toujours les scelerats ont recours au parjure.

Phedra. Act iv., scene 2.

The wicked always have recourse to oaths.

There is a prodigious difference between an oath taken in a common apartment, and an oath taken in a temple where the perjured are punished by sudden death. Had Aricia said but a single word on the subject, Theseus could have had no excuse for not conducting Hippolytus to this temple; but, in that case, what would have become of the catastrophe?

Hippolytus, then, should not have mentioned at all the appalling power of the temple of Trezene to his beloved Aricia; he had no need whatever to take an oath of his love to her, for of that she was already most fully persuaded. In short, his doing so is an inadvertence, a small fault, which escaped the most ingenious, elegant, and impassioned tragedian that we ever had.

From this digression, I return to the barbarous madness of ordeals. They were not admitted in the Roman republic. We cannot consider as of one of these ordeals, the usage by which the most important enterprises were made to depend upon the manner in which the sacred pullets ate their vetches. We are here considering only ordeals applied to ascertain the guilt or innocence of men. It was never proposed to the Manliuses, Camilluses, or Scipios, to prove their innocence by plunging their hands into boiling water without its scalding them.

These suggestions of folly and barbarism were not admitted under the emperors. But the Tartars who came to destroy the empire — for the greater part of these plunderers issued originally from Tartary — filled our quarter of the world with their ridiculous and cruel jurisprudence, which they derived from the Persians. It was not known in the Eastern Empire till the time of Justinian, notwithstanding the detestable superstition which prevailed in it. But from that time the ordeals we are speaking of were received. This manner of trying men is so ancient that we find it established among the Jews in all periods of their history.

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram dispute the pontificate with the high priest Aaron in the wilderness; Moses commands them to bring him two hundred and fifty censors, and says to them: Let God choose between their censors and that of Aaron. Scarcely had the revolted made their appearance in order to submit to this ordeal, before they were swallowed up by the earth, and fire from heaven struck two hundred and fifty of their principal adherents; after which, the Lord destroyed fourteen thousand seven hundred more men of that party. The quarrel however for the priesthood still continued between the chiefs of Israel and Aaron. The ordeal of rods was then employed; each man presented his rod, and that of Aaron was the only one which budded.

Although the people of God had levelled the walls of Jericho by the sound of trumpets, they were overcome by the inhabitants of Ai. This defeat did not appear at all natural to Joshua; he consulted the Lord, who answered that Israel had sinned; that some one had appropriated to his own use a part of the plunder that had been taken at Jericho, and there devoted as accursed. In fact, all ought to have been burned, together with the men and women, children and cattle, and whoever had preserved and carried off any part was to be exterminated. Joshua, in order to discover the offender, subjected all the tribes to the trial by lot. The lot first fell on the tribe of Judah, then on the family of Zarah, then on the house of Zabdi, and finally on the grandson of Zabdi, whose name was Acham.

Scripture does not explain how it was that these wandering tribes came to have houses; neither does it inform us what kind of lots were made use of on the occasion; but it is clear from the text, that Acham, being convicted of stealing a small wedge of gold, a scarlet mantle, and two hundred shekels of silver, was burned to death in the valley of Achor, together with his sons, his sheep, his oxen, and his asses; and even his very tent was burned with him.

The promised land was divided by lot; lots were drawn respecting the two goats of expiation which should be sacrificed to the Lord, and which should go for a scapegoat into the wilderness. When Saul was to be chosen king, lots were consulted, and the lot fell on the tribe of Benjamin, on the family of Metri belonging to that tribe, and finally on Saul, the son of Kish, in the family of Metri.

The lot fell on Jonathan to be punished for having eaten some honey at the end of a rod. The sailors of Joppa drew lots to learn from God what was the cause of the tempest. The lot informed them that it was Jonah; and they threw him into the sea.

All these ordeals by lot, which among other nations were merely profane superstitions, were the voice of God Himself when employed by His cherished and beloved people; and so completely and decidedly the voice of God that even the apostles filled the place of the apostle Judas by lot. The two candidates for the succession were Matthias and Barnabas. Providence declared in favor of St. Matthias.

Pope Honorius, the third of that name, forbade by a decretal from that time forward the method of choosing bishops by lot. Deciding by lots was a very common practice, and was called by the pagans, “sortilegium.” Cato, in the “Pharsalia,” says, “Sortilegis egeant dubil. . . . .

There were other ordeals among the Jews in the name of the Lord; as, for example, the waters of jealousy. A woman suspected of adultery was obliged to drink of that water mixed with ashes, and consecrated by the high priest. If she was guilty she instantly swelled and died. It is upon the foundation of this law that the whole Christian world in the West established oracles for persons under juridical accusation, not considering that what was ordained even by God Himself in the Old Testament was nothing more or less than an absurd superstition in the New.

Duel by wager of battle was one of those ordeals, and lasted down to the sixteenth century. He who killed his adversary was always in the right. The most dreadful of all these curious and barbarous ordeals, was that of a man’s carrying a bar of redhot iron to the distance of nine paces without burning himself. Accordingly, the history of the middle ages, fabulous as it is, does not record any instance of this ordeal, nor of that which consisted in walking over nine burning ploughshares. All the others might be doubted, or the deceptions and tricks employed in relation to them to deceive the judges might be easily explained. It was very easy, for example, to appear to pass through the trial of boiling water without injury; a vessel might be produced half full of cold water, into which the judicial boiling water might be put; and the accused might safely plunge his arm up to the elbow in the lukewarm mixture, and take up from the bottom the sacred blessed ring that had been thrown into it for that purpose.

Oil might be made to boil with water; the oil begins to rise and appears to boil when the water begins to simmer, and the oil at that time has acquired but a small degree of heat. In such circumstances, a man seems to plunge his hand into boiling water; but, in fact, moistens it with the harmless oil, which preserves it from contact with and injury by the water.

A champion may easily, by degrees, harden and habituate himself to holding, for a few seconds, a ring that has been thrown into the fire, without any very striking or painful marks of burning. To pass between two fires without being scorched is no very extraordinary proof of skill or address, when the movement is made with great rapidity and the face and hands are well rubbed with ointment. It is thus that the formidable Peter Aldobrandin, or “The Fiery Peter,” as he was called, used to manage — if there is any truth in his history — when he passed between two blazing fires at Florence, in order to demonstrate, with God’s help, that his archbishop was a knave and debauchee. O, charlatans! charlatans! henceforth disappear forever from the pages of history!

There existed a rather ludicrous ordeal, which consisted in making an accused person try to swallow a piece of barley bread, which it was believed would certainly choke him if he were guilty. I am not, however, so much diverted with this case as with the conduct of Harlequin, when the judge interrogated him concerning a robbery of which Dr. Balouard accused him. The judge was sitting at table, and drinking some excellent wine at the time, when Harlequin was brought in; perceiving which, the latter takes up the bottle, and, pouring the whole of its contents into a glass, swallows it at a draught, saying to the doctor: “If I am guilty of what you accuse me, sir, I hope this wine will prove poison to me.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25