Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The Theurgists and ancient sages had always a rod with which they operated.

Mercury passes for the first whose rod worked miracles. It is asserted that Zoroaster also bore a great rod. The rod of the ancient Bacchus was his Thyrsus, with which he separated the waters of the Orontes, the Hydaspus, and the Red Sea. The rod of Hercules was his club. Pythagoras was always represented with his rod. It is said it was of gold; and it is not surprising that, having a thigh of gold, he should possess a rod of the same metal.

Abaris, priest of the hyperborean Apollo, who it is pretended was contemporary with Pythagoras, was still more famous for his rod. It was indeed only of wood, but he traversed the air astride of it. Porphyry and Iamblichus pretend that these two grand Theurgists, Abaris and Pythagoras, amicably exhibited their rods to each other.

The rod, with sages, was at all times a sign of their superiority. The sorcerers of the privy council of Pharaoh at first effected as many feats with their rods as Moses with his own. The judicious Calmet informs us, in his “Dissertation on the Book of Exodus,” that “these operations of the Magi were not miracles, properly speaking, but metamorphoses, viz.: singular and difficult indeed, but nevertheless neither contrary to nor above the laws of nature.” The rod of Moses had the superiority, which it ought to have, over those of the Chotins of Egypt.

Not only did the rod of Aaron share in the honor of the prodigies of that of his brother Moses, but he performed some admirable things with his own. No one can be ignorant that, out of thirteen rods, Aaron’s alone blossomed, and bore buds and flowers of almonds.

The devil, who, as is well known, is a wicked aper of the deeds of saints, would also have his rod or wand, with which he gratified the sorcerers. Medea and Circe were always armed with this mysterious instrument. Hence, a magician never appears at the opera without his rod, and on which account they call their parts, “roles de baguette.” No performer with cups and balls can manage his hey presto! without his rod or wand.

Springs of water and hidden treasures are discovered by means of a rod made of a hazel twig, which fails not to press the hand of a fool who holds it too fast, but which turns about easily in that of a knave. M. Formey, secretary of the academy of Berlin, explains this phenomenon by that of the loadstone. All the conjurers of past times, it was thought, repaired to a sabbath or assembly on a magic rod or on a broom-stick; and judges, who were no conjurers, burned them.

Birchen rods are formed of a handful of twigs of that tree with which malefactors are scourged on the back. It is indecent and shameful to scourge in this manner the posteriors of young boys and girls; a punishment which was formerly that of slaves. I have seen, in some colleges, barbarians who have stripped children almost naked; a kind of executioner, often intoxicated, lacerate them with long rods, which frequently covered them with blood, and produced extreme inflammation. Others struck them more gently, which from natural causes has been known to produce consequences, especially in females, scarcely less disgusting.

By an incomprehensible species of police, the Jesuits of Paraguay whipped the fathers and mothers of families on their posteriors. Had there been no other motive for driving out the Jesuits, that would have sufficed.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01