Divination: A Fable

Okay, folks: it’s the busy time of the year: I have to write a paper on Pope Benedict and complete a large magazine supplement in the next couple of weeks. Plus, you’re all on vacation anyway, right?

Well, you should be.

So, I’ll leave you with something light. I love folk tales and fables, and sometimes I write my own based on older forms and traditional stories. One of the fascinating things is the way these forms repeat across cultures yet build unique variations and tones that are culturally specific. Because of this, tales convey a vast array of human experience in a very compressed format, acting not just as entertainment, but as a communal sapiential tradition passed from one generation to the next.

This one is about the dangers and folly of trying to predict the future.

Man and the zodiac, from a medical almanac, 1399

There once was a king who kept an astrologer to examine the heavens and predict his future. The astrologer often was as wrong as he was right, but he was able to gloss over his errors and exaggerate his successes, and thus the king came to believe in the man.

The astrologer’s influence in court became so great that the king soon grew to rely upon his council for all major decisions concerning the realm.

In time, the king started coming to the astrologer for even minor questions about affairs of state.

At last, the king would not get out of bed without first asking what fate held for the day ahead.

One morning, the astrologer came to the king’s chambers looking shaken. Although the king could tell something was amiss, and demanded an answer, the astrologer was loathe to present bad news. Finally, he admitted what he had seen his charts: the king had but six months to live.

A fit fell upon the king, and he took to his bed in dread fear. One by one, his knights and courtiers came to rouse him to good cheer, but to no effect. And one by one, they were sent away, and the kingdom began to falter.

Only the astrologer was left by his lord’s side, consulting his astrolabe and reading his charts.

At last, a humble knight came to ask if he could do anything for his king. The king said, “No, for I am doomed. My astrologer has seen it in the stars, and the stars never do lie.”

The knight looked to the astrologer, and said, “Indeed. And certainly a man must know his own stars better than those of another. Have you foreseen the day of your own death?”

The astrologer said with confidence, “Of course. Without doubt, I shall die 33 years hence, on the 5th of May, of an ague.”

Whereupon the knight rose to his feet, drew his sword, and cleaved the man in twain from chops to groin.

Seeing this, the king was restored to his senses, and the kingdom once again flourished.

Moral: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (See also: Leviticus 19:31 & 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:14, Isaiah 8:19)

[Source: traditional. You’ll find a similar version in the Sermones of Cardinal Jacobus de Vitriaco (13th century France).]