At Memphis the sacred bull Apis gave answer to those who consulted him, by the manner in which he received or rejected what was presented to him. If the bull refused food from the hand of the inquirer it was considered an unfavorable sign, and the contrary when he received it.
It has been a question whether oracular responses ought to be ascribed to mere human contrivance or to the agency of evil spirits. The latter opinion has been most general in past ages. A third theory has been advanced since the phenomena of Mesmerism have attracted attention, that something like the mesmeric trance was induced in the Pythoness, and the faculty of clairvoyance really called into action.
Another question is as to the time when the Pagan oracles ceased to give responses. Ancient Christian writers assert that they became silent at the birth of Christ, and were heard no more after that date. Milton adopts this view in his Hymn of the Nativity, and in lines of solemn and elevated beauty pictures the consternation of the heathen idols at the advent of the Saviour.
"The oracles are dumb; No voice or hideous hum Rings through the arched roof in words deceiving. Apollo from his shrine Can no more divine, With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving. No nightly trance or breathed spell Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell."
In Cowper's poem of Yardley Oak there are some beautiful mythological allusions. The former of the two following is to the fable of Castor and Pollux; the latter is more appropriate to our present subject. Addressing the acorn he says,
"Thou fell'st mature; and in the loamy clod, Swelling with vegetative force instinct, Didst burst thine egg, as theirs the fabled Twins Now stars; two lobes protruding, paired exact; A leaf succeeded and another leaf, And, all the elements thy puny growth Fostering propitious, thou becam'st a twig. Who lived when thou was such? Oh, couldst thou speak As in Dodona once thy kindred trees Oracular, I would not curious ask The future, best unknown, but at thy mouth Inquisitive, the less ambiguous past."
Tennyson in his Talking Oak alludes to the oaks of Dodona in these lines:
"And I will work in prose and rhyme, And praise thee more in both Than bard has honored beech or lime, Or that Thessalian growth In which the swarthy ring-dove sat And mystic sentence spoke."