In his brilliant comic novel, The Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass), Lucius Apuleius (ca. 124-ca. 170 CE) spies on a witch getting ready for her evening jaunt. She schmeers herself with ointment, turns into an owl, and flies off. Apuleius thinks this looks like fun, and tries the ointment himself.

Silly cowan.

He's transformed (you can't say he didn't deserve it) into a jackass. In this form he is bought by some galli, the itinerant priests of the Syrian Goddess who, whenever they're not taking up collections or screwing as many guys as they can manage to wrap their legs around, tour the countryside going into trances and giving fake oracles.

Eventually the galli get tired of having to come up with new oracles all the time, so they hit on a solution: the foolproof answer to all questions.

Yoke the oxen, plow the land:

tall the golden grain will stand.

 

Robert Graves' doggerel couplet perfectly captures the Hallmark banality of the original.

 

Apuleius leaves no doubt whatsoever that these priests are phoney through and through, and they do come to a well-deserved bad end. But you have to give them credit: you can't say they didn't know their audience. Since oracles often speak in metaphor, their sham oracle really is a brilliant answer to practically any question.

Should I buy the house? Will I get the job? How do I get my boyfriend back? Should I accept the proposal? Will I pass my exams? Does she really love me?

Yoke the oxen, plow the land:

tall the golden grain will stand.

 

In our day, the oracles speak once again. How many times have you waited in line for words of wisdom from some god or goddess only to be presented with some banality or trite old saw? Follow your bliss, I was told once. Sorry, when the goddess has to quote Joseph Campbell, I'm outta here.

 

There's a seeker born every minute, they say. Well, you'll have to work hard for it, but you'll get what you want in the end. Practical advice, so far as it goes, and who doesn't want to hear about a happy ending?

Yoke the oxen, plow the land:

tall the golden grain will stand.

 

Any honest diviner can tell you that some days the juice just isn't flowing. So next time you're reading cards for someone, remember the yoke, the oxen, and the golden grain.

 

It never hurts to have a backup plan.

 

Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass, tr. Robert Graves (1951). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux