The Soothsayer (a parable in five prophecies)

When the enemies of reason are victorious — as they have been for some time now in the UK — those of us still fighting on the side of reason have to employ another language in order to communicate with them, find other ways to describe the irrationality in which they are imprisoned. This is a parable for our times.

1. First Prophecy

A man walked into the desert. There he had many visions of a future that only he could see, for he was a Soothsayer, honoured by the gods, feared among men. After forty days and forty nights he reached the other side of the desert, and descended into a river valley. There he came across a small village surrounded by fields in which the villagers were hard at work that Spring morning, tending to their herds and flocks.

‘Oh good people,’ the Soothsayer cried, ‘I come bearing bad tidings for you! Behold, the god of the river has spoken to me in the desert. He is wroth with you. For too long have you lived off the fat of the land he has watered, and now he demands the sacrifice of your best bull!’

The people of the village looked at him with amazement on their faces. ‘But who are you, Soothsayer, and why should we believe what you say? Spring is here, and we need our best bull to increase our herds for the Winter to come.’

‘Do not question the gods of nature’ the Soothsayer responded angrily, ‘or they will rise up against you! Have I not studied their ways under learned masters whose knowledge you could not possibly comprehend? Do as I say, or this very night your village shall be swept away in a flood of divine retribution!’

The herdsmen and shepherds went to the village elders to tell them what the Soothsayer had said. But some stayed in the fields to tend to their animals, and some went home to wash the dust from their clothes, and when they finally reached the village square the Soothsayer was there ahead of them. With many bows and courtesies, the elders invited him into the village hall — ‘to consider his warning,’ they said, ‘to weigh up the benefits and losses for the whole village, and to make their decision.’ The day was almost over when the elders re-emerged.

‘For the greater good!’, they cried, announcing their decision to the waiting villagers. ‘It’s a necessary sacrifice, and although our herd will be diminished until we can buy another, better to sacrifice one bull than to lose the whole village. Surely, anyone can see that? We shall do as the Soothsayer says!’

And that evening the whole village gathered to watch the sacrifice of their best bull in the village square. First the bones, horns and tail were thrown onto the fire as an offering to the river god. Then the best cuts of meat were shared among the village elders. Last of all the entrails and offal were handed over to the villagers. Some of them reported seeing the Soothsayer sitting among the elders at the high table, licking the blood and fat off his fingers.

The next morning nothing had changed. The river had not risen and the village was still standing.

‘You see?’ cried the Soothsayer triumphantly. ‘The river god is appeased by your obedience. He has spared your village from his wrath. But never forget, good people, that the gods of nature watch over you always, and their wrath is only averted for a time!’

2. Second Prophecy

The summer solstice had passed, and the villagers were attending to their diminished herds, when once again the Soothsayer appeared to them, a shadowy figure beneath the noonday sun.

‘Alas, obedient people, I bring you more woe! In the night the god of rain spoke to me, and he is wroth with you! For too long have you grazed your sheep on the hills he has made fertile, and now he demands just payment for his beneficence!’

The people of the village looked at the Soothsayer in fear, for they had not forgotten that he had predicted their future before — though how he did none knew nor dared to ask. ‘What shall we do, O Master, to avoid the anger of the rain god?’

‘To me alone does he speak!’ the Soothsayer shouted, pointing to the sky (in which not a cloud could be seen). ‘Only through me will you find protection from his divine wrath. And this has he made known to me through portents, auguries and divination. The village shall hand over half its flock of sheep to me, his appointed and trusted emissary, and I shall see them returned to the gods from whose watchful care and bounty they came.’

Without waiting to consult the rest of the villagers, the village elders pushed forward and spoke in loud voices. ‘We shall do what you order, Master, in the sure and certain belief that you are, in truth, an emissary of the gods!’

After a quick calculation of the number of sheep in the village, the elders turned to the villagers, and raised the batons of their office menacingly over their heads. ‘O villagers, each of you must hand over a dozen sheep to this emissary of the gods, and be glad that we have his wisdom and knowledge to guide us through this terrible time. Only through obedience to his commandments shall we pass through the storm and see the sun again!’

Some of the villagers were not happy with this arrangement, which meant that those with two dozen sheep lost half their stock, those with four dozen a mere quarter, while those with only a dozen sheep were left destitute. They tried to point out that the man the elders now called ‘Master’ had asked for half the sheep in the whole village — but the elders would not listen. Instead, when the poorer villagers refused to hand over their entire flock, the elders sent a handful of guards (who until then had protected their homes from wolves and other wild animals) to take the sheep from the villagers by force.

Those who put up a struggle were thrown into a fenced enclosure they called a ‘stockade’. Nobody had heard this word before or knew when it had been built or by whom; but the other villagers took note, and no matter how many sheep they owned, they obediently handed over the dozen designated by the elders. In the confusion, few thought to ask what the Soothsayer whom they now called Master would do with the sheep, and those who did were shouted down by the others.

‘Better to lose half our flock than the whole village! Do as our elders say! They understand these matters better than you, and the emissary of the gods has spoken! Or do you no longer believe in the gods of nature?’

To this question few had an answer, and by late afternoon the Soothsayer had received half the entire village’s sheep. With the help of a few other villagers (to whom he had promised rich reward) the Soothsayer took these over the brow of the hill and disappeared — nobody knew where. Some of the bolder villagers let it be known that they hoped they had seen the last of the Soothsayer, and refused to call him ‘Master’ (except of the other villagers). But the majority laughed and called them ‘Unbelievers’, warning them of the fate that awaited those who denied the gods of nature.

3. Third Prophecy

The winds of Autumn were blowing through the village, and the sheep that were left had all been slaughtered, when the Soothsayer returned for the third time. He came as the shadows of evening fell, and his face was terrible to look upon.

‘O vain and ungodly people’, he cried, ‘your sins have not been hidden from me! The god of storms has spoken to me in the desert, and he is wroth with you! Ask not what you have done, less you sharpen his fury! This very night your village shall be laid low by his tempests. Have I not seen it all in your future? Do I not have secret knowledge unfathomable to your shallow thoughts and selfish desires?

‘Harken to me, you who are faithful to the gods, and close your ears to the Unbelievers! The storm god demands a sacrifice to appease his most just and fearful temper. Greedy have you been all the days of your lives, and now the reckoning is upon you! The god of storms, most merciful of all the gods, demands that you lay all your coins and jewels, your richest cloth and your least trinket — yea, even your children’s inheritance, in heavy chests and leave them in the village square. There shall his trusted emissary convey your offerings to a place too sacred for you to enter, where they shall be returned to him from whom they were granted only in loan. Unworthy and godly people, in the purity of poverty alone lies your protection from the winds of justice. This is your last chance of salvation!’

As he said this, some of the villagers — mostly those who had refused to acknowledge the Soothsayer as their Master but some others too — saw sweat trickling down his face, and could hear the tremble of doubt in his voice. And they said to themselves — ‘Liar!’ But when they repeated this out loud, they were seized by the village guards, whose ranks had swollen with many of their fellow villagers, and thrown into the stockade. This too had grown in size, and outside stood more guards, members of a newly-created village militia, who hid their faces behind scarves.

Long into the night the rest of the villagers laboured to gather their coins and jewels, their least trinket and their richest cloth, and anything else they had put aside after long labour for the future of their children. And everything was piled in heavy chests in the village square, where yet more guards stood, armed now with long spears and heavy shields that had never before been seen in the village.

And throughout the gathering the Soothsayer that some now called ‘Lord’ urged the villagers to hurry, less dawn come and their village be swept away by the terrible wrath of the god of storms. And so it was that, even as the last chest was taken on mules over the brow of the hill and into the desert, the dawn broke bright behind them, with a blue sky overhead. A great cry went up from all the villagers (or at least, from those not imprisoned in the stockade).

‘We are saved! Once more the Soothsayer has spoken the truth, and saved us from destruction!’ And turning to the Soothsayer they knelt before him. ‘Tell us, O Lord and most certain emissary of the gods of nature, are we now saved from their wrath? Are all our many sacrifices sufficient to appease the gods for their many and generous bounties, of which, until now, we have proved so unworthy? Are the gods of nature pleased with us?’

The Soothsayer looked at the villagers with a smile on the side of his face (the side turned away from them). ‘We shall see, obedient and fearful servants of the gods. Oh yes, we shall see.’

With that he turned and walked up the hill in the same direction in which the mule train had disappeared. And as the sun rose it glittered on the Soothsayer’s robes, which were as rich as any in the village had once been, even among the elders. And around his neck there hung the heaviest of necklaces, which glinted in the morning light so that it dazzled their eyes. And some of them said they heard the clink of coins in the heavy bags he bore under his cloak.

4. Fourth Prophecy

Throughout the remainder of the year there was huge relief in the village. They had sacrificed their best bull, given away half their sheep flocks, and handed over all their coins and jewels, their richest cloth and least trinket, and the wealth they had stored for their children’s future, to the Soothsayer — but the village still stood against the wrath of the gods of the river, the rain and the storms. Now, surely, their future was assured! They could work and save for another bull, breed more sheep and build up their lost wealth. Their children would never see the future they had planned for them, nor, perhaps, their children’s children; but when the villagers who were now living were dead and buried, their great-grand-children would still have the village!

But as dusk rose in the valley one cold Winter’s night, a figure appeared on the brow of the hill. It was the Soothsayer that the villagers now called Lord, and this time he came not alone but with a company of armed guards, among whom the villagers recognised many of their former friends and members of their families.

‘God-fearing people of the village!’ the Soothsayer cried in a loud voice, and all the guards clashed their spears against their shields. Some of the villagers began to protest, but the guards grabbed them from among the others and slew them there in the village square where the bull had been sacrificed, the sheep gathered and the chests piled high with the former wealth of the village.

‘God-fearing people of the village!’, the Soothsayer cried again, and this time the village was silent. ‘Have I not returned just in time? Do we not see here the origin and cause of the ills which, alas, still afflict you? For see, the Winter is drawing in, and many shall die if you do not heed my commands. I have spoken to the god of winter, and he is wroth with you! For though many have obeyed the gods of nature, still some among you doubt my prophecies.’

A murmur of assent ran through the crowd of villagers, and following it rose a wave of fear — though of what exactly none yet knew. Some began to pick up sticks and clubs that lay nearby. Others ran to their farms and returned with pitchforks, hammers, scythes and axes. Still others picked up stones and flaming brands from a fire that the guards had kindled in the village square.

‘And where are these accursed few,’ cried the Soothsayer, ‘whose selfish acts alone place your village — nay, your very lives in peril? Tell me! Show me where they are, and be avenged upon these murderers!’

At this the entire crowd of villagers pointed as if with one finger to the stockades whose prisoners had so swelled in number that the fences that enclosed them now ringed the entire village.

‘There! There they are!’ the villagers cried with one voice. ‘Murderers and Unbelievers among us! We must purge ourselves of those whose lack of faith threatens all our futures. Kill them! Kill them! Kill them all!’

Few would speak afterwards of what was done that night in the stockades, where the formerly warm firelight from the village homesteads did not reach. But all agreed that the guards of the Soothsayer who all now called ‘King’ had no part in it — having, indeed, no need to. For no more terrible revenge could be taken than that enacted by the villagers themselves. And as the morning light dawned red on the cold dew, they barely noticed that the village still stood, and the wrath of the winter god had been appeased, saving them all from disaster once again.

5. Fifth Prophecy

That Winter was long and dark, and with their herds and flocks gone and their wealth spent, many of the villagers died of cold and hunger, or merely from lack of care — for all now suspected each other. Some, indeed, doubted that Spring would ever come again. The bodies of the Unbelievers were disposed of by the guards, but the stockades soon filled again with more villagers who dared to speak against the Soothsayer. But at long last the new Spring arrived, and the few trees they had not cut down for fuel began to bloom again. The next day, the elders who now called themselves ‘Knights’ summoned the villagers to the village hall. In a great chair warmed by a roaring fire sat the Soothsayer, surrounded by many guards, and their faces were hidden by the visors of metal helms.

‘Obedient and pure people of the village’, the Soothsayer said quietly (and as he spoke a smile escaped from his cruel mouth), ‘the gods of nature are pleased with you. So pleased, in sooth, that you have no need for me anymore. The trusted emissary of the gods has other disasters to avert, other villages to save, other offerings to convey. This very day I shall depart back into the desert. But to assure the safety of my journey (which I undertake for the good of all people of faith) the god of the desert demands a sacrifice. Faithful and fearful people of the village, I know I do not need to explain why, but the desert-god demands the lives of your children.’

In the hush that followed the Soothsayer looked at the terrified villagers, and saw on their faces neither doubt nor opposition.

‘Yes, fearful and faithful people. One child must be sacrificed for each of the forty days and forty nights I must walk in the desert. Who among you will dare to deny me now, after all I have done for you?’

It was with unwavering and emotionless hands that the villagers slit the throats of their children, their eldest son and their newest-born baby, every morning and every night for the next forty days, there in the village square where their best bull had been sacrificed, where they had gathered their sheep and packed their wealth into chests for the Soothsayer, where the Unbelievers had been slaughtered by their own hands.

And nobody asked why the Soothsayer left the village with such a long train of carts on which so many chests and bags were packed; nor why he was followed by so many sheep; nor why the Knights left with him, dressed in the richest of robes and wearing the heaviest jewellery (while the villagers were left in rags); nor why the sound of coins and jewels clinking under their cloaks accompanied them all the way up the hill and disappeared over the brow.

But all kept count of the number of days and nights they must make sacrifice, and on the forty-first day they built a high statue of the Soothsayer that all now called ‘God’. And in words carved on the base of the statue they wrote:

FOR TRULY,
ONLY GOD HIMSELF COULD HAVE SAVED OUR VILLAGE,
AND BY OBEDIENCE TO HIS COMMANDS ALONE
HAS A TERRIBLE FATE BEEN AVERTED.

From that day onward, in each season of the year, the villagers made offerings to their God at the foot of the statue: sacrificing their best bull in the spring; in the summer slaughtering half their sheep no matter how few they had; giving away their wealth to the Knights who returned every autumn to collect it; and in the middle of winter, when their hope was at its lowest, killing the Unbelievers among them. And they called these practices and the beliefs on which they were founded ‘Religion’. And only by following their commands (it was said now by all) was the village saved from the just and terrible wrath of the gods of nature.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

6 thoughts on “The Soothsayer (a parable in five prophecies)

  1. I am living this and expect to be taken to the stockade at some point – well, they can try and we’ll see how that goes.

    Like

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