What Is Man? and Other Essays

Author: Mark Twain  | Date: 1906


This line of hieroglyphics was for fourteen years the despair of all the scholars who labored over the mysteries of the Rosetta stone:

After five years of study Champollion translated it thus:

Therefore let the worship of Epiphanes be maintained

in all the temples, this upon pain of death.

That was the twenty-forth translation that had been furnished by scholars. For a time it stood. But only for a time. Then doubts began to assail it and undermine it, and the scholars resumed their labors. Three years of patient work produced eleven new translations; among them, this, by Grunfeldt, was received with considerable favor:

The horse of Epiphanes shall be maintained at the

public expense; this upon pain of death.

But the following rendering, by Gospodin, was received by the learned world with yet greater favor:

The priest shall explain the wisdom of Epiphanes

to all these people, and these shall listen with

reverence, upon pain of death.

Seven years followed, in which twenty-one fresh and widely varying renderings were scored- none of them quite convincing. But now, at last, came Rawlinson, the youngest of all the scholars, with a translation which was immediately and universally recognized as being the correct version, and his name became famous in a day. So famous, indeed, that even the children were familiar with it; and such a noise did the achievement itself make that not even the noise of the monumental political event of that same year- the flight from Elba- was able to smother it to silence. Rawlinson’s version reads as follows:

Therefore, walk not away from the wisdom of Epiphanes,

but turn and follow it; so shall it conduct thee to the

temple’s peace, and soften for thee the sorrows of life

and the pains of death.

Here is another difficult text:

It is demotic- a style of Egyptian writing and a phase of the language which has perished from the knowledge of all men twenty-five hundred years before the Christian era.

Our red Indians have left many records, in the form of pictures, upon our crags and boulders. It has taken our most gifted and painstaking students two centuries to get at the meanings hidden in these pictures; yet there are still two little lines of hieroglyphics among the figures grouped upon the Dighton Rocks which they have not succeeded in interpreting to their satisfaction.

The suggested solutions are practically innumerable; they would fill a book.

Thus we have infinite trouble in solving man-made mysteries; it is only when we set out to discover the secret of God that our difficulties disappear. It was always so. In antique Roman times it was the custom of the Deity to try to conceal His intentions in the entrails of birds, and this was patiently and hopefully continued century after century, although the attempted concealment never succeeded, in a single recorded instance. The augurs could read entrails as easily as a modern child can read coarse print. Roman history is full of the marvels of interpretation which these extraordinary men performed. These strange and wonderful achievements move our awe and compel our admiration. Those men could pierce to the marrow of a mystery instantly. If the Rosetta-stone idea had been introduced it would have defeated them, but entrails had no embarrassments for them. Entrails have gone out, now- entrails and dreams. It was at last found out that as hiding-places for the divine intentions they were inadequate.

A part of the wall of Valletri in former times been struck with thunder, the response of the soothsayers was, that a native of that town would some time or other arrive at supreme power.- BOHN’S SUETONIUS, p. 138.

"Some time or other." It looks indefinite, but no matter, it happened, all the same; one needed only to wait, and be patient, and keep watch, then he would find out that the thunder-stroke had Caesar Augustus in mind, and had come to give notice.

There were other advance-advertisements. One of them appeared just before Caesar Augustus was born, and was most poetic and touching and romantic in its feelings and aspects. It was a dream. It was dreamed by Caesar Augustus’s mother, and interpreted at the usual rates:

Atia, before her delivery, dreamed that her bowels stretched to the stars and expanded through the whole circuit of heaven and earth.--SUETONIUS, p. 139.

That was in the augur’s line, and furnished him no difficulties, but it would have taken Rawlinson and Champollion fourteen years to make sure of what it meant, because they would have been surprised and dizzy. It would have been too late to be valuable, then, and the bill for service would have been barred by the statute of limitation.

In those old Roman days a gentleman’s education was not complete until he had taken a theological course at the seminary and learned how to translate entrails. Caesar Augustus’s education received this final polish. All through his life, whenever he had poultry on the menu he saved the interiors and kept himself informed of the Deity’s plans by exercising upon those interiors the arts of augury.

In his first consulship, while he was observing the auguries, twelve vultures presented themselves, as they had done to Romulus. And when he offered sacrifice, the livers of all the victims were folded inward in the lower part; a circumstance which was regarded by those present who had skill in things of that nature, as an indubitable prognostic of great and wonderful fortune.--SUETONIUS, p. 141.

"Indubitable" is a strong word, but no doubt it was justified, if the livers were really turned that way. In those days chicken livers were strangely and delicately sensitive to coming events, no matter how far off they might be; and they could never keep still, but would curl and squirm like that, particularly when vultures came and showed interest in that approaching great event and in breakfast.


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Chicago: Mark Twain, "I," What Is Man? and Other Essays Original Sources, accessed June 16, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5AIRFJHFBYDK8XZ.

MLA: Twain, Mark. "I." What Is Man? and Other Essays, Original Sources. 16 Jun. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5AIRFJHFBYDK8XZ.

Harvard: Twain, M, 'I' in What Is Man? and Other Essays. Original Sources, retrieved 16 June 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=5AIRFJHFBYDK8XZ.