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A Brief Look At The History Of Ventriloquism

Aug 17, 2007
Ventriloquism is almost as old as the world, or at least as old as intelligible spoken language, but just when and where in the dim and misty ages of the past it had its origin will forever remain unknown. Unlike other arts it was not brought to perfection through the slow development and accretion of years. From its very nature it must have sprung into existence full grown, like Venus from the sea. Under various guises its practice may be traced by the student in those venerable chronicles which faintly echo the long-vanished life of antiquity.

Although proof positive is wanting of the fact, it is fair to assume that many of the occurrences involving the assistance of an apparently super-natural voice, by which many of the old superstitions were fostered among the early races, were feats of ventriloquism.

At one time this belief in a "second voice," or "familiar spirit," as it was so often called, took the form of divination by which the supposed spirit was evoked and consulted as to the right course of conduct on important occasions; and this divination, which was practiced in a variety of ways among the different semi-barbaric races of the ancient world, can be traced through a long period of time.

By the Mosaic Law, which was given about fifteen hundred years before Christ, the Jews were forbidden from consulting those having familiar spirits. So accustomed, however, were the Hebrews, who had evidently become acquainted with the voice during their captivity in Egypt, with this mode of divination that one of their prophets compares it to the power of sanctified utterance where he says (Isaiah 29: 4): "And thy voice shall be as one that hath a familiar spirit out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust."

Just where the Egyptians obtained their knowledge of the art is uncertain, but in the performance of the "mysteries" which accompanied their worship of Osiris, the judge of the dead in the lower world, a seemingly unearthly voice, proceeding either from the earth or from overhead, played no unimportant part. Inasmuch as the voices described were such as having always been peculiarly identified with ventriloquism, the practice of this art by unscrupulous priests would seem to afford a natural solution of the mystery.

This explanation might also be applied to the phenomenon attending the dawning of a new day upon the colossal statue of Memnon, which stood near Thebes in Egypt on the bank of the Nile, and became renowned as the "Vocal Memnon." According to ancient tradition, this statue when first touched by the rays of the rising sun emitted a musical tone, like the snapping of a harp string, which the imaginative Greeks conceived to be the voice of Memnon greeting his mother Eos (the dawn). Although the particular cause and character of the sounds have never been satisfactorily explained, the state of expectancy with which the silent and probably awe-struck worshipers awaited the sunrise, and their sublime faith in the reality of the phenomenon, were distinctly favorable to the production of a ventriloquial illusion by an attendant priest.

If there is any doubt as to the part ventriloquism played in this divination by a familiar spirit, there can be none in the method employed by the Greeks, which was termed gastromancy. In this the voice of the "spirit" made its oracular replies apparently from the priest's belly, the diviner himself standing in the meanwhile with impassive countenance and immovable lips.

Coming down to modern times, we find that Louis Brabant, valet de chambre of Francis I, won for himself a rich and beautiful heiress by aid of his wonderful talent as a ventriloquist; and the works of M. L'Abbe La Chappelle, published in 1772, contain references to the astonishing ventriloquial achievements of Baron Menge at Vienna, and those of M. St. Gille, a grocer living near Paris. Another famous performer, M. Alexandre, was also so great and adept at changing his countenance, that at one time he completely deceived a sculptor, before whom he sat five times in the borrowed character of a famous clergyman of Abbotsford, with whom the sculptor was well acquainted.
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