Ventriloquism (Lat. Venter The Belly And Loqui, To Speak), a kind of vocal mimicry, by which an illusion is produced in relation to the source or direction from which the sound proceeds. The name, or at least its cognate terms in Greek and Hebrew, originated from the practice of the witches and persons supposed to have a familiar spirit among the Canaanitish nations and the Jews, and the diviners or prophesying priests and priestesses of the Greeks, causing the answers to the questions asked by those who consulted them to proceed apparently from the abdomen, in which, as they alleged, resided their familiar spirit or demon. The first attempts at ventriloquism were probably made in Egypt or India, in both of which countries it has been known from the earliest periods. That it was commonly practised in Egypt during the residence of the Israelites there is evident from the prohibitions of the Jewish lawgiver against it after the exodus, in Lev. xix. 31, and xx. 6, 27, and Deut. xviii. 10-14. The early inhabitants of Canaan had also practised it, as appears from the last passage named.
In all these cases the term translated " having a familiar spirit" signifies in the original "speaking from the belly." Notwithstanding the death penalty pronounced against it, the practice of divination or ventriloquism continued among the Jews, as the references to it in Isaiah and the other prophets fully demonstrate. Nor did it cease as a pretended means of revelation in the early centuries of the Christian era, as the case in Acts xvi. 16, the well known practice of gastromancy among the later Greeks, and the repeated references of St. Chrysostom and other early Christian fathers, sufficiently prove. Its use for such purposes was finally abandoned during the middle ages. In the early part of the 16th century Louis Brabant, valet de chambre of Francis I., employed it to secure the consent of the mother of his betrothed to his marriage with her daughter, and also to extort from a rich miser a large sum of money. In 1772 the abbé de la Chapelle published an account of two eminent ventriloquists, Baron Mengen at Vienna and M. Saint-Gille near Paris, who were very successful in producing illusions by means of vocal mimicry, and causing the voices which they imitated to appear to come from trees, the earth, or the bodies of animals.
These gentlemen made no secret of their performances, but attributed their skill to their fondness and talent for mimicry, which enabled them to imitate accurately all kinds of sounds. M. Saint-Gille displayed his skill before commissioners of the French academy of sciences, who investigated the subject with great care. Since that period ventriloquism has become common, and most of the so-called magicians, wizards, and sleight-of-hand performers practise it. Thiernet, Borel, Fitzjames, Houdin, and Alexandre in France, and Charles Mathews and others in England, enjoyed a high reputation for their success in this art. M. Comte, a celebrated French ventriloquist, was the first to demonstrate the possibility of cultivating it by scientific methods, and several eminent singers have resorted to it to produce unusual musical effects. It was supposed for many years, and eminent physiologists gave countenance to the theory, that some peculiarity in the conformation of the larynx was requisite for ventriloquism, or at least that it was accomplished by processes essentially different from those adopted in ordinary speaking or singing; but it has been demonstrated that the vocal organs of the ventriloquist are the same as those of other men, nor is his use of them materially different from that of others.
For success in his art, he requires only keen perceptions, an ear delicately attuned to the variations of sound produced by distance or direction, and a strongly developed mimetic faculty. The vocal organs have the power of imitating under skilful training all the sounds of animate or inanimate life, and in such a way as to represent them as heard at greater or less distances and from different directions. The ventriloquist is well aware that no one of our senses is more easily deceived than that of hearing, because in listening to sounds we judge of their remoteness by comparing them with other sounds whose distance we are familiar with, and determine their distance by an arbitrary and often incorrect estimate of their relative volume at the place of their supposed emission. Aware of this, he utters the sound with the effect it would have upon the hearer's ear if it had really traversed the distance he designs it to represent, reducing its loudness, softening somewhat its quality or tone, and, if it is in words, obscuring a little the consonant sounds, while retaining unaltered the pitch and duration.
In doing this, he modifies the tones of his voice by varying the position of the tongue and the soft palate, dilating or contracting the mouth or pharynx, and either dividing the buccal and pharyngeal cavities into several compartments or throwing them into one. This is done without movement of the lower jaw and with but slight motions of the lips, while by means of skilful and apparently natural gestures the attention of the hearer is diverted from the ventriloquist himself to the point from which the voice or sound is supposed to proceed. Usually the ventriloquist stands so as to give only a profile view of his face, unless at a distance from his audience, and thus has greater opportunity of concealing any slight motions of the facial muscles. In most cases, too, the apparently remote voice is a falsetto, this being more within the command of the performer, without perceptible facial movement, than the natural tones. (See Voice).