The Seer in Ancient Greece

The Seer in Ancient Greece

Language: English

Pages: 328

ISBN: 0520252292

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

The seer (mantis), an expert in the art of divination, operated in ancient Greek society through a combination of charismatic inspiration and diverse skills ranging from examining the livers of sacrificed animals to spirit possession. Unlike the palm readers and mediums who exist on the fringe of modern society, many seers were highly paid, well respected, educated members of the elite who played an essential role in the conduct of daily life, political decisions, and military campaigns. Armies, for example, never went anywhere without one. This engaging book, the only comprehensive study of this fascinating figure, enters into the socioreligious world of ancient Greece to explore what seers did, why they were so widely employed, and how their craft served as a viable and useful social practice.













general one (disaster will strike) or a quite specific one (the king will die). The seer should be able not only to read the signs that the gods send, but also, by employing the correct sacrificial rites, to avert bad omens whenever possible. Alexander the Great and his seer Aristander of Telmessus spent the night before the battle of Gaugamela sacrificing to Fear and performing secret sacred rites (Plut. Alex. 31.4). These were not magical rites, but rather apotropaic ones, which were meant to

technical), Roth 1982 (a PhD thesis), and Burkert 1992 (on the archaic age). Two often cited articles dealing with seers are Bremmer 1993 and 1996, although I find myself in disagreement with his views. Dillery (2005) makes many interesting suggestions and observations. Parker (2005: 116–22) gives a succinct account of seers at Athens. 6. The most complete study of Greek divination in its various forms is Bouché-Leclercq 1879– 82. Volume 1 deals with the various types of divination in Greece.

respected. There were, to be sure, practitioners of a lower order; but the seers who attended generals and statesmen were often the wealthy scions of famous families. They were at the center of Greek society. One question that I cannot address has to do with the objective truth of divination. Yet the questions “Can divination function effectively?” and “Can it accurately predict the future?” are actually quite distinct. A system of divination within a particular system of belief can work very

to divine causes. This is an area where a sensitivity to literary and historiographical criticism can contribute to a more complex interpretation of Greek attitudes toward divination. Nonetheless, it is striking that there is not even the slightest hint in the Histories of Herodotus or in the entire corpus of Xenophon that sacrificial divination was not a valid method of ascertaining the divine will. Here again sentiments expressed in Xenophon’s works, such as at Hipparchicus 9.8–9, are 40. Arr.

is left implicit in the text, but the explanation would have been obvious enough to anyone who shared in the belief system of Xenophon’s contemporaries: to wit, the gods did not give Agesilaus favorable omens precisely because his cavalry force was insufficient for an advance. This attitude of Agesilaus toward divination is, in fact, similar to Alexander’s reaction when his troops mutinied in 326 and refused to cross the Hyphasis River in the Punjab. According to Arrian (5.28), Alexander told his

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