Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.08.43

Franziska Naether, Die Sortes Astrampsychi: Problemlosungsstrategien durch Orakel im r�mischen �gypten. Orientalische Religionen in der Antike 3.   T�bingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2010.  Pp. 550.  ISBN 9783161502507.  $195.00.  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht, The Netherlands (

Even though the text of the ancient lot oracle known as Sortes Astrampsychi is not one of central concern to classical scholarship, it has had its share of attention in recent years. The Teubner edition of the shorter version by G. M. Browne appeared in 1983, and in 2001 R. Stewart’s Teubner text of the longer version (the so-called ‘ecdosis altera’) came out;1 both scholars also published a series of valuable articles on this document. Stewart’s English translation of the text appeared in W. Hansen (ed.), Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998) 285-324. In 2006 an edition of the Greek text with a German translation was published by K. Brodersen, Astrampsychos: Das Pythagoras-Orakel (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft). And now we have the monumental and exhaustive study of the Sortes Astrampsychi by Franziska Naether, an immensely learned work that the author completed when she was only 29 years. The book is so densely packed with information on all possible aspects of the study of the Sortes Astrampsychi (and many related documents) that it is impossible to do justice to its contents in this short review. The book can best be characterized as a comprehensive contextualization of the Sortes Astrampsychi.

As Naether explains, the system worked as follows (it is explained in detail in the preface of the document but is here presented in a somewhat simplified manner). The enquirer first looks in a list of 92 numbered questions to find his question or the one most like the question he wants to raise. Then he chooses by some kind of sortition or selects in his mind a number between 1 and 10 and adds it to the number of his question. The sum thus reached has now to be looked up in a list of oracular gods with a concordance following after the list of questions. The concordance indicates by means of a number after the god’s name the ‘decade,’ i.e., the section with ten possible answers. In that decade the answer is found under the number that was chosen by lot or selected. For example, your question is, “Will I get the woman I want to have?” This is question no. 29. You draw by lot or select the number 7, so the total is 36. In the list of oracular gods you find under 36 the name Hephaestus, and after this name the concordance number 27. Decade 27 has under number 7 the following answer to your question: “Yes, you will get the woman you want, but much to your detriment!” Since it is a god, Hephaestus, who directs the whole process, the answer cannot but be correct, for the theory behind this method of consultation was that the god’s action put the proper number in the mind or hand of the consultant. (In the Christianized version of the oracle the Greek gods are replaced by God, Christ, and the saints.)

After introductory chapters on methods and terminology, Naether discusses at length the phenomenon of the various lot oracles (cleromancy) in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The centerpiece of the book is part 2 (some 220 pages) about the Sortes Astrampsychi. Topics discussed include the manuscript tradition (there is now already more material than in Stewart’s edition of 2001), the way the oracle worked, the dating (2nd-3rd cent. CE), the problem of the two ecdoseis and their interrelationship, the christianization of the text of the oracle in late antiquity, the language, hermeneutics, and rhetorical strategy of these sortes, the setting of the oracular process (temple, later church or monastery), and especially the question of what we can learn from the questions asked by the clients about the social status and stratification of the clientele of the oracle. After a very detailed investigation the author concludes that the typical Astrampsychus client was ‘männlich, mittleren Alters, gut situiert, verheiratet, Mittelständler, oft auf Reisen und er hatte ein Ehrenamt inne. Damit gehörte er untrüglich zu der Schicht, die man gemeinhin als die “Elite” des Römischen Reichs bezeichnet’ (276).

The next chapters deal with comparable lot oracles from antiquity and the Middle Ages:2 The Sortes Sangallenses and Sortes Sanctorum, the Sortes Homericae and Sortes Vergilianae, the Sortes XII Patriarcharum and Sortes Alphabeticae, Sortes on the basis of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Qur’an, and much else. Finally, Egyptian ticket oracles (in both Demotic, Greek, and Coptic) are analyzed at length and compared to the Sortes Astrampsychi. Whenever possible, Naether tries to ferret out information about the social profile of the clients (called ‘Petenten’ by her) and to compare it to that of the Astrampsychus clients. For instance, she argues that, although the compiler of the Sortes Sangallenses must have known the Sortes Astrampsychi in one form of another, he had a different clientele in mind: ‘weniger eine Mittelschicht mit lokalen Unternehmern wie Händlern und Magistraten, sondern eher einer landwirtschaftlich ausgerichteten breiten Basis der Bevölkerung sowie Bediensteten in Abhängigkeitsverhältnissen’ (293). In the last chapter ‘Orakelverbote’ in late antiquity are discussed. A long bibliography, and index of ancient sources, and an unfortunately inadequate ‘Sachregister’ conclude the book.

The reader should be warned, however, that this book is not an easy read. If one has no previous knowledge of the contents of the Sortes Astrampsychi, it makes no sense at all to read this book. Further, quite apart from the fact that the author sometimes writes in a somewhat convoluted style, it is not always easy to follow the line of her argumentation. Neither is it always clear why she has ordered the material the way she does - I had the impression that a different ordering could have prevented a lot of repetition. Moreover, the reader is supposed to be able to read quotes not only in Greek and Latin, but also in Egyptian (both Hieroglyphic and Demotic as well as Coptic), in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch! Her Greek is not always without errors in spelling and accentuation. Not all bibliographical items mentioned in abbreviated form in the footnotes are spelled out in the general bibliography (e.g., De Jonge 1982 at p. 411 note 3). In the bibliography, two Dutch scholars, Jan M. Bremer and Jan N. Bremmer, are mixed up and treated as one and the same scholar. In the title of Luc van der Stockt’s publication one finds five spelling errors (469). But, as the reader can see, these are not major points. Even though the book is not always easy to read, there is very much to be learnt from it. Naether advances the debate about the ancient sortes-literature in many ways. She announces that she is preparing a comprehensive book about all ancient sortilegia, and we look very much forward to that publication, for nobody seems better qualified to write this kind of book than she. The author should be congratulated on this masterpiece that I hope will find many readers.


1.   See my review in BMCR, 2001.10.04.
2.   For a brief overview see my ‘Sortes: Sacred Books as Instant Oracles in Antiquity,’ in my book Japheth in the Tents of Shem: Studies in Jewish Hellenism in Antiquity, Leuven: Peeters, 2002, 159-190. Naether’s occasional criticism of this article is mostly justified.

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