BMCR 2008.01.14

Oracles, Curses, and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks

, Oracles, curses, and risk among the ancient Greeks. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xii, 516 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9781435614109 $160.00.

Esther Eidinow’s Oracles, Curses, and Risk Among the Ancient Greeks, a revised version of her Oxford dissertation (2003) supervised by Robert Parker, analyzes ancient Greek perceptions of risk through the archaeological evidence for the who, what, where, and why of oracle consultation at Dodona and for the use of curse tablets ( katadesmoi). E. utilizes the archaeological record to clarify what importance these practices held for their individual practitioners. For E., oracle consultation and curse writing represent flip sides of the same coin: in general, individuals used oracles to reinforce pre-determined choices, i.e. to ignore risk, and wrote curses to shield themselves from potential future harm (p. 5). Both, E. argues, were tools used by Greek men and women of various socio-economic classes to manage “aspects of the uncertainty and risk of everyday life” (p. 4). Though much research has been done on oracles, especially at Delphi, E. concentrates on the Dodonan oracle, for which the archaeological record of oracular questions is much more robust than elsewhere. And though scholars such as D. Jordan, D. Obbink, C.A. Faraone, and D. Ogden have recently written on curse writing, E. employs and reanalyzes the curse corpus through the prism of risk in places where she believes that modern analysis has tended to interpret curses anachronistically or too creatively. E.’s obvious fluency with and passion for the material makes this book both useful and enjoyable, and this book is commendable for bringing business-like clarity, academic sophistication, and novelistic empathy to this highly diverse material.

Structurally, the book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with oracles (chpts. 2-6) and the second with curses (chpts. 7-12). In the first chapter, E. outlines the theoretical issues involved in studying oracles and curses. E. shows how classical scholarship has not always been sensitive to the possibility that words like “risk” and “magic” may mean different things to different societies. E. credits Faraone in particular with helping “modern readers to see beyond the initial ‘magical’ aspect of these classical Greek curses, and, crucially, locates the role of cursing within ancient Greek society” (p. 4). E. dips into the work of Mary Douglas to show that establishing “which disruptions generate particular anxiety and/or disorder” (p. 22) among the ancient Greeks will clarify the Greek worldview more generally. Far from merely representing leftovers from a dissertation’s requisite discussion of methodology, this chapter importantly sets the terms for discussion, clears away the mistaken assumptions that can misdirect similar studies, and, together with the Introduction, puts new advances in the study of Greek religion in the context of similar research in anthropology.

Following this introductory chapter, those chapters that discuss oracles (chps. 2-6) open with the question of divination in general and gradually home in on Dodona, concluding with a catalogue of the oracular questions found at Dodona and a discussion of what the catalogue indicates about who consulted Dodona and for what purposes between roughly the sixth and first centuries BCE (p. 125). The second chapter includes a general review of divination in ancient Greece, useful for beginners though redundant for scholars, and illustrates through examples the crucial point that Delphi’s prominence makes it unfortunately easy to assume that, as did Delphi, so did Didyma and Dodona (p. 33).

The third chapter narrows the discussion from divination to oracles, and begins to explore the mental presuppositions of oracle consultation by analyzing how the Greeks represented oracle consultation at Delphi, Didyma, and Dodona in the literature (p. 42). E. surveys references to oracles in Greek literature (prohibited questions, types and phrasing of questions) and establishes as a general rule that questions tended to be phrased as either “yes or no” or “x or y” questions, and only rarely asked for a specific, unsupplied piece of information (pp. 49-50). Though references to Dodona are scarce in the literature, epigraphic evidence is plentiful. The material from Delphi covers questions ranging from issues of inheritance to the construction of altars by individuals, but consists of only five inscriptions. Epigraphic evidence from Didyma is even more limited than from Delphi, consisting of only two responses and a dedication (p. 53). The comparison of Dodona with the others seems to justify E.’s focused discussion of Dodona, and to establish enough commonalities between Dodona and the others to use it as a case study for Greek society more generally.

The fourth chapter focuses on the sociopolitical context of Dodona. The first half presents a history of the Dodonan oracle (pp. 57-63), and the latter half investigates the evidence for state consultations there. Though Dodona’s prominence in certain sources suggests that states from all over Greece would consult at Dodona as at Delphi, E. notes that there is evidence for only fourteen questions from states (p. 64), which, listed in Appendix 1, concern issues as varied as the optimal target for the city’s sacrifices, potential alliances, and the source of storms (pp. 345-348). The chapter concludes by exploring the method of consultation at Dodona, of which E. identifies three methods mentioned in the literature: 1) the rustling of the oak branches and leaves interpreted by priests; 2) women known as “doves” communicating messages to consultants directly; and 3) oracles given non-verbally, perhaps through the clinking of bronze tripods, perhaps through the lot-mechanism built into a statue at Dodona described by Strabo (pp. 67-69). E., characteristically careful, refuses to make judgments where evidence is scarce and concludes that “all we know for certain is that consultants wrote their questions down on lead tablets, which they then rolled up” (p. 71); a conclusion mundane, maybe, but definitely accurate.

The fifth chapter, “A Catalogue and Summary of Published Questions by Individuals and Responses from the Dodona Oracle,” organizes the epigraphic remains from Dodona into sixteen separate major categories of questions, as assembled in published and unpublished form by Professor Christidis of Thessaloniki University, who presented them at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at Oxford University (p. 6). E. appends introductory remarks to each section, provides both a clearly printed Greek text and accurate English translations for all of the remains, and identifies other useful information (date, defining physical characteristics) for upwards of 150 pieces of various lengths. This chapter will prove extremely helpful for students of divination, as the presentation is quite clear.

Chapter Six uses the catalogue from the previous chapter to understand who consulted oracles, for what reason, at what times, and with what words and ritual actions. It does so particularly with an eye towards establishing what motivated individual Greeks to validate their decisions through an oracular source of authority. It is here that E.’s division of the oracles by categories justifies itself. For example, it is surprising to note that there are seven extant examples of women bringing questions to Dodona, since upper class Greek women might have had trouble traveling abroad. When divided by category, however, it can be easily perceived that four are by slaves, most of whom ask about their chances at escape, and four concern sickness, an issue eminently suitable to a female consultant (pp. 130-131). And though, as noted earlier, yes-or-no, or “closed”, questions are the norm in oracle consultation, there are some examples of open questions, but E. rightly has “doubts that they are as open as they first appear” (p. 132), and can easily demonstrate on the basis of her categorization that the most frequent open question is “To which god should I sacrifice?”, and can note that this appears most often in questions concerning Health/Disease (five times) and children (five times), though it also appears twice with regard to Prosperity/Safety and once regarding Property (p. 133). This leads her to the general conclusion that “certain areas of life—the birth of children, continued good health, and prosperity—were considered to be more dependent on divine will than others (p. 133)”. Clear and comprehensive, this chapter usefully summarizes the evidence from Dodona as indicating a wide array of circumstances under which questions were brought and shows how the epigraphic record can contribute to an understanding of the Greek treatment of risk.

The second half of the book, dealing with curse tablets, begins with Chapter Seven, which presents a general survey of references to curses in literary sources and an introduction to the production, sale, and use of curse tablets in antiquity. Whereas heretofore the book concentrated on building up evidence for an area in which little research has been done, the second half is less a building up than a paring down of what E. takes to be overly speculative and anachronistic interpretation of the extant curse tablet corpus. This work takes place in Chapters Eight through Eleven, each of which focuses on a different category of targets from the curse tablets: public performers (8), opponent litigants (9), rival businessmen (10), and rival or non-reciprocating lovers (11). The final chapter (12) summarizes the ways in which risk-analysis provides a useful framework for understanding curses, concluding that curses were used both to preempt danger and to deal with the tensions that naturally arose from social interactions in ancient Greece.

Throughout this section, E. grapples with the central problem facing the student of the curse tablets: most of the tablets that communicate anything at all only give information about the target, so that the identity of the curser, and his or her motivations for cursing, must be arrived at backwards from the attributes of the target that the curser has decided to include. This can lead to a number of speculative conjectures that E. is keen to avoid. For example, in the tenth chapter, which studies curses that seem related to business, E. takes issue with the assumption that curses that have been categorized as “business” curses are about commercial competition between the curser and his or her target. In one case, a curse mentions several people with several professions, including stall-holder, slave, and pimp, and, as E. points out, it is unlikely that the curse writer is commercially competing “in all these trades” (p. 197), not to mention the fact that, as E. indicates, the mention of a commercial enterprise in a list “does not always indicate that inhibiting the commercial activity of the target was the main concern of the curse” (p. 204). E. instead interprets the mentioning of commercial aspects as existing on a scale of risk, wherein a curser seeks to mitigate any damage that could be done to him or her by preempting all of those persons and activities whereby he could be injured, which is to say that it is not at all clear whether there exists a robust category of commercial curses at all.

In chapter eleven, E. takes exception to readings of the curse corpus that treat erotic curses “as a blank screen for the projections of contemporary constructions of sexuality” (p. 209). For example, many scholars have claimed, for a variety of reasons, that most erotic curses were authored by men, even though only one curse—from Akanthos (p. 221)—can be securely identified as having been written by a man. For E., it is not acceptable to attribute a curse to a man merely because the curse concerns a woman (pp. 219-220). Instead, E. suggests, inter alia, that the orientation of these texts towards a future time indicates that “the creation of these texts appears to have been motivated by the need of their agents to exert some kind of control over others” (p. 220), more specifically to avoid future harm, and therefore provide a barometer for tentatively establishing the types of worries that concerned Greeks enough to cause them to seek out supernatural assistance and assurances.

E. has clearly taken careful note of Faraone’s caution against using curse tablets as an unmediated view into the “cries of the heart” of ancient Athenians (Faraone, C. Ancient Greek Love Magic, Harvard, 1999). The last two pages of her Introduction are replete with reservations concerning the types of conclusions that can be drawn from the material (pp. 23-25). There are, however, several points at which E. seems to slip into a conjectural romanticizing of the material similar to that found in some of her predecessors, most notably when, towards the end of her Introduction, she calls the curse tablets “the unselfconscious emotional responses of ancient Greek men and women. . .in fervent, sometimes ferocious, appeals to the gods” (p. 7). Curse tablets are good evidence for what people said they wanted, but they do not tell us what people thought; cucullus non facit monachum, nor does a formal claim of hurt always stem from real pain. E.’s own work in fact clarifies that much of what can seem “unselfconscious” can be the result of formal conventions in the writing of curses and that scholars must approach these tablets in much the same way as we approach literary texts, as a complicated product of literary conventions, contingent circumstances, and the particular predilections of given authors.

That being said, it is rare for E. to wax more eloquent than the material strictly allows, and at the two points where E. paints a novelistic picture of circumstances under which oracles and curses (p. 1, 139) would have been used, she highlights and successfully enacts her intention to engage in a more comprehensive survey of the psychology of oracle consultation and cursing than a purely analytic piece would have afforded. This takes away not at all from the analytic rigor that so suffuses E.’s work, not to mention making the work more accessible to lay readers, and more enjoyable for everyone. The book’s endnotes contain a huge number of insights into the material and the history of scholarship on the issues. The appendices on “Questions Presented by Communities at the Oracle of Dodona”, “Texts Excluded from the Relationship Category,” and, most importantly, a “Catalogue of Binding Curses,” are clearly presented and will prove useful to students of the subject. The index is quite complete, and even includes all names mentioned in the curse corpus. This book will undoubtedly serve as a comprehensive and readable introduction to the range of contexts under which oracle consultation and cursing would have taken place in ancient Greece, and as a trove of new insights and skeptical reservations for both laypeople and seasoned scholars.