BMCR 2008.03.39

The Seer in Ancient Greece

, The seer in ancient Greece. The Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 1 online resource (xviii, 305 pages).. ISBN 9780520934009. $39.95.

Table of Contents

Michael Flower diagnosed a need for a general treatment of seers while co-editing Herodotus Histories Book 9 with John Marincola (CUP 2002). The Seer in Ancient Greece meets that need. The focus is on individual seers rather than just oracles and on how divination functioned as a respected source of knowledge and a useful social practice. The intended audience includes non-specialists and the author provides his own translations of Greek and Latin. The book is descriptive, but presses various arguments: that the seer was not a charlatan, but had a nuanced relationship with his employers; that there was no progression from ‘primitive’ belief to philosophic incredulity, but a constant ancient belief that the gods sent messages and seers could interpret them. The time range is 800-300 BC. The study is not diachronic, perhaps because of the constancy of belief in divination over time, but it does briefly address the seer’s changed response to autocratic rule in the age of Alexander.

The book answers the questions it raises from a wide range of evidence: epic, tragic, comic, epigraphic, Herodotus, Xenophon, Plato, Diodorus, Pausanias, Plutarch and from comparisons with the practices of other cultures, ancient and modern. There is the occasional missing informant, such as Demosthenes the orator, whose evidence would have been valuable for the Athenian attitude to divination in its courts. It is interesting in itself to discover from the Index Locorum just who refers to seers and who does not.

The author sees this range of evidence as a challenge because of its generic conditioning. In tragedy, for instance, seers are associated with correct predictions (and disaster), but in comedy with deception (and laughter). It is hard to elicit realities from patterns like these. There are patterns in the prose-writing historians too, but the book tends to take these more literally. It even argues that the seer in real life patterned himself on heroic (poetic) seer models, and that the historians capture this as a reality rather than, or as well as, creating it themselves as patterned fiction. The default position is that the attention given to seers proves their importance, however their image is manipulated.

The book has a Preface and Conclusion and eight chapters:

1. Problems, Methods and Sources.

2. Who is a Seer?

3. The Role and Image of the Seer.

4. Divination as a System of Knowledge and Belief.

5. Disbelief and Skepticism about Seers: Is the Best Seer the One Who Guesses Well?

6. A Dangerous Profession: the Seer in Warfare.

7. The Art of the Consultation.

8. Not Just a Man’s Profession: the Female Seer.

The chapters have been designed to be read separately, which produces some repetition of material, particularly at the beginning of chapters. The sub-division of chapters into topics tends to produce further repetition within chapters, and occasional fragmentation of the bigger picture too, for instance when evidence is discussed first in one and then in another location; the Index and Index Locorum provide a check on this.

The Preface and Chapter One address the matters mentioned above. Chapter Two surveys terms for seers, types of divination and their origins under the main heading ‘Who is a Seer?’. Comparisons of the independent, itinerant and more versatile Greek seer are made with the more resident, dependent and specialist diviners in eastern cultures. The sub-heading ‘Mantic Families’ deals with how seers learned their craft in families and manipulated stories about their ancestors to advertise their own images. ‘Other Qualifications For Becoming a Seer’ notes that blindness was no barrier, downplays the importance of literary works on seers (‘seercraft for dummies’), and indicates that non-specialists did their own divining (visual depictions on painted pots are important here). Xenophon is offered as such a non-specialist (p. 53), and there is the suggestion that in other cultures amateurs also do divining for matters that are not serious. On p. 129 there are the further qualifications that a) Xenophon lived when being a seer was demystified and b) he practiced personal divination only if there was no seer available or to prevent the seer deceiving him, and on p. 162 that private divination on personal matters was more acceptable than for public ones. ‘Seers, Priests and Oracle-singers’ finds grounds for distinguishing between these classes of diviners, and ‘The Greek Seer Between Magic and Religion’ makes that distinction too. Socrates’ divine sign is not part of the study even though it is mentioned as a type of divination (p. 73, 89). Lichas’ divining of the oracle (Herodotus’ 1.67-8) might be added to the study.

Chapter Three reprises definitions of divination before turning to ‘The Social Function of Divination’. The main function was to choose a course of action when human ingenuity failed, clarifying the options and advising what to do and not to do. Since this depends on there being a choice to make, the author argues against a belief in predetermination. In addition to clarifying the options, seers foretell the future in poetry, and Herodotus 1.62 is offered as evidence that they did so also in ‘reality’. In general ‘the divinatory act merely ascertained the will of the gods’ and did not guarantee success, but ‘Averting Bad Omens’ covers the pressures put on the god to secure success. Hellenica 3.3.4 is explored as the ‘fullest, most authoritative and most explicit account’ of this pressure, leading to the discovery of the plot of Cinadon at Sparta. ‘Toward a Typology of Greek Divination’ finds the lines blurred between inspired and crafted divination, and ‘prophetic’ and ‘possessed’, seeking also to see this from the seer’s own point of view. ‘The Self-image of the Seer’ argues that seers in real life imitated their literary predecessors and that prose writers capture this imitation rather than, or as well as, creating it themselves. So, in Herodotus 9.33-35 Tisamenus imitates the Homeric Calchas (p. 94: a surprising choice: cf. Herodotus’ comment that he imitated Melampus in his bargaining for the citizenship). The image of the seer who is ‘good both as a seer and to fight with the spear’ is proven from inscriptions, which may have advertised the seer’s services to potential clients. ‘What You Can Ask a Seer’ offers literary and archaeological evidence for the types of questions asked: whether it is better to do a or b, or a more open-ended question.

Chapter Four reprises ‘Divination as a System of Knowledge and Belief’. The seer can be wrong, but belief in divination persists. Portents of disasters are not literary construction, but omen formation after the event by interested sources, to gain retrospective control. There is a case study of Thucydides’ references to omens before the expedition to Sicily. ‘Disregarding the Omens’ offers a type of story that is taken as a validation of the belief system. ‘Divination and Athenian Democracy’ argues that divination was at home in democracy. ‘The Seer in the Hellenistic World’ argues against the decline of military divination, but finds the seer reacting in other ways to the new expectations of autocracy.

Chapter Five offers abundant evidence from the ancient poets for ‘Disbelief and Skepticism about Seers’, but evidence of continued reliance on them is found in Xenophon, who expects his audience to accept that he was motivated by divination to act in the way he did. ‘How Does One Test a Seer’ is about testing oracles and other sources of divine messaging and addresses again the question of belief.

Chapter Six is about the seer in warfare, arguably, it is said, his most important role. The view that seers are mere tools of military leaders gives way to a nuanced relation between the seer and his client, with the seer often operating in a crisis, or looking to his reputation and future employment. ‘Taking the Initiative’ has seers initiating wars and conspiracies. ‘Performing the Sacrifice’ looks at techniques of military divination. ‘Can a Seer Promise You Victory’ revisits the question of whether good omens guarantee success. ‘When Seer and General Disagree’ now takes the stories of bad omens to prove that seers did not always give their employers what they wanted. Xenophon’s crediting of the manipulation of signs before the battle of Leuctra to politicians rather than seers is taken to confirm the argument that seers were honest, but this is a fine distinction, since politicians do use seers and authors can fail to mention them (p. 162: even Xenophon). ‘Partnerships’ shows how generals used the same seer over many years. Alexander the Great and Aristander figure here. ‘A Dangerous Profession’ compares the risks and profits of seering in the front-line.

Chapter Seven continues the theme of how seers and employers interact in ‘The Art of Consultation’. Silanus’ prophecy to Cyrus in Xenophon’s Anabasis 1.7.18 that the king would offer no battle within 10 days is taken to be designed as a bold move to get more money than if he gave a prophecy for only one day. Some would rather see the writer’s hand in the 10 days, building tension before the sudden appearance of the king on the eleventh. Silanus’ refusal to manipulate the signs about the founding of Xenophon’s polis at Anabasis 5.6.15-19, 28-30 is taken as proof of the seer’s integrity. Another reason is that he knew that Xenophon would detect manipulation. Euclides ( Anabasis 7.8.1-6) is an interesting case of a seer who used existing knowledge of Xenophon in divining for him. Xenophon’s comment on the fulfillment of the prophecy ( Anabasis 7.8.8-23) is offered as proof of the resilience of prophecy to refutation, but this seems to belong to another chapter, and the comment may in any case be ironic, like his remark on what the Mantineans learned in Hellenica 5.2.7. The seer who escorts Xenophon to Cyrus is another interesting case study ( Anabasis 6.1.22), but the prophecy is surely Xenophon’s hindsight, is it not? Unsuccessful relations between seers and their employers in tragedy are used in the last part of the chapter to define what made for success in real life.

Chapter 8 offers evidence for individual female seers, such as the statue of Diotima from Mantinea, but focuses mainly on the Pythia. Chapter 9 summarises the main points.

The author is to be congratulated on his overall achievement. I am less inclined than he is to find real life in Xenophon’s literary patterning of seer stories. For instance, the seer who goes to the death he predicts for himself for the sake of the victory of the rest is a heroic stereotype (applied also to kings: King Leonidas in Herodotus 7). Flower recognizes the pattern, but wants to believe that the seer at Hellenica 2.4.17-19 really did play out this stereotype, sacrificing his life to improve his image for posterity (p. 93, 184, 194). His suicide is more plausible to me as an act of creation post eventum by those who wished to give the battle heroic status — perhaps even by Xenophon himself. Xenophon’s silence is used to deny the reality behind Diodorus Siculus when he has Callicratidas play out the seer’s suicide pattern at Arginusae (p. 168), but Xenophon already has the pattern in embryonic form in Hellenica 1.6.32, when Callicratidas expresses his willingness to die in spite of his helmsman’s predictions of disaster. Diodorus has just substituted a seer for the helmsman. The three-fold repetition is another old suspect for a literary pattern, as well as the usual time scale of sacrifice in divination. Hellenica 3.1.17-18 records negative omens for three successive days and success ‘on the fourth’ i.e. within five days. The pattern is repeated in the story of Cinadon, where there are three successive lots of bad omens, good omens at the fourth attempt, and the revelation of the conspiracy ‘within five days’. The gods may indeed have always relented on the fourth day, but literary patterning seems more likely. There is some inconsistency in the reception of Plutarch’s evidence too: dismissed as fiction for instance on p. 166 and 203, but accepted as literal truth on p. 175, 184. But this is not a major drawback in a book that covers so much of the evidence so thoroughly.