BMCR 2009.05.30

Ancient Greek Divination. Blackwell Ancient Religions

, Ancient Greek Divination. Blackwell Ancient Religions. Malden, MA/Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. xiii, 193. ISBN 9781405115728 $89.95.

In this contribution to the Blackwell Ancient Religions series, Sarah Iles Johnston explores the primary archaeological, literary, and documentary sources for ancient Greek divination. The introduction argues for the central significance of divination in Greek religion, and it summarizes relevant ancient and modern scholarship. The remaining four chapters are organized around the ancient evidence: two consider “the divine experience” at specific oracles, and two “freelance divination” professionals and their practices. Delphi, Dodona, Claros and Didyma receive special attention, and are set in the context of some other attested oracles. Johnston then explores the societal role and techniques of the mantis, largely as presented in ancient Greek literature. Finally, the last chapter focuses on the evidence of the Greek magical papyri, the links between magic and divination, and (at last) the evolution of ancient Greek religion during the later Roman empire. Each chapter concludes with a three-page bibliography of secondary scholarship; the book ends with indices of primary sources and subjects.

Johnston has made a fine exposition and analysis of a wide variety of ancient evidence, well-supported by current scholarship and her own careful interpretations. It is wonderful to read a synthetic work by a single author on a broad topic in ancient religion, rather than another volume of disparate collected essays. Yet the high cost of this slim book, its omission of Roman divination (on which more below), and its frequent deployment of technical Greek terms could hinder its use as an undergraduate textbook, or by “general readers” (p. 29). For the scholar, whom Johnston also explicitly addresses (p. 29), an enormous amount of regional and chronological variation is glossed over, while the lack of footnotes places academic debates awkwardly into the text alongside the frequent parenthetical citations. However, Johnston does contribute actively and sensitively to these debates, making this book an important contribution to the study of ancient Greek religion.

The first chapter is an expansion of the call-to-arms issued in the introduction to her co-edited conference volume on ancient divination.1 “Divination” is defined as practices for obtaining knowledge about the unknown, especially about the future. Since these practices satisfy a universal human desire, they deserve attention as an essential element of religion. To demonstrate the ubiquity of divination, Johnston juxtaposes modern American use of tarot cards or astrology with ancient practices, and she highlights the paradox of active ancient scholarship on divination with its relative modern neglect. Her overview of ancient scholarship focuses first on Cicero’s On Divination, its definitions and lost sources, and then on the Stoics and authors from Hesiod to the Second Sophistic to St. Augustine. Ancient scholars were keenly interested in defining the linkage between the human and divine world, and thus they explored how “natural” and “technical” divination worked at length. Though they were often skeptical of the efficacy of certain techniques, divination itself was always worthy of inquiry. Yet the profound interest in the rational of post-Enlightenment scholarship on Greek religion largely has left divination out of that field, while Ritualist or anthropological work focuses instead on magic. Johnston thus well-demonstrates the need for this book, then clarifies that she has replaced these ancient categories with the modern ones of “institutional oracles” and “independent diviners,” following the evidence. She also, regrettably, decides to leave aside Roman divination yet draws on Roman authors. By “ancient Greek” she thus means a “culture” rather than an era, though she leaves her own ideas on the evolution of this culture to the final chapter and never really defines its scope. In such a slim book, I was disappointed at this choice, since Roman imperial archaeology, literature and papyri are used heavily, and since the list of forthcoming books in this series does not fill this gap. It would be nice to see the category of “Greco-Roman” revived for topical books such as this one, particularly when aiming for a broad audience.

The two chapters on oracles begin with a few words on why they were attached to particular places and what went on in them besides divination, before moving on to “what sort of divine encounter each of several oracles offered” (p. 36). Johnston privileges the process of connection between the human and the divine at oracular sites throughout their entire period of use, deploying texts from Homer to the church fathers along with archaeology and epigraphy. She devotes the first oracle-chapter to Delphi and Dodona, the most well-attested oracles in peninsular Greece. She emphasizes the pre-eminent authority of the Pythia and supports recent research arguing that ethylene escaped from the ground under the Temple of Apollo. Delphi is portrayed as a sort of societal safety valve, a place to engage with the divine, which offered a range of services from low-status reply-by-lot to high-status consultation of the Pythia herself. Johnston then helpfully develops the pairing of Delphi and Dodona in myth to shed light on Dodona’s mix of lot-oracles and inspired prophecy, with oak, spring and cauldrons integrated into a coherent whole.

Chapter three moves to Anatolia for a detailed look at the evidence for two more enthusiastic oracles, Claros and Didyma. Shorter discussions of other types of oracles follow, first those involving incubation, most often for healing. The cults of Asclepius at Epidaurus and Pergamum, the oracle at Daunia in Italy and the oracle of Amphiaraus at Oropos are all offered as examples of divination by dreams available only at specific sites.2 Similarities of myth and iconography then link in Trophonius, though sensibly what little is known about the process for consulting this hero at Lebadea is linked to a discussion of mystery cults. The undeniably chthonic cult of Trophonius also leads Johnston to emphasize (not entirely convincingly) that both Greeks and Romans always preferred to consult gods or heroes rather than the dead, and “seldom or never practiced” necromancy (p. 97); she reiterates these arguments in chapter five, responding to challenges to her book.3 She then collects evidence for oracles using fire, water, mirrors or dice, and concludes with Lucian’s famous exposé of Alexander of Abonuteichos and his oracular snake. Throughout these oracular chapters, Johnston steers a middle course between the skepticism of Lucian and most modern scholars, and total credulity. She places the phenomenon of oracles in a culture of people eager to seek divine advice at specific places through age-old methods, including the consultation of people who were credited with communicating with the gods.

She then devotes the last two chapters to the mantis or diviner who could determine the will of the gods outside the oracular context. Chapter four describes how one might become a mantis through a combination of birth and/or training, where one might be called upon to use that training, and the many techniques of divining available: through organs, birds, chance, the stars, dreams, oracle texts or personal daimones. In this chapter, the focus on Greek literature and culture imposes some artificial limitations which might have been avoided or at least indicated. Mythological and historical diviners are treated together throughout, and though the distinction between them is always made, the relation among Classical diviners, Classical literary authors, and stories about Tiresias or Chalchas, is far less clear. When Johnston explores battle and healing as specific situations calling for a mantis, the Athenocentric and literary cast of the evidence is clear. She does more broadly define the diviner as an expert in communication with the hard-to-reach, a person to call on in a crisis of any sort, but surely diviners also played a role in the public life of Greek cities outside battle.4 The rich connections which each technique of divination has with Near Eastern and Roman traditions are also largely unexplored, despite the use of the Greek magical papyri from Egypt in the very next chapter or frequent references to Cicero.

The final chapter contains an analysis of divination in the Greek magical papyri (πγμ an overview of changes in ancient Greek religion, and some conclusions on the close relationship between magic and divination. Johnston helpfully draws out unique information on divinatory circumstances, people and techniques from the PGM, and demonstrates how difficult it is to draw distinctions among ancient religion, divination and magic, though Christianity and scholarship continue to try. The appearance of both Democritus and Pythagoras in the PGM and the growth of Neo-Platonic theurgy contrast with the mythical seers of chapter four; imperial Greeks privately seem to have looked to philosophers, a wide range of gods and the dead for information about the unknown.

Johnston then argues for three changes within the “strong tendency toward continuity in all aspects of Greek religious practices and belief” which she has largely assumed throughout the rest of the book (p. 151). She argues convincingly for the changes, though limits herself perhaps too much in confining them to circa 100-500 AD. Certainly more foreign gods were adopted, personal “utopian” religions became more popular, and Roman emperors took official action against some forms of divination. Christian authorities were then even more active in persecuting both divination and other aspects of traditional Greco-Roman polytheism. Yet throughout this era the divinatory professional shared with the magician the goal of accessing the unknown, creativity, practicality and consistent demand for their services across the Greek world. These informed conclusions and careful handling of the evidence lead one to hope that Johnston will offer further contributions to the study of Greek religion soon.5


1. “Divining Divination” in S.I. Johnson and P.T. Struck (eds.), Mantikê: Studies in Ancient Divination, Leiden 2005, 1-28, reviewed by A. Nice in BMCR 2006.04.10.

2. The book’s single map of “the Greek world” is very limited. Only the Greek peninsula and western Anatolia are shown in outline, and the mere 8 labeled places include neither these sanctuaries, other than Oropos, nor most of the other oracles Johnston goes on to discuss in chapter three. The 12 black and white pictures do complement the text well, though one misses a plan of either Dodona or Claros.

3. S.I. Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, Berkeley 1999; D. Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, Princeton 2001. See now also D. Ogden, Night’s Black Agents: Witches, Wizards and the Dead in the Ancient World, London 2008.

4. For the Mythical through Classical Greek diviner see now M.A. Flower, The Seer in Ancient Greece, Berkeley 2008, and, for the overlap between civic priest and diviner, see the articles collected in B. Dignas and K. Trampedach (eds.), Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus, Washington, DC 2008.

5. I noticed very few typos. On p. 94 and in the index Strabo 6.9.3 should be 6.3.9.