BMCR 2019.11.33

The Seer and the City: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Ideology in Ancient Greece. Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature

, The Seer and the City: Religion, Politics, and Colonial Ideology in Ancient Greece. Joan Palevsky imprint in classical literature. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. xii, 217. ISBN 9780520295001 (hb). ebook.


Foster systematically and clearly identifies and explains a significant anomaly in the Archaic and Classical Greek location of authority among the competing media of divine communication. She pinpoints the specific location at issue in the evolving competitive relationships between the Delphic oracle and other oracular media. Here, we are especially concerned with what Foster concludes was Delphi’s programmatic quest for an oracular monopoly over its competitors through Apollo’s personal selection of οἰκισταί. In the battle for oracular authority Delphi and its allies excluded the μάντις from the role he might otherwise be expected to play in colonial foundation narratives given the role μάντιδες1 played in military expeditions and the connections between such ventures and the colonial enterprise. Delphi transferred this role to the οἰκιστής chosen by Apollo (pp. 17, 20). “Seers,” writes Foster, “were prominent figures in ancient Greek society, but they rarely appear in archaic and classical colonial discourse.” (p. 3) Beginning with her Introduction (pp. 1-22), which sets the stage with illustrative examples, discussions of theory, and terminological definitions (e. g., of ἡ μαντεία, ἡ χρησμολογική, ἡ ἐξηγητεία, and ἡ προϕτεία2), Foster invites scholars to take an innovative perspective that enables us to view the observed anomaly in terms of dueling ideologies locked in a struggle over the appropriate medium of divine authorization (p. 5). In the context of πόλις-foundation, with its common tendency toward factionalism, the politico-cultic primacy of the οἰκιστής was a critical component in a colonial narrative. It rests on the reciprocally beneficial relationship between Delphi and the divinely-appointed οἰκιστής. This reciprocity came at the expense of the otherwise ubiquitous divinatory authorization of the μάντις. The time period in focus is simultaneously one defined by Delphi’s “panhellenic influence” (p. 7), as manifested in its near monopoly over the divine approval of colonial enterprises, against a backdrop characterized by widespread and enduring utilization of the “independent seer” (p. 8). As Foster points out, Irad Malkin had already noted the validating civil and cultic authority possessed by the οἰκιστής grounded in his personal appointment by Apollo. Malkin also observed the surprising absence in foundation narratives of the μάντις (pp. 9-10). However, Foster takes us a step beyond to see what one might call a Delphic program—the coalescence in the οἰκιστής of the military, civil, and cultic authorities demanded in the new colony, leaving no room for the μάντις in the foundation process. Thus, Delphi clothes the οἰκιστής in Apollonian grab leaving the μάντις out in the proverbial cold, at least with respect to colonial discourse. Beyond this enclave, the μάντις could ply his trade (pp. 14-15), a τεχνάρχης, a master craftsman in the deployment of the divinatory arts (five types are discussed, p. 16), and yet a charismatic possessing talismanic power—consequently, authoritative.3 Whereas skill and heredity marked most skilled trades in this period, for the μάντις, charisma paradoxically cohabitated with τεχνή, and γένος; there were prominent hereditary lines of μάντιδες (p.18).

Having identified the anomaly, described it, and laid out her explanatory strategy, in chapter 1, Foster fleshes out the cultural assumption of the military μάντις to sharpen the stark edge of his absence from, but not his function in, colonial narratives (p. 23). The μάντις of Homeric traditions is a special kind of warrior, bringing intuition and exegetical skills to the battlefield. Here, Foster begins to answer the question about why the anomaly arose. The “talismanic” skills and powers of the μάντις (i.e., the tools by which to interpret divine omens) challenge the authority of the οἰκιστής (p. 24). To facilitate the transfer of authority, Delphi could tap into another source power, drawn from the fact that οἰκισταί often accessed talismanic power through previous athletic or military victories, especially concretized in the victor’s crown (e.g., pp. 25-34).

In chapter two, Foster observes that in the heroic age, the μάντις (Theoklymenos) and the ἥρως (Odysseus) functioned cooperatively, as “a coherent pair,” suggesting one possible future for the putative οἰκιστής and the μάντις, one that was never realized. The two form a partnership in the “metaphorical refoundation of Ithaka” (p. 51, building on the interpretation of Carol Dougherty, pp. 59-62). Previous scholars have recognized the depth of this relationship to the point that Theoklymenos may be read as a “doublet” for Odysseus—an interpretation that integrates well with Foster’s argument for an early assumption of cooperation between οἰκιστής and μάντις (pp. 66-67).

Chapter three details the evolution of the “startling excision” of μάντιδες from foundation narratives. Foster deftly interprets her evidence to correlate the need for the consolidation in colonial contexts of the media of authority in the οἰκιστής alone, and the validating topos of Delphi’s selection and empowerment of the individual colonial founder. This evolution is not accidental. Rather, Foster sees it as a programmatic effort to eliminate the religious authority of mantic competitors. The probability, following Malkin, is nonetheless that even though absent from the foundation narratives, μάντιδες accompanied colonial expeditions. Instrumental to the Delphic agenda is the consistent trope of the οἰκιστής consulting Delphi for something unrelated, only to be chosen by Apollo to lead the colonial expedition and found a city. This divine appointment establishes a unique “privileged relationship with Apollo” that (pp. 78-79). However, as Foster observed earlier, by the Hellenistic period, this Delphic program begins to give way to more cooperative associations between the οἰκιστής and the μάντις (p. 22).

In chapters four through six, Foster nuances the history of the anomalous absent μάντις by showing through well-chosen epinician odes from Bacchylides and Pindar both the promotion of and resistance to the Delphic anti-mantic strategy. These case studies are treated with theoretical sophistication and hermeneutical nuance within a well-crafted rhetorical strategy. By virtue of the fact that Pindar’s poetic agenda reveals a counter ideology to the dominant Delphic view, the selected odes, as a group, serve Foster’s argument more persuasively. The treatment of Bacchylides’ Ode 11 demonstrates how a poet might use praise for a known crown victor to bank on the victor’s talismanic power as a catalyst in the service of the Delphic agenda to drain off the power and influence of the μάντις (in this case, the famous Melampous). Foster reads Bacchylides as intending to transfer both the socio- political authority of the οἰκιστής and the cultic power and authority of the μάντις to the character of Proitos, thereby making irrelevant the mantic power of Melampous, and consequently confiscating any share of city colonial leadership from the one who in the existing myth actually plays the dominant role, the μάντις, Melampous. Rather Bacchylides has woven in its place a foundation narrative of Tiryns focusing on Proitos, the authoritative οἰκιστής (pp. 96-103).

In contrast, Foster’s treatment of Olympian 6 in chapter five excavates a Pindar who, against the grain of tradition, tries to resist the pressure of Delphi and directly connect the οἰκιστής and the μάντις. In this case, the μάντις, Hagesias, a member of the excluded class of the Delphic colonial program, in Pindar’s hands can, by virtue of his talismanic power as a crown victor (p. 108), be incorporated in the foundation story as the “co-oikist” (συνοικιστήρ) without occluding his well-known status as a μάντις. “Pindar has merged the positions of athlete, seer, and oikist in order to conjure a single individual of overwhelming talismanic authority (p. 110).” Of course, Foster, locates Pindar’s immediate and delicate task in the proper positioning of Hagesias in relation to his patron Hieron of Syracuse. Delicate because, on the one hand, Pindar must acknowledge Hagesias’ crucial role in Hieron’s status as οἰκιστής of Aitna, while, on the other hand, he must protect Hagesias from suspicion as a possible usurper. Not only is Pindar’s move ingenious, but Foster’s interpretation take us back to the Homeric model of Odysseus and Theoklymenos (chapter 2), allowing us to read the partnership between Hieron and Hagesias as a expression of an ideology counter to the Delphic systematic exclusion of the μάντις in colonial discourse.

Foster’s turn in chapter six to Delphi’s “concerted effort to effect the Amphiareion’s diminution” (151), exemplifies this systematic hostile take-over of the divine authorization of the colonial enterprise. In this example, Delphi’s dominant narrative kidnaps Alkmaion from the mantic legacy of Amphiaraos to make him an οἰκιστής under Apollo’s guidance. Foster interprets this move as reaching beyond Alkamaion to invalidate Amphiaraos and by extension the reputation of the Amphiareion. Again, it is Pindar, and his treatment of the story of Alkmaion that counters the Delphic agenda, emphasizing Alkmaion’s μαντεία inherited from Amphiaraos (p.138).

Foster shepherds the reader through her chapters with regular restatements of previous points matched by portents of the next step in her argument. The chapters are complemented by a conclusion that summarizes the path taken and restates the fundamental conclusion, finished off with bibliography and indices for terms and citations. Throughout her exegesis, Foster stands within the basic interpretive consensus of specialists on the topic at hand, whether the μάντις, the οἰκιστής, or her textual sources. Her meticulous and pioneering analyses of the various competing interests within the broad spectrum of claims to and media for divine authority significantly enriches our understanding of the function of these cultural forms among the Greeks and beyond. She has made a substantial contribution to our understanding of the dynamics of power, the push and push-back, between dominant and non-dominant cultic programs in ancient Greece—a description that resonates with ongoing discourse in postcolonial studies. My reading of Foster’s book prompts questions for exploration that speak to issues in the broader study religion. For example, whereas Foster convincingly roots the cause of Delphic exclusion of the μάντις in the necessity of eliminating authoritative competition with Apollo and his selected οἰκιστής, one might wonder whether this competition is embedded in the culturally widespread spatial tension between center and periphery, between the “locative” and the “utopian (‘no place’).”4 The οἰκιστής is certainly creating a new “center” from which the μάντις, by virtue of his itineracy, is excluded. Foster actually cites support in her respective characterizations of the μάντις and the προφήτης that distinguishes the two on the basis of locative and utopian categories.5 Additionally, Foster sees as a major factor in the excision of the μάντις the “general cultural suspicion” of associations between the μάντις and the πόλις (p. 21). The tension between the center and periphery has proven an enduring discussion in the study of the Hebrew prophets.6 But the issue is also important in the history of formative Christianity. For example, the fanatical Paulinist, Montanus, appears to have, among his many motivations, a rejection of the increasing centralization of the distribution of divine commodities in the hands of locative monarchical bishops.7 His countermove is the democratization of and decentralization of prophecy. I would suggest that, in a surely welcome volume, Foster has widened the base on which to mount a comparative study of these tensions throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.


1. To inject a bit of gender equity into the discussion, I substitute the fem. plural μάντιδες for the masc. plural μάντεις from this point on to call attention to the fact that at least one ancient source, the Oracula Sibyllina, includes the Sibyls in this divinatory category (P.29-31).

2. That her definitions reflect general consensus is seen from comparison of diverse and less narrowly focused works such as Walter Burkert, Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, trans. John Raffan (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 111-115; Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World (London; New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 61-74, 237-243.

3. Following Michael A. Flower, The Seer in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of Californian Press, 2008).

4. See Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Wobbling Pivot,” The Journal of Religion, 52.2 (1972): 147, opposing the centripetal-closed-locative view to the centrifugal-open-utopian view.

5. “Both Pindar ( N. 1.61-62) and Aeschylus ( Sept. 609-11) pair mantis with prophētēs as if they were synonyms. Dillery (2005:171) argues that a prophētēs is more often connected with a particular cult site, a kind of “dependent” diviner.”

6. Robert R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980).

7. Ted A Campbell, “Charismatic Prophecy as Loyal Opposition in the Second-Century Church,” The Asbury Theological Journal, 56.1 (2001): 77-86.