BMCR 2020.07.17

Ancient divination and experience

, , Ancient divination and experience. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 296 p.. ISBN 9780198844549 $90.00.

Open access
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The book is collection of eleven papers, originally presented at a conference on divination in ancient cultures held in London, in July 2015, with the exception of the article by Quinton Deeley that was commissioned for this volume. The topics covered by this book span Babylonian augurs, to oracles in Greece, to prodigies and portents in Rome, to dreams and encounters with Greek gods, to the most ancient Chinese mantic practice. Nonetheless, the book does not aim to deal with every aspect of ancient divination; rather it seeks to revaluate “what ancient people thought they were doing through divination” (p.2). It is divided into three sections that do not follow a chronological order, but a thematic disposition: the first section focuses on “Expertise and Authority”, the second on “Signs and Control”, the third on “Divine Presence”, an arrangement that might be a little confusing, at first, for readers interested in specific forms of divination.

In the introduction, Lindsay Driediger-Murphy and Esther Eidinow explain that the book criticizes the excesses of what they call the ‘functionalist perspective’, i.e. the view that divination served socioeconomic interests and was just a tool of the elites. Although they do not deny that divination had these functions too, they attempt to look at ancient divination from a different perspective: that of the practitioner, or of the person inquiring at an oracle. Methodologically, the contributors to the book draw on new developments in Anthropology, Cognitive science, and classics, such as, for example, the issue of what was ‘religious belief’ in ancient cultures. Some of the new developments in Anthropology to which the authors refer may be rather new in the field of Classics, though they actually are established approaches in Anthropology or in Religious Studies.

The first section, entitled “Expertise and Authority” begins with Scott B. Noegel’s article on “Augur Anxieties in the Ancient Near East”, which focuses on divination in ancient Mesopotamian cultures and explores the insecurities involved in divination. Noegel argues that diviners did not doubt their practice: augurs suffered anxiety because of the scepticism of others, since they could be ridiculed, accused of ignorance and dishonesty, or tested by suspicious kings, but also because, according to their own theological principles, the gods determine all things so that any error must be a fault of the diviner. He shows how practitioners managed to negotiate anxiety by, for example, forming networks of diviners, and maintaining a strict control over literacy.

“Testing the Oracle? On the Experience of (Multiple) Oracular Consultations”, by Esther Eidinow, focuses on the practice of consulting different oracles in the Greek worlds (from Delphi and Dodona to local oracles) on the same matter. The most famous example of this practice is Kroisos’ testing of Greek oracles, narrated by Herodotus (1.46.3–47.1–3). Eidinow examines scholarly approaches to this phenomenon and discusses several examples found in literary and archaeological sources that show how this practice was not peculiar to foreigners interested in revealing the false claims of an oracle, as some modern interpreters think. Eidinow suggests (drawing on both Xenophon’s and Cicero’s views on divination) that this practice was a recognised approach for seeking truth by refining the questions several times.

The third paper, “Euxenippos at Oropos: Dreaming for Athens”, by Hugh Bowden, centres on Euxenippos, who was charged by Athens to seek divine advice at the Amphiareion at Oropos on issues following the division of the territory of Oropos not owned by the god between the ten tribes. The article draws on modern approaches to dreaming to better understand dreaming as a divination technique in ancient Greece and explains why the oracle of Amphiaraos, usually concerned with healing, was, on this specific occasion, an appropriate choice.

Jason P. Davies’ contribution (“Whose Dream Is It Anyway? Navigating the Significance of Dreams in the Ancient World”) deals with the issue of dreams interpreted as significant omens in Rome, focusing on the role played by Asklepios as healing god and by his sanctuaries, and Galen’s On Diagnosis from Dreams and the Hippocratic Regimen IV, that both use dreams for medical diagnosis. Not all dreams were thought to be significant omens: as Davies points out, by examining the accounts that Galen and Aelius Aristides give of their own dreams, it was necessary to apply some ‘plausibility filters’ to discern which dreams were messages from the gods. His conclusion is that the underpinning of all (Greek and Roman) divination is that the gods exist and that they interact with mortals.

In the second section (“Signs and Control”), Lisa Maurizio’s “A Reconsideration of the Pythia’s Use of Lots: Constraints and Chance in Delphic Divination” evaluates the issue of the use of sortition by Pythia. Maurizio re-examines literary and archaeological evidence, also drawing for comparison upon ethnological and anthropological evidence. An accurate close analysis of the sources leads her to conclude that sortition was not a regular feature of consultations at Delphi. She also shows how previous interpretations were based on assumptions about divination that are far from unquestionable.

Andrew Stiles’ “Making Sense of Chaos: Civil War, Dynasties, and Family Trees”, focuses on the arboreal prodigies as omina imperii in the early imperial age. His work analyses several cases of prodigies reported by Roman historians in relation to future principes, from the story of the laurel sprig at the Gallina Alba villa – reported, with significant differences, by Pliny, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio – to the Flavian tree portents found in Suetonius. The detailed analysis of the sources suggests that explaining such stories as propaganda produced by the elite to impress their subjects (a “top-down model”) may be oversimplistic.

Federico Santangelo, in “Prodigies in the Early Principate?”, addresses the issue of what was a prodigy in Rome, exploring the place of prodigies in public divination during the Republic age and early Principate. Was there a decline of prodigy recording and expiation at the end of the Republic, as a famous passage in Livy (43.13) acknowledges? Santangelo notes that Julius Obsequens, Cassius Dio, and even Livy report many prodigies. He argues, drawing on the support of several ancient sources, that prodigy reporting and expiation survived in the Principate, and that the Emperor was not the only subject or addressee of these signs.

“Unsuccessful Sacrifice in Roman State Divination” by Lindsay Driediger-Murphy, is perhaps one of the most interesting articles in the book. It deals with the question of what Romans thought they were doing through sacrifice. She focuses on litatio, a sort of assent to sacrifice given by the gods, which could be repeated in case of unfavourable omina. Many scholars think that the expression usque ad litationem meant that a sacrifice could be repeated ad libitum. However, as Driediger-Murphy underlines, the expression is found only once in the ancient sources, in relation to an exceptional event narrated by Livy (41.14-15). Hence, the relationship between humans and gods in Roman sacrifice appears to be full of uncertainties, anxieties, and even fears.

The final section, “Divine presence”, begins with Michael A. Flower’s “Divination and the ‘Real Presence’ of the Divine in Ancient Greece”. The author draws on studies of contemporary cults to propose that we should take ‘real presence’ of the divine in ancient Greece “seriously” (p. 204).[1] Flower examines the account by Isyllos of Epidauros with the healing god Asklepios, and the epiphany of Pan to the runner Pheidippides, sent by the Athenians to ask the help of the Spartans against the Persians in 490 BCE. He also draws on oracular inscriptions from the sanctuary of Dodona to explore the religious experience of the consultants. Finally, Flower looks at the Athenian defeat in Sicily in Thucydides, which he compares to the behaviour of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890. The issue at stake here is not the real existence of Greek gods, but how the belief in their existence produced real effects in ancient Greece.

The tenth article, “The Pythia at Delphi: A Cognitive Reconstruction of Oracular Possession”, by Quinton Deeley, was commissioned for this volume: his expertise, spanning from neuroscience to religious studies and classics is especially relevant since it helps to clarify and support some of the points made by other contributors.  Deeley’s attempt to reconstruct the Pythia’s experience draws on neuroscience findings, showing that religious experience is strongly influenced by beliefs, as well as by a group’s experiences, to the point that, for example, hearing “God’s” voice in an evangelical charismatic meeting is an ability that can be learned. This article, by stressing that both a sort of predisposition as well as cultural environment shaped certain religious experiences, such as possession, helps readers to evaluate ancient sources on the Pythia’s behaviour in a rather new way.

The final article, by Lisa Raphals, entitled “Which Gods if Any: Gods, Cosmologies, and Their Implications for Chinese and Greek Divination” focuses on the interpretation of cracked bones or shells as a mantic practice in the period of Shang (c.1600–1050 BCE) and Western Zhou dynasties (c.1046–771 BCE). Raphals outlines certain key differences and similarities between Chinese and Greek divination, such as, for instance, the different weight of the gods, whose role is preponderant in Greece, much less central in China.  In Chinese divination, as she points out, correct interpretation required the “human consensus factor” (p. 270), i.e. before formulating a question, a clear desire and intention on the part of the inquirer was needed. Hence, the primary purpose of divination in ancient China was not that of asking the gods to resolve a doubt or mediate social conflict, but social consensus and divine sanction coexisted seamlessly, an interpretation of great interest for the cross-cultural study of divination.

Overall, the volume is an example of solid and original scholarship; it is valuable, beyond the potential relevance of each contribution for its specific field of inquiry, because it offers a different perspective on several aspects of ancient divination. Readers may or may not agree with some of the conclusion of some of the contributors; nonetheless, the book helps to raise new questions and to consider different approaches to much debated issues.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy and Esther Eidinow 1
1. Scott B. Noegel, Augur Anxieties in the Ancient Near East 17
2. Esther Eidinow, Testing the Oracle? On the Experience of (Multiple) Oracular Consultations    44
3. Hugh Bowden, Euxenippos at Oropos: Dreaming for Athens 68
4. Jason P. Davies, Whose Dream Is It Anyway? Navigating the Significance of Dreams in the Ancient World 87

5. Lisa Maurizio, A Reconsideration of the Pythia’s Use of Lots: Constraints and Chance in Delphic Divination 111
6. Andrew Stiles, Making Sense of Chaos: Civil War, Dynasties, and Family Trees 134
7. Federico Santangelo, Prodigies in the Early Principate 154
8. Lindsay G. Driediger-Murphy, Unsuccessful Sacrifice in Roman State Divination 178
9. Michael A. Flower, Divination and the ‘Real Presence’ of the Divine in Ancient Greece 203
10. Quinton Deeley, The Pythia at Delphi: A Cognitive Reconstruction of Oracular Possession 226
11. Lisa Raphals, Which Gods if Any: Gods, Cosmologies, and Their Implications for Chinese and Greek Divination 253


[1] R. A. Orsi, 2010. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950, 3rd ed. New Haven.