Pub. Date:
University of California Press
The Seer in Ancient Greece / Edition 1

The Seer in Ancient Greece / Edition 1

by Michael FlowerMichael Flower


Current price is , Original price is $34.95. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.


The seer (mantis), an expert in the art of divination, operated in ancient Greek society through a combination of charismatic inspiration and diverse skills ranging from examining the livers of sacrificed animals to spirit possession. Unlike the palm readers and mediums who exist on the fringe of modern society, many seers were highly paid, well respected, educated members of the elite who played an essential role in the conduct of daily life, political decisions, and military campaigns. Armies, for example, never went anywhere without one. This engaging book, the only comprehensive study of this fascinating figure, enters into the socioreligious world of ancient Greece to explore what seers did, why they were so widely employed, and how their craft served as a viable and useful social practice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520259935
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/07/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 326
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michael Flower is Senior Research Scholar at Princeton University and editor, in collaboration with John Marincola, of Herodotus, Histories, Book IX, author of Theopompus of Chios: History and Rhetoric in the Fourth Century B.C., and editor, with Mark Toher, of Georgica: Greek Studies in Honour of George Cawkwell.

Read an Excerpt


By Michael Attyah Flower
University of California Press
Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-25229-5

Chapter One
Problems, Methods, and Sources

Surprising as it may seem, the oracle 's replies to questions are rarely vague.... But I suppose that it would be difficult for any scientific investigation either to prove or disprove conclusively the validity of his pronouncements.


One of the reasons for this neglect [by Assyriologists] is perhaps the extraordinary monotony of the treatises on divination that make up the principal pieces of the dossier. But I wonder whether the main reason is not that divination is considered, consciously or unconsciously, to be a simple superstition, trivial, outdated, and not really deserving of attention.

JEAN BOTTÉRO, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods


When most of us think of Greek divination, the first thing that comes to mind is the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, where the Pythia, possessed by the god, delivered oracles while seated on her tripod. Yet as famous as Delphi and the Pythia may be, due in part to the large role that Delphi plays both in Greek tragedy and in the historical narrative of Herodotus, neither Delphi nor any other oracular center, nor even all such centers collectively, could have constituted the major access to divination in Greek society. At Delphi, prophecies were given only on the seventh of each month, and not at all during the three winter months when Apollo was away. Thus very few Greeks were in a position to consult Delphi, and any consultations that did occur needed to be planned out well in advance. And even if one appeared on the right day and could afford all of the preliminary sacrifices, there was no guarantee that one would get a turn to put one 's question. This depended on the number of inquirers, some of whom may have enjoyed promanteia (the right of jumping the line). Yet, as we shall see, divination was a major system of knowledge and belief for the Greeks and was practiced in regard to every sort of important question.

So if the Greeks were not constantly making hasty trips to Delphi, how did they access divine knowledge? There were many less prominent oracular sites in Boeotia; but these would have been denied to Athenians during the long periods of war between them and the Boeotians. Greeks from the Peloponnese would also have found the trek to Delphi expensive and inconvenient. The most authoritative oracle in the Peloponnese was at Olympia, and this would have seen heavy use and long lines, especially at the time of the Olympic games. The oracle of Zeus at Dodona in Epirus was located in a remote part of Greece and, moreover, was far from the sea. In any case, the individual who faced an unexpected decision or the commander in the field who wanted to know whether it was a good day to fight needed a more immediate access to divine knowledge and guidance than oracular consultation could possibly provide. This immediate access was provided by the class of individuals known as seers.

The ancient Greek word for "seer" is mantis, and the plural is manteis. Rather than attempt to introduce a new word into English usage, I will use the translation "seer" throughout this book. Seers played a fundamental role in Greek culture. In fact, their presence was pervasive. We know the names of about seventy "historical" seers (as opposed to mythical/legendary ones), some of whom were individuals of considerable influence. Many more seers are left anonymous by our sources, even when their presence and contribution were crucial to the matters at hand. This anonymity contributes to the false modern sense that seers merely validated decisions that had already been made by their superiors and employers. Part of my task is to restore the seer to his, and her, appropriate place of prominence in archaic and classical Greek society.

This is intended to be an innovative book, but not in the sense of promoting some outlandish thesis or advancing arguments that are based on either a misuse or a partial use of evidence. Rather, this study has as its aim to stimulate further discussion and to place the person of the seer in its appropriate historical context. Seers were far more important in Greek society than the scattered evidence explicitly indicates. They are always lurking just beneath the surface of historical texts; they rear their heads only when they are involved in some extraordinary action. The most famous example is arguably Tisamenus of Elis, the seer who helped the Spartans to win their decisive victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479 B.C. It would have been easy enough for Herodotus to narrate the events of that campaign without ever mentioning the name of Tisamenus or the fact that Plataea was merely the first of five famous victories that he won. How many other seers who played prominent roles in the battles of ancient Greece, as well as in other areas of life, went unmentioned? They make their appearance in Herodotus and Xenophon when their actions seemed unusually noteworthy or when the author had a particular literary or rhetorical purpose in mind.

Various aspects of this subject have been dealt with in articles and monographs, but there has never been a book-length study of Greek seers in any language. Nor has there been a comprehensive and synthetic treatment of Greek divination as a whole since the nineteenth century. This book is about the role and function of seers in Greek society, the techniques of their art, and the system of belief within which they operated. Part of the purpose of this study is to recover as far as possible who seers were and what activities they engaged in. Another purpose, however, is to retrieve the image and representation of the seer. Just as important as what historical seers actually said and did is the way that society imagined the seer and the way in which seers represented themselves. Representation is not always, or even usually, identical with reality, but the relationship between representation and reality can tell us a great deal about a society's values and beliefs. Questions of belief are also important here because belief conditions perception and the perception of a seer's clients in turn necessarily conditioned his own conception of his role.

I am limiting myself principally to the period 800-300 B.C., for that is where most of the evidence lies. The treatment is synthetic, rather than diachronic. We simply do not have the evidence to write an account of Greek religion that posits a devolution of mantic authority from a time when mantic power and royal power were concentrated in the same person, the king, to later periods when the power of the king was divested into a number of less powerful functionaries.

In my attempt to recover what it meant to be a seer and how a seer might represent himself, the following questions will be especially important: How did seers fashion an image for themselves? What kind of image was important? What was the relationship between image making and actual success in one 's career? And given that the rituals of divination constituted a type of public performance, how did the seer go about scripting his own role? Our ancient sources do not address these types of questions directly, and so the answers must be inferred through a close reading of texts. Recent work on the anthropology of divination can provide both a theoretical framework and clues for how to read our sources.

One of the most difficult mental exercises that the study of history requires is to think beyond established questions and even beyond the categories of experience and structures of thought that give rise to such questions. Some of the established questions concerning Greek divination are these: Did the Pythia really compose her own verse oracles, and, whatever forms her pronouncements took, were her consultants guided by them in any significant way? Did generals and statesmen really let their strategy and movements be dictated by omens? Did seers influence decision making, or were they merely pawns in the hands of their employers?

The answers to such questions often reveal more about the cultural assumptions of modern historians than about those of the Greeks. And so it is common to be told that the priests at Delphi, who knew the questions in advance, put into verse the inarticulate ramblings of the Pythia; that generals cynically (or at least consciously) manipulated the omens to suit their strategic needs or to boost the morale of their troops; and that seers told their employers precisely what they thought they wanted to hear. Since divination is a marginal practice in industrialized Western societies, such questions and answers are formed from the viewpoint that divination must have been an encumbrance to the Greeks, something that rational individuals either had to maneuver around or else had to manipulate for their own interests. Above all, to modern sensibilities, a random and irrational system of divination must not be seen as determining what the elite of the Greek world thought and did. In fact, it has been argued that the elite manipulated divination for their own ends, whether to exploit or to assist the uneducated masses. It is easy enough to validate this prejudice by appealing to the more "rational" segment in Greek society; for instance, by quoting isolated expressions of skepticism, such as the famous line attributed to Euripides that "the best seer is the one who guesses well."

Our own biases can be hard to overcome. As the anthropologist Philip Peek has observed, "the European tradition tends to characterize the diviner as a charismatic charlatan coercing others through clever manipulation of esoteric knowledge granted inappropriate worth by a credulous and anxiety-ridden people." In reference to divination in sub-Saharan Africa he concludes: "Instead, we have found diviners to be men and women of exceptional wisdom and high personal character." 11 I am convinced that if we could go back in time and conduct the sort of fieldwork that a contemporary anthropologist is able to engage in, we undoubtedly would find that Peek's observation would hold true for the Greek seer as well.

The focus of this book is on how divination functioned as a respected access to knowledge both for individuals and for communities in the Greek world, and, in particular, on the role of the seers in making divination a viable and useful social practice. The practitioners, the seers, were not marginal characters on the fringe of Greek society. They were not like the mediums and palm readers in modern Western cities who generally inhabit the fringe both spatially and intellectually, and who ply their trade in the seedy sectors of the urban landscape. Rather, a significant proportion of them were educated members of the elite, who were highly paid and well respected. There were, to be sure, practitioners of a lower order; but the seers who attended generals and statesmen were often the wealthy scions of famous families. They were at the center of Greek society.

One question that I cannot address has to do with the objective truth of divination. Yet the questions "Can divination function effectively?" and "Can it accurately predict the future?" are actually quite distinct. A system of divination within a particular system of belief can work very well for its constituency, for divination is "a system of knowledge in action," which is a different, but not necessarily less valid, way of knowing than that of Western science. So divination can be a useful source of knowledge and a highly effective means of decision making without it also being, in Western scientific terms, an objectively valid system for discovering what is true about the world. In Western intellectual discourse truth is conceived of in terms of knowledge that can be verified by observation. At all cost we must avoid the temptation to call divination "illogical" or "non-rational" simply because it does not adhere to Western positivist scientific principles. The renowned anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard himself shows how easy it is to adapt to other modes of decision making. As he confesses in his seminal study Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande: "I always kept a supply of poison for the use of my household and neighbours and we regulated our affairs in accordance with the oracles' decisions. I may remark that I found this as satisfactory a way of running my home and affairs as any other I know of."

There may or may not be supernatural forces that inform the art of the seer; clairvoyance as a psychological attribute may or may not be a characteristic of some individuals. Unfortunately, the truth or falsity of such phenomena cannot be proven. The modern scholar can only reconstruct the claims that seers made for themselves, and what their contemporaries believed about those claims. The famous classical scholar E. R. Dodds, who was in the habit of attending séances, wrote in his autobiography that he could not tell if the mediums were pretending to be in a state of trance or really were. Even experts can be easily deceived. In 1932 the 13th Dalai Lama ordered the various oracles in Tibet to undergo a personal test, and a commission was formed for that purpose. One old woman went into a trance, answered all of the questions she was asked, and fooled the commission completely. She then confessed: "You see, this is how I make my living. I wasn't in trance, I was making it up." Yet the existence of fake oracles in no way lessened the Tibetan belief in the existence of true ones. In connection with his consultation of the Nechung oracle, the 14th Dalai Lama writes in his autobiography: "Surprising as it may seem, the oracle 's replies to questions are rarely vague. As in the case of my escape from Lhasa, he is often very specific. But I suppose that it would be difficult for any scientific investigation either to prove or disprove conclusively the validity of his pronouncements. The same would surely be true of other areas of Tibetan experience, for example the matter of tulkus [reincarnate lamas]."

In 1871 the British ethnographer Henry Callaway asserted in a lecture before the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland that "there is a power of clairvoyance, naturally belonging to the human mind, or, in the words of a native [Zulu] speaking on this subject, 'there is something which is divination within man.'" Some ancient Greek philosophers, particularly the Peripatetics and Stoics, believed that there was a prophetic element within the human soul that could be stimulated to foresee the future. Such speculations, however, seem to postdate the fifth century B.C. During the archaic and classical periods most Greeks believed that the gods would speak directly through the mouth of a priest or priestess, or else that a religious specialist, who was able to detect and interpret the signs that the gods sent, could ascertain their intentions. Some of those specialists, primarily in myth, were given the gift of second sight, which in some way and to some degree they passed on to their descendants; but no classical author (apart from Plato, who claims that the liver is the seat of divination) speaks of a prophetic element being present within the soul of every mortal.

Leaving aside the question of its objective validity, can one really know what the majority of Greeks thought about divination? One must say "the majority" because there are always individuals who have views that run counter to popular sentiment. The sixth-century B.C. philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon repudiated divination altogether (Cic. Div.1.3.5), but he generally held radical beliefs about the gods. When one looks at the whole range of sources, both in verse and in prose, the picture that emerges is pretty clear. The vast majority of Greeks believed that the gods desired to communicate with mortals, that they did so through signs of various kinds, and that there were religious experts who could correctly interpret those signs. Divination was a primary means of bridging the gap between the known and unknown, the visible and the invisible, the past and the future, and the human and the divine. There were, to be sure, rival means, but none of them ever replaced or eclipsed the central role of divination. Divination was so vitally important to the Greeks that it was included, second only to medicine, among the technai (arts, skills, or crafts) that Prometheus gave to humankind. And thus Prometheus boasts in Aeschylus's play Prometheus Bound (484-99): "I set in order the many ways of the mantic craft." So too in Euripides' Suppliants (195-213), Theseus lists the capacity of seers to explicate the unknown as among the means that the gods gave to mortals for sustaining life.


Excerpted from THE SEER IN ANCIENT GREECE by Michael Attyah Flower Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations

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
9. Conclusion

General Index
Index Locorum

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A very important book."—Classical Outlook

Customer Reviews