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The Seer in Ancient Greece

The Seer in Ancient Greece

Michael Attyah Flower
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp4k4
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  • Book Info
    The Seer in Ancient Greece
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93400-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. PREFACE
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  7. ONE Problems, Methods, and Sources
    (pp. 1-21)

    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...

  8. TWO Who Is a Seer?
    (pp. 22-71)

    A seer (mantis) was a professional diviner, an expert in the art of divination. There is no exact modern equivalent, since he or she combined the role of confidant and personal adviser with that of psychic, fortune-teller, and homeopathic healer. Yet this comparison is rather misleading, for seers, as we shall see, did not presume to “tell the future,” nor did they claim to possess a “paranormal” power that was independent of a god’s inspiration or dispensation. Since Greek religious terminology is inexact, the person called amantisdealt with a broad range of religious activities—anything that a freelance...

  9. THREE The Role and Image of the Seer
    (pp. 72-103)

    In general terms divination may be defined as “the attempt to elicit from some higher power or supernatural being the answers to questions beyond the range of ordinary human understanding.”¹ In other words, divination is a means of bridging the gap between gods and humans in such a way that humans may profit from the knowledge thus acquired. What one scholar of ancient Near Eastern religion has said of Neo-Assyrian prophecy holds true for Greece as well: “The legitimation of all divination was based on the idea that gods indeed communicate with humans and that the decisions of the heavenly...

  10. FOUR Divination as a System of Knowledge and Belief
    (pp. 104-131)

    It would be easy enough for the modern student of antiquity, to the extent that divination is not part of his or her worldview, to be skeptical about its role in Greek society. On the one hand, one might imagine that practitioner and client, as allegedly in so many other areas of ritual activity, simply went through the motions of conducting divinatory rites, and especially so on the field of battle. Such rites, as when crossing borders, leaving camp, or beginning battle, could be exploited from time to time by general or seer to suit the strategic or personal interests...

  11. FIVE Disbelief and Skepticism about Seers: Is the Best Seer the One Who Guesses Well?
    (pp. 132-152)

    The Greeks indeed had an answer to Stephen Crane’s implied criticism that seers are unable to make reliable predictions in matters that affect themselves. Xenophon’s Socrates gives expression to what appears to be a commonplace belief when he observes (Symp. 4.5): “Even seers are said, of course, to predict what is about to happen to others, but not to foresee the thing that is going to befall themselves.”

    That formulation, however, expresses only part of the reservation that many Greeks must have felt about their society’s dependence on seers. Even someone who sincerely believes in the validity of divination may...

  12. SIX A Dangerous Profession: The Seer in Warfare
    (pp. 153-187)

    The most important role of the seer in Greek society was arguably on the field of battle.¹ Until quite recently, most scholars viewed seers as the willing agents of their generals and as consciously manipulating the sacrifices in order to confirm what the generals had decided to do.² Thus they were seen as tools in the building of morale and not as important players in their own right. This rationalizing view has begun to give way to more nuanced explanations and models. It is now common to read of the symbiotic relationship between general and seer.³ There must have been...

  13. SEVEN The Art of the Consultation
    (pp. 188-210)

    The seer Eucleides obviously felt comfortable enough with his client to deliver a pretty blunt judgment. How did seers and clients usually interact? Were there established modes of conduct and etiquette? To what degree did a successful divinatory session depend on having a thorough knowledge of one’s client’s particular problems and the social context of those problems? Let me begin with a brief summary of how I think that a seer performed the ritual of sacrificial divination, and then I will attempt to answer these questions.

    The seer, in a white tunic and wearing a garland, would place one or...

  14. EIGHT Not Just a Man’s Profession: The Female Seer
    (pp. 211-239)

    Actually, William Shakespeare had a sister who lived to be rather old—seventyseven, in fact. Teiresias, on the other hand, had two daughters, and we even know their names—they were Manto and Daphne. Neither they nor their father is likely to have been a “real” person, but that does not really matter. In the Greek imagination they were the first in a long line of female seers who were mortal, unlike Themis or Phoebe, the first prophetesses at Delphi, who were goddesses.¹ Daphne, according to one late tradition, was actually a prophetess at Delphi, and she was so accomplished...

  15. NINE Conclusion
    (pp. 240-248)

    In a society in which public displays of expertise and knowledge were ubiquitous, the performance of the seer in the context of the rituals of divination was in at least one respect unique. Doctor, sophist, orator, and general all gave performances before audiences of various kinds and sizes, but the knowledge that they claimed to impart was their own. The poet, to be sure, could claim knowledge through divine inspiration that came from the Muses, the daughters of Zeus and of Memory. Nonetheless, it was the seer who acted as the critical bridge between the limited and partial knowledge of...

  16. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 249-274)
  17. General Index
    (pp. 275-294)
  18. INDEX LOCORUM
    (pp. 295-305)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 306-306)