The Seer in Ancient Greece

The Seer in Ancient Greece

Language: English

Pages: 328

ISBN: 0520252292

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

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.

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of how Melampus came to be a seer. But that does not mean that we should follow suit. On the one hand, stories about Melampus and other early seers obviously served to confirm and legitimate the claims to special status of those seers of archaic and classical times who identified themselves as their descendants, and it is natural enough to suspect that such stories were invented for just that purpose. It seems safe to say that myths, like oral traditions, reflect the concerns of those who tell them.

Tolmides and his seer of Plataean extraction; that is, Theaenetus named his son Tolmides after his employer, and this Plataean Tolmides named his son after his own father (see Herman [1989: 90–91], who leaves open the possibility that the Theaenetus mentioned by Thucydides is an Athenian and the son of the general Tolmides). It would be nice to know if all three were seers. 46 . W h o I s a S e e r ? for its seers,67 and was the homeland of that Aristander who so successfully served both

This was perhaps true of Greece as well. The Delphic priestess, at least by Plutarch’s time in the first century a.d., was a local peasant woman. Yet, as we shall see in chapter 8, it is possible that the Pythia was a well-educated, and perhaps upper-class, woman during the archaic and classical periods. OTHER QUALIFICATIONS FOR BECOMING A SEER As we have seen, belonging to a family of hereditary seers or being the son of a successful practitioner was extremely important in establishing one ’s

Xenophon’s own religious actions as described in the Anabasis (as noted by Price [1999: 86]). On the religious beliefs of Xenophon himself, see Dillery 1995: 179–94. T h e Rol e a n d I m age of t h e S e e r . 73 THE SOCIAL FUNCTION OF DIVINATION It is possible, however, to go beyond the definitions given by our sources to uncover the social function of divination. That is to say, the Greeks resorted to divination because they believed that the gods were willing to communicate with mortals;

brackets lines 746– 48 and 752–57; so too Dale 1967: 117–19. I agree with Wright (2005: 366–67) that the whole passage should stand. 140 . D i s b e l i e f a n d S k e p t i c i s m a b o u t S e e r s tlefields of ancient Greece: to wit, “I can only report what the gods are willing to make known.” The response—“Then why do we use divination at all?”—is not strictly logical, but it does have an emotional appeal. Seers, it might be thought, can tell us something useful, if not everything that

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