The Seer in Ancient Greece

The Seer in Ancient Greece

The Seer in Ancient Greece

The Seer in Ancient Greece

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

I conceived the idea of writing this book while engaged on another project, a commentary on book 9 of Herodotus’s Histories. Seers play a fairly prominent role in Herodotus’s account of the battles of Plataea and Mycale, and I soon discovered that there was no adequate treatment of the role, function, and representation of the seer in Greek society. Once the idea of a book on Greek seers struck me, I was immediately convinced of the importance of the topic and the need for a general study. It was also a topic that was, and is, particularly congenial to my own interests.

Ever since I began the study of classical antiquity as an undergraduate, I have been fascinated by oracles; and when I became a teacher of Greek history, I always had a great deal to say to my students about divination. Most of them found the Greek reliance on Delphi and on seers to be either bizarre or laughable, or both. I well remember an incident in a seminar that made a great impression on me at the time. A student of mine from India, who happened to be a practicing Hindu, said that he found nothing peculiar about accepting at face value the Delphic prophecies recounted by Herodotus; for it was simply the case that a god, whom the Greeks happened to call Apollo, was speaking through the priestess. The other students jeered terribly, and my attempts to defend the intellectual legitimacy of his point of view had little effect. What this incident impressed upon me was not the authenticity of Delphic prophecy, but rather the difficulty that many of us have in taking different systems of belief seriously on their own terms.

I think that in a book of this sort it is not out of place to reveal something of my . . .

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