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Comptes rendus et notices bibliographiques

Divination and Prophecy in the Ancient Greek World

Bartosz Smogur
p. 247-249
Référence(s) :

Roger D. Woodard (dir.), Divination and Prophecy in the Ancient Greek World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2023, 1 vol. 23,5 × 15,8 cm, 350 p. ISBN : 9781009221610.

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1The idea for this volume stems from the symposium held in New York City in autumn 2016. The book consists of 11 chapters—the last one being an afterword of the editor—, a bibliography, and an index. The papers are preceded by the introduction of J.J. Peradotto. There are no internal divisions in the volume and the texts are presented in chronological order, ranging from Archaic and Classical to Roman period, focusing heavily on the former (8 out of 11 chapters). Literary sources form the basis of the discussion, with Herodotus present in every chapter. Unsurprisingly, Delphi reappears in many chapters. The authors seek to draw on new perspectives for approaching core problems of oracle and prophecy studies. The emphasis is put on emic and multi/interdisciplinary approaches. The main ideas discussed in this volume are referring to orality and intertextuality, the ambiguity of responses, the centrality of Delphi and the role of the Pythia, the cognition associated with divination and the relationship between client(s) and oracle(s).

2In the first chapter, “Greek Divination as the Transformation of an Indo-European Process,” R. Woodard examines the role of cognitive approach in Greek divination in a broad Indo-European perspective. Based on similarities between the Sanskrit śraddhā- and the Greek aisthánomai, he argues that the response given by an oracle involves an intellectual engagement with the divinatory signal, which reflects ancient Indo-European cult structures. — C. Calame in “On Divinatory Practices and la raison des signes in Classical Greece” contests the idea of a sharp distinction between inspired and artificial divination. Starting with the Prometheus Bound, the A. argues that divination should be viewed as a tékhnē, rather than a “supernatural science of unknown”. That implies the role of reason (noûs) in divination, as portrayed in the Iliad and in the work of Herodotus. Referring to Plato, he points out that divine utterances of a person in an altered state of mind always require the interpretation of a seer. He then concludes: “[…] the communication of divine knowledge to mortals demands complementarity and continuity between inspiration by divine force and the technical art of divination or of poetry.”

3Did oracles give only positive responses, in order to please their customers? If so, how did they manage to keep their credibility? How did the oracle know what kind of response the client was looking for? And why does oracular practice seem to differ in that sense from literary sources? R. Parker’s “Oracle and Client” addresses those questions, studying various cases from different periods and regions in Greece. Through a brief study of lot oracles, he concludes that some were giving negative answers, albeit not too often. The situation is more complicated in the case of oracular inscriptions from Dodona and Delphi. Positive responses were far more likely to be preserved. The A. does not find a plausible explanation on how oracles could find out what was the desired answer to the client’s question. Instead, he proposes to look at the structure of the questions as indicators of positive answers. — In chapter four, “Oracular Failure in Ancient Greek Culture”, E. Eidinow tries to understand how Greeks reacted to oracles, which brought unexpected, undesired, often deadly outcomes. First, she starts with a brief overlook of modern scholars’ approach to failed oracles. According to the A., the explanations generally given are not very enlightening. Therefore, she introduces the concept of cognitive dissonance to show how the Greeks managed to deal with the tension between failed oracular response and observable reality. According to her, the “believers” responded in a creative way (“spiritualization”, “reaffirmation”), often reinforcing their confidence in oracles.

4The oral tradition related to Delphi and the Pythia is the subject of G. Nagy “The Dynamism of Mouvance in the Pronouncements of the Delphic Oracle”. Here, the A. (re)introduces the concept of mouvance to better understand the living oral tradition around the Delphic responses, providing several examples. The most important conclusion is the relationship between theōrós, prophē´tēs and mántis. According to the A., prophē´tēs is only but the “spokesperson” of the Pythia, having no divine inspiration and direct control over the response of the oracle. In that sense, the Pythia (mántis) herself is a “spokeswoman” of Apollo. Theōrós, the observer, then conveys the message back to his polis. — The oracle of Apollo remains the focus of M. Giangiulio “Decentralizing Delphi: Predictive Oracles, Local Knowledge and Social Memory”. The centrality of the Delphic Oracle in modern historiography is widespread. The A. first briefly shows the position of Delphi in the historical tradition, and tries to re-examine it in context of predictive oracles in verse. On the basis of several Delphic oracles, he argues that they had to be composed in local narrative context, later attributed to Delphi rather than originating from the oracle of Apollo itself. In that way, oracle stories served as important narrative devices for local communities. Regarding the hexametric verses, the A. attributes them to local or wandering khrēsmológoi, who may have been involved in the creation of “local” oracles. By questioning the origin of some of the oracles, the A. does not want to deny the importance of the sanctuary in the network of Archaic Greece, and he argues that hexametric, poetic and prose responses were not mutually exclusive. — In chapter seven, “Oracular Tales Before Historiography”, N. Luraghi examines oracle stories in Herodotus in search of oral traditions in the narration. He agrees that oracle responses in verse reported by Herodotus do not represent the oracular practice. But, instead of disregarding them, he treats them as parts of a local, sophisticated oral tradition, supposed to predate Herodotus, and agrees with Giangiulio that both verse and prose oracle responses could function in the same tradition, albeit in different contexts. Verse responses mainly conveyed the stories in the narrative tradition.

5In “Omens and Portents Foretelling Victory and Defeat: Ontological, Literary and Cognitive Perspectives”, M.A. Flower notes that an unusual number of portents related to the Battle of Leuctra were recorded by Xenophon, Diodorus, Callisthenes (Cicero), Plutarch, and Pausanias. This dossier gives a unique perspective on how Greeks perceived omens and signs in times of crisis, both before and after the critical event. Adopting an emic perspective, the A. combines two theoretical approaches: the cognitive and the ontological. The former is based on the human disposition toward “hyperactive agency detection”. The latter is the idea that different cultures may perceive different realities, rather than having different interpretations of the same reality. — F.S. Naiden analyzes the role of king and seer in context of Macedonian divination. His title “The Use of Divination by Macedonian Kings” is a bit misleading since the chapter is almost entirely dedicated to Alexander III and his royal seers. The A. discusses four methods of divination (extispicy, teratology, oneiromancy, and oracles) and the roles that Alexander and his seers adopted in them. The differences between the divination rituals of the Spartan and Macedonian kings are also noted. Then the A. proceeds to Aristander of Telmessus and other seers, including Babylonian ones. He concludes the paper on a short passage about the ruler cults, the deification of Hellenistic kings and its implications for divination. — Lucian comments on the “holy men”, Peregrinus Proteus and Alexander of Abonoteichos are the main topic addressed by D. Fields in “False Prophets and Fake Prophecies in Lucian”. The A. studies how Lucian is depicting these imposters and notes that the satirist is placing oracle of Alexander in a broader context, showing Lucian’s critical views on the oracles of Claros, Didyma or Delphi, and even on divination itself. Lucian recognizes prophecy as one of the main tools for establishing authority in the mid-second century CE. The A. shows how, by attacking the religious power and the fame of these holy men, Lucian tries to place himself higher in the agonistic intellectual culture of the Roman Empire. She notes that divination still played a significant role, recognized as an important source of authority.

  • 1 With notable exception of Parker’s chapter 3.
  • 2 Footnote referring to the wrong chapter (n. 28, p. 136), mixing first and last name in bibliograp (...)

6This volume is a welcome addition to studies on ancient Greek divination, especially in focusing entirely on oracles, instead of trying to portray it in broader spectrum of Greek religion. One of the biggest advantages of the book is its solid stance on issues like relation between written sources and oracular practice, the role of Delphi and the Pythia, the ambiguity of responses or the perception of divination as a tékhnē. In this way, the volume serves as an important basis for further discussion on these topics. On the other hand, the authors1 rarely look at non-Delphic oracles or epigraphic material. For example, recent publications on the oracle of Dodona and its corpus of inscriptions would have been a welcome inclusion. Nevertheless, the volume presents a high level of scholarship which deserves proper attention. The articles are not assigned to a single topic, often overlapping with one another, and referring to other chapters in the volume. The Editor’s approach gives us a coherent, up-to-date outlook on core problems of ancient Greek divination, mainly in Archaic and Classical periods. The papers do not serve to introduce to the topic but to deepen our knowledge, therefore the target audience is scholars in the field of Greek Religion, not the general public. Some minor errors2 do not affect the lecture.

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1 With notable exception of Parker’s chapter 3.

2 Footnote referring to the wrong chapter (n. 28, p. 136), mixing first and last name in bibliography (“N. Krzysztof, W. Agnieszka”, p. 310).

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Bartosz Smogur, « Divination and Prophecy in the Ancient Greek World »Kernos, 36 | 2023, 247-249.

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Bartosz Smogur, « Divination and Prophecy in the Ancient Greek World »Kernos [En ligne], 36 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 février 2024, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Bartosz Smogur

University of Warsaw
Collège de France

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