On anachronistic puffery

Some new reading is surprisingly supportive of the points I made the other day in my post titled A Core of Belief.

The following excerpts on the subject of modern perceptions of ancient Greek divinatory practices come from Michael A. Flower’s The Seer in Ancient Greece (UC Press, 2008) [Buy one now: they’re having an awsome sale!]:

I well remember an incident in a seminar that made a great impression on me at the time. A student of mind 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 vew 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 own biases right at the beginning. The reader will not find any declaration as to the validity of divination. That is not to say that I believe in the power of the Pythia to predict the future or in the ability of seers to determine the divine will by examining the entrails of sacrificial animals. But it is to say that I am convinced that the vast majority of Greeks really believed in such things. THey took their own religion seriously, and as a system of knowledge and belief it worked very well for them. It is methodologically inappropriate when modern scholars project their own views about religion on the Greeks and sometimes even claim that the seers as a group were conscious charlatans who duped the superstitious masses. Such assertions fly in the face of work on divination by anthropologists, work that reveals a good deal about the mentality of diviner and client as well as about the social usefulness of divination. (From the Preface, p. xiii-xiv.)

[I]t 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.” 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. (Pages 4-5.)

The book is fascinating. I recommend it to all. It’s the first book-length treatment of the subject.


  1. Reminiscent of the brilliant but deeply cynical scene in Frank Miller’s 300 where the Ephors use their oracle to block the Spartans from attacking the Persians at the opportune time. At the very end of the scene, it is revealed that they’re in the pay of Xerxes:

    “In Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 and its film adaptation, the Ephors are depicted as an apparently unelected priestly group of corrupt, diseased (leprous), inbred men who secretly betray Sparta to the Persian king Xerxes by counseling Leonidas against going to war, masking their betrayal as showing honor for the Carneian festival. Curiously, they are depicted as being keepers of an oracle that appears to at least have been inspired by the Delphic Oracle – the oracle is a young and beautiful Spartan girl who is frequently molested by her lecherous custodians.”


    You need to ‘read’ (or whatever the right verb is for the perusal of a graphic novel) the actual scene to appreciate it, though. It’s available here, although I suspect that this is an unlawful posting.

  2. Yes, I’m sure whichever sources Miller used are some of those that Flower has in mind.

    I saw the movie version, and that was absolutely fantastic. It got it all right: Xerxes the larger than life sybaritic demigod, his luxuriating court, the weirdness and mystery of the East, the beautiful/good Greeks and the ugly/bad Greeks. Perfect!

    The scene in the movie much more cynical, as it depicted the oracle girl speaking something which the priest then “relayed” as the line involved. In the book, the oracle says it directly. That’s an odd difference, as the rest of the scene is much more directly cynical in the book than in the movie. Interesting.

    Me? I think the oracles were genuine. Had it been a cynical exercise in power, there’s no reason any of the oracles would ever have gone silent. They’d still be thriving today, if all they did was toady to the client or just fake it. Genuine oracular activity on the other hand, is susceptible to various explanations as well. Plutarch, priest at Delphi, relates discussions as to whether it were actually the god Apollo or a daimon that indwelt the Pythia. By his day, the latter was considered to be the case, as Apollo’s presence would’ve destroyed the girl (so it was thought). Jews and Christians no doubt then considered (and do consider in some cases) the oracles to have been powered by fallen angels. Compare Acts 16, in which Paul casts a “spirit of divination” from a slavegirl, much to her owners’ distress. The spirit’s acclamation of Paul as a servant of God mirrors that attributed to spirits in the Gospels which acclaimed Jesus as the son of God.

    Anyhow, it’s interesting stuff! Those ancient oracles were fascinating.

  3. By the way, regarding the sale — while you might like Frodo Franchise, I think the most “need-to-have-it” book on sale is Feldman’s masterpiece, Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible.

    (Actually, there is a ton of great stuff for sale. Inspired by your post, I just placed a second order. My sagging bookshelves curse you.)

  4. Doug, my own bookshelves curse me too loudly to hear yours. I am trying to resist the temptation.

    Flowers mentions the State Oracle of Tibet as a very close parallel to the Greek ones, especially to Delphi. He brings up other parallels from Africa, on other forms of divination. Oracles were/are rarer than the other kinds of divination, but it seems that they were all still considered part of the same category to most Greeks. It’s a fascinating book, particularly for its thoughtfulness.

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