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.