Friday, July 27, 2012

PBP: Oracles, seers and divination in ancient Hellas

It had been a long journey. Hermes had kept him safe through most of it, so he was not mugged, nor killed. His feet hurt from his blisters as he walked the final steps into the temple. He had arrived four days ago and was housed in one of the guesthouses by the priests of Delphi. He was asked to wait with the other petitioners until the Oracle was ready to receive him. He was lucky; he had only had to wait four days. Others had been here for weeks. 

He had been relieved of his gifts and offerings to the Oracle as soon as he walked through the gates. Four long days had passed and now he entered the dark temple, lit only by a couple of torches lining the wall. He was led deeper into the complex by a silent priest and he wondered if it was the same one who had greeted him at the gate. His thoughts halted as he laid eyes on Pythia; the Oracle.

She was younger than he had expected, in her early thirties, perhaps, and seated on a three legged stool, flanked by two priests. She swayed slightly, inhaling the fumes of laurel and barley, which hung heavily in the air. He held back a cough and waited when the priest who had led him here motioned for him to do so. The priest walked on and ascended the few steps to reach the Oracle. He tried to keep his eyes off of the woman on the stool. She unnerved him. As he heard a light whisper, he did look up, in time to see the priest whisper his question in the Oracle's ear. Should his brother leave the farm to his eldest or youngest son, or perhaps split it? It was a question which was tearing his family apart and so he had come here to hear the will of the Theos Apollon. 

The priest stepped away and the Oracle sunk deeper into herself. The swaying became a shaking that rocked her body and he could barely hold back a gasp when she threw her head back and inhaled sharply. The two priests stepped closer to hold her lightly as she begun to mutter, the words too soft for him to hear. The words swelled rapidly and soon her words carried through the entire hall but he was barely able to register them, enthralled as he was by the Oracle. His guide begun to scribe down the words, sitting at the feet of the Oracle. He remained silent, unsure what to do with himself now the Gods were so close to him. Then the Oracle's head fell forward and his guide stood. He silently motioned for him to follow him out and he did, not chancing a look at the Oracle, who was being supported by the two priests as she left the room through a doorway he had not seen.

When he stepped outside, the sunlight was painful to his eyes. the sounds were too harsh on his senses. Something had shifted in him, the universe redone through the words of the God. The priest halted him and spoke a few words. His interpretation of the words of the Oracle. His brother should offer libations of wine to Apollon and look to the birds on the dawn of the second day after the new moon. The son who commented on them should inherit the farm. He thanked the priest and, after gathering his belongings, he took to the road with relief in his heart. His family would be saved by a sign from the Gods.

This is how archeologists think a petition at the Oracle of Delphi could have gone, combined with some dramatization on my part. The Oracles of Delphi are, by far, the best known oracles but there were many, many more. Some were stationary, holding office in their hometown. Amphiaraus in Oropus, for example. Others traveled the country, providing the voice of the Gods in family disputes, fights over land and cattle ownership, and any other number of disputed that they could help with. They often walked a very thin line, as  they often had to pick a side in disputes and the losing party often did not appreciate it.

Oracles given directly, like at Delphi, were rare and called chesmomancy. All other forms of divination practiced in ancient Hellas were performed by seers, not oracles. Seer staples were divination through the spotting of birds (ornithomancy and augury), dream interpretation (oneiromancy) and animal sacrifice (hieromancy, haruspicy, empyromancy and extispicy) but other forms of divination were definitely used, including cledonomancy (listening to words spoken by a crowd), oneiromancy (divination through the reading of birthmarks) and Phyllorhodomancy, the reading of the sound rose petals make when slapping them together with your hands. The biggest difference between oracles and seers was that oracles gave long answers which usually needed some for of interpretation while seers usually answered yes-or-no questions.

Divination of any kind was rarely turned to, to predict the future. To desire knowledge of the future was considered hubris. Instead, oracles and seers were petitioned to help answer questions about the present or to advice on a decision which had to be made in the very near future. 'Shall I go to war?', ' Shall I put my sheep out on the high pasture?'. Most often, oracular questions were posed in a way which made it easy for the God(dess)--and the seer--to answer; they did not ask 'Shall I go to war?', they asked 'Don't you think I ought to go to war?'. Most likely, the answer of seers (and perhaps even oracles) depended on the offertory; if it was large enough, the answer was 'yes', if the offertory was dissatisfactory, the answer would be 'no'.

Divination played a fairly large role in Hellenic every day life, but it played an even greater role in mythology. many of the epic stories, like those written by Hómēros, feature signs given by the Gods and interpreted by humans. The eagles, sent by Zeus, in the Odysseia, for example:

"So Telemachus spoke, and Far-Seeing Zeus sent out two eagles from a high mountain peak. They flew for a while with outspread wings, side by side in the currents of air, but when they were above the voice-filled assembly they swiftly slanted their wings, circling round, gazing down on the heads below, and death was in their gaze. Then they clawed at each other’s head and neck with their talons, and soared away eastward over the roofs of the town. The people saw them and wondered, and considered what this might foreshadow. Then the old hero Halitherses, Mastor’s son, spoke out, for he was the wisest man of his day in bird-lore and prophecy. With goodwill in his heart he addressed the assembly:

‘Men of Ithaca, listen to me: and I say these words to the Suitors especially, since disaster approaches them. Odysseus will not be far from his friends much longer, and I believe even now he is near, sowing the seeds of dark death for all these men. Yes, and he will bring trouble to many another of us, who live in clear-skied Ithaca. Let us think in advance how we might prevent all this, or let them prevent it of their own accord, easily their best option. I am not unskilled in prophecy, but have true knowledge. I say that all things for that man will be fulfilled, just as I told him when the Argives sailed for Troy, he among them, resourceful Odysseus. I declared that, suffering many troubles, losing all comrades, he would return in the twentieth year, unknown to all: and now it is coming to pass.’ "

Many divinatory practices remain today but most modern Hellenics divine differently than the Hellens of old. Tarot has become a staple in divination. I have my Olympus Tarot deck for readings. Yet, I also practice cledonomancy when I have access to a crowd and no access to my tarot cards, and I absolutely believe in the prophetic powers of dreams.

I wouldn't mind investing time in studying other types of ancient Hellenic divination in the future. I think there is a beauty in augury that should be preserved. I won't be slaughtering animals to read their liver any time soon, but I see the value of it, should an animal be sacreficed to the Theoi during a festival celebration. It would be a shame to let anything go to waste, especially the means to find solutions to your problems.

2 comments:

Memory Walker said...

I take an interest in bird sightings; mostly more uncommon birds, epecially hawks, although a flight of geese counts too. :) Maybe you could edge humanely into animal auguries by looking into... what is it, orthomancy?

Elani Temperance said...

Yeah, it definitely has my interest. Still, I think it;s a very complicated way of divining and I would need a lot of practice before being comfortable with it. Well, I have my whole life ahead of me, I guess ;)