Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Officials from Homer to Heliodorus

  Dignas, Beate, and Kai Trampedach, eds. 2008. Practitioners of the Divine: Greek Priests and Religious Figures from Homer to Heliodorus. Hellenic Studies Series 30. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

10. Authority Disputed: The Seer in Homeric Epic*

Kai Trampedach

1. Calchas at Troy (Iliad I 53–117)

In the Achaean camp before Troy, plague has broken out. After ten days, Achilles summons the men to a meeting and proposes that a seer or a priest or an interpreter of dreams be consulted to find out whether Apollo is angry because of a broken vow or an imperfect hecatomb, and if he can be appeased with a pure sacrifice.

Before Calchas addresses the question of the cause of the plague, however, he requests a promise of protection from Achilles, because he fears that some day he may fall victim to the vengeance of someone powerful. After Achilles has promised him protection, Calchas says what the audience already knows: the wrath of Apollo, manifested in the plague, was provoked by the contempt shown towards Apollo’s priest at Chryse, whose daughter was abducted by Agamemnon, who refused to surrender her even when he was offered a generous ransom. The conciliation of the god requires the unconditional return of the maiden to her father, and a hecatomb in the sanctuary of Chryse. The reaction of Agamemnon fulfills expectations, and is directed first against Calchas:

Prophet of evil, never yet have you given me a favorable prophecy; always it is dear to your heart to prophesy evil, and no word of good have you ever yet spoken or brought to fulfillment. (I 106–108)

In spite of this insult, Agamemnon agrees and declares himself willing to return the maiden in the interests of the army, though not without justifying himself in a rather offensive manner, and then demanding a suitable compensation for the loss of his honor gift, which provokes the wrath of Achilles. The doom of the Iliad takes its course.

Achilles seeks out a specialist, because he suspects that a ritual mistake—an unfulfilled vow or an impure sacrificial victim—is the cause of the plague, and he wishes to find appropriate means of expiation. This initiative assumes that a knowledge of ritual falls within the competence of the seer. The leading seer among the Achaeans feels himself thus addressed. His answer then indicates, as might be expected, a “holy hecatomb” as a ritual means of appeasing the god, though this certainly does not exhaust the options. Calchas has in fact revealed that the cause of Apollo’s anger lay not in the sphere of ritual, but rather in Agamemnon’s breach of a social norm, in that he had insulted a priest, who is under the protection of a powerful god. Any other noble could have given the same diagnosis. The practical solution that Calchas recommends—the return of the daughter and a sacrifice to Apollo in the sanctuary of the offended priest—is only too self-evident.

Achilles conceivably already knew the real cause of the problem. The following considerations speak in favor of this view: by rejecting the priest’s offer, Agamemnon finds himself in opposition to “all the rest of the Achaeans,” who wanted “to respect the priest and accept the glorious ransom” (I 22–23). Immediately afterwards, the plague began, from which first the pack animals, then the dogs, and then the Achaeans themselves, died. Death stretched over nine long days, while Agamemnon as the affected king and also as supreme commander, sat it out in idleness together with the other kings. Eventually, Achilles reacted by summoning the meeting. Naturally, he traced the plague to the wrath of Apollo. That the anger of the Archer God “who strikes from afar” had to do with the treatment of his priest by Agamemnon must then really be conceded as a possibility. Why did Achilles avoid drawing the logical conclusion himself? He sought to avoid a direct confrontation with Agamemnon by summoning a neutral specialist, and thus opened up a means for Agamemnon to make good his fault without too much loss of face. [3] Had Achilles himself exposed the situation, Agamemnon, with his consciousness of honor and power, would have felt himself immediately challenged. Calchas, however, as an aristocrat of lower rank in the role of seer had a better chance, to Achilles’ mind, of moving the king to cooperate. Achilles’ question is then directed to Calchas. There were no priests in the Achaean camp, as priests were always bound to particular sanctuaries. The subsequently introduced interpretation of a dream, like the interpretation of bird flights, fell within the competence of the seer. In the Iliad, however, the only seer who is mentioned among the Achaean ranks is Calchas. It would thus appear that Achilles has planned the entry of Calchas. [4] The strategy was almost successful: Agamemnon agreed, albeit reluctantly, with the advice of the seer. But Achilles had not reckoned with Agamemnon’s demand for compensation, which then made a personal confrontation unavoidable.

2. Calchas at Aulis (Iliad II 299–353)

In the assembly, Odysseus seeks to persuade the war-weary Achaeans to continue the war by appealing to something which Calchas said as the ships were gathering at Aulis before sailing for Ilium, when the army received a “great portent” at their sacrifice: a snake slithered out from beneath the altar and up a plane tree, devoured eight sparrow chicks as well as their mother, and subsequently turned to stone. Calchas saw this event as a sign from Zeus, and explained that the Achaeans would conduct the war for nine years before Ilium, but in the tenth year they would conquer the city. Following Odysseus, Nestor spoke in the same vein. He, too, appealed to a sign which occurred at their departure, when Zeus struck lightning on the right.

Particularly significant is the moment in which the sign occurs: at the mustering of the troops in Aulis, during the sacrifice (that is, the communication with the gods), before the departure for Troy. This coincidence guarantees that this is an authentic sign from the gods. Its relationship to the common undertaking which the Achaeans have immediately before them is also clear. The snake (“blood-red on its back, terrible”), which slithers from under the altar and snatches the sparrows from the branch, disturbs the sacrifice and logically represents something hostile. [16] That it cannot enjoy its plunder or permanently interrupt the sacrifice but that it subsequently turns to stone speak for the eventual success of those performing the sacrifice. The fact that the number of devoured sparrows represents years rather than months is also scarcely surprising: the eventual success will be won at a high price, and will cost many victims. The mother of the sparrows evidently represents the current, ninth year, which proves to be the most difficult for the Achaeans. This interpretation points almost automatically towards Zeus as the giver of the sign, as only he, and not, for example, Artemis as goddess of the sanctuary at Aulis, can decide the outcome of the war and reveal it so far in advance. [17] The sign is a simile which requires analysis. The interpretation follows no definite rule, but requires an ability to combine the figurative content of the sign with the actual situation, and in this way achieves the spontaneous conviction of the assembly. Calchas’ interpretation is then based neither on a technical knowledge nor on immediate divine inspiration.

3. Helenus (Iliad VI 73–102; VII 44–53)

Helenus, son of Priam and “by far the best interpreter of bird flight” among the Trojans, calls on Hector and Aeneas to halt the fleeing Trojans and bring them back to fight. Hector should then return to the city and order his mother to bring Athena a splendid sacrifice and pray the goddess to hold the advancing Diomedes back from Ilium’s walls (VI 73–102). Athena and Apollo arrange a duel between Hector and an Achaean in order to end the hostilities for the day. Helenus hears the message and tells Hector to offer the Achaeans a duel (VII 44–53).

Athena does not accept the sacrifice and prayers of Hecabe (VI 311). As this situation shows, rituals cannot oblige the gods to act in a particular way or ensure their favor. Helenus’ attempt to reconcile the goddess thus fails, even though he had identified Athena, as the cause of Diomedes’ aggression, as the proper recipient of the sacrifice.

4. Polydamas (Iliad XII 195–258)

While the Trojans consider how they can cross the trench and storm the wall around the Achaean ships, a bird sign appears: an eagle, which flies to the left, carries a large, blood-red snake in its talons, which viciously defends itself and wounds the eagle in the neck; it drops the snake among the Trojans and flies away with a scream. Polydamas, who interprets the sign in a negative sense and so calls on the Trojans to cancel their planned attack, experiences Hector’s disdain. The latter appeals to his direct communication with Zeus and admits that he tends to ignore bird signs on principle. He accuses Polydamas of cowardice and compels him to remain silent if he values his life. Hector and the Trojans take the battle further, and Zeus supports them by raising a whirlwind against the Achaeans, blinding them with dust.

5. Halitherses (Odyssey ii 1–259)

Telemachus complains about the erosion of his property by the suitors of his mother, Penelope, before an assembly of the people in Ithaca which he himself has summoned. In the name of the suitors, Antinous denies Telemachus’ charge: he emphasizes that Penelope’s behavior towards the suitors is contrary to custom, and challenges Telemachus to force his mother to marry again. Telemachus in turn rejects this suggestion and reminds them of the respect which should be shown to his mother; he requests again that the liberties taken in his house should stop, and he prays that Zeus may vindicate him. A bird sign appears: two eagles fly close together with extended wings from the heights of the mountains. As they fly over the middle of the assembly, “they wheeled about, flapping their wings rapidly, and down on the heads of all they looked, and death was in their glance. Then they tore with their talons their own cheeks [or one another’s cheeks] and necks on either side, and darted away to the right across the houses and the city of those who stood there” (151–154). The old seer Halitherses interprets the omen as a warning to the suitors and the entire town, because he sees Odysseus as an angel of vengeance ante portas. The suitor Eurymachus answers him with harsh words: he deprives the interpretation of verity, asserts that Halitherses’ interpretation is rather motivated by his own interests, and threatens him with heavy sanctions if Halitherses continues to encourage the young Telemachus against the suitors.

Once again, the sign is constructed according to the pattern of a figurative analogy. The relationship is clear: the behavior of the eagles—their appearance from the mountains, their wings flapping over the agora, and their departure over the houses of the town—is a commentary on what is happening in the assembly. The estimation of this episode is also clear, although here, the poet does not draw attention to the left-right polarization: the eagles are recognized by everybody as a bad omen. Verse 153, however, is problematic. [38] Its wider meaning is dependant on the question whether the participle drupsamenō here should be understood as reciprocal or reflexive. Do the eagles fight against each other, in which case they prophesy the civil war? Or do they represent Odysseus and Telemachus, who then do not wound one another, but rather themselves, as an act of mourning? The interpretation of Halitherses offers here no direct key, as it avoids an explanation of the analogy between the sign and the situation. The seer instead gives only a summary interpretation, in which he identifies Odysseus and the suitors as the opposing parties, without revealing the source of his understanding. It may be that Halitherses does not dare to speak openly because of the overwhelming strength of the suitors. If, as appears from the bird flight, the suitors and the entire community of the Ithacaeans are the addressees of the evil omen, then we may take the two eagles as symbolic representatives of the means of ruin. Odysseus would then be one of the eagles, while the other remains undistinguished. Halitherses behaves as if only one eagle appears, because he considers it inappropriate to bring Telemachus into the open as a protagonist. [39]

Eurymachus threatens to take the seer’s children and impose a painful penance on him. He expresses skepticism towards bird signs and their interpreters. “Many birds there are that pass to and fro under the rays of the sun, but not all are fateful.” [43] Birds can have significance, but the ability and the authority to stipulate the criterion for their significance is in effect denied to Halitherses and his colleagues. This skepticism naturally characterizes the overweening pride of the suitors on the narrative level. At the same time, it is significant that such skepticism can be expressed in a public assembly, as we have already seen. Eurymachus does not seek the real explanation for Halitherses’ interpretation in the domain of divination: he questions Halitherses’ impartiality and incorruptibility, and he claims that the seer hopes to win a gift for his prophecy. [44] Of course, Halitherses was not entirely impartial: at xvii 69 he is listed among the patrōioi hetairoi of Telemachus. The speech of Eurymachus shows once again that in the Homeric world, a recognized seer, even when he is old, is assured neither immunity nor uncontested authority. When conflicts arise, signs, interpreters, and interpretations may reflect communal interests, but this is not sufficient to reestablish a consensus, as the stasis on Ithaca illustrates. Karen Piepenbrink in particular has observed the precarious function of divination in the social communication of Homeric society:

6. Theoclymenus (Odyssey xv 222–286, 508–546)

As Telemachus offers sacrifice in Pylus before his return to Ithaca, Theoclymenus, a seer from the family of Melampus, comes to him seeking asylum (he had killed a man in Argos); the seer asks to be taken along, and Telemachus agrees (xv 222–286). After their arrival in Ithaca, Theoclymenus asks Telemachus where he should go. The latter recommends the house of Eurymachus, “for he is by far the best man, and is the most eager to marry my mother and to have the honor of Odysseus.” Telemachus concludes with the words: “Nevertheless, Olympian Zeus, who dwells in the sky, knows whether before the wedding he will bring upon them the day of reckoning.” There appears a bird sign: a hawk, “the swift messenger of Apollo,” flies from the right with a dove in its talons and devours it, scattering feathers over the earth between the ship and Telemachus himself. Theoclymenus interprets this allegorically, rejecting the apparent ambitions of Eurymachus: “No other descent than yours in Ithaca is more kingly; you are supreme forever.” Telemachus is pleased to hear this message, promises him many gifts in the event of success, and entrusts him to his companion Piraeus (xv 508–546).

In contrast to the poet’s audience, Theoclymenus is not in a position to give a “complete” interpretation of the sign, because he does not know the situation in Ithaca; moreover, as a suppliant, he should display a certain reserve. He goes only so far as to identify the hawk with Telemachus’ concerns because of the direction of flight. The superiority of the hawk then suggests the enduring primacy of Telemachus’ family. Who precisely is denoted by the dove and by the hawk, and which confrontation is symbolized in the sky, Theoclymenus leaves open, in spite of the previous information which he has from Telemachus.

7. Conclusions: The Seer in Homer—and Beyond

The Homeric seer represents a social type which is particularly characteristic of Greek culture. By this I mean first, that from the sixth century the historical figure of the Greek seer stands in a direct relationship of continuity with the situation described by Homer; second, that there are fundamental differences between the Greek seer and mantic specialists in other ancient cultures. By way of illustrating and substantiating these claims, I would like to make some general observations.

There is a contrast between, on the one hand, the authoritative statements by the poet about the seers and, on the other hand, the way in which the practice of the seers is described within the story. For example, although, as we have seen, the poet introduces the seer Calchas as a man who has knowledge of the past, the present, and the future, and who has received his mantic ability and extraordinary insight directly from Apollo, nonetheless, like other seers, he is not treated with respect by the powerful in every situation. While the seers’ advice and foresight can be seen to have been justified throughout the narrative level, in practice their advice cannot always be implemented and it is often received with a pervasive skepticism. How can this contrast be explained? I do not think we need to resort to the kind of theory which would argue that at some time before Homer, seers were generally accepted as masters of truth but that they had subsequently lost their credibility. [51] Rather, I believe that the poet invests seers with authority because they fulfill an important literary function. The epic seers, whose prophecies always prove to be right, represent the poet within the narrative. Their knowledge, which transcends ordinary temporal perception, characterizes the narrator and the seer in exactly the same way. Yet if one wishes to analyze the social standing and authority that the seer enjoys within Homeric society, it would be more useful to examine the seer in action. This is why I have concentrated on the most important and prominent performances of the seers in the Iliad and the Odyssey here.

In the first book of the Iliad, Calchas prevails with his proposals concerning the plague because the good sense of his judgment is perfectly obvious to everybody. Nonetheless, he needs the backing of Achilles, a powerful nobleman, in order to be able to stand up to Agamemnon, the commander of the Achaean army. Yet the interventions of Polydamas and Halitherses are easily dismissed by more powerful figures such as Hector and Eurymachus, who employ threats to force the seer to remain silent. Theoclymenus, who came as a stranger into the Ithacaean community, is treated with contempt and arrogance by the suitors. In public discourse, the seer must always respect the dominant status of the powerful. Although the character of the community assembly in the Archaic period changed, and differences in status have an increasingly limited significance, the mantic professionals did not gain in authority, as the famous debate over the oracle concerning the wooden wall in Athens shows. [52] Unlike other professionals, the mantic specialists could claim no particular authority in public debates, even in their own area of ostensible competence. This situation is also reflected in political institutions which, as far as we know, included no office of seer in any Greek polis, at least in Pre-Hellenistic times. Certainly, though, within the polis, the seer could exercise some informal influence on the formation of public opinion, while outside the city, on campaign, his influence depended on the personal confidence of the generals.

Already in the Homeric epics, skepticism towards signs and dreams as well as towards their professional interpreters is repeatedly expressed. [53] Admittedly, this skepticism is directed not towards divination as such, but rather always concerns the question of its appropriate interpretation. Moreover, the possibility of divine deception in mantic communication is often taken into account. [54] That contradictory signs are reported also leads, at least in the short term, to uncertainty. [55] The chronological context of signification—the time frame within which the message conveyed by the sign will be realized—is often unclear; this constitutes another important difference from Mesopotamian and Etruscan divination. Occasionally, direct communication is placed in opposition to the interpretation of signs. [56] Even positive signs often appear to have only an ephemeral capacity to persuade, insofar as they do not seem to influence the conduct of the actors to any degree, as is particularly clear in the cases of Telemachus and Penelope in the Odyssey. Signs only appear to important actors. The relevance can remain questionable for the people concerned, though not for the audience of the poetry. As is also common in later literature, the poet exposes such disrespect and skepticism through his narrative. It is clear that it is never the interpretation which is determined by particular interests, but rather the skepticism, which reveals itself as a futile refusal to recognize the will of the gods. Skepticism is also occasionally used as a pretext by actors who cannot allow their true faces to be seen. Nonetheless, it remains significant that an admitted disrespect and skepticism towards divination and its professional interpreters not only can make itself heard, but even be articulated in a serious manner. This aspect also binds Homer with the later literary tradition. [57]

In practice, the Homeric seer considered himself to be primarily a reader of signs. The signs are integrated into the narrative, as also in later texts, and thus refer directly to specific situations. In contrast to Mesopotamian and Etruscan traditions, there was no objective sign. Rather, the coincidence of an observation with an important human event decides the semantics of a sign, at least to the extent that it appears to be spontaneous and unsolicited. The typical pattern, which is reflected in Homer, is the principle of allegory. [64] The art of the seer displays itself in concrete terms: (1) in the recognition of signs as divine messages; (2) in the interpretation—above all in placing the sign in relation to a personal and situational context; (3) in taking account of the needs of the addressee. [65] The better the seer is informed about the situation of his client, the more precise will be his interpretation. The seer’s epistemology involves both rational and nonrational elements which, however, do not result in a contradictory picture. On the one hand, the assumption of an eclectic intelligence on the basis of a rational evaluation of the situation is not sufficient to explain their activity; on the other hand, the way in which the attributed divine designation affected their activity remains unclear. Apart from one exception, [66] they display no exceptional spiritual nature, as in spirit possession or ecstasy. To suppose that they employed techniques of one sort or another, which would have been passed on within the families of seers, would seem to be indispensable if we are to understand this phenomenon at all, with its subcategories of augury, dream interpretation, and evaluation of burnt sacrifices. Such techniques are, however, never mentioned in epic and can at best be inferred; at least at the level of poetry, they obviously did not contribute to the authority of the seer. There remains, then, little more to say of seers in Homer than what Michel Casevitz has summarized:

The way in which seers observe and read and decipher such signs in reference to the situation demonstrates the competence of the seer, which, however, should not be regarded as exclusively his own. The art of the interpretation derives from a practical intelligence and is an individual power, not (as again, for example, in Mesopotamia and Etruria) a privilege of a particular group. Besides seers, other prominent figures appear as interpreters of signs; and because of their social position, these others are in a better position to impose their views. [
68] We find the same constellation in later sources, in which the first recipients and interpreters of unsolicited signs are more often military commanders and politicians than seers. Yet if technical expertise is not conspicuously important, and if interpretative competence is not invested exclusively in them, then on what basis do seers acquire their reputation? I agree with Michael Flower’s view that membership of certain families and, above all, a personal and reliable charisma proven by success, are deciding factors. [69]

If the Greek seer displays no typological resemblance to Mesopotamian and Etruscan technical experts, then do they display any greater resemblance to shamans or magicians? The answer is clear: definitely not. While in the Iliad and the Odyssey none of the more prominent kings is himself a seer, it is not uncommon for a famous exponent to be a descendant of a royal house, as, for example, the Priamide Helenus. [70] Already in the Odyssey, wandering belongs to the characteristic traits of seers, as is reflected above all in the story of Theoclymenus and his family, the Melampodidae. Wandering seers in other, lost epics as definite motifs are here relevant. [71] Admittedly, in the Odyssey, as in later literature, the seer appears as a wandering professional who offers his services as a stranger to different employers. [72] At the same time, he is not an outsider, but rather a typical product of the Greek aristocracy, which is particularly clear from his lifestyle. Without exception, the Homeric seers participate in aristocratic activities—warfare, competitive sports, courtship, theft, and so on. It is equally natural for their historical successors to see themselves as warriors. Apart from literary accounts, lists of the dead preserved as inscriptions testify to their often fatal exploits. [73] Evidence of the self-perception of the seers, such as victory songs and grave inscriptions, tend to emphasize their activities in war. [74] Seers are occasionally conspicuous in war for possessing levels of strategic ability and cleverness that make them comparable or even superior to their commanders. [75] Nor were other aristocratic pursuits foreign to them. Thus, we hear repeatedly of seers as winners in the Panhellenic games, who are honored in odes and the dedication of statues. [76] The aristocratic lifestyle was possible for seers because, unlike the mostly female mediums (for example, the Pythia), they were not expected to observe any bodily restraints. In their outward appearance, seers also displayed no specific characteristics, aside from the fact that in the fulfillment of their activities they seem to have assumed the marks of office of a priest, principally the wearing of the laurel wreath and the priest’s headband. [77] Given these considerations, it seems to me to be rather misleading to associate Greek seers with shamanism or magic, [78] at least to the extent that they enjoyed public recognition. Neither asceticism and seclusion nor spirit possession nor ecstasy nor psychological instability belong to the characteristics of Greek seers, even though some of these tendencies existed at the geographical and social periphery of Greece and found expression in individual figures such as Pythagoras and Empedocles.


[ back ] * For assistance with the translation and for helpful suggestions, I wish to thank my dear colleague Stephen Lake. I am also indebted to Michael Flower (Princeton) for a series of constructive comments. The argument of this paper is based on my Habilitationsschrift, Politische Mantik: Studien zur Kommunikation über Götterzeichen und Orakel im klassischen Griechenland, which was accepted in 2003 by the Department of History and Sociology of the University of Constance, and which is forthcoming.

[ back ] 1. See above, in this volume. The evidence for the historical seers in Archaic and Classical times was collected by Kett 1966.

[ back ] 2. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Homer are taken from the Loeb translations by A. T. Murray, revised by W. F. Wyatt (Iliad, 1999) and G. E. Dimock (Odyssey, 1995) respectively.

[ back ] 3. This calculation is reflected in the formal way in which he addresses Agamemnon as supreme commander and in the tone, which confines itself to the matter at hand; see Latacz 2000:50; Kirk 1985:59.

[ back ] 4. That Achilles assumes a θεοπρόπιον in his reply to Calchas’ request for protection (I 85–87) can be explained by his wish to emphasize the authority of the seer. See Lactacz 2000:51–52, with the conclusion: “Achills Vorschlag läuft also (ob bewußt oder unbewußt, bleibt offen) auf Kalchas hinaus.” Achilles realized immediately that the unnamed powerful figure was Agamemnon, whose anger Calchas feared (I 90); cf. Taplin 1992:54–55. Latacz 1989:122 even considers a secret collaboration between Achilles and Calchas.

[ back ] 5. See Latacz 2000:14. The father’s name, Thestor, which means ‘one who prays’, speaks for itself: Latacz 2000:53.

[ back ] 6. Latacz 2000:54.

[ back ] 7. Dickson 1992:331.

[ back ] 8. Calchas justifies his fear of Agamemnon: “For a king is mightier when he is angry at a lesser man” (I 80).

[ back ] 9. Significantly the Iliad does not indicate from which city Calchas came.

[ back ] 10. The poet introduces Calchas’ first speech in this sense with the following words ὅ σφιν ἐυφρονέων ἀγορήσατο καὶ μετέειπε (I 73). The poet defines Calchas’ conduct as “well intentioned, i.e. having in mind what is appropriate to the situation,” and if σφιν refers not only to μετέειπε but also, as Latacz takes it (Latacz 2000:56), to the immediately following ἐυφρονέων, then the reference to the Achaeans as a whole is also brought out expressis verbis.

[ back ] 11. καὶ νῦν ἐν Δαναοῖσι θεοπροπέων ἀγορεύεις (I 109). See Latacz 2000:67.

[ back ] 12. Iliad II 322: Κάλχας δ᾿ αὐτικ᾿ ἔπειτα θεοπροπέων ἀγόρευε.

[ back ] 13. Certainly, Agamemnon is annoyed by the fact that he cannot control what Calchas says in public. Further, on the question whether the poet already alludes to the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Aulis here, see Taplin 1992:86.

[ back ] 14. βούλομ᾿ ἐγὼ λαὸν σῶν ἔμμεναι ἢ ἀπολέσθαι.

[ back ] 15. See Kirk 1985:150, whose hypothetical consideration of the semantics of this sign nonetheless fails to improve our understanding.

[ back ] 16. Although it may be logical to identify the snake with either the Trojans or the Achaeans, such an identification is not made in the text, where the primary significance is attached rather to the loss of nine years.

[ back ] 17. See Kirk 1985:149.

[ back ] 18. See Latacz 2003:92–93, 100. Collins 2002:23–26.

[ back ] 19. ἀστράπτων ἐπιδέξι᾿, ἐναίσιμα σήματα φαίνων. (II 353).

[ back ] 20. Kirk 1985:152. Also unfounded is Latacz 2003:106.

[ back ] 21. See Homer Iliad II 79–82.

[ back ] 22. See Homer Iliad XII 94; XIII 576–600, 758–782. Here, Helenus is presented as a champion of the Trojans, while nothing is said of his augury.

[ back ] 23. See Kirk 1990:237.

[ back ] 24. See Kirk 1990:237.

[ back ] 25. Either VII 52 is an interpolation, or the poet failed to repeat the entire conversation between Athena and Apollo; see Kirk 1990:238.

[ back ] 26. Kirk 1990:238.

[ back ] 27. In Hector’s speech (XII 239–240) there is a rare comment concerning the technical conditions for augury. The interpreter faces north, so that the East is to his right and the West to his left; see also Odyssey ix 26. In the event of unexpected, spontaneous or prayer-provoked bird flight, however, the direction always appears to be reckoned according to the position of the interpreter at the time.

[ back ] 28. On Polydamas as hero, see Iliad XIV 449–464; XV 339, 453–457, 518; XVII 597–600. As adviser, see Iliad XII 60–80; XIII 725–748; XVIII 249–283. In all four cases, Polydamas advises Hector, and in their interaction, they always form the same archetypical constellation; see Stockinger 1959:35–36. In XVIII 250, the poet characterizes Polydamas with a formula which recalls the mantic qualification ascribed to Calchas: “for he alone saw both before and after.” See further Collins 2002:36–37.

[ back ] 29. Hainsworth 1993:325.

[ back ] 30. See Roth 1982:94.

[ back ] 31. Hainsworth 1993:341.

[ back ] 32. See Iliad XI 181–215.

[ back ] 33. Struck 2003:175–178 emphasizes Hector’s ability to master the crisis provoked by the omen. This aspect of Hector’s behavior was indeed regarded as exemplary in Antiquity: see e.g. Epaminondas, cited by Diodorus Siculus 15.52.4. At the same time, Hector fails as an interpreter, while his reaction to Polydamas betrays a tendency to tyranny. To judge him from Struck’s examples, he belongs rather beside Agamemnon and Oedipus than with Themistocles. Again, in the assembly scene in XVIII 249–311 Hector rejects the sensible advice of Polydamas with exaggerated self-consciousness, and so ironically prepares the way for his own death.

[ back ] 34. According to Stockinger 1959:34 the “enlightened” attitude of Hector towards augury, in this sharpness, is exceptional in the Iliad. He further asserts that Priam’s reply to Hecabe (Iliad XXIV 218ff) can scarcely be compared with it. On the contrary: like Hector, Priam also appeals to direct communication with the gods against divination. His doubts, however, are directed against mantic specialists generally, and so against every form of divination which is dependent upon human mediators and interpreters.

[ back ] 35. See Collins 2002:36–39.

[ back ] 36. Stockinger 1959:33 rightly sees here no contradiction for the poet and his audience. However, he overlooks the perspective of the protagonists, who must act without the poet’s omniscience.

[ back ] 37. See Flaig 1995.

[ back ] 38. δρυψαμένω δ᾿ ὀνύχεσσι παρειὰς ἀμφί τε δειράς (Odyssey ii 153).

[ back ] 39. This interpretation follows Stockinger 1959:52n3; Thornton 1970:53 (and n7); West 1988:141–142; and de Jong 2001:53, who all take δρυψαμένω in verse 153 as reflexive. Cf., however, the reasonable objections of Roth 1982:113n29: “Aside from the implausible and ludicrous picture presented by the two eagles engaged in mournful self-mutilation in mid-air, the adoption of human characteristics by animals in Homer is unparalleled (though the reverse is, of course, common).” The same author (Roth 1982:92) defends understanding the verb as reciprocal: “The violence which the eagles inflict on each other foreshadows the internecine violence that will erupt in Ithaca when Odysseus returns home.” West (see above) suggests textual corruption in verses 152–154, as Wilamowitz 1927:102n3 had earlier proposed.

[ back ] 40. Odyssey ii 170: οὐ γὰρ ἀπείρητος μαντεύομαι, ἀλλ᾿ ἐὺ εἰδώς· He is presented in a very similar fashion in xxiv 451–462 when, after the death of the suitors, he again appears before an assembly and advises the fathers of the dead not to take revenge: ὁ γὰρ οἶος ὅρα πρόσσω καὶ ὀπίσσω (452). Cf. the commentary by Russo 1992:409: Halitherses “is not credited with supernatural mantic powers but with wisdom and clear understanding which enable him to draw conclusions about the future from the past.”

[ back ] 41. See West 1988:142: “Halitherses’ argumentation is circular; he infers from his interpretation of the present omen that his prophecy twenty years before was correct, and hence that his interpretation of what has just happened is trustworthy. But the validity of his warning is not affected by this illogicality; the omen simply confirms the moral judgement of right-minded men.” Yet the matter is not so simple, as Penelope’s behavior also violates certain social conventions: see Flaig 1995.

[ back ] 42. Odyssey ii 160 (see xxiv 453, and Iliad I 73): ὅ σφιν ἐυφρονέων ἀγορήσατο καὶ μετέειπε.

[ back ] 43. Odyssey ii 181–182: ὄρνιθες δέ τε πολλοὶ ὑπ᾿αὐγὰς ἠελίοιο φοιτῶσ᾿, οὐδέ τε πάντες ἐναίσιμοι·

[ back ] 44. In this way, the poet introduces into Greek literature, through the mouth of Eurymachus, a motif which would have a profound influence, above all in tragedy and comedy. It is formulated in an almost gnomic fashion by Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone 1055: τὸ μαντικὸν γὰρ πᾶν φιλάργυρον γένος.

[ back ] 45. Piepenbrink 2001:22–23 (and passim). The author convincingly traces “the comparably weak position of the seer” back to the weaknesses of the gods as norm-establishing authorities (22–23).

[ back ] 46. But see Odyssey xi 291–297, where it is reported that Melampus is liberated from imprisonment after having proven his ability as a seer.

[ back ] 47. See Thornton 1970:58–61; Dillery 2005:173–174.

[ back ] 48. Thornton 1970:54.

[ back ] 49. Irene de Jong 2001:383 gives two arguments for the fact that here the bird is a hawk (or falcon, as she has it): “(i) Apollo is the god of prophecy and this bird-sign is interpreted by a professional seer, and (ii) the Suitors will be killed during a festive day for Apollo.”

[ back ] 50. Odyssey xvii 151–165. Like Helen in Odyssey xv 177–178, Theoclymenus leaves a secondary aspect open: “whether he [Odysseus] now sits or wanders somewhere” (xvii 158). Penelope is pleased by this message, and promises rich rewards in the event of his return. Yet in spite of this positive reaction, she does not trust the prophecy, as her behavior shows.

[ back ] 51. Detienne 1967 regards the seer, the poet, and the king as prephilosophical “maîtres de vérité”; cf. 1967:6: “La préhistoire de l’Alétheia philosophique nous conduit vers le système de pensée du devin, du poète et du roi de justice, vers les trois secteurs où un certain type de parole se définit par l’Alétheia.” These three archetypal figures cannot, however, be anchored in a specific historical reality, and already appear to be anachronistic in Homeric society, as Detienne himself admits (1967:81–103). For criticism of this approach and similar concepts in F. M. Crawford and J.-P. Vernant, see Leszl 1996:47–54.

[ back ] 52. Herodotus 7.142–144. Another fine example is the debate over the succession of King Agis in Sparta, ca. 400 BC: Xenophon Hellenica 3.3.1–3.

[ back ] 53. Disrespect and/or skepticism towards divination and its interpreters is expressed by Hector (Iliad XII 237–243), Priam (Iliad XXIV 219–222), Telemachus (Odyssey i 413–416), Eurymachus (Odyssey ii 180–186), and Penelope (Odyssey xix 560–569). See Collins 2002:39–40.

[ back ] 54. See Schmitt 1990:259f (and n278).

[ back ] 55. Homer, Iliad VIII 169–171, XII 200–258.

[ back ] 56. Hector: Iliad XII 235–238; Priam: Iliad XXIV 220–224.

[ back ] 57. E.g. Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus 380–389, Antigone 1033–1061; Euripides Helena 744–760, Bacchae 255–258, fr. 795 (Nauck2); Aristophanes Pax 1043–1126; Aves 958–999; Thucydides 5.103.2, 8.1.1; Diodorus Siculus 15.52.3–7.

[ back ] 58. The recommendations of the seers, however, are not always represented by the poet as being successful: see Helenus in Iliad VI 311.

[ back ] 59. Odyssey xxii 310–329; see also the murder of the seer Hegesistratus by the Spartans in Herodotus 9.37.

[ back ] 60. See Kett 1966:113–114.

[ back ] 61. On the augury see now Collins 2002; Baumbach and Trampedach 2004 (both with further references).

[ back ] 62. In my opinion, it is therefore misleading to identify Greek seers with the mantic specialists of Mesopotamia, as do e.g. Pritchett 1979:77, Burkert 1992:43–53, and West 1997:46–51. It is not coincidental that in Greece, in contrast to Mesopotamia, the Levant, Anatolia, and Etruria, no clay or bronze liver models have been found.

[ back ] 63. Xenophon Anabasis 5.6.29; cf. Xenophon Cyropaedia 1.6.2; Onasander Strategicus 10.25.

[ back ] 64. All omen scenes in the Homeric epics are listed by de Jong 2001:52–53, who also describes their typical pattern. Configurations of animals on this pattern are to be found in later literature of various genres, too: see e.g. Herodotus 1.78, 3.76; Xenophon Cyropaedia 2.4.18f; Plutarch Alexander 73.1–3; Aeschylus Agamemnon 107–257, Persians 175–230, 518–526.

[ back ] 65. See above: the varying emphases in the interpretation of the same sign by Theoclymenus, at Odyssey xv 525–534; xvii 151–165.

[ back ] 66. In Odyssey xx 345–383, Theoclymenus announces their impending disaster to the suitors by a spontaneous visionary outburst. They react with laughter and regard the stranger as a madman. The reaction of the suitors demonstrates both their hubris, and the exceptional character of this prophecy. See Russo 1992:124.

[ back ] 67. Casevitz 1992:7; see Roth 1982:75–81; Chirassi Colombo 1985, esp.148–149. According to Casevitz 1989, tragedy mediates a similar picture. It is precisely the activity of Homeric seers which cannot be confined within the corset of the Platonic distinction between inspired and technical divination: see Trampedach 2003. The difficulty of employing this famous differentiation can be seen e.g. in the paper of Di Sacco Franco 2000, who fails to perceive the distinction between the normative speech of the seer and his real activity, and is consequently led to a grotesque overestimation of the importance of the seer for Homeric society.

[ back ] 68. In addition to the mantic specialists (Iliad: Calchas, Helenus; Odyssey: Halitherses, Theoclymenus), other leading figures (Iliad: Agamemnon, Odysseus, Nestor, Hector, Polydamas; Odyssey: Helen, Odysseus, Penelope) are also active as interpreters.

[ back ] 69. See above, in this volume.

[ back ] 70. See Bremmer 1996a:100–101; Roth 1982:124–127.

[ back ] 71. See Löffler 1963:30–58 (on the myths concerning seers in the Melampodia, the Theban legend cycle, and the Nostoi); and Scheer 1993:153–271.

[ back ] 72. Odyssey xvii 382–386. Citing this passage, Burkert 1992:42 declares the early Archaic seers to be “the mobile bearers of cross-cultural knowledge,” but fails to give sufficient and convincing evidence for the “cross-cultural” aspect.

[ back ] 73. IG I3 1147.128; SEG 29, 1979, no. 361.3. Cases transmitted in literary sources: Herodotus 7.219–221; Xenophon Hellenica 2.4.18–19; Plutarch Lysander 28.5; Pausanias 4.21.10–11; see Bremmer 1993:153–154.

[ back ] 74. Pindar Olympian 6.12–21; SEG 16, 1959, no. 193 (see Kett 1966:52–53); SEG 23, 1968, no. 161; SEG 41, 1991, no. 226; IG XII ix 291; Pausanias 3.12.8; see Flower, above, in this volume.

[ back ] 75. Herodotus 8.27.3 (see also Pausanias 10.1.10–11); Thucydides 3.20.1–2; Pausanias 4.21.8–12; see Dillery 2005:200–209.

[ back ] 76. Pindar Olympian 6 (see Flower, in this volume); Herodotus 9.33.2; Pausanias 3.11.6, 6.14.13, 6.4.5, 6.17.5–6. Even their mantic abilities could be represented as an agōn, as the famous story of seers’ competition shows: Hesiod fr. 278–279 (Merkelbach/West); see Scheer 1993:162–173.

[ back ] 77. Kett 1966:103–104; Roth 1982:141–142 In artistic representations, seers are not particularly prominent; on vases, they usually appear as gesticulating older men wearing an himation: van Straten 1995:156–157, 168. Portrayals of mythical seers similarly display no specific characteristics: V. Saladino, LIMC 5.1 (1990), 934–935, s.v. Kalchas; E. Simon, LIMC 6.1 (1992), 409, s.v. Melampous.

[ back ] 78. As do e.g. Dodds 1951:140–156; Luck 1990:302; and Metzler 1990. The presentation of Burkert 1962 is more balanced and circumspect.