The Seer in Ancient Greece

Seer in Ancient Greece
Michael Flower is Senior Research Scholar at Princeton University and editor, in collaboration with John Marincola, of Herodotus, Histories, Book IX, author of Theopompus of Chios: History and Rhetoric in the Fourth Century B.C., and editor, with Mark Toher, of Georgica: Greek Studies in Honour of George Cawkwell. Flower is also the author of The Seer in Ancient Greece, which was published by UC Press in March 2009. In his blog entry below, Flower correalates modern day psychics to ancient Greek seers.



By: Michael Flower

As the economy shrinks and jobs disappear, one sector of the workforce is experiencing an unprecedented increase in business.  As an article in the New York Times informs us, “Psychics say their business is robust, as do astrologers and people who channel spirits, read palms and otherwise predict the future (albeit not the winning lottery numbers). Their clients, who include a growing number of men, are often professional advice-givers themselves, in fields like real estate and investments, and they typically hand over anywhere from $75 to $1,000 an hour for this form of insight.”   The author then anticipates the likely reaction of most readers by asking the obvious question: "Quackery? Whatever. But after all, the nation’s supposed experts on the economy, from pundits on the networks to billionaire investment bankers, have not been exactly reliable." (From “Love, Jobs & 401(k)s” by Ruth La Ferla, Published November 21, 2008)

I should admit right now that I have never been tempted to take my concerns to a psychic, even though one has set up shop right across the street from my office.   But when I listen to psychics explain what they do and how they interact with their clients, I am struck by the similarities between their role and that of seers in ancient Greece.  The Greek seer (called a mantis) saw himself (or herself) as helping their clients make difficult decisions.  Like many contemporary psychics they could charge enormous fees, while at the same time providing a social service that was greatly in demand.  It may come as a surprise to most readers that even the famous pillars of Greek rationality, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, accepted the value of divination as a system of knowledge. Individual seers were sometimes accused of "quackery", but no one argued that divination itself was bunk.

When I was working on this book an astrophysicist whom I knew casually inquired about my research and asked me a typical question.  When the seers discovered that they could not make accurate predictions on the basis of looking at the entrails of sheep, why did they not just give up the practice?  Well, I responded, it was because the system worked for them.  Divination worked for the Greek seers because they saw in the livers of dead sheep and in the flight of birds what they needed to know in order to advise their clients.  Within their own system of belief, Greek methods of divination were successful over a period of many centuries.  Now I realize that this response of mine needs a great deal of explanation and qualification, for I certainly do not mean to imply that absolutely anything, even something that defies the laws of nature, is possible if people merely believe that it is.  What I try to show in my book is how divination, although seemingly irrational in terms of modern western science, was a pervasive, socially acceptable, and socially useful method of solving problems and making decisions for the ancient Greeks.