The Seer in Ancient Greece. By Michael Attyah Flower


Pp. xviii, 305 , University of California Press , 2008 , £23.95/$39.95 .

The seer (mantis) is a shadowy figure in ancient Greek culture, not because he worked on the margins of society, but precisely because he and his ilk were so ubiquitous as to rarely deserve a mention in ancient literature; their presence and their work were taken for granted, which of course makes life difficult for the historian who wants to unearth details about them. A book that focuses entirely on this professional is extremely welcome, and long overdue. Flower considers primarily the individual seer, who might typically be an itinerant professional, moving from place to place and offering his brand of assistance for a fee, or a figure of some standing within a city, and especially important when that city went to war. The word mantis is also used for functionaries at oracular sites, but they have been far more widely discussed than those of their colleagues who worked alone and were far more accessible than the long and costly journey to a major oracular site.

A typical chapter in this book outlines the problems and the case the author wants to make, and then presents the evidence in the form of case studies taken from relevant works of literature. Flower's focus is on the seer in archaic and classical Greece (800-300 BCE), and Xenophon is his star witness, because (especially in Anabasis) Xenophon was not only a firsthand reporter of the work of a number of seers on a number of occasions, but was also knowledgeable about seercraft himself. Herodotus and the tragedians (used with caution) are the next most important witnesses.

After a preliminary chapter on sources and methods, the next six chapters gradually build up a rounded picture of the seer, from what he did to what he wore. An eighth chapter considers the lesser evidence for female seers (other than the obvious, famous ones at Delphi and Dodona), and a final chapter concisely and clearly summarizes the main findings of the book. As far as method is concerned, Flower is fairly conservative: he employs straightforward historical and literary exegesis, intelligent argumentation, and a little comparative anthropology. Throughout the book, Flower wants to define the seer not just by what he did, but by the part he played in ancient Greek society. The picture that emerges is, briefly, as follows.

The seer was embedded in ancient Greek life, serving both city-states and individual citizens (well-off ones, though Flower does not stress this point). He was available for consultation on both large and minor issues, but was especially important in warfare, where he had a delicate relationship as adviser to the presiding general. He was a professional, who was also concerned therefore to advertise himself and attract future clients. A successful seer could make a great deal of money and earn great prestige, and he often came from the upper classes anyway. He was considered to be expert on all religious matters, and it helped if he was or claimed to be from a line of similar professionals. He claimed to work with divine inspiration (through possession or intuition), though some forms of divination, such as the examination of sheeps' livers, were capable of being written up in the form of guidelines or even rules. Seers sometimes played to their audience's expectations by acting like the heroic seers of epic and tragedy; their work combined ritual and performance (which is not at all to say that they were manipulative charlatans). A seer's reading of an omen took into account not only the standard rules, but his knowledge of the particular situation and of the client who was consulting him. He was not considered infallible, though the god was. He tended to leave his responses open enough to allow the client to make the final choice of action.

The book is solid rather than adventurous, but that is exactly what is needed in tackling such a difficult subject, where flimsy and difficult evidence tempts flights of fancy. Flower is especially good at dealing with the minutiae of evidence, rather than in formulating grand theories, but every reader, however knowledgeable, is likely to be impressed and surprised on a number of occasions. I would single out the discussions of different types of divination (pp. 84–91), and of the seer's role in war (Chapter 6). No one could doubt that Flower has succeeded in his main task, ‘to restore the seer to his, and her, appropriate place of prominence in archaic and classical Greek society’ (p. 2).